Patriot Privateer: The Life & Times of Ebenezer Tucker, a biography Forthcoming Spring 2015
“The Lost Speech of Ebenezer Tucker to Congress”
published as a four part series in The Asbury Park Press
by Jim Blackburn
It has been almost 170 years since Ebenezer Tucker passed away in 1845, a few years shy of ninety, in the town that bears his name and in which he spent a majority of those many years. Being born during the French and Indian War, he lived a long life by early American standards, fighting in the Revolutionary War as a young man, and then serving civically with other founding fathers in the early years of the fledgling republic they had helped forge. Mr. Tucker served as postmaster of Tuckerton, county freeholder, judge of the court of common pleas and for the orphan’s court, and was elected to Congress twice (1825-1829). He was also a successful merchant, land speculator, and shipbuilder. He was by all his accomplishments in various fields a renaissance man of the American enlightenment, a category that many a founding father falls under.
Though he was such a prominent citizen locally and nationally, exchanging letters with George Washington in 1790 during his first term as the first president of the United States, the historical paper trail relating to Mr. Tucker is unfortunately slim. It is then fortune that a speech made by Ebenezer Tucker has been found in the Miscellaneous Pamphlet Collection at the Library of Congress. The document is 8 pages of then Representative Tucker speaking on the floor of Congress, and is titled “Remarks of Mr. Tucker, of New Jersey: House of Representatives, May 7, 1828.” There are also other sources from which to gain a better understanding of the person he was, and the times in which he served as a member of Congress.
Ebenezer Tucker’s father, Reuben Tucker, moved down from Orange County, NY to Little Egg Harbor in 1745 purchasing what was known then as Short Beach, which would later be renamed Tucker’s Island. A place that would turn into the first resort area on the New Jersey shore, but would unfortunately sink into the sea in the early half of the twentieth century. It was on Tucker’s Island that Ebenezer Tucker was born in 1758. It has been rumored that he fought at the Battle of Long Island in that famous year of 1776 with General George Washington, though Mr. Tucker was definitely a patriot privateer out of Little Egg Harbor, an area the British called a “Nest of Rebel pirates!” His letter of marque issued directly by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to operate his ship the “Kitty.”
Ebenezer Tucker is described by nineteenth century historian Leah Blackman in her book The History of Little Egg Harbor as “a handsome man and was distinguished for his sociality and gentlemanly deportment, having the style of manners and address peculiar to the old school of aristocratic gentleman.” This no doubt reflects Reuben Tucker’s ability to afford his son a good, albeit provincial education for the times. Meaning, he did not study in Europe, particularly in England for law which was one of his many professions. But most likely he attended the common schools and was also privately tutored, before being apprenticed to a lawyer or law firm in the Philadelphia area. His education remains truly unknown, but he was a successful lawyer and judge, and his remarks to Congress show a highly intelligent and reasonable character.
“The Journal of Sarah Thomson” which is housed in the Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University, describes the vacation of a young woman who came with her mother and brother in the summer of 1809 to visit the family of then Judge Ebenezer Tucker. It also confirms first hand many of the details Leah Blackman relates. On Thursday, June 22, 1809 Sarah Thomson describes having dinner with the Tucker family, and sits near the “Judg” himself which she mentions as “monstrously polite.” The word monstrously did not have as much of the negative connotation as it does today; in the time of Sarah Thomson it meant Mr. Tucker was immensely polite or extraordinarily great in his manners. The journal also depicts the Tuckerton celebration of the Fourth of July in 1809, as well as a trip to Tucker’s Island, and is generally insightful to the everyday life of that era. Sarah Thomson also mentions the dancing that often took place at night, and relates how “the Judg can tire us all out at dancing.”
From these sources can be drawn an outline of who Ebenezer Tucker was, who in both healthy body and mind at the age of around seventy slowly but confidently walked up to the podium to address Congress on May 7, 1828. In the audience could have been future presidents James K. Polk and James Buchanan who were House members, as well as Davy Crockett representing Tennessee. It does not seem as though Mr. Tucker planned to give a speech that day, as he was not an outspoken member of Congress, and before finding this transcript it was thought that he never spoke on the House floor.
