It is said that the rebellious fight for independence was galvanized by the powerful inspiration that firebrand revolutionary Thomas Paine brought to his pamphlet, Common Sense, in 1776. As a masterpiece of political writing that engaged the average reader with the call for unity against the corrupt despots of European monarchies, every disseminating argument for our country’s freedom read like concise instructions for operating a well-oiled machine.
Using rhetoric as a principal tool to achieve forward thinking, over 500,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold in the colonies during the course of the war. Its popularity was so widespread among citizens that its viewpoints were discussed vigorously, including in Bordentown where Paine himself chose to construct his only home.
Although Paine’s writing charged emotions for public debate, it held minor sway with members of the Second Continental Congress as they convened during the summer heat in Philadelphia on how the separation from their mother country would impact the war effort. In a city that was ranked as the third most populated in the British Empire, the climate was broiling in more ways than one.
The delegates argued and counter-argued with intensity. They asserted that people have universal rights and that their rights should be expressed whenever government policies affect their livelihoods. Therefore, sovereignty should reside in its citizens. The ironic twist was that on the matter of human rights, the condemnation of slavery and the slave trade was considered a sensitive issue and abandoned. Regardless, the Declaration of Independence was a major achievement of mind and quill that called for a new nation into existence.
Among the men that placed their names on the hallowed document over a period of time was Francis Hopkinson of Bordentown. He was part of a five member delegation that represented New Jersey while his brother-in-law, Thomas McKean, along with two other delegates, represented Delaware. The men knew that they had signed their death warrants, but it was a sacrifice necessary to the cause of independence.
Despite his small stature, Francis Hopkinson was a giant of a man when it came to talent. He kept his mind occupied by drawing caricatures of his fellow colleagues in crayon. Several years later, his artistic flare was noticeably praised when he served as a consultant on committees that designed the Great Seal of New Jersey, the Great Seal of the United States and the American flag.
As the country’s first native-born composer, his natural musical abilities as an organist and harpsichordist afforded him the luxury to play in churches and concerts. Most important of all, he was considered one of the best writers of his day. His effective wit for ridiculing the British Empire and Loyalists was prominently displayed in popular political satires and poems that he wrote during the American Revolution. It was themes like this that antagonized British commanders to the point that they retaliated with vengeance on the doorstep of Bordentown within two years.
As a prelude of things to come, British and Hessian troops under the command of General William Howe relentlessly pursued General George Washington’s Continental Army across New Jersey. With shrinking enlistments and poor morale, the army was forced to take refuge on the western banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. This maneuver gave the enemy an opportunity to establish southern outposts in Trenton and Bordentown for the winter.
One of Howe’s subordinates, Hessian Colonel Carl von Donop, invaded Bordentown on Dec. 16 with 2,000 British, Scottish and Hessian troops in tow. Since the town was too small to accommodate every soldier, many would pillage nearby farms. Those stationed in town were crowded into unwelcomed dwellings and public houses such as Oakley Hoagland’s tavern on Market Street (Park Street) which was in close proximity to the home of Francis Hopkinson.
It was rumored that when his family was in residence, loud “clinking glasses of ale” and drunken behavior could be easily heard through the windows. The same could be applied to the residence of Joseph Borden who demonstrated empathy for his friend and patriot, Colonel Oakley Hoagland.
A few months prior to von Donop’s occupation of the town, Borden relinquished his position as colonel for the duties of quartermaster that he felt better served the needs of the country. This seemed to be a natural transition since he was a successful businessman, aptly efficient and knew the interior of the terrain due to his stage line. He also held in high esteem the reputation of Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin, whose daughter Emily would marry his grandson, Joseph Hopkinson, in 1794.
Within a week of Bordentown’s occupation, von Donop ordered his entire force to march south towards the village of Black Horse as he heard exaggerated reports that rebel regiments under the command of Colonel Samuel Griffin posed a threat to his contingency.
Engaging the Americans with musket fire as they fled towards Petticoat Bridge and Mount Holly, von Donop didn’t realize that the entire affair was the component of an elaborate plan by Washington to cross the river back into New Jersey and attack unsuspecting enemy forces at Trenton the day after Christmas. With few casualties imposed on the Patriots and two-thirds of the Hessian militia captured, this was the first decisive victory that proved that the Continental Army could defeat one of the best troops of Europe.
The year 1776 presented unimaginable challenges for people on the road to freedom. The war had extracted vast quantities of human suffering as they faced struggles and hardships through the darkest days. And yet the stamina of our fragile nation endured. The resiliency of the human spirit was consistently tested under the worst of conditions. Bordentown was a small example of that. The hostile acts that would transpire later would shake its citizens to their core but as with the ashes of destruction, they would rise above it.