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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Friday, August 3, 1787

August 03, 2020 - 4 minute read

George Washington Battle of Trenton

When the rain stopped mid-morning on Wednesday, George Washington and Gouverneur Morris returned to Philadelphia after several days in the countryside where they went fishing and Washington spent time going over the ruins of the old encampment at Valley Forge. Always interested in agriculture and farming, on his return Washington stopped to visit with several farmers working in their fields, filling his diary with ideas on cultivating buck wheat, applications of grains, and good feed for weaning colts.

Today, Washington, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and his wife set off for another fishing party, this time near Trenton where they “lodged at Col. Sam Ogdens at the Trenton Works.” Washington added, “in the evening fished, not very successfully.”

Like so many acquaintances and friends of Washington, Samuel Ogden served in the Revolutionary War, but he is also married to Gouverneur Morris’s sister, Sarah. Ogden was born in Newark, New Jersey, and is a direct descendant of John “The Pilgrim” Ogden, one of the earliest settlers of New Jersey and an original patentee of the Elizabeth Purchase, the first English settlement in the New Jersey colony. Samuel Ogden’s father was a jurist and member of the supreme court of the royal Province of New Jersey.

The colony was named after the Isle of Jersey, owned and governed by several different entities until East and West Jersey were united into one colony by the British in 1702. Often referred to as “a breadbasket” colony because of its abundance production of wheat which was ground into flour and exported to England, its natural resources also included iron ore. Iron ore had been discovered in north America as early as the 1607 settlement of Jamestown when John Smith sent several barrels to England be tested and were found to be top quality. In the early 1720’s forges were built in several locations, but development was stymied by British policy favoring British industry against colonial enterprises.

In 1750, Parliament passed the Iron Act, further restricting colonial efforts to increase the iron industry. Intended to stem development of colonial manufacturing and competition with Britain, the Act restricted the colonies to making cast or pig iron to be sent to England where it would be refined and manufactured into goods. Many of those goods would then be sold in America. In addition, American iron entered England duty free and was prohibited from being sold beyond the British Empire. As the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies deteriorated, the Act was largely ignored and poorly enforced. The forge business not only grew but expanded into the manufacture of a variety of goods which could be produced cheaper than those imported from England.

In 1770, Samuel Ogden founded the Boonton Iron Works on a 6-acre tract of land along the Rockaway River near Boonton, New Jersey, and imported skilled mechanics from England. When independence was declared, the Ogden family was divided. Samuel and his brother Abraham supported the Patriots while their father and three brothers remained loyal to the crown and British rule. Ironworks such as Ogden’s were critical to the war effort, essential for manufacturing equipment and making steel.

The Trenton Works mentioned in Washington’s diary was one of only five steel works in the colonies when the Iron Act of 1750 was passed and was essential for making edge tools such as axes and scythes as well as bayonets, knives and certain mechanisms for guns. In 1762, the Works was purchased by two young Philadelphia merchants, Owen Biddle, a clockmaker and watchmaker, and Timothy Matlack, a beer bottler and brewer. Both supported the Patriot cause, served in the Continental Army, and held the rank of colonel. Biddle twice served as the de facto governor of Pennsylvania and was an active, respected member of the American Philosophical Society.

Matlack had been a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and appointed as clerk. In that role he composed George Washington’s commission as commander-in-chief and engrossed the Declaration of Independence on parchment, which Congress began signing on August 2, 1776. Five months later on the night of December 25-26, George Washington and a large contingent of the Continental Army crossed the icy, freezing Delaware River to mount a surprise attack against Hessian auxiliary troops garrisoned at Trenton. Col. Timothy Matlack and the Pennsylvania 5th Rifle Battalion were among them.

Because of adverse weather conditions, the crossing was dangerous. Only 2,400 man were able to cross, three thousand fewer than planned. Nevertheless, the army marched nine miles in the dead of night and scored a victory over the Hessians in a surprise attack, resulting in two-thirds of the Hessians being captured and negligible losses to the Americans. The quick victory at Trenton should not disguise the difficulties faced by Washington’s men. Not yet fully equipped as an organized fighting force, some of the men lacked boots, forced to wrap rags around their feet as rain and snow began to wet their gunpowder. When a courier arrived from General John Sullivan advising Washington about a potential problem with the gunpowder, he responded stoically, “Tell General Sullivan to use the bayonet. I am resolved to take Trenton.”

The battle lasted only a few hours in the morning of December 26. Twenty-two Hessians were killed in action, 83 wounded and 896 captured. The Americans suffered 7 deaths, including two on the march, and five wounded in battle. Among the seriously wounded was James Monroe, later to become the fifth President of the United States.

The Battle of Trenton proved that colonial forces could defeat professional European soldiers. Following defeats in New York, the victory at Trenton buoyed the confidence of the Continental Congress as well as Patriots across the country as enlistments in the Continental Army swelled. It also stunned British military leaders who were forced to acknowledge that the Patriots would not be easily defeated.

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