Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Stuart Leibiger

U.S. Presidency (1790-1800)

Although the federal government under the U.S. Constitution went into operation in New York City in April 1789, the capital moved to Philadelphia late in 1790 and remained until 1800. This decade encompassed formative years for the U.S. presidency, including nearly seven years of the administration of George Washington (1732-99) and more than three years of the single term of John Adams (1735-1826). Among other notable events, Philadelphia witnessed Washington’s second inauguration and John Adams’s inauguration, significantly the first transfer of power from one president to another.

[caption id="attachment_17861" align="alignright" width="300"]black and white lithograph depicting president washington and his four person cabinet, steated around a table. The president is seated to the left of the photo and is seated. only alexander hamilton, in the middle, is standing. This Currier & Ives lithograph from 1876 depicts President George Washington (at left) and his cabinet. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Washington took up residence in Philadelphia in December 1790. For his executive mansion, he rented from the city for 500 pounds a year the house of Robert Morris (1734-1806) at 190 High Street (526-30 Market Street today) near the corner of Sixth Street. One of the largest homes in the city, the President’s House (as it became known) stood three stories tall and featured a spacious backyard with several outbuildings including a wash house, kitchen, ice house, smoke house, coach house, and stables. Amenities also included a walled garden, a paved yard, and a wood yard.  Before moving in, Washington had a two-story bow added to the southwest corner of the house to enlarge the State Dining Room and State Drawing Room, and also built slave and servant quarters in the backyard. In addition to one or two secretaries, a staff of about a dozen white servants plus three or four enslaved African Americans from Mount Vernon served the president’s family, which included Martha Washington (1731-1802) and two of Martha’s grandchildren, Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis (1779-1852) and George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857). Washington regularly rotated his slaves out of Pennsylvania to keep them from becoming free through the state’s 1780 Gradual Abolition Act, which freed nonresident slaves who had lived there continuously for six months. Enslaved seamstress Ona Judge (1773-1848) fled to freedom from the city, while a cook named Hercules (b. ca. 1754) escaped on Washington’s birthday in 1797 after returning to Mount Vernon. 

Washington enjoyed Philadelphia’s amenities (especially the theater and the shops) and admired the industrious economy of the middle states more than he did the slave-based economy of the South.  But Washington thwarted the hopes of Philadelphians by ensuring the capital’s removal to Washington, D.C., in 1800.  He did this by declining to occupy an immense residence built by the city on Ninth Street and by pushing forward construction of the new capital on the Potomac River.

Social Life at the President’s House

Entertainments at the President’s House consisted of Tuesday afternoon “levies,” Thursday afternoon state dinners, and Friday evening “drawing rooms” that Martha Washington hosted and her husband informally attended.  At the levies, Washington appeared in formal dress, stood in the bow of the State Dining Room, and exchanged greetings with gentlemen attendees formed in a circle.  “On fryday Evenings mrs. Washington has a drawing Room which is usually very full of the well Born and well Bred,” wrote Abigail Adams (1744-1818).  “Some times it is as full as her Britanick majesties Room, & with quite as Handsome Ladies.”  The “company are entertained with Coffee Tea cake Ice creams Lemonade &c…this shew lasts from seven, till Nine oclock comeing & going…as it is not Etiquette for any person to stay Long.”  Wealthy Philadelphians such as Samuel Powel (1738-93) and his wife Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830) also hosted a variety of parties for socializing and political networking, forming what became known as the “Republican Court.” Abigail Adams witnessed “Parties upon Parties, Balls & entertainments” in Philadelphia “equal to any European city.”

In Philadelphia, President Washington continued the challenging task of establishing presidential precedents that he had begun in New York.  For example, he conferred with his department heads— Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Secretary of War Henry Knox (1750-1806), and Attorney General Edmund Randolph (1753-1813)—as a group advisory board that became known as the cabinet.  Washington issued the first presidential veto in 1792 when he rejected a bill to reapportion congressional representation.

