How a Draft of the Constitution Ended Up in a Drawer in Trenton, N.J.

The 13th royal governor of colonial New Jersey was a Philadelphia-born, London-schooled lawyer whose appointment was solemnized by an elaborate document that bore the seal of King George III. The governor’s name was both familiar and surprising: “Our Trusty and Welbeloved William Franklin,” is how the king’s 1763 commission described him, Benjamin’s son.

In ornate script and orotund language, across three pages of parchment, the commission expressed “especial Trust and Confidence in the Prudence, Courage and Loyalty” of William Franklin and enumerated his powers to preside as an agent of the crown over the colony, which he did, until 1776, when his father was among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the document that fired him.

“He didn’t know he’d be our last royal governor,” Joseph Klett said as he opened a drawer in a vault in Trenton, where he works as the director of the state archives. “William Franklin was exiled to England for the rest of his life, and he brought this document with him.”

Franklin’s royal commission sits in climate-controlled darkness, a story without an audience, locked away in an anonymous office building down the block from the New Jersey State House. The king, the founders, loyalists, patriots, the revolution, the internecine warfare within the colonies and even within families — the epic tale of the nation’s birth runs through every filigreed line in a document that was last displayed in public for a single day more than a decade ago.

New Jersey is a dense, forgetful state that has paved over, knocked over or simply passed over much of its rich revolutionary history. It lacks a fixed center of gravity like Boston, Philadelphia or Williamsburg, where its treasures might be displayed and its story told.

Stored in the same drawer in the vault is a companion to the royal commission: the original, ink-blotched, handwritten state constitution signed on July 2, 1776, declaring New Jersey’s independence from Great Britain and rejecting the authority of Governor Franklin, who had already been arrested.

Joseph Klett, the director of the state archives, and Sally Lane, the board chairwoman of a revolutionary history nonprofit group, display the William Franklin Royal Governor commission. Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

In the vault, Mr. Klett kept opening drawers to display one priceless artifact after another.

“This is our birth certificate,” he said, showing the 1664 parchment from James, Duke of York (later King James II) granting the territory of New Jersey to Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret.

He pulled out what looked like an oversize silver coin. “One of the first orders of business in 1776 was to create the state seal,” he said, holding the original cast that was used to stamp the official documents of the new state, pointing out the forward-facing helmet, a symbol of self-government and independence from Great Britain.

“There are only 13 copies of this,” he said, opening another drawer. It was the first printing of the U.S. Constitution, another copy of which sold at auction last November for $43.2 million.

In another flat file was a document from 1804, immediately recognizable to any fan of “Hamilton”: “The State of New Jersey v. Aaron Burr: Indictment for Murder.”

“It gets a little gory,” Mr. Klett said as he read how the “leaden ball” from a “pistol of the Value of five dollars” left a wound four inches deep and two inches wide in “the right side of the belly of the said Alexander” — that would be Hamilton — “near the short ribs.”

New Jersey lacks a fixed center like Boston or Philadelphia, where its historical treasures might be displayed and its story told.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

But with so many riches, why doesn’t New Jersey treat its history with the same reverence as, say, Massachusetts? “Or Pennsylvania, or Delaware, or Maryland, or New York?” Mark Lender asked. An emeritus history professor at Kean University in Union, N.J., he “lived in the archives,” he said, when he was a doctoral student at Rutgers University. His dissertation became the first of his many books about Revolutionary New Jersey.

“More of the war was fought in New Jersey than in any other state — some 600, maybe more, military incidents between 1775 and 1783,” Professor Lender said. “Consider that you had the de facto rebel capital in Philadelphia and the chief British garrison in New York: The only way these guys could get at each other was to go through New Jersey. Something was going on somewhere every week, and you could never tell when it was going to hit you.”

A problem facing New Jersey is that all those somewheres are everywhere across the state, not concentrated in tourist-friendly clusters, as they are in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. You can walk the Freedom Trail in Boston or visit Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, but to learn about New Jersey’s role in the revolution, you have to drive from one end of the state to the other.

“We may know how it happened in our own little area, but we don’t know how it was connected to things that happened in the rest of the state,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and a former board chair of Crossroads of the American Revolution, a nonprofit group that was formed 20 years ago to highlight this rich and complex chapter in New Jersey history. His own little area was near his boyhood home in Gloucester County: Red Bank Battlefield along the Delaware River. “We have never told this story from a state perspective,” he said.

New Jersey’s Revolutionary War sites — from George Washington’s winter encampment in Morristown (a national park) to small local museums staffed one Sunday a month by volunteers — are loosely joined in what the federal government designated in 2006 as the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, the only one of the 55 national heritage areas dedicated to the revolution. The Crossroads nonprofit was named by the state to manage the heritage area. In advance of the 250th anniversary, the state paired Crossroads with the New Jersey Historical Commission in a private-public partnership to plan how to mark it.

Mr. Klett searches for the Aaron Burr indictment, a document from 1804.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times
The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

But “semiquincentennial” is harder to say than “bicentennial,” and harder to sell. Crossroads requested $46 million in the most recent state budget for Revolutionary War sites; the state appropriated $25 million. No money was allotted for the Revolutionary War Experience Center the group has proposed for the State House grounds — a central hub that would direct visitors to the historic sites around the state and could display a rotating selection of items from the archives, which last had a public display area in the 1970s and is mostly frequented now by genealogists and historians.

“These are such insane assets that almost no one has seen,” said Sally Lane, the board chairwoman of Crossroads who was visiting the vault with Mr. Klett. “The archives is a treasure trove, and it’s filled to the brim. We have riches beyond belief that we could keep showing people. It’s a lost opportunity.”

Mr. Klett kept opening drawer after drawer — the 1677 charter of the Quaker colony in West Jersey; New Jersey’s parchment copy of the U.S. Bill of Rights; the minutes of the 1787 convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution; a copy of laws passed by Congress that was sent to New Jersey and signed by the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.

And what’s in the vault is just a minuscule fraction of what’s in 40,000 cubic feet of storage space across the two floors of the archives — the documents, deeds, manuscripts, maps, photos and every other species of record that tell stories about every facet of the state’s history. Mr. Klett slid the last drawer back into place, switched off the light and closed the heavy door, locking away Franklin’s royal commission and all its companion treasures in their dark and silent home.

“People might say, ‘Nobody cares about the Revolutionary War,’ but it’s in the news every day, with all these discussions of democracy here, and what did the Founding Fathers mean?” Ms. Lane said. “The unfinished promise of the American Revolution is what we’re all contending with.”

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