Thursday, July 30, 2015

A tankard of liberty at Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton

If we've learned anything in our travels, it's that the terms "first" and "oldest" are often up for debate when it comes to historic places and events. Sometimes the claims have to be qualified (as in "oldest existing governor's mansion still at its original site") while other times, the boast is the well-meaning exaggeration of a proud community. Either way, there's usually a good story to be found, making our visit well worth the time.

A first was what led us to Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton: some contend that New Jersey's first Patriot newspaper was published there. Since we'd already told a similar story about the New Jersey Journal, the Continental Army-endorsed paper founded by Essex County printer Shepard Kollock in 1779, I knew we had to get the scoop.

On our first Hidden New Jersey visit to Bridgeton last year, we discovered the city holds the state's largest historic district, an impressive array of 18th and 19th century structures. Potter's Tavern stands prominently on West Broad Street, across from the latest of several successive courthouses to stand in town. While several taverns operated locally in the late 1700s, Potter's was especially popular with lawyers, who would would stop in before or after conducting their business at the courthouse, engaging in discussion of current events.

The tavern's contribution to history starts in 1775, several months after the initial battles of the American Revolution were fought in New England. New Jersey soil was untouched by bloodshed at that point, but a small group of Greenwich men had already acted on their displeasure with British rule by conducting their own version of a tea party, burning a shipment of the English import in the community's market square. Others were actively debating the various options of an evolving relationship with Great Britain: maintaining status quo, negotiating with the Crown on issues where colonists had grievances, or continuing the armed battle for independence.

Sometime before Christmas of 1775, one of those tea burners and other patrons of Potter's Tavern decided to issue their thoughts in a handwritten document on a weekly basis. Several wrote essays that were then collected and given to a scribe to be penned into one long document that was posted at the tavern. None of the essays was signed; the fact that they were transcribed by one person assured that no particular man's handwriting would betray him for advocating treason and rebellion. Tavern owner Matthew Potter wasn't one of the authors, but he could have been arrested just for allowing his customers to work on the newspaper on his property.

More than a dozen issues of the Plain Dealer were published from late 1775 to early 1776, helping to galvanize support for independence from British rule. Though Cumberland County's Loyalists attempted to find the writers and hold them legally accountable for their rebellious words, no-one was ever identified. After the war, several authors came forward, including two future New Jersey governors -- Richard Howell and Joseph Bloomfield -- as well as local physicians Jonathan Elmer and Lewis Howell. Copies of the Plain Dealer are housed in Rutgers University's Special Collections in New Brunswick.

The Cumberland County Historical Society opens the tavern to the public a few times a year,* including the day we visited. The smallness of the place seemed about right; you could see how the intimate setting would encourage the regulars to share dangerous ideas. We learned that the Potter family not only operated a food and drink establishment in the building, but lived there, too. The seating area on the first floor was about the size of a small living room, with a cozy fireplace and a barred-in counter where the alcohol was locked up. An authentic colonial kitchen in the back brings visitors back to colonial days. One of the restored rooms upstairs is interpreted as a bedroom, while the other exhibits historic maps of Bridgeton and Cumberland County and a collection of military swords used by Potter men from the Revolution through World War I.

All of this brings us back to the original claim and a question: was the Plain Dealer, indeed, New Jersey's first newspaper? The state's now-deceased de facto historian, John Cunningham, felt its regular publication schedule was enough to qualify it as a newspaper, while others say no. I contend that the label we put on it doesn't matter nearly as much as the impact of its existence. Unless another example can be found, it marked the first time New Jerseyans regularly put pen to paper to debate and promote the merits of independence from the British Empire. That's clearly enough to recommend it, and to place Potter's Tavern on the list where Americans risked their freedom to express their heartfelt beliefs.

* Those who'd like to arrange a private tour can make arrangements through the Historical Society.

1 comment:

  1. As always...thanks for any (positive) story about South Jersey. Especially my hometown of Bridgeton.

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