War and Wealth

While New York recovered from the “Great Negro Plot,” the Anglo-Spanish war that began in 1739 grew wider. By 1743 both Prussia and France were fighting alongside Spain, and virtually all Europe and America had plunged into a conflict, at once dynastic and imperial, known to His Majesty’s American subjects as King George’s War. Peace returned in 1748, without a clear-cut victory for either side, and hostilities soon resumed.

In 1754 a detachment of Virginia troops under young Colonel George Washington surrendered to French forces on the frontier near what is now Pittsburgh. When General Edward Braddock’s attempt to repulse the French ended in a humiliating disaster, Britain declared war—this time with the intention of driving France out of North America once and for all. The war went badly, however, until George II brought in William Pitt, arguably the most brilliant wartime leader in British history. Between 1757 and 1761 the French were expelled from India and Canada, a French invasion fleet was smashed in the English Channel, and choice sugar islands in the French West Indies passed into British hands. Pitt might have achieved even more, but George II died in 1760. His twenty-two-year-old grandson, George III, was eager for peace and forced Pitt’s resignation in 1761. Two years later, the fighting was ended by the Treaty of Paris. To Europeans, it would be remembered as the Seven Years War. Americans called it the French and Indian War.

Throughout these twenty-odd years of conflict, New York’s strategic proximity to Canada—Montreal lay only three hundred miles to the north along the Hudson-Champlain corridor—kept the city in a state of almost constant alert. French raiding parties struck as far south as Saratoga and Albany during King George’s War, and during the French and Indian War heavy fighting erupted around Lakes George and Champlain as well as on the shores of Lake Ontario. Often (as in 1741) New Yorkers believed them­selves in imminent danger of attack. Militia companies camped on the Common, drilling incessantly, and in 1745 municipal authorities took the precaution of erecting a palisade along the northern perimeter of the town (raising the necessary funds by a public lottery). Made of fourteen-foot-long cedar logs set in a three-foot-deep trench, the barrier zigzagged from Cherry Street and James Slip on the East River to present-day Chambers Street on the Hudson, broken by only four gates and guarded by six blockhouses. This second city wall, like the first a century earlier, was a grim reminder that New York’s fortunes often hinged on events unfolding oceans away from Manhattan.


Even gentlemen of the mercantile “interest,” always leery of getting entangled in imperial conflicts to the detriment of trade, conceded that both King George’s War and the French and Indian War were good for business. (“War is declared in England—Universal joy among the merchants,” William Smith wrote in his diary in 1756.) Legislative bodies in New York and other colonies spent unprecedented amounts of money on military operations, while the British government poured troops into the colonies in numbers that staggered contemporary imaginations. The first contingent arrived in 1756, when a thousand soldiers set up winter camp in the city after losing to the French at Oswego. When the barracks in the fort proved inadequate, the earl of Loudon, commander-in-chief of His Majesty’s armed forces in America, billeted soldiers in private homes. This practice brought so many complaints from residents that the Common Council authorized construction of additional barracks up on the Common. And none too soon, for by 1758 some twenty-five thousand soldiers and a vast fleet manned by fourteen thousand mariners would be stationed in America—most of them in either New York or Boston.

Provisioning His Majesty’s forces required gargantuan quantities of food, clothing, shoes, alcohol, horses, wagons, and other materiel, and in 1755 New York was made the “general Magazine of Arms and Military Stores” as well as a station for military and naval forces. (That same year, the British government inaugurated monthly fast-sailing packets from Falmouth to Manhattan, underscoring its selection of New York as its link with the colonies.) Contracts to deliver any of those items to royal or provincial commissaries made fortunes for well-connected New York merchants like Hayman Levy, Peter Van Brugh Livingston, James Alexander, William Bayard, Gerard G. Beekman, Oliver De Lancey, and John Watts. None did better than the firm of De Lancey and Watts, which by virtue of Oliver De Lancey’s marriage to Phila Franks enjoyed close ties to her brother Moses, chief purveyor to His Majesty’s troops in America after 1760. Yet there was plenty of room for newcomers as well. Young Uriah Hendricks, representing one of London’s best-known Jewish firms, settled in the city in 1755 and was soon doing a substantial business supplying the sutlers, mostly Jews, who set up store wherever the military made camp. By 1756 an envious Benjamin Franklin observed “that New York is growing immensely rich, by Money brought into it from all Quarters for the Pay and Subsistence of the Troops.”

Provisioning His Majesty’s enemies was another lucrative wartime preoccupation. “Scarce a Week passes without an illicit Trader’s going out or coming into this Port,” one New Yorker remarked in 1748, “who are continually supplying and supporting our most avowed Enemies [the French].” In the French and Indian War, Manhattan mer­chants who traded with the French islands offloaded their cargoes beyond Sandy Hook and proceeded to port while their illicit goods were smuggled in by wagon. When increased fighting in the Caribbean made such expeditions too risky, one annoyed merchant crankily informed a correspondent that “I am now about trying a Voyage to our own Islands, since Trading with the Enemy has turn’d out so very ill.”

Still another way to get rich in wartime, especially for merchants without friends in high places, was that old standby, privateering. During King George’s War, about three dozen New York privateers prowled the Caribbean, taking several hundred French and Spanish prizes, worth some £618,000 to their investors. One ship, the Royal Hester, seized forty prizes, generating £63,800 for a dozen backers, among them men with such names as Aspinwall, Beekman, Cuyler, and Livingston. Seven other privateers cleared over forty thousand pounds for their investors, and Captain Peter Warren sailed into port in the summer of 1744 with a single French merchantman carrying nine thousand pounds’ worth of sugar and indigo. Such exploits won “the general acclamation of the Public,” and when Captain John Burgess’s Royal Catherine took Le Mars, after only three broadsides off Sandy Hook, the corporation presented him with a gold box and freedom of the city.

In the next war, seventy-odd privateers operated out of New York—now the greatest such fleet by far in the colonies, and fabulously successful to boot, capturing more than six hundred prizes worth at least 1.4 million pounds to 150-odd investors. Between September 1756 and May 1757 alone, according to an official report, prizes worth two hundred thousand pounds arrived in the city. Their cargoes included coffee, cotton, sugar, wine, dry goods, pottery, indigo, ironware, lumber, bricks, and “live wares” (slaves), not to mention strongboxes of specie—gold doubloons, louis d’or, pieces of eight. Again the champion privateer proved to be the Royal Hester, which brought its fourteen owners a total of twenty-five prizes worth £115,000. “Such a Spirit of Privateering prevails here,” trumpeted the Post-Boy in December 1756, “that by the most Judicious account, no Colony has exceeded it since the Discovery of North America.”

All told, between 1739 and 1763 legalized plunder poured something like two million pounds into the pockets of two hundred or so investors—an immense accession of wealth at a time when, as Gerard G. Beekman observed, an income of three hundred pounds a year was sufficient to live “Like a Gentleman” in New York. Not all of this was profit, of course. As a rule, the crew of a privateer signed on for 60 percent of the value of prizes taken. An experienced captain received an extra two to three hundred pounds for a voyage of nine or twelve months. There were also multitudes of contractors, suppliers, and lawyers to be paid, not to mention the costs to be absorbed when a ship returned empty-handed, or didn’t return at all. Inevitably, some shareholders in privateers lost everything, while still others barely covered expenses.

As a group, however, they did well enough that the average investor could expect to double or even triple his money in less than a year. Christopher Bancker refitted one of his merchantmen as a privateer in 1744 at a cost of twelve hundred pounds. He then sold shares to seven other merchants and captains, probably at a small profit to himself. Three cruises resulted in the capture of prizes worth £42,400. After the crew received its share, and after all other expenses were paid, each investor realized a profit of eighteen hundred pounds—a return of around 140 percent on the initial investment, perhaps more for shares that had changed hands at a discount.