(Letter of Ebenezer Tucker to George Washington - January 18, 1790)
The following is directly from the “Remarks of Mr. Tucker of New Jersey to the House of Representatives.” Anything spoken by Ebenezer Tucker himself is in italics to highlight his speech: “The bill on the floor was for the relief of the surviving officers of the Revolutionary War being under consideration in Committee of the whole on the state of the Union – Mr. Tucker, of N.J. addressed the Committee, as follows:
I did not intend to say a single word upon the subject before the Committee, inasmuch as the cause of that illustrious band of heroes, the Revolutionary officers, has been so ably and zealously portrayed by honorable gentleman, at the last and present session, that little remains for the most intelligent to add. It may therefore be thought arrogant in me to attempt to advocate or elucidate their claim, after such displays of eloquence in their most righteous and just cause. I shall therefore only briefly touch upon a point… It is the case of Captain Cyrus Dehart, of New Jersey, who served during the Revolutionary war—and for the sake of argument, I will admit that he was settled with and paid every thing that was promised him by the various resolutions of the Confederation, down to the year 1783, when the army was disbanded.
I shall lay out of the question too, all losses by depreciations of the currency and certificates with which he was paid; unparalleled sacrifices and sufferings of hunger and cold, and privations of every sort, during a seven years’ doubtful and sanguinary war, and proceed briefly to the basis on which, as matter of legal right, the claim rests.”
What Ebenezer Tucker is describing here is that in lieu of being paid in the unstable currency available at the end of the War for Independence, the Continental officers agreed to be paid in “a certificate for their respective dues, bearing interest at six percent, payable annually.” The problem being that there was no federal government to pay the interest. This was due to the often overlooked period from 1783 to 1789 when the states were loosely held together by the Articles of Confederation. The lack of stable currency and basic government in general, would lead to the writing of the Federalist Papers in a push for a centralized federal government and bank, which culminated in the ratification of the Constitution. The First Bank of the United States would not be chartered till 1791, which Mr. Tucker cites the “6th article of the Constitution of the United States reads as follows: All debts contracted, and engagements entered into before the adoption of this constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this constitution as under the confederation.” In short, what Mr. Tucker is arguing for is the payment of lost interest due the Revolutionary War officers that was not paid them for about eight years, a period from the end of the war to the founding of the first national bank.
(Original text of the Federalist Papers, also known as The Federalist)
Many Revolutionary War veterans were already receiving some sort of benefits by this time, as the Pension Act of 1818 provided lifetime pensions at half pay of the rank held during the war, provided they had served at least nine months in the Continental Army. By 1828, nearly forty-five years after the end of the war there were only “240 officers now living” that would receive the late interest payment supported by Mr. Tucker. Also, the cost overall subsequently being low due to the fact that many of the surviving officers were young and a majority were of a low rank during the war.
Captain Cyrus Dehart, who is cited as an example in the speech, was one of three brothers who all served in the Continental Army from Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Cyrus Dehart was born the same year as Ebenezer Tucker in 1758, and enlisted in the 1st New Jersey as an ensign. During the war Mr. Dehart would be promoted from ensign to lieutenant, then paymaster, Captain-Lieutenant, and before the end of the war reaching the rank of Captain. Mr. Dehart would pass away three years after he was included in Mr. Tucker’s speech in 1831. As it is stated in Ebenezer Tucker’s own obituary, “He represented New Jersey in Congress with great ability and fidelity,” and he does so in this instance by representing the interests of a veteran from his home state. But, the speech also gave Mr. Tucker an opportunity to speak with fidelity, meaning loyalty to a cause, on the American Revolution of which he as well as many in the town named after him, took an active role.
How then, I ask can you escape paying this balance? Will you tell me, that this vast empire is unable to pay her legal and just debts? This you cannot say, inasmuch as your resources are ample: and will you under all the circumstances of the case, submit to the humiliating dilemma, and establish the fact, that the high minded sons of Revolutionary heroes of your country, shall suffer those aged heroes to pine in penury, in want, and depart from the stage of action, creditors of the United States? Surely not…
But permit me to remind the honorable gentleman of the lowering times that tried men’s souls; when the States hung upon those officers for years, in awful suspense; when the fate of this empire was suspended as it were by a brittle thread; and had it been severed as was intended by the British ministry, and their hordes of mercenary troops, and subsidized Hessians which infested your shores, your fate was inevitably sealed; and you must have again returned to Colonial bondage and degradation, while your Hancocks, your Adams’s, your Franklins, your Carrolls, and your Jeffersons, with your Washington and his brave compeers, according to General Gage, were destined to the cord [the punishment for treason to the Crown was death by hanging, and anyone who supported the American cause was considered a traitor to the British]. But those undaunted heroes, with Washington for their leader, though menaced with the halter, laid their sabres at the root of the tree, and with a hard stroke, and a heavy stroke, and a stroke altogether, they fell the royal oak, and snatched from the British lion the brightest gem of his crown.
