New York During the Revolution Part I

First movements toward the Revolution.

The political history of the city of New York, so quiet and devoid of interest for nearly half a century, became more active and exciting as the revolutionary struggle approached. No other town in all the American colonies had so much to lose by a rupture with the mother country; and except Boston only, no other entered into that contest with so much avidity and determination. But, as usual in such cases, the more wealthy citizens, and especially the great merchants, were averse to extreme measures of resistance. Here at least the revolutionary movements were led on by the common people, but for whose boldness and energy it is very probable the others would have submitted to the exactions of the British government.

Early resistance to British authority.

The honor of being the first to resist the assumption, by the Parliament of Great Britain, of the right to tax the American colonies, has been very generally conceded to Boston and Massachusetts; but New-York may safely claim at least equality in that honor. When Lord Grenville's scheme for raising a revenue in America was first brought forward, nearly all the colonies remonstrated against it; but generally in tones so subdued, and with so many protestations of loyalty, as to rather assure than intimidate the exacting and rapacious home-government. But the assembly of New York spoke out in louder and more decided tones, so much so that no member of the British Parliament would present their petition to that body. The spirit of the New Yorkers was quickly taken by some of the other colonial assemblies. Rhode Island soon after echoed the language of New York, and the Massachusetts leaders presently changed their protestations of loyalty and humble petitions for relief to language more befitting the character of freemen.

Opposition to the Stamp-act.

In 1765 came the affair of the Stamp-act. By this law the government of Great Britain endeavored to raise a revenue in America by the sale of government stamps. To effect this it was ordered that all legal instruments, of whatever kind, should be written on paper bearing the stamp of the government; and for these stamps large sums were required in favor of the national exchequer.

The attempt to carry this measure into effect brought the affairs of the colonies to a crisis. In New-York the citizens took a most decided stand against it. Two companies paraded the streets on the evening of the first day of November, when the Stamp-act was to go into force, setting the police at defiance, and demanding the obnoxious stamps—which, on the resignation of the stamp-distributor, had been left with Golden, the lieutenant-governor, by whom they had been deposited for safe-keeping in the fort. Coldeu was hung in effigy; and, proceeding to a still more riotous course of action, the mob seized and burned his carriage under the muzzles of the guns of the fort.

The furniture of several other officers of the crown was also destroyed. Alarmed at these proceedings, and fearing for his personal safety, Golden at length gave up the stamped papers, which were conveyed to the City Hall and there deposited under the safe-keeping of the mayor of the city.

Captain Sears and the " Sons of Liberty."

These tumultuous proceedings were instigated and led on, in 'a great measure, by Captain Isaac Sears, who had been the commander of a merchant ship, and subsequently of a privateer. His influence with the middle and lower classes was almost unbounded; which, together with his wealth and power of intrigue, made him formidable to the ruling party. To gain his favor for the government he was made an inspector of pot-ashes—an office of some consideration in the city. But he could not thus be bought off from his old associations and his love of liberty. He was of a rough and burly temper, fond of excitement, and had a most intense dislike of the effeminacy and rapacity of the government officials. Such a man was of course admirably fitted to become a popular favorite and leader in such stormy times as these.

An association of the friends of popular rights was formed about this time, called " Sons of Liberty," but more familiarly styled " Liberty Boys," of which Sears was the leading spirit. The members of this association were perpetually on the alert for any occasions of danger to the popular cause, nor were they over scrupulous as to the means to be used either for prevention or cure. Yet they rendered most valuable service to the cause of American independence by their determined opposition to the pretensions of the British rulers. The emblem of the " Sons of Liberty " was a mast, or pole, erected " in the fields," near the foot of the Park. This mast was styled the " Liberty-Pole," and it was the progenitor of the numberless representatives of the same family to be found in every part of the American republic.

Organized resistance to the law.

The proceedings thus far had been carried on by the inferior classes of the people, headed by Captain Sears. The wealthier classes of the inhabitants met the next day and appointed a committee of five persons, of whom Sears was one, to correspond with the other colonies. This committee soon after recommended an agreement among all the colonies to import no more goods from Great Britain till the stamp- act should be repealed. This non-importation agreement, to which a non-consumption covenant was presently added, was numerously signed in New-York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Public business, which had been suspended for a while for the want of stamped paper, presently began to be transacted without it; and even the courts of justice were at length compelled to come into the same measure, and, by disregarding the demands of the Stamp-act, to aid in nullifying it. Thus the triumph of the popular cause was complete, and things moved on again in their usual quiet and good order.