More than a few found ways to multiply their winnings. They speculated in shares in privateering expeditions, creating a rudimentary futures market. They invested in city real estate, as land appreciated steadily in response to the pressures of population and economic growth, provided a hedge against recession, and could be mortgaged to obtain credit. They also loaned out their funds to friends and business associates at 6 or 7 percent interest, creating a system of private credit that partially compensated for the absence of banks.


A second source of New York’s prosperity during the 1740s and 1750s was that great transformation of the British economy known as the industrial revolution. Its essential components were many and varied: the application of water and steam power to textile production, a burst of road- and canal-building, a new flowering of banks and insurance companies, improved agricultural output, accelerated demographic expansion, and urbanization. The population of London, largest city in the Western world, climbed from 676,000 to 900,000 between 1750 and 1800.

For British America, these changes spelled enhanced importance both as a market for cheap manufactured goods and as a source of raw materials and foodstuffs. By midcentury roughly half of all British shipping was engaged in trade with the American colonies, and the colonies were buying nine hundred thousand pounds’ worth of British products annually—around 25 percent of all Britain’s exports and 50 percent of all manufactures other than woolens. By the early 1760s that figure had soared to over two million pounds. (Because the Navigation Acts prohibited direct imports from other European countries, 80 percent of the finished wares shipped to New York from British ports were of British origin.)

Colonial exports rose almost as rapidly, from seven hundred thousand pounds at mid-century to some £1.5 million in the early 1760s. For New York and other northern ports, the mainspring of this business remained the British craving for sugar, which in the 1740s and 1750s triggered a new round of expansion in the West Indies. The demand for North American lumber and foodstuffs drove the prices of those commodities to new heights. By the early 1760s New York merchants were shipping over four hundred thousand pounds’ worth of bread, flour, wheat, and livestock to the islands every year. Their ships returned with valuable cargoes of mahogany, slaves, raw sugar, rum, molasses, and, perhaps most important, bills of exchange that helped finance imports of manufactured goods from Great Britain. Direct sales to the mother country remained relatively rare: between 1751 and 1765 the total value of New York exports to Great Britain came to a mere £559,000.

Because the prices of imported British manufactures rose more slowly than the value of agricultural exports, the purchasing power of colonial Americans climbed throughout the later 1740s and 1750s, pushing their overall standard of living higher and higher. British exporters encouraged the trend by allowing colonial merchants, vendue houses, and even individuals to buy on credit. Merchants, in turn, extended credit to shopkeepers, who passed it on to artisans and farmers, drawing them as well into the international web of money and commerce. By 1760 or so the mainland colonies had run up some two million pounds in debts to English creditors; in another dozen years they would owe more than four million pounds. The residents of New York, meanwhile, became the leading American consumers of British wares.

Along with easy credit came restrictions aimed at protecting British merchants and manufacturers from colonial competition. In 1732 Parliament outlawed the exportation of American-made hats, and the Molasses Act of 1733 effectively prevented colonial merchants from trading with the French West Indies. In 1750 Parliament likewise prohibited the manufacture of iron products and certain classes of textiles in the colonies. Enforcement of these laws was lax, however, and many otherwise law-abiding colonial businessmen simply ignored them, even—perhaps especially—in time of war.

By 1750 New York was thriving again. The stores and countinghouses of Hanover Square, still the retail center, were stuffed with imported hardware, glassware, furniture, books, and clothing. Along Queen, Dock, Smith (William), Wall, Broad, Duke (Stone), and other nearby streets the houses of leading mercantile families—De Peysters, Beekmans, Livingstons, Philipses, Verplancks, Roosevelts, Crugers—presided over a lively hodgepodge of shops, taverns, and public markets. The Customs House showed 157 vessels registered out of the port, with a combined burden of sixty-four hundred tons; something on the order of twenty-five thousand tons of shipping entered and cleared it every year. A dozen years later, in 1762, the fleet consisted of 477 vessels with a combined burden of 19,500 tons, a threefold increase. Some 33,700 tons of shipping were by then passing through the port, providing employment for some thirty-six hundred seamen, nearly five times the number only fifteen years earlier.


The Rhinelander Sugar House, constructed 1768, photographed c. 1890. This massive stone building on the corner of Rose and Duane streets was one of the largest structures in the pre Revolutionary city and a tangible symbol of its prosperity after 1760. Like other New York “sugar houses,” it was used to refine the sugar produced by West Indian slave labor into the loaves and other products that were in high demand throughout the colonies as well as England. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

Overall, the city’s population had now swelled to nearly eighteen thousand—almost twice what it had been in the 1740s. Philadelphia remained the largest North American city, with a population of 23,750. Boston, which actually lost population between 1740 and 1760, had slipped from second to third place with a population of 15,600.


When Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Philadelphia came up to New York in 1744, he often dined with the members of the Hungarian Club at Robert Todd’s tavern on Broad Street. It wasn’t, he reported, an easy thing to do. His companions seemed to think that “a man could not have a more sociable quality or enduement than to be able to pour down seas of liquor and remain unconquered while others sank under the table.. . . To drink stoutly with the Hungarian Club, who are all bumper men, is the readiest way for a stranger to recommend himself.” Crude puns and dirty jokes were their idea of wit. Their arguments were “incoherent,” their table manners execrable.

The good doctor’s revulsion honored a code of taste and conduct known as “refinement.” Detailed in countless British magazines, novels, and “courtesy books” over the previous half century, “refinement” was what distinguished people of quality from the vulgar masses—not just money, that is, but an inner discipline of body and spirit, a natural smoothness, for which money was a necessary though far from sufficient precondition.

“Refined” men and women had a poised yet complaisant manner. They avoided coarse speech, gross or lewd behavior, uncouth gestures, and sharp displays of emotion. They could make their way through a roomful of strangers without embarrassment, and at table they didn’t give offense by using improper utensils or chewing with their mouths open. They conversed easily on history, literature, music, science, and other basic subjects. They read a little Greek and Latin and spoke at least one modern language besides English—hopefully French. For recreation, gentlemen rode and hunted while their ladies did needlework; both danced gracefully and played cards competently. Both, too, paid close attention to appearances: they kept their bodies clean, they wore fresh and fashionable clothing, they lived in commodious and agreeably furnished houses.

Notwithstanding Dr. Hamilton’s verdict on the Hungarian Club, there had always been handfuls of ladies and gentlemen in New York who qualified as “refined.” Earlier in the century they gathered round Governor Hunter, sipping Madeira, discussing Shakespeare, and peering through telescopes. In the early 1730s they patronized what may have been the city’s first regular playhouse: the New Theater, located in the loft of a Nassau Street warehouse owned by Rip van Dam. When it closed after a season or two, genteel audiences contented themselves with puppet shows, pantomimes, and assemblies in the “long Room” of dancing master Henry Holt. Only after 1750, however, did refinement become de rigueur among the Manhattan gentry. By then, wartime affluence and buy-now-pay-later offers from British exporters finally afforded them access to the full range of goods and services that signaled a refined way of life.

Evident almost at once was a new opulence and complexity in upper-class attire. Guided by the life-size fashion dolls with which Britain’s garment manufacturers advertised in distant markets, wealthy New York women began to accumulate closetfuls of “smart” clothes and accessories—girdles, hooped petticoats, gowns, cloaks, hoods, bonnets, pocketbooks, muffs—preferably constructed out of such exotic materials as India damask, China “taffety,” Irish and Venetian poplin, Turkey Tabby, German serge, or Genoa velvet. They teased their hair into “towers,” slathered their faces with fancy creams and pastes and powders, and splashed their bodies with costly oils and scented waters. Upper-class men developed comparable collections of “gallant” wigs, toupees, hats, shirts, waistcoats, cloaks, cravats, breeches, shoes, stockings, buttons, pocket watches, silk handkerchiefs, ribbons, snuffboxes, swords, walking sticks, and toothpick cases.

