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Oil painting, painter unknown.
A Governor in Skirts

From Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, January 1965
by Arthur D. Pierce
Author of Iron in the Pines and Smugglers' Woods, among other studies of New Jersey history, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society.

This Web Version, COPYRIGHT 2004 GET NJ

New Jersey's first experience with a royal governor was to leave a dark and lasting imprint upon the colony's political fabric, the more so since many of his successors were not much better in many respects.

On its face, the setup of royal rule had been well equipped with "checks and balances" which appeared to assure firm control by the Crown, particularly in establishing law and order. The Governor himself was appointed by the Queen. Next came the Governor's Council of twelve men, six from East Jersey and six from West; and although they were residents of the colony, their appointments also were controlled from London. Then came the Assembly of twenty-four members (twelve East Jersey and twelve West), popularly elected. However, to keep out the rabble - the sort of characters involved in riots and head-smashings - the "popular vote" was restricted to those who owned at least a hundred acres of land, while a candidate for membership in the Assembly was required to own at least a thousand acres. With the courts also royally-appointed, New Jersey apppeared to have been tied up in a neat, safe package.

An able, honest and courageous governor might have employed that package to establish the foundations of a stable, prosperous and contented colony. By cementing areas of agreement among the colony's factions; by pressing moderation upon profiteering proprietors; by shrewd leadership in the Assembly, there would have been a chance for effective and possibly popular royal government. Instead, Cornbury craftily pitted each group against the others and fed the fires of disunity and discontent. As a result his governorship served to disclose how full of loopholes the royal package was.

In contests between the weak and corrupt Governor and an increasingly assertive Assembly, it soon became clear that the real power lay with the latter. The implications of the trend were recognized at the time. Robert Quary, a Councillor and Judge of Admiralty, wrote to the Lords of Trade in London , in 1707 (Cornbury's last year):
Your lordships may plainly see what these men (the Assembly) do aim at, and what the consequences must quickly be . . . for having thrown off all respect and obedience to the Queen's orders and instructions . . . the Laws of England they will not allow of but when it suits their interests ... and when it is contrary to their wild notions, then it shall not oblige them unless the Queen will allow them to send their representatives to sitt in Parliament of Great Britain . . . Were your lordships on the spot, to hear and observe, it would alarm you. I am sure it gives me many uneasy thoughts.
Here is an early example of the doctrine of "no taxation without representation." That far back some Jerseymen were getting too big for their boots from the royal point of view. But the Crown, and the frequently corrupt politicians who wielded power in its name, were curiously indifferent; they remained so until George Third decided to "be King." Then it was much too late.

Because Cornbury was "for sale", most governors thereafter were driven to the necessity of bargaining with the Assembly on every measure of consequence. Source of the Assembly's power was control of the purse, a power it soon made the most of. Only the Assembly could vote funds and levy taxes. The Governor could veto an Assembly bill; he could not compel it to vote so little as a shilling or so much as a pound. As the Assemblymen became increasingly aware of their strength, one of them, a humble (?) weaver, said: "Let us keep the dogs poore and we'll make them do what we please." The "dogs" included the Governor, his aides and even the court officials. Several stubborn governors were brought to terms when the Assembly refused to appropriate any payroll at all!


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