Most college kids have a stash. No doubt more than a few college professors have a stash. But Kean University in New Jersey is unique in the nation for having just found the governor’s stash — no, not Governor Chris “The Beachmaster” Christie — but of William Livingston, the first governor of the state. And it’s more than 200 years old. And it wasn’t uncovered by the ever-vigilant campus security, but by a construction crew working in Kean’s campus museum.
The workmen had been tearing out a wall in Kean’s Liberty Hall Museum when, behind the plaster and the plywood, they found not quite three cases of Madeira dating from 1796, the year John Adams was elected the second president of the United States. Whether Adams had been invited to make the trip from Philadelphia (where the federal government cooled its heels while Washington, D.C., was being built) to join the Livingstons for a post-election victory dinner and toast, we don’t know. But it appears likely that the Livingstons saluted their new president by knocking back a few bottles. What the work crew’s found are the leftovers, the Madeira the Livingstons never got around to drinking.
William Livingston and his wife Susannah French Livingston, moved into their newly constructed 14-room manor house in 1773. In colonial New York and New Jersey, the Livingston clan was wealthy, socially prominent, and politically active — especially in the cause of America’s independence from England. William’s brother Philip Livingston and his cousin Robert Livingston both signed the Declaration of Independence. In the newly independent United States, William became the first elected governor of the state of New Jersey, replacing the last Royal Governor of the colony of New Jersey, William Franklin, the illegitimate, Tory son of Benjamin Franklin.
Madeira was America’s favorite wine in those days. It came from Portugal’s Madeira Islands, a four-island archipelago in the Atlantic, off the coast of Morocco. It is similar to sherry, and like sherry can range in flavor from dry to sweet. These days, it’s hard to find a wine shop that carries Madeira, but it was ubiquitous in 17th– and 18th-century America, especially among the upper classes. There are two simple reasons why it was so popular: the fine wines of Europe did not travel well, while Madeira could survive a rough Atlantic crossing and arrive at the dock unspoiled; and the unusual process of heating the wine and fortifying it with a little brandy gave it an especially long shelf life — it’s possible the Liberty Hall Madeira is still perfectly drinkable.
George Washington was fond of Madeira. So was Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. A 1772 inventory from Monticello tells us that in his wine cellar Thomas Jefferson had 44 gallons of Madeira. But the most entertaining link between Madeira and a Founding Father involves John Hancock.
By the 1760s, Hancock was the wealthiest man in Massachusetts. He increased his fortune the old-fashioned way — by smuggling. In the years before the Revolution, Boston was a great trading hub that did about £20 million of business annually. Naturally, the British wanted to collect customs duties on goods imported by Boston merchants. Understandably, Boston merchants such as Hancock didn’t want to pay them. There was a simple solution to this commercial quandary: in exchange for a bribe, customs officials under-recorded a ship’s cargo.
This simple exchange had far-reaching economic benefits in Boston. The importer made more money. The shopkeepers who sold the imported items could purchase them at a reduced price. And the consumers found that a gallon of molasses that had been smuggled in was cheaper than a gallon that had paid the government’s custom duty. Everybody was happy.
In time, the Mother Country caught on, and sent in troops to enforce the customs regulations. In June 1768, Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty, was seized by British customs officials who charged him with reporting 25 casks of Madeira when in fact his cargo totaled 100 casks. Hancock’s ship was confiscated and he faced a fine of £9000. In court four months later the charges against Hancock were dropped for lack of evidence. The lawyer who got Hancock off was John Adams.
By the way, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Congress marked the occasion by having bottles of Madeira brought in. At the inauguration of George Washington, the new president was toasted with a round of Madeira. No wonder Brittany Dust of Wine.com described Madeira to Smithsonian magazine as “the founding wine” of America.
As for Kean University’s Madeira, in an interview with National Public Radio, Bill Schroh, director of operations at the Liberty Hall Museum, was unwilling to estimate the wine’s value. But NPR’s Camila Domonoske consulted Christie’s auction house and found that in 2016, two bottles of a 1795 Madeira sold for $10,000 a piece.
The 1796 stash of Madeira is on display in Liberty Hall’s historic wine cellar. No one has cracked open a bottle yet.
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