Repeal of the Stamp-act.

The news of the repeal of the Stamp-act, by the British Parliament, was celebrated at New-York with the liveliest demonstrations of joy. Confidence seemed to spring up anew among the colonists toward the mother country, and all their loyalty to return upon them. A leaden equestrian statue of the king was ordered to be set up in the Bowling-green, and a full length marble statue of Pitt was placed at the corner of Wall and William-streets. The sufferers by the late riots were indemnified for their losses, but no blame was cast upon the rioters, an evident indication of the state of public sentiment in the matter.

But this season of good feeling was of but short duration ; a new cause of irritation soon occurred. The policy adopted by the home-government toward the colonies induced a large increase of the military force in the chief towns in America. The several colonial assemblies were required to provide quarters for the troops that might be sent among them. With this demand the New-York Assembly refused to comply, and in retaliation the assembly were prohibited from legislating on any other subject till they had complied with the requirements of the quartering act. This failing of its object, the governor dissolved the assembly, and a new one, still more refractory, was chosen in its stead, which also was soon after dissolved.

New difficulties with the mother country.

This contest was continued through two years with varied success. Many of the wealthier citizens, especially those belonging to the Church of England, alarmed at the evident tendency of things, at length began to relax in their opposition. At the next election for an assembly the moderate party made a great effort, and was successful. In the city of New-York, Philip Livingston, a leading member in the two former assemblies, was defeated, and his friends were found in the minority in the new assembly. The point so fiercely contested hitherto was now yielded, and the required quarters provided for the royal troops.

This humiliating concession drew from Alexander M'Dougald, a leading spirit among the " Sons of Liberty," and afterward a major-general in the American army, an indignant " Address to the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New-York," calling a public meeting of the citizens to take the proceedings of the assembly into consideration. The assembly pronounced this address " a false, seditious, and infamous libel," and committed its author to prison, by which they at once increased the suspicion of their own lukewarmness in the popular cause, and rendered M'Dougald a martyr, and sent multitudes to visit him in his confinement. The soldiers revenged the cause of the assembly by cutting down the liberty- pole, which the patriots had erected at a place of popular rendezvous. The populace retorted the insult, and brawls became frequent between the inhabitants and the soldiers.

Continued growth of the city.

These political agitations did not at once put a full stop to the commercial prosperity of the city, nor entirely suspend its advancement. New streets continued to be laid out and opened, and public improvements continued to be made up to the commencement of hostilities. Andewater-street, in Beekman's Swamp, was first regulated in 1768; Warren-street in 1771; and in 1774 a street in front of the Common, " leading from St. Paul's church toward the Fresh Water," was opened and named after the popular Earl of Chatham. Very soon after this all improvements in the city gave place to the wasting desolations of war.

A tea party and an anti-tea party.

As the difficulties between the colonies and the mother country increased, New-York became fully compromised in them. The tea tax, so famous on account of the course of resistance adopted at Boston, was scarcely less decidedly opposed at New-York. In 1773, a ship belonging to the East India Company was sent to New-York with a cargo of teas consigned to a mercantile house in that city ; but, at the demand of a popular meeting, the consignees refused to act in the business, when the governor ordered it to be stored in the barracks. The vessel was compelled by stress of weather to put in at the West Indies, and so did not arrive till the next spring. Then the pilots at Sandy Hook, under instructions from the city committee, refused to bring her up, and a " Committee of Vigilance " soon after took possession of her, by whom she was brought up to the city, but was soon after ordered back again to Sandy Hook. Meanwhile another ship, commanded by a New-York captain, arrived, purporting to have no tea on board, and accordingly was permitted to come up to the city; but when it was afterward ascertained that there were eighteen chests on board, the indignant people seized and emptied it into the river. A few days after, with great parade, led by a band playing the British national air, while the bells were ringing and the flags flying from the liberty-pole and the shipping, the captain of the East India tea ship was escorted from the Custom-house to a pilot boat which took him to the Hook, where, under the direction of the " Committee of Vigilance," the anchors were weighed and the vessel started on her homeward voyage.

A general congress called.