For Gerard B. Beekman, as for other wealthy New Yorkers, the wish to appear refined required a conscious adaptation to higher standards. Beekman resolved to wear stockings of the “best Silk” instead of plain linen. He sent to London for “a good fashionable Shass [sash]” of the sort favored by officers, plus “a fashionable Silver Mounted Sword .. . with a sword knot.” He also vowed to take up the “Glorious sport” of hunting and sent away, again to London, for a “Genteel fowling Piece.” One morning on Long Island, seated in his carriage, he experienced the sublime pleasure of shooting fifteen brace of plovers. The fact that he had a carriage to sit in wasn’t unimportant either. Before 1740 only a handful of New Yorkers owned carriages, and the town had no resident coachmaker. Over the next twenty-odd years, though, carriages became securely linked to gentility and thirteen coachmakers set up shop to meet the demand.


Jane Beekman (1760-1841), by John Durand, c. 1768. Miss Beekman’s genteel upbringing is apparent not only from her fashionable clothing but the book she holds, open to a page in Latin from Erasmus. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society) By the mid-1770s there were eighty-five coaches, chaises, and phaetons in New York, and the sixty-nine families to whom they belonged ranked among the city’s richest and most powerful.

But stylish clothes and carriages alone weren’t enough. Refinement also demanded superior diction, posture, and gesture—knowing which, the gentry flocked to elocutionists, music teachers, singing masters, dancing masters, and dentists. Gentlemen practiced the lazy nasal drawl and elaborate slang of London bluebloods. “Split me, Madam,” they declared. “By Gad.” “Dam me.” Ladies learned to blush at such talk and studied the techniques of genteel correspondence.

Ultimately, the only way to assess one’s own progress toward refinement was by comparison with other aspirants in a suitable setting. New York’s biggest social event—the occasion when pretensions to refinement came under the keenest scrutiny—was still the Governor’s Ball, which took place every year at the fort following public celebrations of the King’s Birthday. During the 1750s and 1760s formal dancing assemblies, a fixture of polite society in Britain, became very influential in New York as well. Like the Governor’s Ball, they were selective. Admission was by invitation only, and the “managers” of an affair bore the solemn responsibility of ensuring that only the right kind of people got in.

“Turtle-feasts” were much in vogue too. “There are several houses, pleasantly situated on the East River, where it is common to have turtle-feasts,” one visitor reported. “These happen once or twice in a week. Thirty or forty gentlemen and ladies meet and dine together, drink tea in the afternoon, fish and amuse themselves till evening, and then return home in Italian chaises . . . a gentleman and a lady in each chaise.”

Intimate card parties became quite fashionable, whist and backgammon being all the rage at court. Private eating and drinking clubs remained a fixture of city taverns, though literary and scientific “societies,” which multiplied rapidly after mid-century, were considered more respectable. The New York Harmonic Society sponsored musical recitals and benefit concerts featuring the works of Handel, Bach, Corelli, Haydn, and other fashionable composers. Even the besotted members of the Hungarian Club were capable of a “great deal of talk about attraction, condensation, gravitation, rarification [and] the mathematical and astronomical problems of the illustrious Newton,” Dr. Hamilton admitted. “I was tired of nothing here but their excessive drinking, for in this place you may have the best of company and conversation as well as att Philadelphia.”

Chaperoned “routs” and “frolics” not only allowed young men and women of genteel families to socialize among their own kind but helped inculcate appropriate rules of courtship and marriage. Refined young bachelors learned to expect sexual favors only from serving girls or prostitutes (though that too was frowned on in some quarters). Without a chaste reputation, conversely, young women of quality couldn’t hope to find acceptable husbands.

Even at their funerals, refined New Yorkers knew, they would be on trial. Lest they appear stingy or unsociable, they took care to set aside enough money to provide mourners with an abundance of food, drink, and tobacco. In time, gifts of gold rings, silk scarves, silver spoons, and gloves for pallbearers and other important guests became practically mandatory; private family vaults created an especially favorable impression. As a result, funerals costing a hundred pounds or more weren’t unusual after the middle of the century—an amount equal to or exceeding the annual wages of a skilled craftsman and sufficient to support three or four laborers and their families for an entire year.

Probably the most challenging environment for the observation and exercise of gentility was the theater. Beginning in the early 1750s a succession of theatrical companies occupied the New Theater on Nassau Street, abandoned fifteen years earlier, where they indulged enthusiastic audiences with performances of The Recruiting Officer, Richard III, The Beggar’s Opera, Beau in the Suds, The Intriguing Chambermaid, and other favorites of the contemporary London stage. The renowned Lewis Hallam, a Covent Garden veteran, brought his London Company of Comedians to Manhattan in 1753 and erected a new New Theater on the same site as the first, only bigger, and with more attractive accommodations for the gentry. The gentry turned out in force—“a player is a new thing under the sun in our good province,” explained the young Philip Schuyler—even though they didn’t have the players to themselves. Occupants of the cheaper gallery seats frequently interrupted performances by talking, singing, fighting, and hurling eggs at the well-dressed boxholders below. The experience wasn’t lost on David Douglass, Hallam’s successor as manager of the London Company: when he put up a new playhouse on the corner of Nassau and Chapel (now Beekman) streets in 1761, he wisely added partitions to the boxes for the protection of “select Companies.”


To partisans of refinement everywhere in the Anglo-American world, the noise, squalor, and capricious intimacy of city life—the unpredictable, unintended encounters with people beneath one’s station—were sources of constant irritation. Country estates afforded occasional relief, above all in the summer, but year-round rural isolation had obvious disadvantages. A more practical solution was to define places within cities where polite people could promenade, ride carriages, converse, and socialize among themselves without having to take notice of their inferiors. Prototypes of such “resorts” already existed. The Mall in London’s St. James Park and the Tuilleries in Paris, for example, were restricted to the refined classes. London also had its “pleasure gardens” like Vauxhall and Ranelagh, ornate sanctuaries where properly dressed and well-behaved visitors could stroll, take refreshments, attend musical concerts, and the like.

In 1732 the Common Council of New York leased a portion of the large open space fronting the fort to three prominent citizens—John Chambers, Peter Bayard, and Peter Jay—who agreed to lay out and maintain a “Bowling-Green” on the site, with “Walks therein.” The little park was intended for “the delight of the inhabitants of this city,” the council said, besides which it would enhance the “Beauty & Ornament” of lower Broadway. Abigail Franks, wife of the wealthy Jewish merchant Lewis Franks, affirmed a couple of years later that Bowling Green’s “handsome Walk of trees” and neatly painted fence did indeed make a “very Pretty” retreat from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront.

By the 1760s some of the city’s most fashionable residences could be found in the immediate vicinity of Bowling Green, including those of the Van Cortlandts, Livingstons, De Lanceys, Morrises, Bayards, and De Peysters. Since the governor’s mansion stood there as well, some residents referred to this as the “court” end of town. Yet Bowling Green was neither large enough nor exclusive enough to function as a truly genteel resort.

Because few private residences had rooms of sufficient size for entertaining on a grand scale, committees of leading citizens in towns all over England and America organized the construction of special assembly rooms. As early as 1751 “several gentlemen” of New York hit upon a plan to replace the tottering eighty-year-old market house on Broad Street with a structure that could serve both commerce and genteel society. They had no trouble raising the necessary funds—the Common Council alone contributed twelve hundred pounds—and work proceeded so swiftly that the new building was ready the following year. Known as the Royal Exchange, it had an arcaded ground floor suitable for an open-air marketplace. Upstairs was a large hall with twenty-foot ceilings, ideal for balls, dinners, and concerts. Several smaller adjacent rooms provided space for more intimate gatherings or meetings. One would sometimes be used by the Common Council; another would be leased for use as the Exchange Coffee House, which was for many years the best place in town to get news of distant ports and the preferred location for privateers to auction off prizes.

