The Demon of Discord

During the summer of 1766 New York’s prospects grew more dismal. Parliament passed a new Revenue Act that not only failed to lift the burdens of the 1764 Sugar Act but actually made them heavier. Thousands of redcoats were now pouring into town too, and because the Assembly refused on principle to requisition salt, vinegar, and beer for them as required by the Quartering Act—no taxation without representation, it said—His Majesty’s forces were spoiling for trouble. One day in August 1766 fed-up soldiers from the barracks poured into the Common and chopped down the liberty pole erected there in May. When Isaac Sears and a party of Liberty Boys tried to put it up again, they were driven off. Sears and his men returned in strength to raise an even grander pole, after which they pressured local retailers, tradesmen, tavern keepers, and householders to shun all military personnel. Again the redcoats destroyed the liberty pole—now obviously a vital symbol for both sides—and again Sears and company replaced it.

Toward the end of November 1766, summoned by the reactivated Sons, 240 merchants signed a lengthy petition to Parliament explaining (again) why the West Indian trade was vital to the city’s long-term prosperity and should not be sacrificed for the short-term purposes of raising revenue. Arriving at the same time as news that the New York Assembly still refused to comply with the Quartering Act, the petition was ill received in London. “Highly improper,” harrumphed Prime Minister Chatham, “most absurd. . . most excessive. . . most grossly fallacious and offensive. What demon of discord blows the coals in that devoted province I know not.”

Charles Townshend, the new chancellor of the exchequer, asked Parliament to suspend the New York Assembly. Because the Lords and Commons had recently slashed the land tax, throwing the government further into the red, Townshend also urged Parliament to create a new Board of Customs Commissioners to stiffen enforcement of the Navigation Acts and improve the collection of revenues from the colonies. Finally, he proposed the imposition of new taxes on paper, lead, glass, ink, paints, and tea imported into the colonies. By June 1767 his program had become law.



Boston, roused over the late summer and early autumn by the oratory and organizational skills of James Otis and Samuel Adams, led the opposition to Townshend. Its merchants drew up the first in a new series of colonial nonimportation agreements, and early in 1768 the Massachusetts House of Representatives adopted a Circular Letter, inviting coordinated American protest against the Townshend program. Unwilling to back down a second time, Parliament and ministry responded with a show of force. The Massachusetts legislature was summarily dissolved—the second such body in as many years to fall before imperial wrath—and troops were dispatched to Boston as well to quell what was being referred to in London as a virtual insurrection.

For New York, the events of 1767 and 1768, though less dramatic than what took place in Boston, were no less tumultuous. In December 1767, at one of many protest meetings, residents chose a committee to devise yet another plan for promoting local manufactures, employing the poor, and encouraging frugality. The following April, the city’s merchants organized its first Chamber of Commerce and agreed to join the nonimportation movement providing their counterparts in Philadelphia did likewise. In late August 1768 “Nearly all the Merchants and Traders in town” signed an agreement to begin nonimportation on November 1. Artisans and tradesmen, rallied by the Sons of Liberty, pledged to support the agreement and to use “every lawful Means in our Power” to see that everyone else did too. By the end of the year business in the city had once again come to a halt.

Two back-to-back elections for the provincial assembly had meanwhile strained long-established political practices and institutions to the breaking point. Although it escaped dissolution by Parliament on a technicality, Governor Moore dissolved the provincial assembly for objecting to the Townshend Duties, which led to an election in March 1768. Then he dissolved it again, for endorsing the Massachusetts Circular Letter and issuing a bold “Declaration of Rights,” and another election followed, in March 1769. Sears and the Liberty Boys, who thought the Livingston-dominated Assembly hadn’t done enough, threw their support to the De Lanceys, who won back much of the ground they had lost over the previous decade. Never before had the outcome of a faction fight between gentlemen been so influenced by men who weren’t gentlemen.

Neither had gentlemen ever before faced such insistent popular demands for changes in the political process: open sessions of the Assembly, secret ballots, and strict adherence to the principle that legislators should do what they were instructed to do by their constituents rather than what they thought best for them. In response, the Assembly opened its doors to the public for the first time in early 1769. In municipal elections, too, more and more working people were involving themselves in the political process. Local elections brought steady increases in the numbers of artisans winning seats on the Common Council, and three out of five constables, collectors, and assessors were artisans.

The 1769 election even brought a hint of organized ethnic involvement in politics, when it was alleged that in the previous year’s contest lawyer Thomas Smith, of the Livingston faction, had said “that the Irish were poor beggars, and had come over here upon a bunch of straw.” The whole body of Irishmen, it was observed, “immediately joined and appeared with straws in their hats.” Fearful that Irish voters would desert en masse to the De Lancey side, the Livingstons hastened to publish a broadside utterly denying that Smith had been involved in “abusing or reflecting upon the Irish People” and asserting that indeed he had “expressed his Disapprobation of such Conduct.”


