Most of the European population could reasonably expect to own land at some time in their lives, and, with it, the right to participate in their own governance. The ethnically and religiously homogenous townships that dotted New Jersey were essentially self-governing, run by local notables with the consent of the freeholders, the property-holding adult white men of the community. In most cases, the freeholders selected prominent locals of similar ethnic and religious backgrounds to govern their communities and represent their interests in the colonial assembly. The assembly spent much of its time acting on local petitions, trying to mediate, often unsuccessfully, disputes between various landed, commercial, and political interests.
Leading local men and the electorate shared a host of common interests, ranging from resistance to the Anglican Church, resistance to the royal governor, and resistance to the proprietors, who claimed large portions of the colony on the basis of the proprietary charters. Politics was especially important in East Jersey, as local leaders and the freeholders sought to defend the values and interests of their communities against groups with conflicting values and interests, such as the proprietors. The relationship between the electorate and leading local men remained complex and deferential, but local leaders actively sought the support of the people, in part to shore up their own political influence against the governor, the proprietors, and other officeholders.
In West Jersey, wealthy Quaker merchants centered in Burlington exercised considerable economic and political power. In East Jersey, proprietors who held tracts of land measured in the thousands and tens of thousands of acres sought to use their wealth, influence, and political power to create a more hierarchical society. In doing so, they generated sustained conflicts that pitted small landowners and locally prominent men against the gentlemen proprietors.
Conflicts over land titles had sporadically plagued East Jersey since the 1660s, when Puritan farmers rebelled against proprietors who tried to claim Puritan lands around Elizabethtown and Newark. Beginning in the 1740s, the problem spread, as the proprietors began to challenge the legitimacy of land titles throughout northern Jersey. In some cases entire townships found their land deeds contested by proprietors and land companies, and, by 1745, upwards of 500,000 acres of Jersey land titles came under suspicion. Actual settlers, who had purchased their land in good faith and then made settlement and improvements, faced the prospect of proving the legitimacy of their titles in costly court cases against well-funded proprietors. Small farmers, and in some cases their wives, joined with local leaders in land riots to retain possession of their land and protect their community from threatening outside forces. The land rioters’ objective was to retain possession of the title to their lands by intimidating the proprietors and their agents, forestalling court hearings, preventing the enforcement of evictions, and preventing resettlement of seized lands. By and large, the land rioters succeeded in defending their land titles from the proprietors.
The unique history of colonial New Jersey continued to shape events during the Revolution and in the early national period. Some great landholders became loyalists, while many land rioters became patriots, sustaining political divisions through the early national period. Finally, prosperity and diversity, fed by proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, continued to characterize the state. John Craig Hammond See also: New Jersey (Chronology); New York; New York City; Pennsylvania; Philadelphia. Bibliography Hodges, Graham Russell. Root & Branch: African Americans in New York & East Jersey, 16131863. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999. Lurie, Maxine N. “New Jersey: The Unique Proprietary.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 111:1 (1987): 7797. McConville, Brendan. These Daring Disturbers of the Peace: The Struggle for Property and Power in Early New Jersey. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pomfret, John E. Colonial New Jersey: A History. New York: Scribner’s, 1973. Wacker, Peter O. Land and People: A Cultural Geography of Preindustrial New Jersey, Origins and Settlement Patterns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1975.