Taverns often had plenty of space, but their association with drunkenness, cursing, fighting, and other plebeian vices disqualified them as milieux for polite recreations. Alert tavern keepers responded with inducements calculated to attract a wealthier, more decorous clientele. They cleaned up, laid on decent food, improved service, and even relocated in better neighborhoods; more and more of them advertised “long rooms” decorated like genteel parlors, only spacious enough for an assembly or recital of music. Samuel Fraunces, a West Indian of mixed French and African descent, had opened his first New York tavern, the Mason’s Arms, on upper Broadway near the almshouse—not a name or a location with which an ambitious man could rest content. In 1763 Fraunces moved down to the old De Lancey mansion on the corner of Broad and Pearl, still one of the handsomest buildings in town and the perfect location for a tavern where ladies and gentlemen would feel at ease. Its very name was a step up: the Queen’s Head, presumably in honor of Charlotte, wife of King George III. For two decades the Queen’s Head would be recognized as the premier establishment of its kind in the city.

The enterprising Fraunces also had a hand in bringing “pleasure gardens” to New York. Several had opened during the 1740s and 1750s, though only two remained: Spring Garden, situated at the northeast corner of Broadway and Ann Street, and Catiemuts Garden, located on the brow of a small hill of the same name about where the Boston Post Road (Park Row) now crosses Chambers Street—the same hill, some residents remembered, where the “Negroes were Burnt.” In 1765 Fraunces opened Vauxhall Garden on a prominence overlooking the Hudson near the present junction of Greenwich and Warren streets. Its attractions included a wax museum, Italian fireworks, and afternoon teas. That same year, a rival opened Ranelagh near the corner of Church and Thomas streets, advertising band concerts on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

No public space in New York attracted higher concentrations of the refined, however, than Trinity Church. Of all the city’s religious bodies, Judge Thomas Jones later recalled, Trinity enjoyed “the most influence, and greatest opulence. To this Church, the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor, most of his Majesty’s Council, many members of the General Assembly, all the officers of Government, with a numerous train of rich and affluent merchants, [and] landholders, belonged.” During the 1740s and 1750s its parishioners began renovations to Trinity’s now cramped and aging building (including the purchase of its first organ) that were aimed at creating an environment more hospitable to their genteel brand of Christianity. What they had in mind reflected the legacy of the renowned Christopher Wren and his students, who had utilized principles and themes of classical Roman architecture—strict symmetry, geometric proportions, temple-front porticos—to create buildings perfectly attuned to the ambitions and self-confidence of the propertied classes in Georgian Britain (whence the term “Georgian” architecture). Trinity paid homage to the link between this neoclassicism and gentility as early as 1752, when it erected St. George’s Chapel on Chapel (Beekman) Street for the convenience of members living on the east side of town. St. George’s columned portico, balustrades, gracefully arched windows, and hexagonal steeple wouldn’t have been out of place in a fancy London suburb.

St. George’s was soon eclipsed by Trinity’s second chapel, St. Paul’s, erected between 1764 and 1766 on the corner of Broadway and Fulton streets. Its builder, Thomas McBean, studied under the London architect James Gibbs, arguably Wren’s most eminent disciple. St. Paul’s closely resembles Gibbs’s elegant St. Martin’s-in-the Fields Church in London. Its dominant features—temple-front portico, giant Ionic columns, massive pediment, and elaborately decorated tower—gave visible expression to the desire for order, balance, and harmony that denoted the genteel way of life. (A second Wren-Gibbs-style building, the North Dutch Church on William Street, went up in 1769 to accommodate members of the Reformed faith who wanted Englishlanguage services.)

St. Paul’s domestic counterparts were the fashionable residences built by well-to-do New Yorkers in imitation of the Georgian-style mansions already ubiquitous in Britain. The most famous of the city’s “Spacious Genteel Houses” (as one visitor called them) was erected in 1752 by William Walton, son of the “Boss,” on the east side of Queen (today Pearl) Street between Peck Slip and Dover Street—not far from the Walton shipyards on the East River. Three stories high, fifty feet wide, and built of costly, yellow-hued “Holland” brick, Walton’s house was a manifesto of Georgian refinement. The details of its facade—including a majestic front door framed with fluted classical columns and topped by a broken pediment with the Walton coat of arms—conveyed not only wealth but good taste, social confidence, and family dignity. The same effect was achieved inside by oak-paneled halls, marble floors, gilt mirrors, silk damask curtains, and drawing rooms wainscoted in black walnut and hung with crystal chandeliers. An ornately carved mahogany staircase led to the second floor, one corner of which was devoted to a ballroom. Outside, to the rear of the house, lay carefully groomed grounds that sloped down past flower gardens and grape arbors to the grassy banks of the East River, where the family had a summer cottage and boathouse.

Nothing like it had ever been seen in New York, and for decades it was considered one of the finest private residences in North America. When Walton threw a victory party for British officers after their conquest of Canada in 1759, the splendor of his home made such an impression that it would be offered to Parliament as proof of the colonies’ ability to pay their fair share of imperial expenses (and of the need to boost the compensation of royal governors and other imperial functionaries, who were finding it more and more difficult to keep up).

As the interior of the Walton house demonstrated, refined standards of sociability necessitated newer, more complex approaches to the organization and furnishing of domestic space. Well-to-do New York families had long since replaced the clunky Dutch-style furniture of the William and Mary period: first with the more graceful walnut pieces in the newer Queen Anne style; then with the self-consciously classical style popularized by the London cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale after 1750; and then again, in the 1760s, with the more ornate classicism advocated by Scottish designer Robert Adam. Out, as well, went the plain, old-fashioned, often home-made canvas floor-cloths once favored by the rich as well as middling classes; in came expensive, imported “Turkey fashion” carpets, no two exactly alike.

Each room now served a specific public or private function, identified by specialized furniture, distinctive imported wallpaper, and suitable pictures. Nothing graced a drawing room or parlor more than a family portrait by Benjamin West or John Singleton Copley, whose blunt materialism appealed to the gentry’s pride in its power and possessions. The hallmarks of a genteel dining room, by contrast, were a sideboard stuffed with Wedgwood china and an abundance of specialized silver, pewter, and crystal implements, many of them associated with the serving and consumption of tea. Afternoon tea had now become a vital upper-class ritual on both sides of the Atlantic, presided over by ladies equipped with a fantastic technology of kettles, lamps, stands, urns, strainers, trays, and canisters of fine imported teas.

New rural “seats” and country houses enabled the gentry to pursue refinement outside the city as well as in. The trendsetter here was Peter Warren, whose fame as commander of the fleet that took Louisbourg in 1745 had won him a promotion to viceadmiral, a knighthood, and a seat in Parliament. Sir Peter acquired several hundred acres of land at Greenwich, a mile or so above the city, and built a comfortable Georgian country house to which he and his family could flee during the hot, pestilential months of summer.

The Warrens soon had company. In 1750 Captain Thomas Clarke acquired a tract between what are now Eighth and Tenth Avenues, running north from 14th Street to roughly 29th Street. He called it Chelsea, after the London borough, and just below the present intersection of Ninth Avenue and 23rd Street he too built a fine Georgian home. In 1760 Abraham Mortier, commissary to His Majesty’s forces, leased an estate from Trinity Church called Richmond Hill—a promontory between the present King, Varick, Charlton, and MacDougal streets—where he wined and dined a host of dignitaries, including Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who until 1763 served as supreme British commander in America. Other gentlemen, too, developed a taste for refined country life—William Bayard, James Jauncy, and John Morin Scott among them—enough that by the mid-1760s there was an almost unbroken line of great estates up the west side of Manhattan.