Dissatisfaction with established hierarchies was heightened by a new eruption of evangelical Protestantism in the city. George Whitefield, who had an instinct for showing up at key moments in the Anglo-American crisis, swung through town in 1763—65 and again in 1769—70 to remind his vast audiences of the difference between an authentic “religion of the heart” and the sterile “legal Christianity” of an unregenerate clergy. The thousands of working-class immigrants descending on New York from England, Scotland, and Ireland also proved fertile ground for the exertions of Methodists like Philip Embury, a Palatine German carpenter who had been preaching Methodism in Ireland and came to New York in 1760. At the instigation of his cousin Barbara Heck, who had been upset to find her brother playing cards in a hayloft in John Street, Embury began preaching to a small group in his home in 1766. A Methodist organization was formed, led by Embury and Captain Thomas Webb, a British army officer who had been conducting interracial services in Brooklyn. The fledgling Manhattan congregation met in a sail loft on William Street until Wesley Chapel was completed in 1768, fittingly enough on John Street.

New York’s tiny Baptist congregation flourished as well. While its old church on Golden Hill hadn’t survived the 1730s, the denomination had been revitalized in the 1740s by shipbuilder Jeremiah Dodge, who held prayer meetings at his house. Now, in the early 1760s, the First Baptist Church moved into a stone meetinghouse on Gold Street, just south of Fulton, and by 1763 had forty members.

Against this background, the city’s principal dissenting sects set out to incorporate themselves as had Trinity many years earlier (incorporation permitted them to receive bequests, acquire and convey property, and the like). In March 1766, with the Stamp Act controversy raging around them, John Morin Scott, Peter R. Livingston, and other trustees of the First Presbyterian Church had petitioned the crown for a charter of incorporation. They were turned down on the grounds that the king had a duty to uphold the exclusive rights of the Church of England. The bishop of London and other imperial officials had also strongly advised against such a charter, fearing that it would encourage discord and undermine the dignity of His Majesty’s government. It was a severe but revealing disappointment. When petitions from the Lutherans, Huguenots, and Reformed churches likewise failed, the established order, especially the Anglican Church, gathered a harvest of bitterness.

In May 1766 more than eighty Presbyterian and Reformed clergymen and deacons from around the colonies assembled in New York to voice their opposition to the appointment of an Anglican bishop for America. Arguments for such an appointment, though not new, had recently been revived by Samuel Johnson, president of King’s College, and the Rev. Thomas Bradbury Chandler; they would be heard again the following year, with still greater force, when John Ewer, the bishop of Landaff, denounced the colonists as “infidels and barbarians” in an address to the Society for the Preservation of the Gospel, and the society began an all-out push for the creation of an Anglican episcopate in America. Read in light of Townshend’s simultaneous attempt to tax the colonies, news of the SPG offensive was received by dissenters as well as secular radicals with indignation and apprehension. Their objection, as John Adams later explained, wasn’t just to the office of bishop as such “but to the authority of parliament, on which it must be founded.”

In New York, William Livingston, probably with the help of William Smith and John Morin Scott, entered the fray with a series of essays entitled “The American Whig.” Running in the New-York Gazette from March 1768 to July 1769—thus overlapping the spirited Assembly campaigns of those years, the failure of dissenting congregations to secure charters of incorporation, and the new upsurge of evangelical fervor—Livingston’s “American Whig” assailed the proposal for an American episcopate with arguments and a fervor reminiscent of the Triumvirate’s attacks on King’s College a decade earlier.

Evidence of Livingston’s effectiveness came early in 1769, when New York’s leading Baptists and Presbyterians—Alexander McDougall, William Livingston, John Morin Scott, David Van Home, and several members of the Livingston clan, among others—formed the Society of Dissenters to fight episcopacy. One of the society’s first recommendations was to urge the public to support dissenters rather than Anglicans in that year’s Assembly elections. It subsequently advocated legislation relieving dissenters of the duty to pay taxes for the upkeep of Anglican clergy in the colony and, in 1770, got a bill through the Assembly repealing the Ministry Act of 1693. The bill died in the heavily Anglican council, however, and several years later Governor William Tryon would rule that the Anglican Church in New York was in fact legally established and immune from legislative interference. The whole experience confirmed that the line between religion and politics in New York had grown exceedingly fine indeed.

