King George II chartered Elizabethtown, New Jersey in 1740, calling it “the free borough of the town of Elizabeth.” It was the colony’s oldest English Community. In the1770’s, thanks to a prosperous leather-treatment industry, it was a prosperous village of 800, and already a century old.
There were 400 buildings mostly of weathered gray cedar shingles on five tree-lined streets. Windmills were dispersed among the salt meadows outside of town. There were two churches: the red brick St. John’s Anglican Church (for the pro English citizens), and the wooden First Presbyterian Church.
An old stone arch bridge spanned the Elizabeth River, near the courthouse with belfry and the militia’s parade ground. Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, visited and wrote “ In and about the town are many gardens and orchards, and it might be said that Elizabethtown is situated in a garden.”
In this idyllic setting at the same time in 1773 were two handsome and brilliant boys. Aaron Burr had grown up here and spent the summer here after graduating Princeton at age 17. Certainly, he met Alexander Hamilton who had just arrived from the West Indies and New York City.
The prep school for Princeton was The Elizabethtown Academy, headed by Francis Barber. One of its founders was Tapping Reeve. After Aaron’s parents deceased while he was two years old, he lived here with his Uncle Timothy Edwards, who hired Reeve to tutor Aaron Burr before Aaron attended Princeton. Reeve later married Aaron’s older sister Sally and established America’s first Law School in Litchfield, CT. Their only son, Aaron’s nephew, was Aaron Burr Reeve. Reeve and Edwards sat on the Board of Visitors while Alexander Hamilton attended The Elizabethtown Academy for six months before attending Columbia then known as King’s College. Elizabethtown Academy occupied a two- story building with a cupola on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church.
Alexander was befriended by William Livingston who retired from his NY law practice to build a sprawling mansion called Liberty Hall on the outskirts of Elizabethtown and devote full time to radical politics. Livingston made Hamilton his protégé. Liberty Hall became the unofficial headquarters of the NJ Revolution, and Livingston became first governor of the new state. Hamilton corresponded with daughter Kitty Livingston. Were Aaron and Alexander at the same Teen hang outs in Elizabethtown? Absolutely!
Elizabethtown is mentioned again by Ron Chernow in connection with President elect George Washington in 1789. Washington rode from Mount Vernon to Elizabethtown, and boarded a barge to New York City for his inauguration. At Wall Street, Gov George Clinton welcomed him to dinner and a 13-gun salute. Hamilton had also invited Washington to dinner, but Washington wished to convey that he would be the leader of all the people.
Have you heard the expression “Washington Slept Here”? Well, on April 24, 215 years and 77 days ago today, “Washington Cruised Here” just as we are cruising here right now!
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