Much the same thing occurred on the east side. South of the present Seward Park, just below the intersection of Division and Rutgers streets, lay the hundred-acre estate of the wealthy Rutgers family, whose money came from trade and brewing. Chief Justice and later Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey occupied 340 acres on what is today 120 blocks of the Lower East Side, running from the Bowery to the East River, and north from Division Street (so named because it separated his property from that of the Rutgers family), across Delancey, to Stanton. (Orchard Street was cut through the governor’s fine stand of fruit trees.) The Stuyvesants still held Director Pieter’s original estate, encompassing most of the land west of Fourth Avenue from 5th to roughly 20th streets. Gerardus Stuyvesant (the Director’s grandson) still lived in the old family house, while his two sons, Petrus and Nicholas, occupied more up-to-date mansions nearby; Petrus dubbed his Petersfield, and Nicholas’s was known as the Bowery.

Above the Stuyvesants lay John Watts’s Rose Hill (now 29th Street and Park Avenue) and, still further north, Inclenberg, the estate of John Murray, whose mansion stood on what is now Park Avenue between 36th and 37th streets (an area known today as Murray Hill). In the early 1760s James Beekman (cousin of Gerard G. Beekman and son of William) built Mount Pleasant, an elegant villa overlooking Turtle Bay on the East River, near the foot of what is now 50th Street. Further upriver lay the mansions of Schermerhorns, Rhinelanders, Lawrences, and others. On Harlem Heights, Colonel Roger Morris and his wife, Mary Philipse, were building Mount Morris, a beautiful Georgian showplace commanding a view down the length of Manhattan. Some gentlemen preferred the comparative isolation of Westchester or Long Island. Frederick Van Cortlandt built a substantial mansion in the Bronx in 1748. Cadwallader Golden located his country seat in Flushing. Philip Livingston erected his in Brooklyn Heights, while William Axtell went all the way out to Flatbush to build his Melrose Hall.

Although some of these estates grew crops for profit, their primary purpose—besides providing refuge from epidemics—was to serve as theaters of refinement. Many New York gentlemen, inspired by the rage for gardening and landscaping among English estate owners, surrounded their country homes with vast lawns and flowerbeds, orchards, greenhouses, conservatories, fish ponds, and fanciful grottos. The great demand for flowers, shrubs, and trees prompted William Prince to found a nursery in Flushing, later called the Linnean Botanic Gardens, famous throughout the colonies.

Such embellishments conveyed an appreciation of order and harmony, paid lip service to scientific agriculture and horticulture, and provided a setting for such recreations as golf, tennis, cricket, hunting, and horse racing. Some estates boasted deerparks and game preserves—Governor Cosby may have set the local precedent when he designated Governors Island as his private game preserve—and the De Lancey estate even had its own race course just off the Bowery Road, between the present ist and 2nd streets.


One thing the spread of refinement didn’t do was improve the tone of New York politics. During King George’s War, the Morris-Livingston “landed interest” and the De Lancey-led “mercantile interest” waged increasingly rancorous public battles around the problem of Canada. With the help of Governor George Clinton, who replaced George Clarke in 1743, the landed interest clamored for wider military operations against the French. The mercantile interest resisted the idea, fearing a disruption of the Albany trade and new taxes that would jeopardize New York’s reviving commerce. When the two factions turned to voters for support, they hurled pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers at one another with furious abandon—without, however, eliciting much of a response among the freemen of the city, who remained content to leave politics to gentlemen. The merchant interest was thus able to get a firm grip on the provincial assembly, and when Clinton’s successor, Sir Danvers Osborne, committed suicide shortly after his arrival in 1753, it was James De Lancey who took control of the government as lieutenant governor.

By then, too, religion had again become an ingredient in the colony’s factional strife. The gentlemen of the landed interest had always leaned toward Presbyterianism or one of the other dissenting sects, while those of the mercantile interest mostly identified with the Anglican establishment. At mid-century this line was drawn more sharply by a trio of young men connected with the landed interest: William Livingston, John Morin Scott, and William Smith Jr., often referred to as the “Triumvirate.” Each was a recent Yale graduate. Each had read law in the office of Smith’s father, William Smith Sr., who had defended Zenger and helped prosecute the 1741 “conspirators.” And each was (or would be) a member of the Presbyterian Church (the elder Smith had been a leading Presbyterian layman).

In 1752 Livingston and his friends launched the Independent Reflector, a political journal that combined the oppositional intensity of Trenchard and Gordon’s Independent Whig with the didacticism of the Reflector, a contemporary British literary magazine in the style of Addison and Steele. One of their primary concerns was the adverse impact of prosperity on the manners and morals in New York. Dedicated to “correcting the taste and improving the Minds of our fellow Citizens,” the Independent Reflector ridiculed the grasping, pretentious people “who call themselves the Polite and Wellbred.” “Our extraordinary success during the late War has given Rise to a method of living unknown to our frugal Ancestors,” Livingston wrote scoldingly. The journal ceased publication at the end of 1753—done in, Livingston wrote, by “the fears of my enemies and the spite of malignants.” But like Zenger’s Weekly Journal, with which it shared a common intellectual ancestry, the Independent Reflector’s influence would resonate long after it had disappeared. When William Smith Jr. published the first volume of his History of the Province of New York(1757), sharply critical of the De Lanceys, he too mocked the sudden concern for refinement among well-to-do residents of the city. “Our affluence during the late war introduced a degree of luxury in tables, dress, and furniture, with which we were before unacquainted,” Smith wrote.

Yet nothing gave the Triumvirate greater cause for concern than De Lancey’s effort to make New York’s first publicly supported college an Anglican institution. Back in 1746 the Assembly had approved a lottery to raise money for a college, and when a board of trustees was finally appointed in 1751, seven of its ten members were Anglicans. They decided to build on a thirty-acre portion of the King’s (formerly Queen’s) Farm on the west side of Manhattan, donated by Trinity Church on condition that the school’s presidents belong to the Church of England and that it use the Anglican liturgy in religious services. The board then invited Samuel Johnson, the Anglican rector at Stamford, Connecticut, to lead the new institution.

William Livingston, one of the three non-Anglicans on the board, was apoplectic. He revered higher learning as a beacon of enlightenment in a crassly materialistic age and believed that a college would do much to improve New York’s reputation (there were, after all, only four other such institutions in all of British North America: Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and the College of New Jersey, now Princeton). “Our Neighbours have told us in an insulting Tone, that the Art of getting Money, is the highest Improvement we can pretend to,” he had written in the Independent Reflector. In the spring of 1753, accordingly, Livingston, Smith, Scott, and Alexander launched an all-out attack on the Anglican plan.

Their contention, in Livingston’s words, was that the Anglican scheme would make the college “a contracted Receptacle of Bigotry” and was part of an SPG conspiracy—“so perilous, so detestable a plot”—to impose religious conformity on the colony. The stakes were thus political as well as religious. Inasmuch as the Ministry Act of 1693 hadn’t actually established the Anglican Church, use of the Anglican liturgy in college services constituted an invasion of hard-won legislative prerogatives. Natural rights, constitutional liberty, rational toleration, freedom of thought, diversity of opinion, separation of church and state—those were the real issues, Livingston declared. “The Absurdity of a Religion, supported and inforced by the Terrors of the Law, is too apparent to need much farther Display.”

These Whiggish accusations made the proposed New York college a transatlantic cause celebre by tying it, like the Zenger affair fifteen years earlier, to issues and ideas deeply imbedded in Anglo-American political experience. Thomas Bradbury Chandler, Samuel Seabury Sr., Samuel Auchmuty (rector of Trinity), and other Anglican spokesmen fought back in a succession of pamphlets and newspaper essays. (Belfast-born Hugh Gaine’s New-York Mercury, published at the sign of the Bible and Crown on Hanover Square, was their favorite outlet; the Livingston forces labeled it a “priestly Newspaper.”) Inequality, hierarchy, monarchy, patriarchy, obedience to authority, and an established church—these were the true principles of social organization, the Anglicans declared. Religious toleration was one thing, the anarchy of complete religious freedom quite another. The Church of England symbolized and served the British people as a whole; its clergy acted as custodians of British values, tradition, and culture; its preeminence was as vital in the colonies as in the mother country. Opposition to the proposed college wasn’t merely ignorant: it smacked of treason and rebellion as well.

