Opinion: Freeholders are part of ‘cancel culture’

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Freeholders, elected representatives who sit on Boards of Chosen Freeholders in New Jersey counties, rapidly became an endangered species when they were targeted by the cancel culture.

Until then, nobody much cared why this archaic term was perpetuated in New Jersey. The few who did discovered it to be a signpost of history and unique to New Jersey because this colony’s beginning was unlike any other. Freeholder, in consequence, held a different meaning here than any place else: the right of self-governance.

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The source of the opprobrium lately heaped on the term freeholder appears to be little more than the social mores of the 17th century. Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway has rightly pointed out it is not invested with “structural racism.” However, his suggestion it has a legacy of denying people the right to vote runs contrary to what John, Lord Berkeley, and Sir George Carteret instituted in 1664 with their “Concessions and Agreements” inviting all comers to settle New Jersey. An allotment of land was awaiting any freeman who swore allegiance to them and to the king, thereby making everyone a freeholder with a voice in selecting a council of 12 to advise the governor and in choosing from among themselves freeholders to represent them in an annual general assembly which would make necessary laws and lay equal taxes and assessments.

A wide-open invitation speedily attracted malcontents from colonies to the north and south as well as from overseas so that early New Jersey possessed a greater diversity of religions, cultures and languages than any of the others, a veritable recipe for internal strife.

Nevertheless, this assortment of peoples worked out differences among themselves, honored one another’s choice of delegate to the assembly and were of one mind when it came to insisting on rights granted to them. They dared go so far as to use those rights against Berkeley and Carteret. When the proprietors attempted to collect a traditional feudal levy known as quit rents, freeholders refused to pay, insisting this was a tax regardless of what name it had; and they were not liable for any tax other than what their assembly authorized. (All this a century before “Taxation Without Representation” became a war cry leading up to our war for independence.)

Freeholder intransigence persisted through twists and turns, ups and downs for 30 years until it resulted in dissolution of wholly unsatisfactory proprietary rule and reunification of East and West Jersey in 1702.

Over the 18th century, landholding as a determinant of voting rights was gradually supplanted by other measures of worth. Abandoning it altogether was proposed when our first NJ Constitution was drafted in 1776. But, no; freeholder was a talisman worthy of preserving whether or not its origins were remembered. Changes effected by the 1844 Constitution preserved use of the term freeholder only for county governing boards; since when it has served to affirm our right of self-government, a distinction New Jersey could rightly point to with pride.

To impulsively throw freeholders away is a great pity. To have done so by reason of spurious claims is sadder still.

Jessie Havens
Belle Mead

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