Philadelphia witnessed the emergence of political parties, with Washington endorsing the use of implied powers and loose construction of the Constitution advocated by Hamilton and the Federalist Party to create a strong federal government and to promote an industrial economy. In 1791, for example, he signed the controversial bill creating the Bank of the United States (the institution moved into its home on Third Street in 1797).  The opposition Republican Party led by James Madison (1751-1836) and Jefferson favored an agrarian republic of limited federal power and feared that the administration’s “high toned” policies foreshadowed a return of monarchy to America.  Washington, who deplored partisanship and who viewed parties as special interests hostile to the public good, tried unsuccessfully to reconcile cabinet members Hamilton and Jefferson.  In response to pleas from both parties, Washington reluctantly accepted a second term as the new nation’s president starting in 1793.

Fleeing Yellow Fever

When, in the summer and fall of 1793, a yellow fever epidemic killed ten percent of Philadelphia’s residents, the Washingtons safeguarded themselves by traveling to Virginia.  After returning to the city in November, the president moved his residence to Germantown, first to the Dove House and then to the Deshler-Morris House.  The following summer, the Washingtons occupied the latter home to escape the heat of the city.

President Washington sought to evict British forces from posts in the Northwest Territory, to provide western farmers with protection from Indian attacks, and to obtain the right from Spain for Americans to navigate the Mississippi River. He sent military expeditions against the Northwest Indians led by Josiah Harmer (1753-1813) in 1790 and Arthur St. Clair (1737-1818) in 1791 that ended in disastrous American defeats. The latter loss led to the first congressional investigation of the executive in U.S. history. A third expedition led by Anthony Wayne (1745-96) defeated the Indians in 1794 at Fallen Timbers in present northwestern Ohio. The administration negotiated peace treaties with the southern Indians, and secured the right to navigate the Mississippi River from Spain in 1795.

[caption id="attachment_17853" align="alignright" width="300"]color photograph of independence hall, taken from across the street, caddy-corner to the building. a tree stands outside the entrace and a few people populate the street Built by the County of Philadelphia between 1787 and 1789 to serve as the County Courthouse, the building in the foreground was occupied by Congress from 1790 to 1800. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Frontier farmers, angry over a 1791 federal excise on whiskey, both a staple drink and a form of currency in the region, defied the tax and harassed revenue collectors in four western Pennsylvania counties near Pittsburgh. After Washington’s attempts to redress grievances failed to subdue the uprising, in 1794 he federalized 13,000 militiamen from New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, establishing a precedent that President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) followed in 1861 to resist the secession of the southern states. 

Hoping to steer clear of war between Great Britain and France, Washington issued the 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality. The following year he appointed John Jay (1745-1829) a special envoy to Great Britain to negotiate an end to British seizures of American ships and impressment of sailors. Washington signed the controversial Jay Treaty in 1795 even though it did not end ship seizures and impressment, because he was determined to keep the new nation at peace. Mobs celebrating the French Revolution and critical of the agreement soon roamed the city and even threatened the president’s safety. A major dispute between the executive branch and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives occurred when Washington refused to turn over sensitive documents pertaining to the treaty negotiations, citing executive privilege. By holding political gatherings and public meetings to rally public opinion behind the president, the Federalists pressured the House of Representatives into appropriating funds to implement the treaty. In exploiting Washington’s popularity to win the battle over the treaty, however, the Federalists unleashed democratic forces in American politics that lost them the war for control of the federal government when the Jeffersonian Republicans won the election of 1800.  The Republicans, whose democratic ideology proved more appealing to common voters than the deferential, aristocratic ideology of the Federalists, also began seeking support directly from the voters on specific issues.

