Lewis Morris Park
To a Governor’s Honor
By Bruce Litton
Finally decided this piece will never see publication in any magazine. Here it is, originally intended for a local publication, deal fell through three years ago. I had fished Sunrise Lake since 1995 and walked trails, so I simply got curious as to what the name of the park is all about. I did my research from the only two books I could get through inter-library loan service on the former Governor and those pre-Revolution times of the fledgling state, and apparently that's about all anyone has to work with. Surprising, because Lewis Morris comes through as a very dynamic and important figure. Whether or not archive stacks are somewhere at scholars' disposal if they choose to use them, I don't know. But my relatively short essay should help you to understand the state perhaps most pivotal in the American Revolution and now the most densely populated in America, but especially to understand a man who made himself. At least to catch a glimpse of understanding.
Lewis Morris County Park in Washington Township covers 1154 acres of forest, meadows, streams, and sites developed for recreational purposes from Route 24 south and west to Tempe Wick Road, bordering upon Morristown National Historical Park. Meticulously maintained trails wind through forest allowing mountain bikers and hikers to loop as many as six miles on a single path. Morris County’s great unifying trail, Patriot’s Path, connects many parks and communities, and links Lewis Morris Park into its eclectic system. Some trails are designated for horseback riding, open spaces are good for cross country skiing and snow shoeing, hills for sledding during winter. Athletic fields, fitness stations, horseshoe pits, playground, dog park, picnic facilities, and a group camping area are also features that make the park a serious recreational attraction. A three acre aquatic impoundment also graces the surroundings near Route 24.
Sunrise Lake, with clear water of quality drainage, is fed by a tiny brook with a small population of native brook trout, which require pure water to survive. A swimming beach, paddle and row boats, snack bar, locker rooms and showers, and plenty of shore space to fish bass or sunfish are main attractions. The fishing is good, and has been written about for The Fisherman magazine.
A great deal appears in blogs about the mountain biking as well, and the Jersey Offroad Bicycle Association, JORBA, and the International Mountain Bike Association, IMBA, have member volunteers for the Morris Trails Partnership, which does much of the trail construction. Upkeep is conscientious and thorough, as trails are rerouted into fresh directions, and forest succession renews the old. But not every activity is for the individual alone, or for small groups.
Reservation permits are available for parties of 25 or more through the Morris County Park Commission. Reserved activities include wedding ceremonies, wedding photography, tented events, and other special programs. While the natural attractions here are photogenic to say the least, for some people the invisible history may be the most interesting aspect. Like many parks in history- rich New Jersey, Lewis Morris County Park has stories about it worth knowing.
Lewis Morris County Park itself was the first creation of the Morris County Park Commission, established in 1956, with the park dedicated in 1958. Prior to acquiring the original 350 acres, Sunrise Lake and the adjacent land situated the Jockey Hollow Club. A cultural center is housed in a building on park land with Morris County Park Commission offices, Morris County Heritage Commission offices, Park Police, and other Morris County offices, along with small display cases for the public.
To the south and west of Sunrise Lake, reaching Tempe Wick Road, the park includes Ledell’s Pond, and the history associated with it, some of that history visible as a lime kiln near the pond. The present residents of the Ledell house own the pond edge and mill foundation. Descendants of Dr. William Ledell acquired the property in the 1770’s. Dr. Ledell had come to Mendham in 1667 to pursue medical studies. Nearly a hundred years later, a few Revolutionary War soldiers encamped in the shadows of one of the relatively few houses in the region. Such historical details are significant and interesting, although not much seemed to happen before the Revolutionary War. But the most significant aspect of the park is its namesake, Lewis Morris, whom so few visitors know anything about.
Morris lived from 1671-1746 and was the Governor of the Royal Province of New Jersey from 1738 to his death, essentially New Jersey’s first governor. Upon his British Royal Appointment, New Jersey separated from New York’s governing rule. In the years preceding Morris’s appointment, the governor had resided in New York and looked after its interests before he did those of New Jersey. After Morris’s predecessor Governor William Cosby died in 1737, the movement for New Jersey to have its own governor had developed strongly.
Earlier, prior to 1702, New Jersey was not a royal province at all, regardless of any influence of New York. East Jersey and West Jersey were ruled by separate proprietary governments, governance by Aristocrats who owned large acreages of land: the Landed Aristocracy, or Landed Gentry. Deeds of lease and release granted by the Duke of York in 1664 gave territorial but not political rights to the people, which meant that most had comparatively few rights observed. Nonetheless, a handful of land proprietors exercised government in spite of this implied lack of legality, obviously well understood among people since faction and unrest tore at the political integrity of East and West Jersey, contentions raging essentially about the government’s illegitimacy.
Although both East and West Jersey surrendered to the English Crown in 1702, political struggle between court and country principles had been endemic to all of the American colonies, and lasted through and beyond Morris’s governorship. Court ideology meant the subordination of the colonies to England, respect for royal authority, and subjects’ duties to the Crown—a very alien state of affairs compared to what we enjoy now, and certainly not without suspicion against it at that time in the form of country ideology, which drove people to fight for their rights, drove them to greater colonial self-government which limited royal authority, and finally abolished royal authority altogether. Country ideology was the body of political ideas which gathered together the rebellion that finally broke out and secured our nation.
