Tracing Dayton's roots By Benjamin Kline
back to New Jersey
DAYTON DAILY NEWS
PRINCETON, N.J. -- Deep inside the Gothic walls of Princeton University's Firestone library, a clerk brings an archival box from the rare books and manuscripts vault and places it on an oak table in a dimly-lit, restricted reading room. Inside the box is a stack of papers nearly 200 years old. Most are letters in a perfect cursive hand, the ink faded to a copper tint. The signature: ``Jona:Dayton.'' The writer was former U.S. Sen. Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, Princeton Class of 1776. He was sending political and military advice and gossip to his old friend, President James Madison, Princeton Class of 1771. Just 11 years after an Ohio settlement took Dayton's name, the New Jersey Federalist leader was implicated with one of his Ohio land speculation partners, Gen. James Wilkinson, and his childhood friend, Vice President AaronBurr, in a purported scheme to seize Kentucky and Tennessee as the basis of a breakaway ``empire'' extending southwest as far as Mexico. Scholars have never agreed on who did what. Most believe that the crafty Wilkinson, the army's only general, realized Burr's plan was doomed and turnedstate's evidence to save his own skin. Burr was arrested and charged with high treason and misdemeanor. Dayton wasindicted on the same charges June 25, 1807. After Burr was acquitted at Richmond, Va., Chief Justice John Marshall ordered that Dayton and other defendants not be prosecuted. Dayton went home, his national political career ruined. Still liked by his East Jersey neighbors, he was twice elected to the statelegislature. But his twilight years were full of poor health, difficulties with his Ohio lands and declining wealth. Being not prosecuted was different from being found innocent. It was a tragedy for an 18th-century man like Dayton. Even today his reputation is clouded, if not ignored, while his namesake city is world-famous. The Princeton letters, circa 1812, have the insistent, lonesome tone of hisstatus as a political exile. Sometimes Dayton is theatrically anonymous, signing hmself ``Quintus'' or ``Cyrus'' as he tells Madison of Federalist party activities in New York or military peril in the new state of Ohio, on the Northwest frontier. April 9, 1813: Dayton warns Madison that ``a bold attempt to seize your person or papers may possibly be made,'' referring to a purported English plot. Frequently Dayton begs a reply, ``with or without your signature.'' Whether President Madison wrote back is unclear. Records elsewhere show he turned down Dayton's offer of military service during the War of 1812. It was just too touchy, politically, though Madison praised Dayton's ``exemplary sentiments and motives.'' ``We have only about 20 of his letters, including 17 he wrote to Madison,''said Margaret Sherry, a reference archivist. ``For Princeton, that's a small amount. We have 700 letters by Edith Wharton.'' Dayton is not a hot research topic. Nobody had looked up the letters in more than three years. At Elizabeth, a city of 110,000 where Dayton was born in 1760 and died in 1824, he is not celebrated. He's like a house you can find, but don't know the exact address; a person who looks familiar, but you can't recall the name; a time that seems like yesterday, or was it the day before? He is stuck in the past, his notoriety faded like an old velvet waistcoat. Before the Burr case, his career had been mercurial: *A college graduate and Revolutionary soldier at 15. *Captain in the Continental Army at 19. *Youngest signer of the U.S. Constitution at 26. *Purchaser of 248,540 acres of frontier Ohio lands at 32. *Federalist leader and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at 35. *Namesake of a frontier Ohio settlement at age 35. (Eventually, there wouldbe 15 American towns called Dayton.) *U.S. senator at 39.
William Pierce of Georgia, a fellow soldier and delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, described Dayton as a man with ``talents and the ambition to exert them.'' With a flaw, however: ``There is an impetuosity in his temper that is injurious to him, but thereis an honest rectitude about him that makes him a valuable member of society,'' Pierce said. A biographer of the early speakers of the House was more blunt. He called Dayton a figure ``of commanding mediocrity.'' The image of dignified rightness - the stone-faced George Washington is thebest example - meant everything to Dayton and his generation, according to Andrew Cayton, 41, professor of history at Miami University. ``These men grew up in the Enlightenment,'' Cayton says. ``They knew that people are greedy and selfish and not very good. The point of being a civilized person was your effort to control or restrain that behavior.'' Today, ``there's kind of a Watergate mentality,'' Cayton says. ``We look atour leaders' private life, find out who is a jerk in private and say how couldyou elect a guy like that? In the 18th century, people would would say yes, people are bad sometimes, but what makes a leader is his ability ... in public.'' Dayton's private life with his wife, Susan, and their children Susannah, Elias and Hannah, looks exemplary. In public, the closest he came to a Nixonian ``I am not a crook'' speech was a long, self-righteous letter to President Thomas Jefferson, his political enemy.Northern slave owner The Daytons lived at Boxwood Hall, purchased in February 1794 from Elias Boudinot, former president of the Continental Congress. Originally an 18-room Georgian mansion on East Jersey Street, today it survives as an wingless torsosqueezed between two 20th-century apartment buildings. Only about 1,000 visitors show up each year, caretaker