George Washington slept here. After the commander in chief was summoned to Princeton, New Jersey during the summer of 1783, and finding no rooms for rent, certainly not anything sizeable enough to serve his needs, Washington, his wife Martha, their servants and enslaved persons, and a small company of soldiers managed to find a place for their entourage. Congress had recently moved out of Philadelphia to Princeton, taking all of the available rooms in town. It had relocated to avoid being stormed by angry Pennsylvanian soldiers demanding back pay for their service during the War for Independence. With New Jersey’s promise of protection, Congress was able to continue meeting uninterrupted by threats of mob violence.
The country property that the general took over for his final headquarters was not far from Princeton. Its name was Rockingham. It was the perfect place for a little R&R while he and the Congress awaited the signed Treaty of Paris, formally ending the Revolutionary War.
Today, Rockingham is not where it used to be. Like many historic buildings, the house has moved. In this case, three times. But it is not too far from its original location, and is a worthy place for a visit, when open.
The historic home and original grounds had an eventful history even before Washington found it. The property in New Jersey located at Rocky Hill near the Millstone River was owned by John Berrien, a judge and trustee for Princeton’s College of New Jersey. Berrien, it turns out, drowned in the nearby river. On purpose. According to some contemporary accounts, he invited friends to the farm to witness his will and then surprised them all by jumping into the deepest part of the water. Why he did this is not really known, though various explanations have been offered. Afterward, the judge’s widow, Margaret, moved into Princeton and put the place up for sale, making it an available option for Washington and his party to rent. (Margaret would move back to Rockingham and live there for a number of years after it didn’t sell).
While Congress continued meeting at the college’s once-battled-scarred Nassau Hall, Washington began composing farewell addresses for his officers and Congress in the fall of 1783 and entertained a parade of visitors at Rockingham. Among them were James Madison and Robert Morris. Before long, Martha took her leave and returned to their farm at Mount Vernon. Longing to do the same, Washington waited.
One guest he invited for a visit was Thomas Paine. Though Paine had given away or refused to accept most of his earnings from his prolific writings in support of the Revolutionary War, at its end he found himself destitute and thought he was entitled to something for his efforts. So, Paine wrote to Washington seeking help with his petitions to Congress for some form of remuneration. Congress had been dragging its feet while considering Paine’s pleas.
Late in the summer, Washington replied in a letter to Paine, inviting him to come to Rockingham. “I shall be exceedingly happy to see you.” He promised to help with Paine’s requests. Paine arrived in October. With plenty of time on their hands, the two decided to investigate a mystery on the Millstone. Years before, Washington had heard a story from Benjamin Franklin about a river that sometimes “caught fire” in the area. So, this was as good a time as any to settle the argument about what might cause such a phenomenon.
Washington thought that “bituminous matter” arose to the surface after the bottom of the river was disturbed. That is what likely caught fire. Paine, on the other hand, “supposed that a quantity of inflammable air was let loose, which ascended through the water and took fire above the surface of the water.” So, Washington proposed an experiment.
Paine recalled what happened in a piece he wrote later offering his thoughts on the cause of Yellow Fever. After heading down to the Millstone to a scow that had been secured for the purpose of the experiment, “three or four soldiers with poles, were put on board . . . General Washington placed himself at one end of the scow and I at the other; each of us had a roll of cartridge paper, which we lighted and held over the water two or three inches from the surface when the soldiers began disturbing the bottom of the river with the poles.”
What happened next settled the argument according to Paine: “I saw the fire take from General Washington’s light and descend from thence to the surface of the water, in a similar manner as when a lighted candle is held so as to touch the smoke of a candle just blown out the smoke will take fire and the fire will descend and light up the candle.” Paine won. A few years ago, Washington and Paine’s experiment was repeated, this time by a group of scientists from Rutgers University who duplicated the experiment on the Millstone and confirmed that methane gas bubbling up to the water’s surface could indeed ignite.
Both founders were no strangers to scientific thinking, though neither had much of a formal education. Before emigrating to America in 1774, Paine as a young man attended numerous lectures in natural philosophy in London. He spent years after the American Revolution designing and seeking patents, both in America and then in Europe, for an iron bridge he invented, including building several working models. For his part, Washington experimented in various scientific ways to improve productivity on his farm and, of course, built his own distillery—which along with a grist mill still functions today (when open) and produces Washington’s recipe for rye whiskey and other related products for sale at Mt. Vernon.
On the last day of October, the signed treaty from France arrived and Washington soon left Rockingham in early November for New York City.
Historians and Washington biographers have paid little, if any, attention to the general’s downtime at Rockingham. But Washington’s time at Rockingham and his use of it adds more dimension to what is already known about his character. For one thing, it confirmed that Washington had very little tolerance for idleness. Though he was impatient while waiting for his term of service in the army to end, he made the most of his time. Rockingham also provided an early sign that he had no ambition, at least at the moment, in parlaying his overall war leadership success and popularity into a higher public service role.
Time and again, however, Washington was called on to serve in a leadership role, just as he was when John Adams nominated the Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress in 1775 to be the commander in chief of the Continental Army and, years after Washington’s retirement from public affairs, appointed him once again during the Quasi-War with France to command a new national army. But Adams soon settled that “partial war” diplomatically and Washington lived out his final days at Mount Vernon. Between those appointments, he served as president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and, of course, two terms as President of the United States before famously declining a certain third term, so he could return once again to his farm on the Potomac.
But 1783 was a year for reflection and writing for the commander in chief. Historian Joseph Ellis called the period an “introspective interlude” for him.While at Rockingham, though anxious to go home, Washington maintained important relationships, wrote thoughtful addresses, conducted scientific experiments and simply entertained many friends and visitors.
As for Paine, he finally obtained some compensation from Congress and a confiscated Tory farm from the state of New York in recognition of his public service. And as for Rockingham, Margaret Berrien finally sold the property and it passed on to posterity.
Rockingham Historic Site, www.rockingham.net.
“George Washington to Thomas Paine, September 10, 1783,” American Memory, George Washington Papers at 1741-1790, Series 4, General Correspondence, 1697-1799, memory.loc.gov.
Thomas Paine, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols., edited by Philip S. Foner (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), 2: 1063. The full article on Yellow Fever may also be found online at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, thomaspaine.org/essays/other/the-cause-of-the-yellow-fever.html.
Doug Eveleigh, “George Washington, Scientist,” Chemical & Engineering News, vol. 92 Issue 38, 2, (September 22, 2014), 2, cen.acs.org/articles/92/i38/George-Washington-Scientist.html.