Washington’s Farewell Address

On September 19, 1796, Washington’s Farewell Address announced that he would not serve a third term as president. A printed message, not a public speech, the farewell appeared in the Philadelphia American Daily Advertiser published by David C. Claypoole (1757-1849). In addition to warning against entangling foreign alliances, the address called on the American people to place national interests and the common good ahead of political partisanship.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were sworn in as the second president and vice president, respectively, at Congress Hall on March 4, 1797. This first transfer of executive power marked a great triumph for the new republic and a milestone in the history of representative democracy. By choosing to occupy the High Street house (despite a doubling of the rent and the building’s severe state of disrepair) rather than the palace on Ninth Street, Adams helped guarantee the removal of the capital to Washington, D.C., in 1800. Adams hosted weekly “great dinners,” each attended by about “36 Gentlemen,” as well as Fourth of July celebrations.

Adams, like Washington, admired Philadelphia. “It is a great City,” he wrote, “and has Science, Literature, Wealth and Beauty.” But he found the presidency even more trying and disagreeable than his predecessor, and spent much of his term at home in Massachusetts with his wife, Abigail, who suffered poor health.

Faced with French anger over the Jay Treaty, Adams sent diplomats to Paris to seek a peaceful resolution. Instead, the envoys received an insulting demand from the French for a bribe. This failure of diplomacy led to the Quasi-War in 1798, an undeclared naval war with France on the Atlantic Ocean. Republican opposition to a military buildup, the presence in Philadelphia of hundreds of French refugees fleeing the slave rebellion in Haiti, and vicious attacks on Adams in the partisan press convinced the Federalists in Congress to pass, and Adams to sign, the Alien and Sedition Acts.  These laws made it a crime to falsely or maliciously criticize the president or Congress, authorized the president to deport aliens without due process, and increased the residency requirement for U.S. citizenship from five to fourteen years. The unpopularity of these acts, tax increases caused by the military buildup, and an ongoing divide between the Adams and Hamilton factions in the Federalist Party, intensified by the president’s decision in 1800 once again to try to negotiate peace with France, contributed to the 1800 defeat of Adams and the Federalists by Jefferson and the Republicans. 

Early in the nineteenth century the President’s House, located in a thriving commercial neighborhood, was converted into shops.  All but the side walls of the building were knocked down in 1832 to accommodate bigger stores. Early in the twentieth century, confusion arose over the exact size and location of the President’s House.  In 1951, the state of Pennsylvania, not realizing the historical significance of the site, demolished the surviving exterior walls of the building to clear land for Independence Mall, and then erected a men’s restroom on the site.  In 2000, the ice house pit was unearthed while building the Liberty Bell Center. The ironic location of the quarters of Washington’s slaves near the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center drew considerable public attention. Archaeologists excavating the site in 2007 discovered significant portions of the original foundations. Beginning in 2010, visitors to the President’s House Site (an open air exhibit within Independence National Historical Park) could view the building’s original footprint and underground remains.

Philadelphia hosted perhaps the most pivotal decade in the evolution of the presidency, during which the emergence of an independent but democratic chief executive set the stage for Thomas Jefferson’s Revolution of 1800.  

Stuart Leibiger is a Professor and History Department Chair at La Salle University.  He is the author of Founding Friendship:  George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 1999) and editor of a Companion to James Madison and James Monroe (Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2013).

Constitutional Convention of 1787

The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall (then known as the Pennsylvania State House). The convention drafted the United States Constitution, the world’s oldest written national constitution still in use. The document, which divides power between the federal government and the states, launched a new phase of the American “experiment” in republican government (representative democracy). After being ratified by the American people, the Constitution began operation in 1789 in New York City (the federal capital until 1790) with the convening of the First Congress and the inauguration of George Washington (1732-99) as the first president. The writing of the Constitution in Independence Hall, along with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence there eleven years earlier, has led to global recognition of the building’s historical significance.