By the end of the decade, as one Methodist preacher reported to John Wesley in May 1770, the “religion of Jesus” had become a “favorite topic in New York.” Even the city’s “gay and polite” inhabitants were now “alive to God.” “A person who could not speak about the grace of God and the new birth was esteemed unfit for genteel company,” testified another observer. Thirteen of eighteen Protestant congregations in Manhattan had already gone over to pietism, while Trinity, that citadel of Anglicanism in New York, harbored a budding minority of evangelicals. (There was also a burst of church building and renovation. Between 1750 and 1776 half of the city’s twenty-two religious houses were built or substantially refurbished.)

Religious orthodoxy and denominationalism had always been vital to the order of things in British New York. Their precipitous retreat during the 1760s not only made the rehabilitation of imperial power next to impossible but threw into question the authority of all social and political institutions as well. What was more, the corresponding advance of pluralism, individualism, and antiauthoritarianism—habits of mind whose meanings are as much religious as secular—increased the willingness of evangelicals to associate and cooperate with one another regardless of the doctrinal formalities that nominally divided them. Out of their concerted assaults on the religious establishment would come an organizational sophistication that mirrored—perhaps indeed helped lay the foundations for—the emergence of new secular political associations.


Opposition to the Townshend program was now at the end of its second year. In March 1769 New York merchants assembled at Bolton and Sigel’s tavern near the Exchange (formerly the Queen’s Head) to set up a Committee of Inspection for enforcing their nonimportation agreement. Headed by the indefatigable Sears, and widely believed to be an arm of the Sons of Liberty, the committee patrolled the waterfront, checked papers, and searched warehouses in search of violators. The best measure of its success was that imports from Britain fell to a mere seventy-six thousand pounds by the end of 1769, an 85 percent decline from the £491,000 reported just the year before, steeper than in any other colony.

In September 1769 Governor Henry Moore died, setting in motion an extraordinary train of events. Taking over again as acting governor was none other than Cadwallader Golden, now eighty-one (he “fairly lives himself into office,” grumbled the merchant John Watts). Golden, who saw this (as his last chance to score points with the ministry and snare an appointment as governor in his own right, negotiated an alliance of convenience with the De Lancey forces. Early in December, as part of their deal, the De Lancey-led Assembly—though it had just endorsed the Virginia Resolves of May denying Parliament’s right to tax the colonies—abruptly chose to comply with the Quartering Act by appropriating two thousand pounds to provision His Majesty’s troops stationed in New York. It was a spectacular blunder.

On December 16 an anonymous broadside entitled To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York appeared on the streets. Signed only by “A Son of Liberty,” it attacked Golden and the Assembly as corrupt minions of British tyranny. It also recommended that the friends of liberty in New York, and indeed throughout America, “Imitate the noble example of the friends of Liberty in England; who, rather than be enslaved, contend for their right with k———g, lords, and commons.”

This was an unmistakable reference to the controversy then boiling around John Wilkes, a radical member of Parliament who had been imprisoned in 1763 for his part in the publication of an allegedly libelous political pamphlet, The North Briton, no. 45. In 1768, a hard year for England’s laboring classes, Wilkes won reelection to Parliament from Middlesex County and got himself thrown into jail again on the old charge of seditious libel. Crying, “Wilkes and Liberty!”—“Wilkes and No King!”—his indignant supporters, primarily small property owners and working people, paralyzed London with strikes, rallies, marches, and riots. On May 10, the day Parliament opened, as many as forty thousand demonstrators in St. George’s Fields (a crowd exceeding the population of New York City) was fired on by troops, with considerable loss of life.

Amid spreading disorder, Parliament refused to let Wilkes take his seat. Three times more the Middlesex electors sent him back; three times more Parliament turned Wilkes away. By mid- 1769 the government had more or less lost control of London to an array of spontaneously organized radical clubs and popular associations—among them the famous Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights—for whom Wilkes’s ordeal now symbolized the need for massive reform, even revolution. To suggest, as had the author of To the Betrayed Inhabitants, that New York needed a dose of the same thing was a provocation of the first rank.

While the De Lancey-led Assembly labored to uncover the identity of “A Son of Liberty,” ill will between soldiers and civilians escalated sharply. The liberty pole in the Common was the scene of frequent mass meetings at which John Lamb and other popular orators assailed the Assembly’s decision to provision the troops both because it violated the sacred rights of Englishmen and because it imposed new hardships on the city’s working people as well. On the night of January 13, 1770, a Saturday, soldiers of the Sixteenth Regiment swarmed out of the barracks and again attempted to blow up the liberty pole with a charge of gunpowder. When the pole didn’t fall, the soldiers trashed Montayne’s Tavern, the westside cartmen’s hangout that had become the headquarters of the Liberty Boys. Monday night the soldiers tried a second time to topple the pole, and a second time they failed. Tuesday night they finally succeeded, leaving sawed-up pieces of the pole in a pile by Montayne’s front door.

