Few things are more New Jersey than complaining about New Jersey, this is a fact. July 27 celebrates National New Jersey Day, however, where people can (and should) take a moment to reflect on the Garden State, its history and achievements, and why a little over nine million people call this vaguely-peanut-shaped state home, despite their grumblings.
The land of New Jersey has its origins with the Lenape people of the Delaware nation. The first brush with Europeans came in the 1520s when Giovanni de Verrazano, sailing for the King of France to find a sea route to Asia, sailed past the Jersey Shore, charting the eastern seaboard. It later became part of New Netherland when the English navigator Henry Hudson explored and claimed the area for the Dutch. Shortly after the first New Jersey settlement of Bergen was established by the Dutch, the colony of New Netherland was captured by the English. New York and New Jersey were thus born. The influence of the Dutch has waned over the years as new groups of migrants have come and left their own impressions on New Jersey, but the original European settlers’ footprints are seen in so many names. Up until the early 20th Century, Dutch was still a commonly spoken household language in northern New Jersey.
New Jersey as a state was born in war. Known as the “Crossroads of the Revolution”, the victory at the Battle of Trenton saved George Washington’s army from disintegration and, with it, the practical idea of American independence. Another victory at Princeton shortly after further bolstered the rebels’ cause. Situated between New York City, held by the British, and Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress (until it, too, was briefly taken by the British), the position of New Jersey meant that its role would be crucial for the success or failure of the Revolutionary War.
New Jersey was the third state to ratify the Constitution of the United States of America on December 18, 1787, and was, with its own state constitution in the 1790s, one of the first states to, temporarily, give unmarried, property-holding women the right to vote. (Subsequent amendments and state constitutional changes took that away, later restoring it in the 20th Century.) The rest is history.
Everyone who lived or lives in New Jersey knows that the state is not perfect. Far from it. But New Jersey is not one of the most densely populated places because it is wrought with problems, although it might have many of its problems stemming from its population density. New Jersey, from High Point to Cape May, from Camden to Sandy Hook, has more diversity in land and people for its size than anywhere else. Out-of-staters may derisively think of New Jersey only in terms of the Turnpike, or an industrial wasteland as a subordinate fiefdom to New York City, but this ignores the Jersey Shore, which draws in tourists year after year, which was rebuilt by courageous and hard-working men and women following the devastation of Super Storm Sandy. It ignores the fisheries, the forests of the Pine Barrens, the enriching culinary opportunities found here by people from around the globe, the rural farmlands, the trails blazed through the mountains of the northwest, the suburbs, and cities.
Beyond the natural and man-made features of New Jersey, what defines New Jersey itself are its people. Some have said that in New Jersey the people “act mean but are actually nice”, whereas in other parts of the country, people “act nice but are actually mean.” This is a state which is proudly not-New York, where the leaders we love to hate are also fighting New York City congestion fees to ease the burden on New Jersey workers who commute to and contribute to the success of the Big Apple. New Jersey is a state where many retirees have moved to Pennsylvania to escape the high cost of living, but never forget where they came from and wish they had not needed to leave. Our governor and leaders have had to address issues from the deadly-serious, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which took the lives of thousands of New Jerseyans in the greatest public health emergency since the Spanish Flu a century ago, to the whimsical, such as Governor Murphy declaring franklinite the official state mineral, the “Taylor Swift, Egg, and Cheese” as the state sandwich, and debating whether or not Central Jersey is a “real thing.” As a side note, Swift is a Pennsylvania girl, but her family used to spend the summers at Stone Harbor in Cape May, and she performed at local Shore joints as a kid. New Jersey has a claim on countless artists, writers, and musicians. A few universally known Jersey names in the musical realm are Frank Sinatra, Whitney Houston, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Sarah Vaughan, Frankie Valli, and Debbie Harry (who was born in Miami, yes, but raised in Hawthorne).
One of South Jersey’s own stars, Danny DeVito from Neptune, recently hit headlines after donating a half-million dollars to the Jersey Shore University Medical Center, the hospital he was born in.
The state is made up of good people, and represents so much more than the popularized images found in film and on TV. (No one from New Jersey actually says “Nu Joisey”—and anyone who do reveal themselves as frauds.) New Jersey has much to be proud of, from its origins to today, with multitudes which make our state a unique gem. We even have our own mythical monster in the Jersey Devil and a national, professional Newark-based hockey team paying tribute to that same homegrown lore. New Jersey has its ups and downs, its challenges, and its advantages. We have our arts, our favorite delis, camps and parks we jealously defend, we have people from all walks of life who push hard to make the state a better place, our industries are world-class and our institutions—well, they are our institutions. Much as New Jerseyans may gripe about the system, they still work within the system trying to turn the gears towards the public good, rather than dismantle the whole apparatus. Whether our readers call their breakfast sandwich meat Pork Roll or Taylor Ham, they can stand together in celebrating the Garden State on National New Jersey Day.