[caption id="attachment_15744" align="alignright" width="300"]Howard Chandler Christy’s painting of the signing of the United States Constitution Howard Chandler Christy’s painting of the signing of the United States Constitution was commissioned in 1939 as part of the congressional observance of the Constitution’s sesquicentennial. (Architect of the Capitol)[/caption]

By the mid-1780s, several problems had arisen under the Articles of Confederation, which went into effect in 1781. In particular, Congress needed the authority to tax and to regulate commerce. It also needed the means to solve foreign policy problems, such as opening the Mississippi River to American navigation and expelling British troops from several forts in the Northwest Territory. The Confederation Congress called the Constitutional Convention on February 21, 1787, legitimizing a call issued by an earlier convention that met in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1786 to discuss giving Congress control of commerce. Congress tasked the 1787 convention with revising the Articles to render the federal government “adequate to the exigencies of the union.” All agreed that the convention must strengthen the federal government at the expense of the states. The new constitution needed separate, coequal executive, legislative, and judicial branches restrained by checks and balances so that it could avoid repeating what many regarded as the injustices of the state governments, where, according to conservatives, popular majorities acting through unchecked legislatures often trampled the rights of religious or propertied minorities.

Fifty-five delegates, representing all of the states except Rhode Island, attended the convention in Philadelphia, a geographically central location. The biggest city in the United States, this metropolis of about 40,000 people featured boardinghouses, such as the Indian Queen Tavern and the City Tavern, where the delegates could reside, caucus, and dine. In addition to shops, theaters, and other cosmopolitan amenities, Philadelphia offered a religiously and ethnically diverse and tolerant atmosphere, where men of varying cultures felt comfortable. Many of the delegates found Philadelphia, the former national capital, a familiar place. Southerners, however, considered the antislavery views of the Quakers and like-minded residents troubling. With the windows of Independence Hall’s Assembly Room sealed shut to prevent eavesdropping, the delegates spent the humid summer months deliberating in sweltering conditions.

George Washington, Convention President

[caption id="attachment_15404" align="alignright" width="181"]An engraving of an allegorical scene of Roman figures in front of a temple with thirteen columns. This engraving appeared in The Columbian magazine to herald the new Constitution. It shows the Roman figures Cupid, Concordia, and Clio holding the Constitution in front of a temple with thirteen columns. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The convention, scheduled to open on May 14, did not achieve a quorum until May 25. On the first day, Robert Morris (1734-1806) of Pennsylvania nominated George Washington to be the convention president, to which the delegates unanimously assented. After agreeing to meet from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week and settling on rules (including keeping the proceedings secret, allowing one vote per state, and requiring at least two delegates to make an official delegation), the convention took up a proposal for the structure of the government. The Virginia Plan, drafted by the Virginians and supported by the Pennsylvanians in the preconvention days, proposed a bicameral legislature with representation in both houses based on either each state’s free population or federal taxes paid, along with executive and judicial branches. John Rutledge (1739-1800) pledged South Carolina’s backing of the Virginia Plan, even though he considered it favorable to the wealthiest and most populous states. In return, James Wilson (1742-98) promised Pennsylvania’s support for counting three-fifths of slaves towards representation in Congress.

The small states, led by William Paterson (1745-1806) of New Jersey, countered with the New Jersey Plan in opposition to the sweeping changes proposed by the Virginia Plan, especially the elimination of the Confederation’s one-vote-per-state system. The New Jersey Plan would essentially add executive and judicial branches to the existing Confederation and grant Congress power over taxation and commerce. At stake were not just the interests of large versus small states, but whether the new framework would be a national government of people, or whether it would continue a confederation of states. Upon reaching an impasse and nearly dissolving, the convention turned the divisive matter over to a grand committee composed of a member from each state. The committee, which included Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) of Pennsylvania, devised the Great Compromise (or the Connecticut Compromise) in which each state’s representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population (including three-fifths the number of slaves), and each state would receive two seats in the Senate. Appropriations bills could only originate in the House. This breakthrough created what James Madison (1751-1836) of Virginia called a partly national, partly federal “compound republic.”