The denouement came on Friday, January 19. Led by Isaac Sears, a crowd of angry seamen and workingmen armed with cutlasses and clubs brawled with bayonet-wielding soldiers on Golden Hill, a former wheatfield at the crest of John Street (near William). That the Sixteenth had just completed a tour of duty in Ireland must have been an inspiration to those of Sears’s followers who had so recently escaped that island. The ensuing Battle of Golden Hill—perhaps the first head-on clash between colonists and redcoats of the American Revolution—resulted in numerous injuries and one fatality, a seaman who was run through by a bayonet. It ended when officers ordered the soldiers back to their barracks, but scattered confrontations between civilians and troops took place the following day as well. The biggest took place in Nassau Street, when a large party of seamen, fed up with the loss of jobs to moonlighting military personnel and vowing to revenge the death of a fellow Jack Tar the day before, came to blows with some soldiers. Timely intervention by the mayor and members of the City Council quelled the disturbance before anyone had been seriously injured. Word of the clashes in New York roused the ire of British troops in Boston, however, and six weeks later the colonies would be horrified by news of the Boston Massacre.

Well before then, a committee chaired by Sears and McDougall had arranged for the erection of a new liberty pole. On February 6, escorted by flag-bearers and a marching band, a team of six horses drew a huge eighty-foot pine mast up from the East River shipyards to a site just across from the Common on private land. Several thousand onlookers cheered as the mast was then sunk in a hole twelve feet deep, girded with iron bars and hoops, crossed by a twenty-two-foot topmast—the influence of sailors on its design and construction couldn’t have been plainer—and capped off with a gilt weather vane inscribed with the word LIBERTY. There it stood for the next half-dozen years, virtually impregnable. Weary of seeing his establishment used as a battleground, publican Montayne refused to host the Sons’ annual celebration of the repeal of the Stamp Act. Sears, Scott, McDougall, and eight others quickly put up the money to purchase a nearby tavern for the Sons, which they promptly christened Hampden Hall in memory of John Hampden, who had given his life to the struggle against arbitrary taxation a century earlier.

One day after the new pole went up, McDougall was identified as the author of To the Betrayed Inhabitants and arrested for seditious libel. Chief Justice Daniel Horsmanden, now seventy-six years old, set bail at two thousand pounds—a prohibitive figure—and McDougall was hustled off to prison to await formal indictment. New York’s Sons of Liberty promptly hailed him as the “American Wilkes.” The allusion was astute. By linking McDougall to Wilkes, the Sons made McDougall’s arrest and imprisonment common knowledge everywhere in America. Prominent visitors from other colonies came for interviews and returned home with reports of McDougall’s selfless struggle against corruption and tyranny. In the city itself, crowds gathered outside his cell window to hear him speak while his friends ingeniously employed the Wilkseite number “45” to emphasize the political nature of his arrest. On the fourteenth of February, the forty-fifth day of the year, forty-five gentlemen dined with McDougall in his cell, consuming forty-five pounds of steak from a steer forty-five months old. Forty-five “virgins of this city went in procession to pay their respects,” ending their visit with a rendition of the Forty-fifth Psalm. Dinners held in McDougall’s honor were concluded with forty-five toasts to him and other heroes of English freedom.

At the end of April, after nearly three months of this, the grand jury finally met to hear the case against McDougall. His lawyer, John Morin Scott, argued that the acquittal of John Peter Zenger in 1735 had established truth as a sufficient defense against the charge of seditious libel. But Horsmanden would have none of it, besides which the sheriff had carefully packed the jury with friends, relatives, and business associates of both De Lancey and Golden. McDougall was indicted for publishing a “wicked, false, seditious, scandalous, malicious, and infamous libel.” After posting a reduced bail, he was released to await trial. Unlike Zenger, though, he never got his day in court. The case against him collapsed after the death of the government’s key witness, the printer.


In April 1770 Parliament at long last succumbed to the pressure of nonimportation. All the Townshend Duties were withdrawn except the one on tea—a reminder, said the new prime minister, Lord Frederick North, that Parliament still claimed the right to tax the colonies at its pleasure. The Sons of Liberty, more than two hundred of them, drafted a petition urging that nonimportation continue until the tea tax as well had been removed (many could sign only with a mark).

