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Trenton's Big Moment

225 years ago, New Jersey’s modern-day capital served as America’s seat of government.

Posted October 13, 2009 by Tom Wilk

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Trenton Illustration
Illustration by Kevin Sprouls.

Victory in the battle of Trenton turned the tide in the American Revolution. Victory in the quest to have Trenton named capital of the United States, however, was fleeting, lasting just 54 days in late 1784.

Still, Trenton’s glimmering moment as the seat of American power came at a crucial time. The American Revolution officially had ended just fourteen months earlier with the Treaty of Paris. Into Trenton to help determine the course of the new nation came such luminaries as James Monroe, the future fifth president, John Jay, the future first chief justice of the Supreme Court, and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette.

The new Congress met at the French Arms Tavern (illustrated, above), then Trenton’s largest building. To prepare for the auspicious gathering, workers repapered the walls and recarpeted the floors of the multi-story structure at what is now State and Warren streets—today the site of a Wachovia Bank branch.
Trenton’s time as the home of the federal government—November 1 to December 24, 1784—will be celebrated with a series of 225th-anniversary events centered on the theme, “Trenton 1784: The Nation’s Capital.” I Am Trenton, a community foundation, is sponsoring a kickoff event at the New Jersey State Museum at 6 pm on November 7.

Trenton took a circuitous path to being named capital. The Articles of Confederation, precursor to the Constitution, named no permanent capital; instead the honor was passed like a baton. Five towns in four states—including Princeton—served as capital between 1781 and 1786.

The New Jersey Legislature began lobbying Congress in June 1783 to have Trenton named permanent capital, offering land and money for the construction of government buildings. Instead, federal lawmakers chose Trenton as a temporary site. “Trenton was a very small town at the time, fewer than 400 to 500 people,” says Cate Litvack, executive director of Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, a group that preserves and promotes New Jersey’s role in the country’s founding.

Those early legislators did not exactly flock to Trenton. It took until November 29 for a quorum to gather. Thereafter, the 32 delegates met almost daily, discussing such issues as a timetable for the withdrawal of all British forces and the appointment of ministers to England and Spain.

The highlight of the Trenton meeting was Lafayette’s farewell address to a joint session with a congressional delegation and the New Jersey State Legislature on December 11. “My heart feels deeply interested in the warmest wishes for the particular welfare of the state of New Jersey,” he told the emotional gathering.

Ultimately, the U.S. Constitution would replace the Articles of Confederation. A compromise was reached between northern and southern interests to put the capital on the Potomac River. Trenton’s consolation prize would be its selection as the capital of New Jersey in 1790.

What would New Jersey be like if Trenton had been chosen as the permanent capital?
“Certainly, New Jersey’s economy and identity would be totally different,” says William Carrigan, acting chairperson and professor of history at Rowan University in Glassboro. “Instead of tilting toward New York and Philadelphia, the nation and world would have tilted toward New Jersey.”

There would probably still be Jersey jokes, only meaner. Perhaps we’re better off this way. For more information, on capital celebration events, visit trenton1784.org.

Tom Wilk is co-author of New Jersey Firsts: The Famous, Infamous and Quirky of The Garden State and Tales of South Jersey: Profiles and Personalities. He lives in Pitman.


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