Tuesday, December 23, 2014

American Freemasonry, Colonial land battles and corruption: Made in Trenton?

Sometimes when we find a historic spot, it sets us down a path of research that lands me in a far more different spot that I originally expected. Such was the case with a modest fieldstone building at the corner of Barrack and West Lafayette Streets in Trenton.

Amid all of the government buildings scattered around our state capitol, this historic Colonial-era property tells a unique story. Now hosting the Trenton Visitor Center, the small two-story building began its existence as one of the oldest Masonic temples in the United States. While the local lodge it hosted was founded in 1787, its existence in Trenton arguably gives it standing as the spiritual birthplace for American Freemasonry nearly 300 years ago. And as I was checking that out, I found a personality who would probably garner about the same reaction to his actions today as he did in Colonial days.

Freemasonry itself has gained a reputation for mystery and intrigue over the years, but at its core, it's a fraternal organization with roots in medieval English trade guilds. Many of us are familiar with the Founding Fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence who had masonic ties, from Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and George Washington to New Jersey's own Richard Stockton, but the organization has much earlier ties to the colonies.

While some sources say that Pennsylvania hosted some of the first Masonic lodges in the New World, they appear not to have had the official backing of the governing body. According to the WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey, several masons in the colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania petitioned the Grand Lodge of England, for a provincial grand master, or leader, to preside over Masonic activities in the region. Trenton resident Colonel Daniel Coxe was selected for the post in 1730, thus becoming the first Mason to hold the post in the New World.

Coxe himself was here essentially as a real estate manager. His father, Dr. Daniel Coxe, had purchased substantial holdings in West Jersey in the late 1600s, becoming governor as a result despite never visiting the colony. The younger Coxe arrived in West Jersey in 1702 at the age of 28, living first in Burlington before moving to Trenton as the city's political and social standing grew within the colony. Frequently traveling back to England to manage his father's land holdings, he'd become a member of the Mason's lodge at the Devil's Tavern at Temple Bar in London.

Regardless of his social standing in England or Freemasonry, Col. Coxe became a less than popular guy in New Jersey, largely to his zealous defense of a tract of property his father had owned in the Hopewell area. It seems that when the elder Coxe sold his New Jersey properties to the West Jersey Society, there may have been some irregularities with the paperwork, meaning that the folks who later bought the property from the Society didn't actually own it. As far as they were concerned, the younger Coxe had no claim on the land, though the courts eventually ruled in his favor. To stay on the land they thought was theirs, the disputed owners had to either purchase or lease it from Coxe, or leave on their own. Otherwise, they'd be evicted.

Some of the owners paid up, realizing they had little leverage against Coxe's political and social standing. Others hired a lawyer in a futile effort to plead their case in the courts. Prospects there were dim: Coxe had been appointed as a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, leaving little doubt how any further appeals would be received. Some angry former property owners, frustrated by what they saw as an impossible situation, burned Coxe in effigy.

Several left the colony altogether, migrating south to form what became known as the Jersey Settlement in Rowan County, North Carolina. It might have been the first case in which New Jerseyans were so frustrated by official corruption that they voted with their feet.

Was the paperwork truly muddled during the transactions between Dr. Coxe and the West Jersey Society, or had the entire incident been a Machiavellian attempt to maintain control of valuable real estate? Right now your guess is as good as mine, but initial research suggests this disputed land grab may have been one of the early grievances in the growing appetite for independence from British rule. More to come!

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