But after two years of little or no business, finishing off a decade-long economic slump, the pressures for a resumption of trade were formidable. Although a few “rich merchants” were holding their own, observed General Thomas Gage, “traders in general are greatly hurt. Many testify to their dissatisfaction, and the country people begin to complain of the dearness of the commodities they stand in need of.” Also complaining were a sizable number of the craftsmen and seamen and laborers who depended on the merchants for work. In 1768 and 1769 journeyman tailors, waterfront stevedores, and workers in the building trades struck for higher wages. A newly organized Friendly Society of Tradesmen House Carpenters had begun dispensing sick benefits and funeral expenses for its members, obligations previously assumed by the municipal government or religious bodies.

Through the spring and early summer of 1770, the Sons of Liberty tried to keep nonimportation alive, but house-to-house polls in New York suggested that a three-to-one majority of the inhabitants also favored the resumption of trade. By mid-July New York’s nonimportation movement had collapsed. The following month, entertained by brass bands, roaring cannon, and a military parade, a festive crowd converged on Bowling Green for the unveiling of the new equestrian statue of George III, commissioned four years earlier after repeal of the Stamp Act. A statue of William Pitt was subsequently erected in Wall Street, also at public expense.

Yet all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t repair the damage done to the traditional order of things in New York. The Assembly had capitulated to the min­istry and betrayed the cause of American liberty. Merchants, slow to endorse nonimportation and quick to abandon it, had punctured any illusion that men of wealth could be trusted to subordinate their private interests to the good of the whole community. Working people, drawing on the antiauthoritarianism of evangelical Protestantism as well as on a long tradition of robust plebeian communalism, had rallied behind leaders of their own making and in pursuit of their own interests, outside existing institutions. The De Lancey and Livingston factions, latest (and last) representatives of the old political order, responded accordingly, the former heading off in the direction of Golden and the ministry, the latter moving carefully toward the Sons of Liberty headquartered in Hampden Hall. As William Smith later wrote, for “both the Assembly and People without Doors . . . the old Despotism was broke.”

The Empire, however, was not. In October 1770 London dispatched to New York a new royal governor in the person of John Murray, the earl of Dunmore, an alcoholic and corrupt Scottish nobleman whom the ministry soon sent away to take over as governor of Virginia. He took the news badly, wandering drunkenly through the streets roaring: “Damn Virginia. . . I ask’d for New York—New York I took, and they have robbed me of it without my consent.” Dunmore’s successor, William Tryon, arrived in July 1771. Tryon was another military man, well connected at court, and famous for his recent suppression of the Regulators in North Carolina, whose residents remembered him as “the Butcher.”


Fleetingly, for a year or two after the end of nonimportation, New York’s economy seemed to be on the mend. But in June 1772 the British credit system collapsed, dashing hopes of an early recovery. More merchants in the city went under, more tradesmen closed their shops, more mechanics sought work. And more Scots, Irish, and English immigrants arrived, full of bitterness toward the landlords, employers, and politicians who had driven them out of their homelands.

During and after the winter of 1772-73 (so cold the East River froze over and people walked to Brooklyn), the condition of the city’s poor again became desperate. Over four hundred men, women, and children jammed the old municipal poorhouse while the Common Council made more and more frequent appropriations for apprehending and transporting vagrants beyond the city limits. The council’s yearly appropriations for outdoor relief climbed swiftly toward the twenty-eight-hundred-pound mark—better than four times what the city spent in 1760 and almost eight times what it spent in the 1730s. By 1773 the spread of sickness and disease had so severely strained the old municipal hospital that the council was obliged to order the construction of a new hospital near Broadway and Duane streets, on the outskirts of town. General Gage, serenely oblivious, praised New York’s “domestic tranquility.”

Crime too was on the rise again, a problem the council addressed by spending more money than ever for street lamps and the watch. By 1773 it had sixteen paid watchmen on duty every night and was placing “Centinal Boxes” at strategic locations around town (not enough, however, to protect James De Lancey Jr., son of the former governor and New York’s best-known politician, who was mugged by a pair of footpads the very next year). So many convicted felons were being packed into the New Gaol, erected only a dozen-odd years before, that the council decided, also in 1773, to confine them in a proper “Bridewell” (named after London’s notorious Bridewell House of Correction, which ever since the seventeenth century had been used to confine runaway apprentices, vagrants, prostitutes, and debtors). Completed two years later near the New Barracks at the north end of the Common, the Bridewell’s two stories and gray stone walls made it New York’s most impressive public building.

Given that hard times always bore down hardest on widows and unmarried women, it wasn’t surprising that more women turned to crime—as did Mary Daily and Margaret Siggins, who were hanged as pickpockets in 1771—and prostitution. Just west of the Bridewell, a red-light district had recently sprung up on land belonging to St. Paul’s. Residents called it the “Holy Ground.” Patrick McRobert, a Scot who visited New York in the summer of 1774, reported that “above 500 ladies of pleasure” kept lodgings in the “Holy Ground.” They included “many fine well dressed women, and it is remarkable that they live in much greater cordiality one with another than any nests of that kind do in Britain or Ireland. . . . One circumstance I think is a little unlucky,” McRobert added primly, “is that the entrance to [King’s College] is thro’ one of the streets where the most noted prostitutes live.” The New-York Gazette went farther still, urging municipal authorities to wipe out these “nests of villainy” that catered to soldiers of the king.

