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David Brearley (Freemason, Revolutionary and Currency Signer)

Updated: 7 days ago

Some New Jersey Freemasons, and many others I'm sure, have visited Brearley Lodge in Bridgeton, NJ at one time or another. Some readers may be members of the Lodge. It is touted as the oldest Lodge building in New Jersey, Founded October 28, 1790, and retains the appellation Brearley No. 2. It is an old building, with no central air (I can attest to that having visited a degree in the summer) but with many interesting old Masonic items to admire and ponder over. It’s namesake, of course, is one David Brearley, first Grand Master of the newly formed Grand Lodge for the State of New Jersey.

The oldest lodge in the state is Lodge No. 1, St. John’s Lodge, Mountain Lakes, NJ founded May 13, 1761. It does not meet in its original Newark location and has merged with others so Brearley #2 is actually the oldest Masonic Lodge building in the state in which its members still maintain and meet in the same building.

Photo of Brearley Lodge #2
Brearley Lodge

A photo of David Brearley
David Brearley

A few blocks away, on Broad Street is Potter’s Tavern, constructed in 1770 and still standing as a museum of sorts. It was the publishing location of the “Plain Dealer”, the first newspaper in the state and a popular gathering spot prior to the Revolution. An interesting place to visit.

 

What got me interested in David Brearley was my interest in numismatics and particularly in colonial and continental paper notes among which many from New Jersey, I discovered, have his signature. Many of these notes from the 1700’s have survived and are often found in auctions and coin and currency dealers’ stocks. They were typically signed by three men, mostly judges or people of some political influence. Many notes from Colonial Delaware and Pennsylvania were printed by Benjamin Franklin and David Hall but they never signed any. Notes printed after the Continental Conventions and authorized by the Continental Congress are considered Continental Currency. Paul Revere of Boston engraved the plates for the first of them. These depreciated quickly due to unrestricted printing and the Congress forcing the colonies to use them to pay for the war and inflation soared so they continued printing their own as well. The strength of that colony’s economy set the value of its currency against others. A good example is Virginia whose economy was strong due to the tobacco crop. Britain had placed a ban on the issue of paper money in the colonies, The Currency Act of 1764, a move which contributed to much discontent among the colonists but, it did not stop them from denying the Governor of their state his salary or holding up appropriations until an Act authorizing issuance of new paper money was passed.

David Brearley, Revolutionary & Soldier

Brearley rose to the rank of Colonel in the Continental Army under General George Washington. He had already risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the militia and before his commission expired, he was commissioned to the Fourth New Jersey Continentals being formed but then switched to the First New Jersey Regiment January 1, 1777. That winter, when the state of New Jersey was in chaos with British occupation, he fought with Washington’s troops against the British and Hessian occupiers and forced them to retreat to New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. The Continentals under Washington wintered at Morristown. He served throughout the Philadelphia campaign in ’77, Valley Forge in that terrible winter of ’78 and fought at the Battle of Monmouth June 1780.

Supreme Court Judge

Brearley resigned his commission in March 1780 because he had been appointed Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. It is unclear to me whether he was elected or appointed, probably appointed by the legislature. In the present-day judges are nominated and then approved, or not by the Senate in New Jersey and not elected by popular vote. He presided over the case of Holmes v. Walton and in overturning the conviction of John Holmes for trading with the enemy, supported the concept of Judicial Review by overturning a law passed by the Assembly as unconstitutional, a principle supported by Justice John Marshall in the famous case of Marbury vs Madison in 1803. As a Supreme Court Chief Justice he would have certainly had the authority to sign currency and the notes I've seen with his signature are dated 1780 and 1781. The date reflects the date of the Act authorizing the creation of a certain amount of currency, not the actual date it was printed.

Founding Father           

In 1787, he participated in the constitutional convention at Philadelphia which created our constitution and culminated his role by signing it. He was a strong supporter of the New Jersey Plan, proposing one vote for each state in the new congress, rather than proportional representation based on population. That has not kept and it would take a Grand Marshall to remember the names of all the men and women of the US Congress.

He presided over the New Jersey ratification convention in 1788. Then, in the first presidential election, he was an elector and voted for George Washington (it was unanimous). Washington appointed him the first federal district judge in New Jersey and he served in that office until his death.

Freemason and Grand Master

Little is known of Brearly’s early Masonic ties. Although he was elected the first Grand Master of the newly established Grand Lodge of New Jersey in 1786, Brearley's lodge affiliation is unknown. It is believed he was initiated into Military Lodge No. 19 in Pennsylvania. Interestingly there is no record of him ever affiliating with a lodge in New Jersey. Maybe Trenton has some better information in their library or museum. A good rainy-day project.


A Bronze Token
2015 Bronze Token Recognizing 225th Anniversary

Legacy

Brearley died in Trenton at the age of 45 in 1790 and is buried at St. Michael's Episcopal Church. That is unfortunate as he had accomplished many important things in his short but full life and who knows what else he may have accomplished or changed if given time. His legacy survives in Bridgeton. It is time to visit Brearley Lodge once more and see if they don’t have something in the numismatic line hanging on a wall or sitting in a display cabinet.


antique paper money
1781 NJ Note signed By Brearley

Other notable names on early notes

John Hart of New Jersey, signed the Declaration of Independence as well as John Morton of Pennsylvania. Daniel Carroll of Maryland signed both the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution and probably the most sought-after, George Clymer of Pennsylvania, one of six men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Any of these names add a large amount of value on a note to collectors for their place in early US history, our Founding Fathers.

 

Many of these notes were authorized in large quantities, some in the 10’s of thousands. I cannot imagine signing my name even a few hundred times, with a goose quill and ink pot at that. They were printed in sheets, as they are today, in a smaller capacity and by hand operated press and then cut by hand. Many edges are uneven due to this lack of modern machinery. The plates were engraved by artisans of great skill. Some of the images you see on them were designed by Ben Franklin as was the Fugio Cent with the All-Seeing Eye and the phrase “Mind Your Business”. Counterfeiting was a problem and if you hold a note up to the light at an angle you may see mica flakes in the paper. This was an early attempt to thwart counterfeiting and contemporary counterfeits are just as collectible as the legitimate. Some are in excellent, like new condition only because some of us still care about our indelible past, it’s good parts and even some things we wish were different.

 

RW David P. Buckwalter

Cannon Lodge No.104 F&AM

South Seaville, NJ


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