But Morris was not entirely on the side of country principles. He could not have been in order to secure New Jersey as its own Royal Province, which was a progressive step in the direction of American independence. This did secure more rights and better stability. But his career was tumultuously contentious as he alternated between these court and country principles. However, alternation was really the norm among colonial politicians before the Revolution. None of them were rebels who consistently advocated for colonial self-government and rights. What distinguished Morris from them was his personal intensity, unusual among politicians, which endorsed his stature as a distinguished leader, not only in New Jersey’s history, but that of the origins of our national history as well.
Although his changing positions expedited his personal advantage, these inconsistencies never excluded intellectual conviction in relation to political situations he faced. Much more than provisionally informed on the issues, he grappled with them in passionate depths. A learned man who wrote poetry and conversed about the classics and natural science with William Penn and a large number of other cultural luminaries, his personal convictions never shifted arbitrarily; their rationality held true as we will see at the essay’s end, even though his prejudice favoring those like himself with wealth and social standing biased his decisions.
His ownership included the 6200 acre Tintern tract at what is now Tinton Falls near the Garden State Parkway north of Asbury Park, a property used for smelting bog iron and for agriculture; the 1920 acre Morrisania estate in the section of New York which is now the Bronx; and a 1500 acre tract on Long Island. He absolutely believed that his own wealth and status gave him the right to act as a natural leader of society and pursued this ambition with single minded passion from the age of 20—his positions not handed to him on a platter—through many political stages, beginning as a member of the East Jersey Council. He did not waste time in roles of lesser importance and soon showed that he knew how to move on.
In 1696, proprietors from both East and West Jersey misinterpreted the Act of Trade to mean Scots could not hold office in the colonies. As a result, Jeremiah Basse replaced East Jersey Governor Andrew Hamilton, rude to say the least. A letter from the East Jersey proprietors to Hamilton informed him that Basse was coming to America with royal approval. After his arrival, however, Hamilton found that Basse had no royal credentials. Morris, thoroughly clued into the situation, dissented from the other council members’ decision to accept Basse as governor. Dismissed from council office, Morris’s steps didn’t trip for a moment. He knew what he was doing.
He opposed Basse. Both in writing and speech he kept his presence known, all the while becoming convinced through this very process that royal government must replace proprietary government in New Jersey and went to England to persuade the change. In July 1701 he approached the imperial administration with a letter of recommendation from William Penn, his mission to bring about the surrender of both proprietary governments—East and West Jersey—to the Crown, garnering strong support in his own favor during the process. He was still young and already winning his own and New Jersey’s future.
December 1st, 1702, Morris personally reviewed for the members of the East Jersey Board of Proprietors the terms and conditions of surrender. Dismissal from council to the surrender of East Jersey in less than six years, Morris had never been undone. The board members were overwhelmingly grateful to him, and reduced the quitrent (taxation) on his land to the payment of a pint of spring water a year, and also gave him Tintern. Ten years total into his career, Morris had triumphed.
Further offices included the salient examples of Morris being President of the New Jersey Council at 36, Representative in the New York Assembly at 39, Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court at 43, and finally Royal Governor of New Jersey at 66. Morris learned early in his career that English imperial administration played a central role in the colonial political system; good relations with it were decisive to determine local leaders’ gained or lost power in America. What we call connectivity he had to a very keen degree.
After a second trip to England at the age of 64, he soon received appointment as Royal Governor of New Jersey by the Imperial Administration of King George the Second. New Jersey subjects generally approved since Morris’s popularity had peaked because of his opposition to New York-New Jersey Governor William Cosby. Cosby had become involved in an inappropriate quarrel over salary. Being at the time Chief Justice, Morris boldly defied Cosby, and was suspended. This resulted in this second trip to England, where he took the case of his suspension on appeal. Before he returned, Cosby had died in 1737, and Morris assumed leadership of New Jersey almost to a hero’s welcome.
But people soon learned his singularity of mind against the views of others erupted in violent oppositions. Particularly his persistent chiding and quarreling with the Assembly weakened his popularity. This enormous presence of a man who had won such confidence in others by challenging unpopular executives with absolute conviction—had himself become one of the most unpopular.
As Governor of New Jersey, Morris had concluded that expanded powers of colonial assemblies were dangerous to royal authority. England warred with Spain and France. With this distraction overseas, Morris’s calls for radical parliamentary intervention failed. The earlier years of his career produced in him a major role in promoting the silent revolution of expanding provincial assembly powers, opposite proposals near the end of his career mandated in other forms after his death ironically influenced dissolution of the British imperial structure in America that Morris had hoped to save. But was it altogether by indirection that Lewis Morris played a key role in bringing about the American Revolution, provoking colonists with threats of royalist intervention? He died at the ripe age of 75 long before the struggle came to a head, so it seems useless to speculate upon had he lived longer.
Because he could have only known what he knew from the vantage of his ambition and unique sense of rightness, he saved New Jersey both from a corrupt proprietary form of government, and from a second rate relation to New York. If he truly believed in court principles in the end, it was a belief much more deeply informed than how these principles were outwardly designated as forms of royalist power. He was himself not a submissive man. He was principled in terms of reason rather than obedience to authority and twice triumphed over loss by what amounted to imposing the order of his own genius upon situations which, on the blank face of them among uncomprehending colonists, were completely hopeless.