Relations between the colonies and the mother country went from bad to worse after passage of the Tea Act of May 1773. Ostensibly, Parliament wanted nothing more than to revive the fortunes of the ailing British East India Company, bulwark of British influence in India, by allowing it to sell tea directly in America. It was bad enough that this would cut out colonial middlemen, but Americans also suspected that Parliament really wanted the company to grab control of the colonial tea market in order to collect the duty on tea held over from the Townshend program—a devious ploy to make the colonists swallow the principle of parliamentary taxation.

By September 1773 half a million pounds of East India Company tea were on their way to selected consignees in the major American ports. For the next two months, as everyone awaited the arrival of the tea, another wave of defiance rolled through the colonies. Perhaps the first public demonstration of opposition anywhere occurred in New York, where, in mid-October, Sears and McDougall formed a Committee of Vigilance to plan a course of action and congratulate ship captains refusing to handle cargoes of dutied tea. McDougall launched a series of inflammatory essays called The Alarm. “A New Flame is apparently kindling in America,” William Smith wrote in his diary.

Summoned by the Committee of Vigilance, a huge crowd assembled on November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day) outside the Coffee House. After denouncing Parliament and East India Company agents, they hanged in effigy one local merchant who had advised the company to ship to New York. Later that same month the Sons of Liberty formed an association to defeat the Tea Act. Anyone who stood against them, they declared, would be treated as “an enemy to the liberties of America.” Governor Tryon ruefully admitted that this resolution was “universally approved by all the better sort of the Inhabitants.”

No doubt remembering the fate of stamp distributors eight years earlier, the East India Company’s agents hastily resigned. Sears and McDougall began to talk of shutting down the port altogether to prevent the landing of tea. McDougall went even further: “What if we prevent the Landing,” he asked a horrified William Smith, “and kill [the] Gov[ernor] and all the Council?” On December 17,1773, as many as three thousand of the city’s inhabitants gathered at City Hall to protest the Tea Act. They pledged to use force, if necessary, to resist the unloading of East India tea and elected a Committee of Correspondence, consisting of Sears, Lamb, McDougall, and several other Liberty Boys, to reopen communications with patriots in other colonies. Not until Paul Revere brought the news to town four days later did anyone know that on December 16 patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians had dumped several hundred chests of East India tea into Boston harbor. Word soon arrived that Philadelphia too had turned back a tea ship. Two ships were reported on their way to New York.

Sears and McDougall had ample time to prepare. Hampered by bad weather, New York’s tea ships didn’t arrive until mid-April 1774. The captain of one, told by “sundry gentlemen” on a Committee of Inspection that “the sense of the citizens” wouldn’t permit him to land his cargo, quietly turned around and sailed for home. He was seen off by the greatest crowd “ever known in this city” and a “band of music” playing “God Save the King.” The captain of the other (already notorious for having brought the hated tax stamps to New York in 1765) failed to bluff his way past the inspection committee and was forced to apologize before a public meeting at Fraunces Tavern. A party of “Mohawks” dumped his cargo into the harbor, “and it was not without some risk of his life that he escaped.” Lieutenant Governor Colden—now eighty-seven and once again in charge of the colony because Tryon had gone back to England for a year-long leave of absence—didn’t intervene, on the grounds that no one had asked him to.

Outraged by the Boston Tea Party, the government in London had meanwhile resolved to make an example of Massachusetts. From its point of view, it could do no less. Ten years of American defiance had upset a trading empire worth thirty million pounds a year in combined imports and exports. Besides, when perhaps only one in thirty Englishmen could vote, and at a time of ballooning internal disorder, American theories of representation struck at the very heart of Britain’s political and social order. As George III himself declared: “The colonists must be reduced to absolute obedience, if need be, by the ruthless use of force.” (Otherwise, he would later say, India, Ireland, and the rest of England’s possessions would go their own way as well, and “this Island, reduced to itself, would be a poor Island indeed.”) The upshot, in April 1774, was a series of so-called Coercive Acts—soon referred to throughout America as the “Intolerable Acts”—by which Parliament shut the port of Boston, reorganized the colony’s courts to facilitate the prosecution of political troublemakers, and sharply restricted the power of the colony’s legislature and town meetings. Commander-in-Chief Thomas Gage was named governor and sent up from New York with additional troops to help him enforce the law.