In 1754, to no one’s surprise, Governor De Lancey granted a charter for King’s College. By July of that year the new institution had opened in the vestry room of Trinity Church with Samuel Johnson as president. Later that year Livingston and his friends founded the New York Society Library. Their intent was not only to serve the city’s inhabitants generally but to maintain some influence over the new college by establishing a collection of books for the use of its students.

Wrangling continued over whether the Assembly would allow public money to be spent for the college. The arrival of Osborne’s replacement, Sir Charles Hardy, cleared the way for a compromise in 1756. The Assembly agreed to give half the lottery money to the college and the other half to the city for a new municipal jail and pesthouse (a quarantine hospital for the victims of contagious diseases). Construction of a proper academic building began at once on the plot now bounded by Murray, Barclay, West Broadway, and Church streets; Bedloe’s Island in the Upper Bay—which the city purchased in 1758—was chosen as the site for the pesthouse, completed by 1760. Compromise or no, Livingston and company continued for years to view King’s College with deep suspicion.


Throughout the King’s College controversy, the Livingstons, unlike their predecessors in the “popular party” of the 1730s, made no real attempt to mobilize a broad following. Freemen continued to pay little attention to local elections, and the numbers of small shopkeepers and artisans on the Common Council fell to levels not seen in forty years. Nor was there much popular interest in official ceremonies, as the traveler Peter Kalm discovered. “The King of England’s Birthday was celebrated in town to-day,” Kalm wrote in November 1749, “but the people didn’t make a great fuss over it. A cannon was fired at noon and the warships were decorated with many flags. In the evening there were candles in some windows and a ball at the governor’s. Some drank until they became intoxicated, and that was all.”

When the occasion seemed to warrant it, however, the common people didn’t hesitate to defend their interests—in the streets rather than at the polls. Over the winter of 1753-54, for example, a self-appointed committee of merchants agreed that by devaluing copper pennies in relation to the shilling they could improve the colony’s balance of payments with the mother country. Outraged that devaluation would also raise the price of bread and depress wages, laboring people “armed with Clubs and Staves” took to the streets to protest, though without success.

Trouble could erupt, too, over the tendency of soldiers stationed in town to supplement their meager pay by moonlighting as tradesmen or laborers. As their numbers increased, their competition with native working people became the subject of more than a few dockside rows and tavern brawls. What really riled townspeople, however, was raids by naval press gangs. One spring morning in 1756 marines armed with clubs and pistols came ashore at Murray’s Wharf, hurried through the Fly Market, and, ignoring orders to seize “only such as had the appearance of seafaring or labouring men,” entered houses and grabbed people indiscriminately. One man was chased down Wall Street, beaten unconscious, and dragged off. The following spring, when Lord Loudoun’s expeditionary fleet was delayed from sailing against Louisbourg by a scarcity of hands, he had three thousand men cordon off the city at two o’clock in the morning, then sent press gangs to search “the Taverns and other houses, where sailors usually resorted.” By dawn, they had hauled in eight hundred people, including “All kinds of Tradesmen and Negroes”—a number equal to more than a quarter of New York’s adult male population. Even after half had been released, the four hundred or so “retained in the service” were more than enough to meet Loudon’s needs. In 1760, when the fiftygun HMS Winchester fired a shot over the bow of the privateer Sampson and dispatched a party to board it, the Sampson’s crew locked the captain in the cabin, then blasted the press gang with a volley of musketry, killing or wounding several. The mariners then took refuge in the town, where sympathetic citizens helped them escape the clutches of the sheriff.

Despite such incidents, seamen were doing well in the war years; indeed the navy’s resort to impressment was a consequence of the mariners’ prosperity. New York seamen had been swept by “almost a kind of madness to go a-privateering,” Lieutenant Governor De Lancey noted in 1758. They had been quickly joined by farmers, laborers—and deserters from the Royal Navy. In 1759 alone, forty-eight ships were commissioned out of New York as privateers manned by 5,670 seamen.

Reality rarely lived up to expectations. The crew of a privateer that returned to port with thirty-five thousand pounds or more in prizes would have £12,600 to divide among themselves (subtracting court costs and the shares for the owners, captain, and mates). On a typical ship of around seventy-five or so hands, that could mean £168 per man—a lot of money at a time when common laborers earned thirty pounds a year. Most privateers came home empty-handed, however, and in nearly two decades of war the average tar probably received no more than eleven pounds for his troubles. Assuming he came home at all, that is: one out of every two or three was killed, captured by the enemy, or injured.

So many common seamen continued nonetheless to sign up with privateers that New York shipowners were obliged to offer five shillings per day for regular voyages (over three times the peacetime rate), while the government had to offer five pounds a month to recruit sailors for service on troop transports (a master’s rate in peacetime). That was good news for the three thousand or so seamen working on New York vessels by 1762.

The town’s artisans flourished as well. The East River shipyards, stretching up the waterfront toward Corlear’s Hook, did a booming business refitting merchantmen with the cannon and extra sail required for a Caribbean expedition and repairing those that returned to port with damages. Ropemakers, sailmakers, coopers, chandlers—all had steady employment now for the first time in recent memory. Cordwainers struggled to keep up with huge military orders for boots and shoes, a boon also for the city’s tanners, whose operations had been moved from Beekman’s Swamp to the Fresh Water Pond, where they were allowed to dig their tanning pits and draw water. British troops needed hats too, so officials winked at violations of the 1732 parliamentary law that limited colonial hatmaking. In 1755 New York’s bakers, on hearing that the army would need fifty thousand pounds of bread, jacked up their prices a hefty 14 percent. His Majesty’s forces likewise paid good money to cartmen for hauling supplies and gunpowder. Merchants, too, needed cartmen more than ever, and Mayor John Cruger, himself a powerful merchant, began to expand their ranks in 1756. Over his nine-year term Cruger licensed 386 new carters, a nearly tenfold increase. (Cartmen remained tightly regulated, though. The Common Council set standard rates on over a hundred commodities and listed them in chapbooks distributed throughout the city. Violators could be tracked down easily as each cartman had to put his number, using red paint, on his wagon.)

The presence of hundreds of military and naval officers, together with surging civilian demand, caused a burst of new construction that raised the number of houses in New York from 1,991 in 1753 to nearly twenty-six hundred by 1760. Housewrights, bricklayers, stonemasons, glaziers, plasterers, painters, and carvers commanded wages about 25 percent higher than prewar levels, and the demand for building materials led the city to allow manufacturers to set up brick kilns on the Common or on leased land farther north. Similarly, the influx of officers created a rich new market for the luxury goods produced by local carvers and gilders, watchmakers, furniture makers, painters, pewterers and potters, silversmiths, perfumers, glovers, seamstresses, hoopmakers, and mantua makers. During the war years, forty-one wigmakers and hairdressers found employment in New York, providing men with perukes and ladies with fashionable towers. Shoemakers offered goods “equal if not superior to any made in London,” and as word of the provincial demand for finery crossed the Atlantic, milliners and staymakers began arriving from London and Bath with the latest fashions.

Specialty shops around Hanover Square thrived on the demand for wines, tobacco, china, glassware, stationery, and teas. Much of this retailing continued to be done by women—widows as well as the wives of merchants and sea captains—who tended to specialize in dry goods and millinery. Some did so well as the city’s economy charged forward that they crossed the line separating shopkeepers from she-merchants. Martha Carrick ran an ordinary “shop” until 1761, when she moved into the “store” (short for “storehouse”) of a former merchant and began selling only at wholesale. Frances Willett in Wall Street sold sugar and rum by the hogshead, which she fetched from St. Kitts on her own two ships, a schooner and a snow.