(map - “The American Revolution in New Jersey”)
The Capitol Building, circa 1828
Southern New Jersey is often not mentioned in the histories concerning the Revolutionary War, but the area between the patriot capital of Philadelphia and the British headquarters in New York was ground to a hive of activity during the conflict for both sides. And the patriot privateers played just as vital a role in helping win the war for America, as no coast was more dangerous to British ships then that of New Jersey. The hub of privateering in the state was Little Egg Harbor, which was much larger then as it contained Tuckerton, Bass River, and stretched out even to Tucker’s Island.
Leah Blackman writes in another of her works, Old Times: Country Life in Little Egg Harbor Fifty Years Ago, that “Little Egg Harbor, during the Revolution, was the resort of a large number of privateersmen, and often there were as many as thirty or more of their armed vessels with their anchors resting in the water of the harbor at a time; and as it is said, these men did great service in the cause of liberty, by capturing merchantmen, and intercepting the transports of the British.” Often the captured property was brought up the Mullica River, and then taken by wagon to help supply the American cause in Philadelphia.
This would lead the British, with the aid of loyalists, to the Battle of Chestnut Neck in 1778, in an attempt to strike back at the privateers. The British effort failed, but part of this battle is called the Affair at Little Egg Harbor, where 50 sleeping Americans soldiers were given no quarter by the bayonets of 250 British and loyalist troops. Pulaski’s Monument, erected by the Sons of the Cincinnati (a society made up of descendants of Continental Army officers), marks the spot of this massacre in Little Egg Harbor. Loyalist groups and soldiers were often more violent than their British allies, and their participation made the conflict both a civil war as well as one for independence.
It was the Associated Loyalists headed by Benjamin Franklin’s son, William Franklin, who hung Joshua Huddy without trial in 1782. This was especially cruel since this was after the surrender of the British at Yorktown, and the inevitability of American independence was being recognized by both the British and American leaders. Benjamin Franklin would disown his only son, who had acted as royal governor for New Jersey before the start of the war, stating in his will that “the part he acted against me in the late War, which is of public Notoriety, will account for me leaving him no more of an Estate he endeavored to deprive me of.”
Loyalists were a very real danger during Mr. Tucker’s time as a privateer in Little Egg Harbor, and the story of the son of Benjamin Franklin highlights how the war divided families as well as nations. Ebenezer Tucker’s only brother, Stephen Tucker, was a loyalist and at the end of the war took refuge in Nova Scotia, never to return. One can only guess at the personal price paid by the Revolutionary generation. The following are the closing remarks of the speech made by the honorable Mr. Tucker, representing his home state of New Jersey and always the town that bears his name.
I venture to predict that, although the splendid flinty-marble columns which support that lofty dome, and ornaments this hall, may fall into decay, the sweet and cheering recollections of their meritorious services and brilliant achievements will live forever. It is an old adage, that although justice may sleep, she is always sure. I can only say that as it respects the Revolutionary officers, she has slumbered for a long time; but I trust the hour is at hand when she will start from her slumbers… Sir, so well am I satisfied of the justice and equity of this claim, that rather than record my name against it, I would adopt the language of one of old, let me be anathema maranatha [this is a biblical term, which is a mixture of ancient Greek meaning cursed by God].
Although the bill before you does not give the officers that which is justly their due, yet I will take it as the man takes his wife, better for worse. Inasmuch as any amendment will be death to the bill; I hope, therefore, that no amendment will be agreed to. One word more and I have done: what little you do then, in behalf of those aged veterans, now bending under the hand of time, do quickly: time is flying, and life is on the wing. Do you not, almost weekly, hear the death-knell of one and another of those saviors of your country? And believe me, you will not long have the opportunity of refunding any part of their just dues to the relief of their wants, inasmuch as in a few years they will, each and all, be cut down by the all devouring scythe of time, and landed at that bourne from whence no traveller returns.
A few days later the “Act of May 15, 1828” was passed in Congress, which did not pay back the interest argued for by Mr. Tucker but instead went beyond. The act granted full pay by rank to those who were on half pay pensions, not to exceed the pay of a captain, which would have probably been agreeable to Captain Cyrus Dehart.
(Complete transcript - Remarks of Mr. Tucker, of New Jersey: House of Representatives, May 7, 1828)
Obelisk marking Ebenezer Tucker’s grave,
Old Methodist Cemetery, Tuckerton NJ.