Speaker offered new perspectives on controversial New Jersey governor
For nearly 300 years, rumors have led many to believe the “worst” governor of New Jersey, Lord Cornbury, robbed the treasury and paraded the streets of New York City dressed in women’s clothes.
Patricia Bonomi’s lecture, “Lord Cornbury: New Jersey’s First Royal Governor: Strong Administrator or Scoundrel?” took place yesterday in the Remigio U. Pane Room of Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.
Bonomi, a professor emerita of history at New York University, reassessed the image of Lord Cornbury and challenged political slanders against him.
Bonomi is an expert in United States colonial history and an award-winning author. Her publications include “The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America” and “A Factious People: Politics and Society in Colonial New York.”
Alexander Library hosted the lecture in conjunction with its fall 2014 exhibition, “New Jersey Before the Revolution: Land and People,” which began in October.
Fernanda Perrone, head of the Exhibitions Program at the Alexander Library, said the lecture honored New Jersey’s 350th anniversary.
The exhibition was designed to teach the Rutgers community and the public about the early history of the state.
The library has one of the largest local history collections in the country, which includes archives, photographs and documents.
“They are used by researchers throughout the world, as well as Rutgers students, faculties and members of the public,” Perrone said.
Cornbury, known as Edward Hyde and Viscount Cornbury in England, was born into a distinguished family, Bonomi said.
As an exceptionally qualified military leader, he was successful as governor of New York by strengthening its defenses.
Although initially praised when he was first appointed in 1702, Cornbury’s practices, which included strengthening the militia in New Jersey, drew vigorous opposition from the Quakers.
Although she originally believed the Lord Cornbury scandal, Bonomi began to question the claims against him when she received access to primary historical sources in England.
These records showed a positive attitude toward Cornbury, a sentiment that opposed the documents in America.
“When I reviewed records in America [about Cornbury], writers and even some professional historians picked up the story of Cornbury and expanded it with their own gloss with no compunction,” she said.
Bonomi quoted Oscar Wilde to explain how hearsay and slander can impact an individual’s legacy.
The reason why Cornbury was depicted as a corrupt governor stemmed from the attacks of his political enemies. They exchanged letters with officials in London, remonstrating and complaining against Cornbury in order to dispatch him back to London.
The most convincing piece of evidence from historians in terms of Cornbury’s cross-dressing was a portrait, which is currently on display at the New-York Historical Society. Some historians identified the unnamed woman in the portrait as Lord Cornbury, although that claim is constantly disputed.
Bonomi discussed her complete study of the portrait, including a radiography test she conducted, going through records and documents and providing a comparison between the other two sketches of Cornbury in England and Geneva, Switzerland.
“The examination showed that the portrait has no signature, date or name,” she said. “It was owned in 1796 — 73 years after Cornbury died — by the Peckington family, who was of no relation to Cornbury’s family and was quite distant from Cornbury’s homestead.”
During her investigation, Bonomi found evidence from the National Portrait Gallery in London, where two late 17th and early 18th century century English portraitures identified the origin of the painting.
The two artists agreed the so-called portrait of Lord Cornbury was, as Bonomi quoted their letter, “a perfectly straightforward provincial portrait of a rather playing woman circa 1710, likely not painted in the colonies, but by a English portrait painter who possibly worked in the north of England.”
Lewis Morris, a powerful landowner in New Jersey and New York, was one of Lord Cornbury’s political enemies whose letters accounted for most of the accusations against Cornbury. However, the protocol in Morris’s writing made Bonomi question the validity of the cross-dressing allegations.
“Prior to 1707, there was no rumor of him cross-dressing,” she said. “None of the attackers had any claim of personally witnessing him dressed as a women, with the phrase ‘eye or ear witness,’ which was the protocol of the time ... Lewis Morris used the phrase in another letter defending Robert Hunter, who was the New Jersey governor after Cornbury. Obviously he knew the protocol.”
Bonomi urged for an impartial and balanced understanding of the imperial age of American history, looking beyond records in the colonies and bringing in different perspectives from England.
Leslie Fishbein, associate professor in the Department of American Studies at Rutgers, attended the lecture and was Bonomi’s previous colleague.
“We served for decades on the editorial board of [the] New-York Historical Society,” she said. “I admire her intellectual contribution to our deliberations. She is insightful and articulate, and I enjoy the opportunity of seeing her in a different context.”