The most successful wartime retailers were the tavern owners who sold food and drink to the thousands of seamen and soldiers passing through town every year. New York, in fact, could boast of more licensed public houses than any other colonial city—334 by 1752, up from 166 only eight years earlier. Local merchants who had once imported rum now began making their own: of the ten rum distilleries in 1753, the leading “works” were those of Livingston and Lefferts, erected “at great expence” just behind Trinity Church. After 1760 Pierre Lorillard did his best to keep the city’s nicotine output on par with its alcohol production. Having served an apprenticeship as a snuffmaker, Lorillard opened his own “manufactory” in a small rented house on Chatham Street. Here he packed snuff into animal bladders, which had first been dried and tanned, then sold it to wholesalers, thereby launching Manhattan’s tobacco industry.

The pursuit of refinement by war contractors and others provided work for a small army of gardeners, coachmen, butlers, footmen, and maids, although many domestic servants remained unpaid slaves. In 1756 New York counted 695 female slaves over the age of sixteen and another 443 under it, constituting a pool of over a thousand black women to serve a population of almost 10,800 whites. Black men continued to do much of the town’s heavy labor, as well as to be used by their owners as fishermen, coopers, barbers, or boatmen. At the same time, the institution of slavery was gradually coming under more severe criticism throughout the English-speaking world, and white New Yorkers were exposed to a growing number of books, pamphlets, and newspapers that argued for abolition on economic as well as religious grounds. One essayist, after a careful statistical analysis, pronounced “the labor of freemen to be much more productive than of slaves” and concluded “that slavery is impolitic as well as unjust.”


Although years of war boosted the city’s income from licensing fees, rents, fines, and other charges, both the mayor and the Common Council proved reluctant to spend money on municipal improvements. They made little effort, for example, to upgrade harbor facilities in response to the upsurge in waterfront traffic and made only occasional repairs to the municipally owned Great Dock, now used mainly for fishing boats, market boats, and other small craft. Rather, the magistrates continued the old practice of granting water lots, often to one another, for the building of quays (wharves that paralleled the shore) rather than substantial piers. Similarly, despite the expansion of overland traffic between Westchester and Manhattan, the city built no new bridges over the Harlem River. King’s Bridge, erected by Frederick Philipse in 1693, was still the only crossing, and still charged exorbitant tolls. Its monopoly was finally broken by private entrepreneurs in 1759, when Benjamin Palmer and Jacob Dyckman—blacksmith, tavern keeper, and the owner of a riverfront farm—constructed their Freebridge.

The Common Council was diligent, to be sure, about keeping streets and roads in good repair, inasmuch as they were vital to the local economy. Maintaining the upisland Kingsbridge and Bloomingdale roads cost little or nothing because the law required all inhabitants to do roadwork two days a year, using their own spades and pickaxes, or pay a large fine (wealthy residents routinely paid). Not until 1764 would the council create the first rudimentary highway department, hiring laborers and surveyors whose wages were paid out of a general tax levy. Around the same time, recognizing the need for better roads within the city itself, the council ordered boatloads of cobblestones from Westchester to pave streets near public buildings—the fort, Bowling Green, City Hall, and the Old Slip Market. It also enforced street-cleaning laws rigorously, though packs of feral swine and dogs continued to roam about with impunity.

The council proved much less attentive to the sanitation problems created by steady population growth and overcrowding. After ten P.M., householders and servants were allowed to empty ordure tubs of human waste into the rivers, where it coated the wharves and quays with a fecal slime. A storm sewer under Broad Street, reinforced with stone in 1747, was designed to drain into the East River, but even with the addition of trunk lines in Wall Street and elsewhere, it never functioned properly, and pools of rank, debris-filled water were a frequent challenge to pedestrians. Although residents complained loudly about the appalling stench and clouds of flies that blanketed the city as a result— a hot day in summer could be almost unbearable—the Common Council seemed unwilling or unable to act.

Nor did it cope effectively with the increase of crime that accompanied the city’s new prosperity after 1750. Prostitution, for example, had been relatively unobtrusive in New York as late as 1744, when Dr. Hamilton learned that an after-dusk stroll on the Battery “was a good way for a stranger to fit himself with a courtezan; for that place was the generall rendezvous of the fair sex of that profession after sunset.” The mass arrival of troops and privateers prompted more aggressive and organized approaches to commercial sex—bolder women venturing out to board ships at anchor in the harbor, others setting up “Houses of 111 Repute” in town. Raids on these establishments in July 1753 netted twenty-two “ladies of Pleasure,” five of whom received fifteen lashes before “a vast Number of Spectators” and were then banished. These measures were utterly ineffectual, though, and prostitution became a more and more conspicuous element of the city scene in the years that followed.

So did assault, mugging, robbery, and other crimes against persons and property, which residents blamed on the influx of disreputable outsiders like the “Gang of Fellows of no good Aspect” who arrived one day on the stage from Philadelphia. As early as 1749 one local paper reported that it had “become dangerous for the good People of this City, to be out late at Nights, without being sufficiently strong or well armed,” and half a dozen years later the printer Hugh Gaine estimated that at least one house in New York was burgled every night. The unpaid citizen watch, consisting chiefly of residents who couldn’t afford to buy their way out of obligatory service, was useless—a “Parcel of idle, drunken, vigilant Snorers, who never quelled any nocturnal Tumult in their lives,” the Gazette scoffed in 1757, “but would, perhaps, be as ready to join in a Burglary as any Thief in Christendom.” Equally ineffective as a deterrent were the public floggings and other forms of corporal punishment ordered by the courts. Mary Anderson, “a loose and profligate Wretch,” was given thirty-nine lashes for theft in 1754, and “she afforded some Diversion while at the Post to the Mob, as she was very obstinate and resisting.”

In 1759 the Common Council responded to the rising clamor for action by erecting a new city jail in the Common (at the northeast corner of today’s City Hall Park). The New Gaol was quickly filled with French and Indian prisoners of war, however, and the council had to begin making plans for a second structure. Three years later the council took the further step of creating a paid watch to patrol the streets at night. It decided, too, to begin installing whale-oil lamps around town and hired municipal lamplighters to keep them lit.

Besides crime, the council had to contend with the ever-present danger of fire, magnified now by the great stockpiles of pitch, tar, resin, turpentine, and gunpowder that His Majesty’s armed forces had located in and around town. New regulations were adopted for the storage of flammable materials, and official inspectors were appointed to secure compliance. Because the new density of buildings in lower Manhattan heightened the risk of a major conflagration, the provincial assembly ordered, in 1761, that all new buildings erected after 1766 south of the Fresh Water Pond be roofed with slate or tile rather than the highly combustible white fir or cedar shingles (then delayed implementation of the law for an additional ten years after residents objected to the expense).


One of the city’s first fire engines, detail from a notice of the Hand-in-Hand Fire Company. (I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

Back in 1731 the council had ordered two firepumps of the very latest design from London. Because they required teams of men to operate—some for the bucket brigades that kept the reservoirs supplied with water, others to work the levers that forced water out through a hose—the council appointed thirty “Strong able Discreet honest and Sober Men” to run “the said ffire Engines” (in lieu of wages they were exempted from serving as constables, highway laborers, or jurymen). When this force proved deficient in dealing with the blazes of 1741, the city immediately bought a hundred new buckets (marked “City of N.Y.”), purchased two more London engines, and expanded the force to forty-four men. Additional engines arrived in 1758, at which time the magistrates ordered construction of sheds to house them—at least one in each ward, with the largest at Hanover Square.

If its interest in civic improvements thus seemed haphazard—driven as much by a concern to protect the estate of the municipal corporation as by a sense of duty to an abstract public interest—the Common Council must have taken considerable satisfaction from the stream of visitors who praised the city’s busy, well-regulated appearance. As one of His Majesty’s naval officers admitted in 1756, it caught Europeans off guard. “The nobleness of the town surprised me more than the fertile appearance of the country,” he remarked. “I had no idea of finding a place in America, consisting of near 2,000 houses, elegantly built of brick, raised on an eminence and the streets paved and spacious, furnished with commodious keys and warehouses, and employing some hundreds of vessels in its foreign trade and fisheries—but such is this city that very few in England can rival it in its show.”


