Riots and rough justice in Colonial America: the great escape of Nehemiah Baldwin
To celebrate the publication of module IV of Colonial America: Legislation and Politics in the Colonies earlier this week I wanted to highlight one of my favourite documents from the collection. The New Jersey: Minutes of Council in Assembly, January-February 1748 may not have the most intriguing of titles but, within âa brief state of facts concerning the riots and insurrections in New Jerseyâ three years earlier, dedicated readers are rewarded with dramatic details of Nehemiah Baldwin's hearing.
On the 16th of January 1745 one of âtwenty sevenâŠknown rioters and disturbers of the Kingâs Peaceâ, Nehemiah Baldwin, was brought before the Supreme Court in New Jersey to outline his involvement in New Jersey land riots and to request bail. But whilst the steady hand recording this hearing gives no indication of the dramatic events that came to pass, the minutes themselves capture all the action!
After the accusations brought against Baldwin and his coconspirators are listed at some length, apparently out of nowhere, men carrying Baldwin before the Justice of the Supreme Court âwere assaulted by a great number of men armed with clubs and other weapons, who, in a most violent manner, rescued and carried away the prisonerâ.
But the violence does not end there as, Amos Roberts, the âprinciple leading man among the common disturbersâ continues to cause chaos in the court house. But how, you might ask, was the ring-leader identified during all this commotion? He was on a horse of course! The author of this account records Roberts having âat that time mounted his horse and called out âThose who are on my list follow which all or the greatest part accordingly did, being then about three hundred in numberâ. Roberts and his accomplices then proceed âarmed as beforeâ to the goal in âa violent manner and having beat and broke through the guard and struck the Sheriff several blows, they broke open the goal doors, and took from thence the two prisoners [connected to Baldwin] and one other confined for debtâ.
These âdisturbersâ appear to get away with their great escape and it was two months before an Act for Preventing Tumults and Riotous Assemblies was eventually passed. But it was too little too late, and the colonists of New Jersey remained quite literally up-in-arms for several years, waging their war for land which, under English law, they could not own and was instead granted to the British gentry.
These minutes offer readers a glimpse into the riots and rough justice of the colonial court rooms in this period, and when explored alongside the series of correspondence, legal reports, and assembly papers also published in Colonial America: Legislation and Politics in the Colonies, build a comprehensive picture of the coloniesâ legislative and political evolution.