Forget all that stuff about the separation of church and state.
On a drizzly Fourth of July, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown–where George Washington himself once took communion–was the perfect place to renew our national vows of Independence.
“HUZZAH! HUZZAH! HUZZAH!” roared the crowd at the conclusion of National Park Service Ranger Tom Winslow’s fiery recitation of Tom Jefferson’s greatest work.
Photos by Kevin Coughlin. Please click icon below for captions.
Locally, it is a much-anticipated annual performance, like Santa’s descent from the Century 21 roof.
And now it’s likely to become a summer tradition for the Harpsters, a Metuchen family new to Morristown’s “Revolutionary Times” ceremonies.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” said Bruce Harpster, who enjoyed the theatricality of the reading, replete with audience boos and hisses whenever King George’s name was invoked. “You really had a sense of how profound it might have been back then.”
“We were looking for something historical to do on the Fourth of July,” added Mary Harpster, who was flanked by her children, Jack, 19, and Sally, 14. “I knew there were a lot of historical Revolutionary War things here, but I hadn’t really thought much about Morris County until now. I like it. I think there’s a lot I’d like to explore. I’m very interested in the national parks, and doing the walking tour.”
Which is precisely the response desired by the Morris County Tourism Bureau and the Crossroads of the American Revolution Association.
“It exceeded my expectations. This demonstrated people’s desire to get in touch with their patriotism, despite the challenges. The venue was authentic, and people felt that authenticity,” said Morris Tourism Director Leslie Bensley.
She spent several anxious days tracking forecasts for Hurricane Arthur before finally making the hard decision to move the ceremonies from the historic Morristown Green into the historic Presbyterian Church across the street.
The traditional “feu de joie” musket volley was replaced by an interactive version, with Park Ranger Eric Olsen dashing amongst the pews of the vast sanctuary exhorting hundreds of spectators to fire verbal “BANGS!” in sequence.
Audience participation continued with Four Old Parts, a barbershop quartet, leading a Happy Birthday sing-along for New Jersey, celebrating its 350th anniversary this year.
The state historical commission designated Friday’s festivities in Morristown as the “Official Independence Day Liberty Event” for the anniversary.
We’re not sure what that means, but it certainly sounds like a big deal. Guests scarfed down red-white-and-blue cupcakes, in lieu of a birthday cake.
Then the party shifted to Fort Nonsense, a Morristown hilltop lookout post for Washington’s soldiers during the Revolution.
Legend suggests the name came from disgruntled troops, who fancied construction of the redoubt as nothing more than busy work.
But the perch afforded invaluable views toward New York and New Brunswick; any British advances would have been noticed with ample warning time, Eric Olsen told listeners huddling under umbrellas.
Officials cut a ribbon to commemorate upgrades performed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Downed trees were cleared and new benches, picnic tables and signs were installed, with $35,000 from the Washington Association of New Jersey.
“There was a huge amount of devastation” from the storm, said Eileen Cameron, association president.
Fort Nonsense is the least-known asset of the Morristown National Historical Park. The Park Service hopes to change that.
“It’s owned by the American people. We want them to use it,” said Tom Ross, the park’s new superintendent. “This is a real oasis in the center of an urban environment.”
Mayor Tim Dougherty said the day’s events were a proud reminder of Morristown’s vital role in American Liberty. He lauded the Washington Association for funding the Fort Nonsense renovations. And he found the reading of the 1776 Declaration especially moving.
“The words rang true today as they did then, when it comes to holding the people we put in charge accountable,” the Mayor said.