American Revolution, Revolutionary War, New Jersey, Patriots, Tories, Slavery, Homefront
The Revolutionary experience of the small state of New Jersey was in many ways a microcosm of the larger struggle for American independence. The colony saw more combat than any other province, its civilians struggled to survive seven years of fiercely contested civil war, and its Revolutionary government labored under enormous difficulties to establish an effective polity. These subjects, as well as the efforts of New Jersey loyalists, women, blacks, and others to find their ways in the midst of military and social upheaval, remain an active focus for scholarship. Among the latest contributions in this regard are the nine original essays in The American Revolution in New Jersey, edited by James J. Gigantino II.
As a rule I dislike reviewing essay collections: Without a firm editorial hand contributions tend to be of uneven quality, overlap in subject matter, or drift off the stated focus of the collection. This volume, however, avoids these pitfalls and is well worth reading. The essays, all by different authors, deal with the intersections of military and domestic affairs; the goal, as editor Gigantino puts it, is to allow “a fuller understanding of the personal impact of the American Revolution on the lives of the colonists.” That is, the essayists use a local focus to draw wider conclusions (either directly or implicitly) on the nature of the Revolution and its [End Page 821] meaning for those who lived through it and built on its aftermath. Contributors explore “how ordinary New Jerseyans dealt with Patriot, Loyalist, British, Hessian and French soldiers in their own backyards” and resulting connections with “the larger global conflict” (5). Within this context, the authors address the social implications of militia service, war-related production and labor, the changing roles of women, questions of political loyalty, the dilemmas of slavery in a war fought in the name of liberty, and the nature of the Revolution itself.
Some of these essays are gems. Robert Selig, whose previous scholarship has offered revealing insights on the Franco–American alliance, turns his attention to the French army in New Jersey. The French arrival in 1781 amounted to yet another invasion as thousands of troops under the Comte de Rochambeau marched into the state. Selig rightly points out the ambivalence of residents toward the mostly Catholic French; they had been feared enemies during the French and Indian War. But the French were disciplined and injected thousands of dollars in hard cash into New Jersey’s war-ravaged economy. That fact alone was enough to make new friends of old foes. Michael S. Adelberg, whose work in quantifying the physical and economic costs of political loyalties already is the best in the literature (of any state), once again proves a master of micro-analysis. Despite a vicious civil war, property-holding among Monmouth County residents remained generally at pre-war levels, allowing Adelberg to make some interesting speculations on the nature of “revolution” in the New Jersey context. If there were no massive losses or additions of property, then how radical was the Revolution in social terms? This is a fine piece of scholarship. So is Todd W. Braisted’s hard look at the fighting around Fort Lee in 1781, which offers a graphic view of the bitterness of the patriot–Tory struggle and the social impact on the region as the fighting impinged on civilian life.
Most of the essays demonstrate a firm command of the pertinent primary sources and secondary scholarship on the Revolution, and several do so particularly well. For example, drawing on the pioneering work of T. H. Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution (Oxford, UK, 2004), Donald Sherbolm skillfully ties the loyalism of a successful Hunterdon County farming family (the Voughts) to its “assimilation into the British Atlantic culture” (168). Sherbolm then traces the plight of the Vought women (and others) who tried to preserve family holdings as their men fled patriot harassment. It...