The preeminent of all American ideological conflicts found a fertile battle ground in the Garden State. The debate over a Hamiltonian approach to big government versus the Jeffersonian preference for more localized administration ended in favor of the latter. It resulted in New Jersey spawning 566 municipalities: even more than California. Just what caused this northern state to adopt the political philosophy of the gentleman planter from Virginia?
Historian Michael DiCamilo set out to elucidate this phenomenon as part of the History Speaks series on January 18, 2017. The Elizabeth Tuttle Fund, the Historical Society of Moorestown and the Moorestown Library sponsored the event which the latter hosted. Professor DiCamilo teaches American History at LaSalle. He’s also on the Historical Society of Moorestown’s board of trustees where currently serves as Vice President.
Mr. DiCamilo utilized the work of former Garden State politician Alan Karcher’s 1989 work New Jersey’s Municipal Madness illustrate this phenomena. The former Assembly Speaker explored the reasons why myriad towns and boroughs incorporated in the state. He discovered five key reasons: street fights, railroad towns, school district boroughs, dry versus wet towns, and exclusive enclaves. Mr. DiCamilo took the audience through each one.
The portion on “street fights” intrigued me the most. With the advent of the automobile road maintenance became a major political issue. Residents of a community elected “road superintendents” to represent their interests at the municipal level. They argued to secure the most funding for their streets. When these officials couldn’t acquire the municipal money they wanted, they’d return to their constituents with an interesting proposition. They’d encourage the “street” to form its own town. Of course, these road superintendents would play prominent roles in the new polis; even serving as their mayors.
I found this outcome rather interesting. A road superintendent would fail in his duties to his constituency. The populace would proceed to elect them to govern the new town; a much more complex challenge than fundraising. In essence, these officials would receive a promotion from the same people they disappointed. As historian Richard Hofstadter observed, “Politics has a logic of its own.”
I also enjoyed Mr. DiCamilo’s discussion of the conflicts leading to dry and wet towns. He described how the “camp meeting movement” inspired people to exit the cities in favor of country life. These new communities would serve as places of worship where residents could avoid the excesses of modern life. A number of these municipalities such as Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach and Avon-by-the-Sea developed along the coast. More locally, the towns of Bellmawr and Delanco began as part of this phenomenon.
The disparity between pro and anti-prohibition forces masked more nefarious motives, as well. One of the rationales for the “camp meeting movement” germinated from a desire to control rowdy youths and immigrants. Latent and, at times, overt racism even led to the development of some municipalities.
While the pursuit of a moral life free of vice caused many communities to form, the rejection of these principles inspired others. Centre Township prohibited playing golf on Sundays. It also rigorously enforced prohibition. Some individuals rejected these mores to such a degree they decided to form their own town. Thus, Tavistock incorporated in 1921.
In a fitting move, Mr. DiCamilo made his discussion of local history hyperlocal. Founded in 1688, Chester Township experienced numerous splits before the name disappeared from South Jersey in 1945. Cinnaminson left in 1860. Delran broke off from the latter in 1885. Riverside separated from Delran in the same year. Riverton left Cinnaminson in 1893 then Palmyra did the same a year later. In 1922 Moorestown parted from Chester Township. The remaining community changed its name to Maple Shade in 1945. Interestingly, with the exceptions of Moorestown and Riverside (which incorporated over street fights) all the others were “railroad towns.”
Mr. DiCamilo focused his talk on the political aspects of the subject; which he delivered exceptionally well. Throughout the lecture he presented balanced analyses of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian visions. With respect to the latter he explained as one positive: the smaller the community, the easier for citizens to become part of government. While correct, not everyone has an interest in being an active member of the political process. In addition many individuals who live in the same area share the same political views. I’d encourage another historian to follow-up on this lecture with a discussion of the social implications of so many municipalities.
Mr. Camilo presented a solid case that the Jeffersonian vision of government entrenched itself in the Garden State. While no new municipalities have incorporated in New Jersey since 1957, to his knowledge, only Princeton Township and Princeton Boro chose to consolidate over the last two decades.
The monument on Mr. Jefferson’s grave describes him as the author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia. Had the third President lived long enough, he just may have added: “instrumental inspiration for the municipal system of government in New Jersey” to his legacy.