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Historic Houses

Boxwood Hall
Elizabeth
Where General Washington met the Committee of Congress and lunched on the day of his inauguration

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

Perhaps the most noted mansion in Elizabethtown proper is Boxwood Hall, the home of Elias Boudinot, the President of the Continental Congress, and who as such signed the treaty of peace with Great Britain at the close of the Revolution.

It was erected a few years earlier than Liberty Hall, and rivaled the great houses of Cavalier Jouet, Broughton Reynolds, Robert Ogden, William Peartree Smith, Dr. Jonathan I. Dayton, and other wealthy Elizabethtown residents of the period. Its great carved mantels and many other of its interior embellishments were purchased by one of the family in France; and there are traditions that the immortal Washington -- who was more of “a glass of fashion and a mould of form” than many of his biographers have made us believe -- praised the beauty of its furnishings. From the cheerful boxwood, loved and planted by our ancestors, whether occupants of palaces or cottages, Elias Boudinot named his residence. All the plants which formerly surrounded it have died or been transplanted, and yet the name still clings to the old building. It is now a peaceful refuge for elderly women.

Elias Boudinot was a descendant of a prominent French Huguenot family which had fled from France to the New World on the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He served his county in many capacities, and was the founder of the American Bible Society and other beneficent institutions. In early life he married Hannah Stockton, a sister of Richard Stockton, the Signer. This marriage drew together the interests of two very wealthy and prominent New Jersey families, and the alliance was afterwards made stronger by the gay and charming little Annis Boudinot’s capture of the heart of the distinguished Richard. Petite Annis Boudinot, in a rose-hued gown, holding a flower in her slender fingers, as an old painter has pictured her for us, seems to smile at the modem world like some quaint and very unreal figure on a Watteau fan. (In the early, 1900’s, several of Mrs. Stockton’s gowns were exhibited at a loan exhibition held in St. Mark’s parish hall, Jersey City, New Jersey.) She was a poetess, and quite a noted one in her day, her odes to famous people rivaling the like productions of Miss Lawrence, of Burlington, the half-sister of Captain Lawrence, of “Don’t give up the Ship” fame, Mercy Otis, of Massachusetts, and beautiful Nelly Forman, of Forman Place, near Freehold, who became the wife of Philip Freneau, the poet of the Revolution.

Boxwood Hall held an interesting household in the dark days of the Revolution. There was the distinguished Elias, very often absent on business of state, cultured Mrs. Boudinot, Elisha, his brother, who lived with the family until his marriage with Kate Smith in 1778, when he removed to Newark, and the idolized daughter, Susan, who was a girl of great spirit and the apple of her father’s eye. It is said of her that on one occasion Boxwood Hall was levied on by a party of the enemy, and she showed her mettle by scornfully remarking to the commanding officer that one of the members of the household had asked for British protection. “It was not by your advice, I presume,” the redcoat is said to have asked her; and she fearlessly replied, “That it never was, I can tell you.” This brave girl, whom her father writes of about this time as his “little lamb,” in after years became the wife of William Bradford, Attorney-General under Washington, and lived to be the last of the “Washington circle,” as that brilliant group of celebrated women surrounding the President’s wife was called. Towards the close of the war great was the joy of Elias Boudinot’s frequent home-comings from Philadelphia, where he was striving to frame a flew government. While there he was continually longing for his family. In one of his letters, written in the fall of 1782, he says,-

“I wish I had any news worth communicating, but we are quite barren. The negotiation for peace at Versailles goes on slowly, but I hope the coming winter will revive it with spirit -- I am homesick for Elizabethtown.”

It was almost a year later when he realized his hope and was free to return to Boxwood Hall for a lengthy period. Much of the charm of his homecoming was lost by the sadness which filled Elizabethtown at that time, although the colonies had become free and independent States. Many Tory families he had known intimately were in exile and their homes for sale, old friends had died, and the house of worship, court-house, school-house, barracks, and a great deal of property in the borough had been destroyed by the redcoats during the war. Walking through familiar streets, he felt as sad and solitary as his intimate friend, Governor Livingston, who complained, on returning to Liberty Hall, that the village of Elizabethtown was full of “unrecommended strangers, guilty-looking Tories, and very knavish Whigs.” But this state of affairs did not long continue, and the general appearance of the town soon began to change. Lotteries were devised to rebuild the public buildings, and many new families, several belonging to the exiled French nobility, arrived to establish permanent homes.

The author has in his possession one of the original handbills printed by Shepard Kollock for “the great Elizabeth Town and New-Brunswick lottery.” It notifies the public that it is arranged “for the purpose of raising a sum of money to be applied towards finishing a building to be erected by the first Presbyterian Congregation in Elizabeth Town and one erected by the Presbyterian Congregation in New-Brunswick for the purpose of Divine worship, in room of those destroyed in said places during the late war.” Jonathan Dayton and Aaron Lane were its managers, and the scheme provided for three thousand seven hundred and twenty-nine prizes. The old handbill, printed in large type, is about the size of a newspaper of today, and it and its fellows, when issued, were distributed in shop and tavern, and to all prominent persons in the town.

About this time, too, the “Indian Queen,” famous in the annals of Elizabethtown, was built. (This tavern most likely received its name from the play of “The Indian Queene,” a famous tragedy by Sir Robert Howard and John Dryden. Samuel Pepys writes of it in his diary, “that for show it exceeds, so they say, Henry VIII.”) Thaddeus Kosciusko, when on his second visit to America, and many other noted people, enjoyed its hospitality. According to an old diary, at least one birth-night ball was held there, when the youth and beauty of the neighborhood danced until dawn. In its early days it had been used as a private dwelling by a Tory, and the surrounding garden contained foreign shrubs and fruit trees stolen from near-by Whig residences during the war. So heralded abroad was the fame of its good fare and fine liquors that its tap-room was never empty, and it is a tradition that the proprietor advertised a chair always in readiness for any gentleman who had to be conveyed to his home.

During these years many distinguished people visited Boxwood Hall before Elias Boudinot and his family left it to establish a new home in Philadelphia, then the seat of government. (Elias Boudinot’s home near Philadelphia was known as Rose Hill.)

In General Washington’s triumphal journey to his inauguration at New York, April 30, 1789, he met the committee of Congress there and partook of an elegant luncheon. This famous meal was sewed on a fine service of china and silverware imported from London, many pieces of which are in the possession of one of his descendants. Among those who ate in the great dining-room on this occasion were the President to be, General Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Theodoric Bland, and Arthur Lee, of Virginia; General Knox, the Secretary of War, from Maine; Tristam Dalton, from Massachusetts; William Samuel Johnson, from Connecticut; Charles Carroll, from Maryland; Governor Livingston, of New Jersey; Ralph Izard and Thomas Tudor Tucker, from South Carolina; Egbert Benson, John Lawrence, John Jay, Chancellor Livingston, and others, from New York. It took two hours to serve the courses, one chronicler tells us, and when it was over, the “Father of his Country” was escorted by a great procession to Easttown Point, where he embarked in a barge bedecked with ribbons, and was rowed to New York City by thirteen sailors dressed in white.

Much of the charm of the old Boxwood Hall of today has been destroyed for antiquarians and lovers of the past by the addition of two hideously ugly modern stories, but the lower rooms have not been desecrated to any great degree. The immense fireplaces, where fires once glowed so brightly for Washington, are now the same, the great brass knocker he touched when entering the Hall still gives dignity to the old door, and the memory of his noble presence fills the lofty, spacious rooms.

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