Hitherto resistance in New-York to the aggressions of the home-government had been chiefly managed by the committee of correspondence, headed by Sears, and by the " Sons of Liberty "—a band composed chiefly of persons of the middle and lower classes, among whom were M'Dougald, Willett and Lamb, and upon whose discretion the more wealthy citizens did not place the fullest reliance. After the passage of the Boston Port Bill a public meeting was called, at which the old committee was dissolved and a new one chosen, consisting of fifty-one members, comprising some of the principal citizens. This committee, soon after, in a circular letter, proposed " a congress of deputies from all the colonies," to take into consideration the state of public affairs of common interest. The meeting of the proposed congress having been fixed for the first of September, and the provincial assembly refusing to send delegates, the appointment of deputies was undertaken by the committee of fifty-one, assisted by a committee of mechanics. Some difficulty occurred between the supporters of M'Dougald, the candidate of the " Sons of Liberty," and the friends of John Jay, a young lawyer of a rising reputation, who was supported by the upper classes. A poll was therefore opened under the supervision of the mayor and aldermen, at which all tax-payers were allowed to vote. Livingston, Alsop, Law, Duane and Jay, the candidates of the more moderate party, were chosen, and the nominations thus made were confirmed and ratified in other parts of the province. A second congress having been called for the next year, (1775,) to which also the assembly refused to appoint delegates, a warm contest took place among the citizens, not wholly without violence, in an election for deputies to a provincial congress by which the delegates were to be appointed, in which the popular and more violent party were successful. This was the first open rupture between the political parties in the city; afterward the breach continued to widen, till it ended in an open rupture" and sanguinary conflict.

First provincial congress.

The provincial congress of New-York met accordingly in May, and was presided over by Nathaniel Woodhull, subsequently the hero of Long Island. Measures were adopted for putting the province in a state of defense, by enlisting troops and erecting fortifications, especially on Manhattan Island and the western extremity of Long Island. The congress also invited Wooster, with his Connecticut regiment, to assist in defending the city against the expected British troops, who accordingly came soon after with a thousand men. An encampment was formed by them at Harlem, and troops also were stationed on Long Island to guard against a surprise from that direction. The province of New-York, and especially the city, began now to assume a decidedly warlike attitude and appearance.

Trouble with a British man-of-war.

The Asia man-of-war and several smaller vessels were all this time lying in the harbor, closely watching all that was going forward on shore. At length an opportunity occurred for those on board to display their hostility to the popular cause. On the evening of the 22d of August, Capt. Sears was sent with a detachment of militia to remove some guns that lay near the fort at the southern extremity of the city. For some cause several shots were fired at one of the Asia's boats that lay not far off, which was presently answered by a broadside from the ship, killing three of Sears's men, and throwing the whole city into great consternation. Among those engaged in this affair was Alexander Hamilton, a youth of eighteen, who had been for two years past a student in King's College, and had already made himself conspicuous among the patriots by certain able newspaper essays in behalf of popular liberty. He was soon after, through the favor of M'Dougald, appointed a captain of artillery, from which point his history is identified with that of the country.

Proceedings of the Committee of Safety.

The Committee of Safety, appointed by the late provincial congress, now proceeded to disarm the loyalists on Long Island and Staten Island which, however, proved to be a rather difficult task. A partisan warfare was thus commenced, arraying neighbor against neighbor, and not infrequently dividing the nearest relations. Governor Tryon soon found himself in uncomfortable circumstances on account of his opposition to the popular cause, and, to escape personal inconvenience, retired on board of the Asia. But the action of the Committee of Safety was not vigorous, and the governor had a strong party in the city and its vicinity, with whom he managed to keep up a correspondence. Rivington's Gazette, the government paper in New-York, continued to be issued, and was a great annoyance to the patriots. The publisher had been several times called to account, and had promised to use less freedom in his strictures, but at length he became more offensive than ever. The Committee of Safety, however, still refused to interfere in the matter. Accordingly, Sears, on behalf of the " Sons of Liberty," having mustered a troop of light-horse in Connecticut, entered New-York at noon and drew up in front of Rivington's office, and, amid the cheers of the people, broke up the press and carried off the types. Troops soon began to concentrate in New-York. A body of Connecticut volunteers, obtained through Sears's agency, was ordered into the city, and General Lee was presently sent thither by Washington to take the command; and Colonel Howe's regiment of New-Jersey minute-men and a body of Sterling's regulars were sent to disarm the Tories on Long Island, and to arrest some of the principal delinquents.

Website: The History
Article Name: New York During the Revolution Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America by a New Yorker Published by Carleton & Phillips 1853
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