At the end of July the convention recessed for ten days while a five-man Committee of Detail incorporated the agreed-upon resolutions into a draft Constitution. The committee, dominated by Rutledge and Wilson, replaced a blanket grant of power to Congress with a list of enumerated powers. At the same time, however, the draft included blank checks that undermined the concept of enumerated powers, such as the “necessary and proper,” “general welfare,” and “supremacy” clauses. In addition to the three-fifths compromise already agreed upon by the convention, the committee inserted a number of provisions favorable to the South, including a ban on export taxes, and requiring a supermajority of two-thirds of Congress rather than a bare majority to pass commercial legislation. Nor could Congress prohibit the African slave trade.

Struggle Over Slavery Issue

[caption id="attachment_15735" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photo of the Assembly Room at Independence Hall. Independence Hall's Assembly Room is where the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787. Although changes were made in the room over time, it has been restored to appear as it did in the eighteenth century. (National Park Service)[/caption]

In August, the entire convention struggled with the slavery issue. Several northerners, led by Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) of Pennsylvania, eloquently attacked the South’s peculiar institution as a moral abomination. The debate led to compromises in which the North traded a fugitive slave provision in return for the South’s abandonment of the supermajority requirement for commercial legislation. The convention prohibited Congress from banning the international slave trade for twenty years, but allowed a ten dollar tax on slave imports. The delegates also decided to use the word “persons” instead of “slaves.” By threatening disunion if slavery were not adequately protected, the South, especially Georgia and South Carolina, got the better of these compromises. The three-fifths compromise in particular secured enough additional seats in Congress to enable the “Slave Power” eventually to enact proslavery legislation such as the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overturned the ban on slavery imposed in those territories by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Thanks to the Electoral College, moreover, the three-fifths compromise also made it easier to elect southern presidents, who in turn often nominated pro-slavery Supreme Court justices.

The draft constitution called for a president to be elected by Congress for one seven-year term. After considering myriad alternative arrangements, the delegates, at the beginning of September, turned the disposition of the presidency over to the “Committee on Postponed Parts.” Chaired by David Brearly (1745-90) of New Jersey, this committee redesigned the office, giving the executive a four-year term to be elected without a term limit by an electoral college. In accepting this change, the convention created a truly independent executive, coequal with the federal government’s other branches. The convention’s expectation that Washington, the likely first president, would not abuse his power convinced the delegates to take this bold step.

With all of the Constitution’s major provisions decided upon, the convention on September 10 appointed a Committee of Style to prepare the final draft. Gouverneur Morris, an eloquent writer, finalized the preamble and organized the document into its various articles and sections. Not knowing which states would ratify, Morris changed the preamble’s opening from a list of the thirteen states to, “We the People of the United States.”

[caption id="attachment_15737" align="alignright" width="300"]Rising Sun Chair, where George Washington sat during the Constitutional Convention. This is the Rising Sun Chair—still present in Independence Hall—that George Washington sat in during the Constitutional Convention. Given the stormy nature of the deliberations, Benjamin Franklin pondered whether the carved sun was setting or rising. But as the new Constitution went to the states for ratification, Franklin concluded that it was on the rise, much like the nation. (National Park Service)[/caption]

On September 17, the convention met one last time to sign the embellished manuscript of the Constitution.  Benjamin Franklin called on the forty-two delegates still present to add their signatures to the document. George Mason (1725-92) of Virginia, Edmund Randolph (1753-1813) of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) of Massachusetts remained unwavering in their opposition. As the delegates one by one affixed their names, Franklin pointed to the half sun carved into the backrest of Washington’s chair. The Pennsylvanian remarked that after wondering all summer whether it was a rising or setting sun, he now knew that it was in fact a rising sun.