City authorities also spruced up the municipal almshouse in the 1740s and 1750s, for despite the general prosperity of the war years, poverty remained a problem. Some inmates were casualties of combat, others of inflated currency, others of the death of a provider. One widow told a local newspaper in 1752 that her husband’s death had left her “in the greatest poverty,” with only her eldest boy, twelve years old, able to support the family selling oysters. Oysters, in fact, were the mainstay of the poor. As Peter Kalm observed, many “lived all year long upon nothing but oysters and a little bread.”

Other working people had better luck. A few butchers, innkeepers, and sugar boilers got rich during the war years; blacksmith Matthew Buys, cordwainer John Sickles, and baker John Orchard did well enough to purchase estates of over 150 acres.

The bulk of New York’s laboring population happily settled for reaping the rewards of constant employment at high wages. Many saved enough to buy a piece of property on which to set up a house and shop—though not in the dock area, where competition between merchants, retailers, and real estate investors had driven the price of land near Hanover Square and Bowling Green beyond the reach of any but the most prosperous craftsmen. A standard lot there, measuring twenty-five by a hundred feet, could rent for as much as twenty pounds a year for the land alone (the “ground rent”), exclusive of improvements. A house in the Dock Ward or East Ward might rent for as much as two hundred pounds a year. It wasn’t any easier finding cheap land outside of town, where thousands of acres had long since been engrossed by the country estates of Stuyvesants, Bayards, Warrens, Rutgers, and other prominent families.

Virtually the only place open to residents of modest means was the hundred-acre tract owned by Trinity Church on Manhattan’s west side. Known familiarly as the Church Farm, it lay in the West and Out wards between what are now Cortlandt and Christopher streets. In 1762, hoping to generate additional income, Trinity’s vestry had the property surveyed and mapped into rectilinear blocks. It then offered to lease two hundred lots, most of them measuring twenty by a hundred feet, for periods of twenty-one, forty-two, or sixty-three years and for attractively low ground rents—two pounds per year for the first seven years, three pounds per year for the next seven, and four pounds per year for the remainder of the lease—on the assumption that land values would double over time. Artisans and laborers realized that for the same money it would cost to rent near the wharves they could erect their own wooden houses on the Church Farm (improvements remained their own property).

The largest single group of working people to settle this part of town were the cart­men, whose numbers and incomes had swollen during the war. They built homes and stables and declared their presence by planting cart-and-horse signs in front of their houses. (Because Trinity permitted subletting, some leased two or three lots for purposes of speculation.) Second in numbers to the carters were bricklayers, masons, house carpenters, stonecutters, and other representatives of the flourishing construction trades. Like cartmen, many of them worked not in their own homes but at job sites around town. Some artisans (cabinetmakers, for example) and retailers moved west to set up combined work-and-living households, from which they could practice their trades. There were virtually no merchants or professionals (or blacks, who had been legally barred from owning property since 1712).

This proto-working-class neighborhood was set off by more than distance from the wealthier East River wards. The discrepancy between the Georgian grandeur of upperclass brick residences and the rough-and-ready wooden housing of artisans was readily apparent—inside as well as out. One knowledgeable observer calculated that while New York’s finest private homes averaged seven hundred pounds’ worth of “Plate and furniture,” and those of the “Middling” class some two hundred pounds, the contents of “lower Class” houses averaged a mere forty pounds, and many fell below twenty pounds. Then, too, the cobblestoned solidity of Hanover and Broad streets stood in marked contrast to the west side’s raw, unpaved roads, which frequently became quagmires of mud, garbage, and manure.

It was a comfortable quarter nonetheless, not too far from the city’s commercial district and anchored by institutions like Abraham Montayne’s tavern on Broadway, just across from the Common. Montayne’s became an informal neighborhood headquarters, a place to read a newspaper and talk over the latest news, a rendezvous for personal or public celebrations, a magnet for canny politicians who appeared on election day to buy a round for the voters. Its clientele could play at dice and cards (ignoring the provincial law that promised to fine innkeepers who let youths, apprentices, journeymen, servants, or common sailors gamble). They might also take a chance, between beers, on one of the “private Lotteries” that were springing up (also illegal because they encouraged “Labouring People to Assemble together at Taverns where Such Lotteries are usually Set on Foort & Drawn”). From time to time, as well, they could take in the display of a live leopard, a waxworks show, a bullbaiting, and other entertainments hosted by the proprietor.

Montayne’s was far from the only such establishment in New York. Dozens of waterfront dives like the Pine Apple, the Dish of Fry’d Oysters, or the Dog’s Head in the Porridge served similar functions for seamen and shipyard workers. Out-of-town drovers and city butchers congregated in the smoky, low-ceilinged rooms of the Bull’s Head Tavern, which stood just below modern Canal Street amid a jumble of stables, cattle pens, and slaughterhouses. Increasingly, moreover, the sweaty, wood-and-pewter camaraderie of these workingmen’s hangouts was shunned by persons of fastidious sensibility, who preferred the more genteel ambience of the King’s Arms or the Queen’s Head.

And if gentlemen still rubbed elbows with workingmen at cockfights, horse races, and the theater, the widening cultural distance between them was readily apparent now in the contrast between the fancy wig-and-powder fashions of the upper classes and the practical costumes of ordinary craftsmen or the hand-me-down garb of the poor. Nowhere, indeed, did the splendor of a refined gentleman in full regalia shine more brilliantly than in the light of advertisements for runaway servants during the 1750s. These often noted in detail what New York’s poorest inhabitants wore from one day to the next: “a coarse Linnen Jacket”—“a Half worn blue Broadcloth Coat”—“half worn Shoes, with plain Brass Buckles in them”—“homespun Cloth Colour’d Jacket”—“blue Plush Breeches pieced behind with Buck-Skin, an old Felt Hat, blue Stockings, old ribbed leggings over them”—“old Leather Breeches patched before, a half worn Wool Hat, coarse light coloured ribbed Stockings, old Shoes”—“blue homespun coat and jacket, greasy leather breeches, old grey stockings.”

Plebeians as well as patricians remarked on the new, increasingly visible distances between the classes. Some working people began to use terms like “silk-stocking” or “big-wig” as an epithet. In 1761 a certain “Sally Tippet” wrote sarcastically that many women still adhered to “home-bred fashions and complements,” adding that “I believe the one-half have neither milliners, dolls, dressing-maids, dancing-masters, nor indeed pier-glasses.”


Silver beaker, engraved by Joseph Leddel of New York in 1760 with scenes of the devil leading the Pope and Pretender into the mouth of Hell. The full inscription reads: “Three mortal enemies Remember. The Devil Pope and the Pretender./ Most wicked damnable and evil. The Pope Pretender and the Devil./ I wish they were all hang’d in a rope. The Pretender Devil and the Pope.” These figures were no doubt very similar to the effigies carried in the city’s annual Pope Day celebrations. (© Museum of the City of New York)

This same trend can be traced in the emergence of Pope Day as a distinctively popular festival. The fifth of November, nominally a patriotic holiday commemorating the failed plot of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament, had had a kind of semiofficial standing in New York since the British conquest. It was an opportunity for the governor to make a speech, for gentlemen to toast the health of the monarch, for the artillerymen of the garrison to fire their cannon, for right-thinking inhabitants to illuminate their houses with candles in every window. Beginning in the later 1740s, however, the city’s working people appropriated the day’s festivities for their own purposes. Speeches by persons in authority gave way to raucous, torch-lit parades by tradesmen, sailors, apprentices, laborers, boys, and slaves that culminated with the marchers throwing effigies of the pope, the Pretender, and the devil into a roaring bonfire.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!