Initial reports of the Intolerable Acts began to arrive in New York in mid-May. “This intelligence was received with Great abhorence & indignation,” McDougall noted in his diary. The Sons of Liberty and the Livingston faction immediately moved to organize “an impartial spirited Committee of Correspondence” for the purpose of drawing up new nonexportation as well as nonimportation agreements and reviving the idea of a continental congress. They were only partially successful. At a turbulent mass meeting at the Exchange on May 16, moderate merchants rallied by the De Lancey faction voted to postpone a decision on nonimportation and nominated a fifty-member committee with only a dozen-odd seats reserved for the Sons.

The very next day, however, Paul Revere returned to town with the Boston Circular Letter, which advocated an immediate embargo on trade with Britain until Parliament repealed the Intolerable Acts. Heartened by this evidence of patriotic zeal elsewhere, and ready now to act independently of the merchants, a group of the city’s mechanics nominated a Committee of Correspondence having only twenty-five members, mostly Sons of Liberty and Livingston adherents. Revere was sent off with letters for the patriots in Philadelphia and Boston, explaining the confusion in New York and stressing the need for a general congress.

The showdown occurred at a tumultuous public meeting in the Coffee House on May 19. At issue was the size and composition of the Committee of Correspondence: fifty, as the moderates wanted, or twenty-five, as the new Mechanics Committee had proposed. Equally difficult was the question of who in the city had a right to vote on the matter: “none but the Freeholders & Freemen,” as one of the moderates argued, or “every man whose Liberties were concerned,” as Sears maintained. On both points the moderates again carried the day. All fifty moderate nominees won election, with the addition, as a conciliatory gesture, of one radical. A compromise plan for a house-to-house canvass of the city broke down when the details couldn’t be worked out. The following day Sears and McDougall reluctantly persuaded the Mechanics Committee to accept what was now the Committee of Fifty-one on the understanding they would be removed “if they misbehaved.”

Although the moderates gained the upper hand, the appearance of the Mechanics Committee was a milestone in the political history of New York City. A plebeian counterpart to the merchants’ Chamber of Commerce, it confirmed the growing political sophistication of the city’s working people and their ability and willingness to act without the prompting even of men like Sears, Lamb, and McDougall. Its leaders over the next few years—Jonathan Blake, Daniel Dunscomb (a cooper), Nathan Tylee, Christopher Duyckinck (a sailmaker), Lewis Thibou, and Malcolm McEwen—had hitherto been on the fringes of municipal affairs. Now they were at the very center.

Joining them there were the many women who played an increasingly visible role in mobilizing resistance to British policy, above all by vesting ordinary domestic decisions with political significance. As shoppers, retailers, and housewives, they refused to buy or sell British goods, made clothes of homespun, and served coffee instead of tea. Some called themselves Daughters of Liberty, and their patriotic fervor suffused the letters that a New York teenager named Charity Clark sent to a cousin in England. She and other young women of the city had begun to knit “stockens,” she wrote, dreaming of the day when “a fighting army of amazones . . . armed with spinning wheels” would free America from its dependence on British imports and thus put it beyond the reach of “arbitrary power.” Do not underestimate us, she warned her distant correspondent: “Though this body is not clad with silken garments, these limbs are armed with strength, the Soul is fortified by Virtue, and the Love of Liberty is cherished within this bosom.”


For the next six weeks, according to one observer, New York was “as full of uproar as if it was beseiged by a Foreign force.” City papers reported a succession of raucous meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and fistfights. Isaac Sears received a “drubbing” on one occasion from a British officer stationed in the city.

Despite pressure from its more radical members, the Committee of Fifty-one managed to sidestep a commitment to nonimportation by insisting that it should be proposed first by a “Congress of Deputies from all the Colonies in general”—although the committee’s moderate majority didn’t much like the idea of such a meeting, either, given its radical origins.

By early July it had become certain that a congress would convene in Philadelphia in September. The Fifty-one grudgingly nominated five delegates to attend for New York City: Isaac Low, John Jay, Philip Livingston, John Alsop, and James Duane. Dismayed that no one to their liking had been included, and conscious that events had begun to turn in their favor, the Mechanics Committee met at Bardin’s Tavern (the former Hampden Hall) to draw up its own slate of candidates: Low, Livingston, Jay, Leonard Lispenard, and Alexander McDougall. Called by the Sons of Liberty, a public meeting in the Fields on July 6 approved the mechanics’ slate, along with resolutions instructing the five, if elected, to support a nonimportation agreement. It took three weeks of tense, byzantine maneuvering to work out a compromise: the Mechanics Committee agreed to support the original nominees of the Fifty-one, while the Fifty-one in turn assured the mechanics it would wholeheartedly support a nonimportation agreement if one were adopted by the upcoming congress.