Katherine Craig said. Dayton, obviously, is not a top draw for the New Jersey Park Service. Dayton died in the mansion in genteel poverty, two weeks after entertainingthe Marquis de Lafayette, his Revolutionary colleague. ``Poverty'' is relative, however. An inventory of Boxwood Hall, on file at Newark, the Essex County seat, lists $3,110.78 in household goods and chattels, including: *Four horses, 10 cattle and two hogs, valued at $252. *Coaches, sleighs, wagons, gig, harness and farming utensils, $571. *Silver plate and ``three colored slaves,'' $521. New Jersey did not abolish slavery until 1846. If she could peel back the 21 layers of paint in the broad center hall and see Dayton as he was, Craig says, ``I think he was very much an 18th-century man. He was just unlucky, speculating in land and ending up with nothing. It seems to have been a very upwardly mobile society. Everybody was pushing to get ahead - (Elias) Boudinot, Hamilton, Burr, Dayton - and that's just four guys from this area. They were all strivers, to use a nice word for it.'' As for Dayton's ``terrible temper'' and other supposed traits, Craig smiled. ``History is just gossip with a pedigree,'' she said. ``People essentially do not change.'' ``Dayton was popular around here,'' said Presbyterian Pastor James Reisner.``After the whole thing with Burr, he continued to have a career in New Jersey. When Lafayette came to town in 1824, the leading citizens chose Daytonto be the host.''The missing bones The bones of the patriot and his wife, Susan Williamson, rest somewhere under St. John's Episcopal Church - Mrs. Dayton's church - at 61 Broad St., inthe heart of Elizabeth, a city of greenery and grime across the water from Staten Island, N.Y. There is a bronze marker on the church's garden wall, remembering Dayton as``Youngest Signer of the Constitution'' in 1787. The 1706, colonial-style church was razed in 1858 and replaced by a dark-red, stone Gothic Revival structure. ``The (Department of the Army) says he is buried here,'' the Rev. Joseph R.Parrish Jr. said. ``There is no definite record.'' Parrish, a Tennessee native, had a ghostly surprise one day when riflemen, dressed in the buff-faced, blue coats of the Revolutionary ``Jersey Blues'' militia, showed up in the churchyard to fire a salute to Dayton's memory. Or did they? ``My secretary looked out a window and thought we were being attacked,'' the rector said with mild hyperbole. He thinks it happened during a 1989 bicentennial re-enactment of George Washington's inaugural trip to New York City. Local historians recall no such salute by re-enactors of what became the Third New Jersey Regiment of the Continental Army - fondly known here as the ``Third Herd'' - commanded by Gen. Elias Dayton, Jonathan's father.Presbyterian education Dayton was reared a Presbyterian, a significant fact in terms of Jersey history. ``We claim him and so does St. John's. We don't have any fights about it, though,'' said Pastor Reisner. The Elizabeth First Presbyterian Church, founded in 1664, included two of the most notable sites in American education. On one corner was the Elizabeth Academy, founded in 1767 to educate the town's best and brightest boys - including Dayton, Burr and Alexander Hamilton. At the nearby parsonage, the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, Burr's father the Rev. Aaron Sr. and two other ministers founded the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton, in 1746. The American Revolution often was called the ``Presbyterian Rebellion'' in New Jersey. A British general called Princeton a ``nest of Presbyterian revolutionaries.'' The church, academy and parsonage all were burned by British troops around 1780, when New Jersey was the Bosnia of the American war for independence. Today the great church has declined to only 130 members. A new Hispanic congregation, around 50 people, is using the academy site for worship. It is a striking irony. Classmates Burr and Dayton dashed their political careers with plans to found an ``empire'' in the Spanish Southwest. In their wildest dreams, the two men never could have foreseen that their hometown would one day be more than 40 percent Hispanic.Dayton high school The only home-area place named for Dayton is at Springfield, a few miles west of Elizabeth. Jonathan Dayton Regional High School sits half a mile from the battlefield, where the fiery Rev. James Caldwell, Dayton's pastor, ripped apart Presbyterian hymnals to provide musket wadding for the embattled Jersey troops in June 1780. The church celebrated 250 years in 1995; the township 200years in 1994. The suburban school opened in September 1937 as part of the first regional school district in the state. Originally there were three schools, named for Jersey signers of the Constitution: Jonathan Dayton, William Livingston and David Brearly. Enrollment declined between 1973 and 1990, personnel officer Thomas Long said,and Brearly High was closed. Today the ``Dayton Bulldogs,'' orange and blue, include 708 students, grades nine through 12. Do the JDHS students know who Dayton was? ``I think that most of us know that he was a patriot, a revolutionary guy, and was the youngest signer of the Constitution,'' said Julia Keller, a senior. ``He spent six years in the Senate, eight years in the House,'' added Adam Lieb, a junior. The students were asked if they knew about Dayton, Ohio, and the many pioneers who bought land out there, through Jonathan Dayton's New Jersey Land Co., 200 years ago. The group grew quiet. Well, did they know about the Wright brothers? ``Of course,'' said junior Gayle Rozan. ``North Carolina!''
DAYTON DAILY NEWS
Copyright (c) 1996, Dayton Newspapers Inc.
Published: Sunday, January 7, 1996