The Jersey attitude, characterized by an aggressive, loud, in-your-face, quick-to-react demeanor, is best understood in psychological terms. It’s the product of Jersey’s unhappy childhood and unsuccessful adolescence, both marked by a rivalry with New York (state and city) that began in Colonial times and continues today.
This competition has resulted in interminable squabbling and child-like behavior on both sides over issues both trivial and grave. And like any insecure adolescent, New Jersey developed a chip on its shoulder.
The latest manifestation of the matter comes in the form of the New Jersey quarter dollar, to be released Aug. 28 as part of the U.S. Mint’s America the Beautiful Quarters Program. There was serious contention over the coin’s reverse (tails side) design. The Garden State wanted the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on it. New York objected strenuously.
Eventually, the Mint’s selection committee allowed the depiction of Ellis Island, provided the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline were not on the coin.
So continues a combat whose roots are in Colonial soil.
Back then, New York desired to control all maritime activity in the Hudson Harbor. New Jersey’s interests took a beating at every turn, as a colony, under the Articles of Confederation, and in the early Republic.
Lots of resentment built up in New Jersey, while more than a smidgen of contempt colored New York’s view of its trans-Hudson neighbor (still the case today).
Perhaps Alexander Hamilton could have given New Jersey a leg up with his little-known plan to build a New York-rivaling port at Jersey City but, alas, he was killed by Aaron Burr, and the plan died with him.
Like many long-suffering victims, Jersey finally stood up and went to court. The famous U.S. Supreme Court case Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824 overturned New York’s monopoly over Hudson Harbor maritime business, ruling that only the federal government could regulate interstate commerce. One result of the case was the two states drawing a boundary between them, which by a compact signed in 1834, was set at the mid-point of the Hudson River.
But a curious thing happened. Bedloe’s Island (modern Liberty Island) and Ellis Island were placed under New York “jurisdiction” so it could stop smuggling and piracy. The word “sovereignty” was not used.
Generations later, these old issues would all resurface in modern form, with New York pitted against a stronger, more self-assured New Jersey, portrayed in popular culture (if not always flatteringly) by the likes of John Travolta in “Grease,” Tony Soprano, Gov. Chris Christie, and yes, even Snooki and her “Jersey Shore” cast mates.
The chip on my New Jersey shoulders was still quite small when in 1976, after many historians decided the first baseball game had been played in Hoboken, N.J., I helped organize a re-enactment game during which Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, then with the MLB commissioner’s office, attended and declared Hoboken the birthplace of baseball. The city put up a big plaque commemorating the event. Later, New York began issuing license plates (it still does) with the slogan “Birthplace of Baseball.”
Next, in 1986, with a much larger chip on my shoulder, I began working with N.J. Congressman Frank Guarini, the motivating force behind a suit to re-establish New Jersey sovereignty over Liberty and Ellis Islands. I reviewed the 1834 compact and found no clear reference to New York sovereignty over the islands, just “jurisdiction.” I prepared testimony for a congressional committee examining the question.
Disappointingly, the matter appeared dead when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case. But in 1994, I was startled to learn a new case with New Jersey seeking sovereignty over Ellis Island had been accepted by the high court.
I volunteered several of my student assistants to do needed research for the state attorney general’s office. And the final decision, delivered in 1998, was stunning: New Jersey owned 24.2 of the 27.5 acres of the modern island by virtue of its having used landfill to extend the original New York-held island! From the steps of the Supreme Court building, N.J. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman exulted that her state couldn’t be pushed around anymore.
And hence, Ellis Island’s on our quarter.
Who knows where the Hudson River rivalry and Jersey style will take us next. Both states offer economic incentives to lure businesses. And Jersey has built what’s billed as “affordable” luxury riverfront housing to entice New Yorkers.
This continuing conflict is more than a two-bit story, and you can get a piece of it starting this month. Heads or tails, with these two bits, you’ll have a tale to tell.
Silvio Laccetti is a columnist and retired professor of history at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has published two books about New Jersey public policy.