The States Decide

The convention forwarded the Constitution to Congress with resolutions specifying that the ratification decision be made by conventions “chosen in each state by the people.” Congress voted unanimously, not to endorse but merely to transmit the document to the states for ratification. Article VII provided that the Constitution would take effect when ratified by nine states. Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey became the first three states to ratify the Constitution, all by lopsided margins. The Delaware ratification convention, meeting in Dover, happy with the Great Compromise and not wishing to see such a little state become a separate nation, ratified on December 7 by a vote of 30-0. The Pennsylvania convention, held in Independence Hall, approved the Constitution on December 12 by a vote of 46-23, rejecting the Antifederalists’ request to postpone ratification until they had time to propose amendments. The bitter response of Pennsylvania’s unreconciled Antifederalists to the Federalists’ heavy-handed approach caused remaining states to conduct a more thorough and sincere ratification debate. New Jersey’s convention in Trenton, eager for commerce (and import duties) to be controlled by the federal government because of the state’s dependence on out-of-state ports in New York City and Philadelphia, ratified on December 18 by a 38-0 vote. Philadelphians celebrated the Constitution’s ratification on July 4, 1788, with a “Grand Federal Procession" to the Bush Hill estate of William Hamilton (1745-1813), three miles outside of town, where James Wilson delivered a spirited address to a crowd of 17,000. Toasts and a sumptuous feast followed.

Visitors to Independence Hall can see the Assembly Room where the convention met and the Rising Sun Chair where Washington sat. The building, part of Independence National Historical Park, was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its role in the spread of republican government (representative democracy).

Stuart Leibiger is a Professor and History Department Chair at La Salle University. He is the author of Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 1999), and editor of a Companion to James Madison and James Monroe (Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2013).

Trenton and Princeton Campaign (Washington’s Crossing)

[caption id="attachment_13661" align="aligncenter" width="575"]image of Emanuel Leutze's painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware German-American painter Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 work "Washington Crossing the Delaware River" is what many people envision when they think of the pivotal effort.  (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)[/caption]

One of the most significant events in the Revolutionary War was the Continental Army’s December 25, 1776, crossing of the Delaware River, led by General George Washington (1732-99), which preceded three crucial American victories—two at Trenton and one at Princeton, New Jersey—that reignited the virtually extinguished Patriot cause.  Immortalized in the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze (1816-68), the crossing has become one of the most commemorated scenes in American iconography.  The campaign enabled the rebel militia to reclaim most of New Jersey from the British and their Loyalist allies, helped the Continental Congress to recruit new fighting forces, and boosted public confidence in the commander-in-chief.  

During the fall of 1776, British troops under General William Howe (1729-1814) forced the Continental Army to evacuate Manhattan and to retreat southwest across New Jersey.  Numbering about 3,000 men, Washington’s shattered army escaped across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 7, with the British in pursuit.  The Continental Congress, fearing an enemy occupation of Philadelphia, fled to Baltimore.  Howe, hoping to pacify New Jersey, spread his forces into seventeen outposts across the state. 

After first making his headquarters at Summerseat, the home of Thomas Barclay (1728-93) in Falls Township across the Delaware from Trenton, Washington a week later relocated ten miles upriver to the Keith House near McConkey’s Ferry in Upper Makefield Township.  Washington deployed his men to guard the crossing points above and below Trenton as best they could, and ordered Continental forces still in New Jersey under generals Charles Lee (1732-82) and Horatio Gates (1727-1806) to reinforce him.  Since the previous August, Washington had suffered a string of devastating defeats, had lost ninety percent of his men to battle casualties, desertion, and sickness, and lacked clothing and supplies for the few who remained.  Nevertheless, he resolved to strike before expiring enlistments completely dissolved his army—and ended the revolution—at the end of the year.  Recognizing an opportunity to achieve numerical superiority over the Hessian garrison of Colonel Johann Rall (1726-76) in Trenton, Washington decided to recross the river and attack. Meanwhile, New Jersey militia under General Philemon Dickinson (1739-1809) waged hit-and-run attacks that left the Hessians nervous and weary.

Three-Pronged Attack

Washington planned a three-pronged crossing of the river for the night of December 25, to be followed by an attack on Trenton before sunrise.  Contrary to myth, he did not strike on the day after Christmas because he expected the Hessians to be drunk from holiday revelry.  Instead, he moved as soon as possible. Washington’s forces would cross the river at McConkey’s Ferry and hit Trenton from the north, while General James Ewing (1736-1806) of the Pennsylvania militia would cross with 700 men from Falls Township to the Assunpink Creek south of Trenton, to prevent the Hessians from escaping.  The third prong, consisting of Philadelphia militia known as “The Associators” commanded by Colonel John Cadwalader (1742-86), would cross from Bristol, Pennsylvania, to Burlington, New Jersey, to stop Hessians under Colonel Carl von Donop  (1732-77) from aiding Rall. 

[caption id="attachment_13658" align="alignright" width="300"]image of a map of the battle of trenton Drawn by Andreas Wiederholdt, a Hessian officer, this 1776 map depicts Trenton, New Jersey, and environs at the time of first battle, including the locations of fallen soldiers. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

On the night of December 25, an ice-clogged river and a violent nor’easter featuring rain, hail, and snow delayed Washington’s crossing of the Delaware by four hours.  Marblehead, Massachusetts, fishermen under Colonel John Glover (1732-97) ferried the army across using large Durham boats designed for carrying iron ore down the river.  So severe were the conditions that neither Ewing nor Cadwalader could cross the river.  Having been warned to expect a midnight attack, the enemy lowered its guard at dawn, shortly before 2,500 Continentals launched a weather-delayed assault.  Although taken by surprise, the Hessians might have withstood the offensive had Rall not been mortally wounded.  The Continentals killed or wounded 106 Hessians and captured 916 more without suffering a fatality. The victorious army and its prisoners recrossed the river back to Pennsylvania at McConkey’s Ferry.

Unaware of these developments, the Associators crossed on December 27 into New Jersey, where Cadwalader urged Washington to join him to renew the offensive.  Persuading about half of his men to reenlist with a cash bounty of ten dollars, Washington on December 31 reoccupied Trenton, where he was joined by Cadwalader and Ewing.  On the evening of January 2, the Continentals resisted probing attacks waged by Redcoats under General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) in the Second Battle of Trenton.  Rather than risk annihilation when the fighting resumed in the morning, Washington instead slipped south out of town during the night.  Turning east and then north, the Continentals marched through Quaker Bridge towards Princeton to attack another British outpost under General Alexander Leslie (1731-94).  Instead they intercepted and routed an enemy regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood (1729-80) headed for Trenton, as well as two additional regiments coming out of Princeton.  After flirting with the idea of attacking yet another British outpost at New Brunswick, Washington took his weary men into winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.

Ten-Day Turnaround

In ten days, Washington’s three victories—two at Trenton and one at Princeton—turned the 1776-77 campaign around.  To prevent further attacks against his vulnerable outposts, General Howe consolidated his forces in New Jersey, allowing Whigs to reassert themselves and leaving his pacification campaign in ruins.  The victories lifted American spirits sufficiently to recruit additional forces to carry on the war.  During the campaign, Washington, along with his officers, demonstrated charismatic leadership and moral courage.  The commander-in-chief also gained confidence in himself, won newfound respect from his men, and shattered the belief in British invincibility.  With the British threat no longer imminent, Congress returned to Philadelphia in March 1777 and remained there until Howe captured the city in September of that year.

State historical parks on the New Jersey and Pennsylvania shores of the Delaware River commemorate the Crossing, while The Trenton Barracks Museum and Princeton Battlefield State Park interpret the three American victories.

Stuart Leibiger is a Professor and History Department Chair at La Salle University.  He is the author of  Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 1999) and editor of A Companion to James Madison and James Monroe (Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2013).

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