Several weeks later John Adams and other New England delegates passed through New York en route to Philadelphia. With McDougall as their semiofficial host, they toured the city and spent hours in deep conversation with patriots. The starchy Adams was less than impressed. “At their entertainments there is no conversation that is agreeable,” he noted in his diary. “They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether.” (They did know how to eat, however: invited to John Morin Scott’s “elegant Seat” overlooking the Hudson, Adams was taken aback by the profusion of silverware and abundant food.)

Adams tore himself away, and New York’s delegates embarked for Philadelphia on September 1, “with Colours flying, Music playing, and loud Huzzas at the End of each Street.” Four days later the Continental Congress, attended by fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies, got down to business. To the delight of radical patriots everywhere, it advised the people of Massachusetts to form a new government and take up arms. It rejected a conciliatory Plan of Union with Great Britain and adopted resolutions attacking the entire course of British policy toward the colonies since 1763. In mid-October it created the Continental Association, a “nonimportation, nonconsumption, and nonexportation agreement” to be enforced by Committees of Inspection in every county, town, and city in America—a clear usurpation of the authority of legal governments throughout the colonies.


Paul Revere was an important conduit of information between radical artisans in New York and Boston. This broadside announces one of his several appearances in the city. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

In New York, one immediate casualty of the Association was David Douglass’s theatrical troupe. Douglass had returned to the city in 1767 and enjoyed a string of profitable seasons in a spacious new playhouse on John Street. But he had also drawn heavy abuse—from radical Whigs, who saw theatergoing as a manifestation of genteel self-indulgence (it was said that the price of a season’s subscription had risen to an amazing fifty pounds), as well as from evangelicals, who believed that theaters promoted idleness, debauchery, and blasphemy. Douglass now learned that the Association agreement had committed all patriotic Americans to “discountentance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibition of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” Fearing the worst—he could hardly have forgotten the violent destruction of his old playhouse on Chapel Street a decade earlier—Douglass promptly closed his doors and took his actors to Jamaica, expecting no trouble from “the Ladies and Gentlemen of that polite and opulent island.”

The moderate Committee of Fifty-one tried to preserve its control over the course of events by proposing that it supervise enforcement of the Association through teams of inspectors chosen by the electors in each ward. But the Mechanics Committee demanded instead dissolution of the Fifty-one and enforcement of the Association by a new sixty-member Committee of Observation on which popular leaders would have half the seats. Bolstered by the success of radical patriots in other colonies, the mechanics had little trouble getting the Fifty-one to cooperate. Nominations for the new committee were published in the papers and confirmed without incident at a public rally on November 22.


Interior of the John Street Theatre, from The New York Argus, March 13, 1797. (© Museum of the City of New York)


From the very beginning of the struggle with Great Britain, New York had been regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as a nursery of loyalty to the mother country. Nowhere else in the colonies, after all, did the ground lie quite so thick with royal functionaries, generals, admirals, Anglican churchmen, big landowners, and merchant princes. They were rich men, on the whole, well born, well educated, well married, and well connected—precisely the kind of men on whom the Empire had relied, for more than a century, to govern its American provinces. Few approved the idea of taxing the colonies, but they were obstinate in their devotion to British institutions and knew what they stood to lose if the Empire failed to keep a firm grip on America. By 1773 or 1774 many had already cast their lot with king and Parliament, and the potential scope of their influence troubled patriots everywhere.

Not until Congress set up the Association, though, would a concerted, broadly based loyalism begin to emerge in New York (or indeed anywhere else). For as the Committee of Sixty and other such extralegal bodies plunged into their work over the winter and spring of 1774-75—chasing down rumors of violations, examining backsliders and the contrary-minded, confiscating property, prescribing what good patriots should buy and sell and wear, often indeed administering oaths of support for the Association—substantial numbers of New Yorkers finally decided that matters had got out of hand. Hundreds of shopkeepers, tradesmen, and farmers joined loyalist associations to affirm their loyalty to the crown and the old order; many talked of forming loyalist militia companies. Jacob Walton, a careful man, built a secret escape tunnel from his country house at Hell Gate to the East River shore (workmen uncovered portions of it in Carl Schurz Park in 1913).

Hardcore loyalists were a distinct minority in the province, never amounting to more than 15 percent of the colony’s 168,000-odd inhabitants. (Some 60 percent of the population, by contrast, supported the patriots; the rest were fence-straddlers and switch-hitters.) Queens, Kings, and Richmond counties—the agrarian periphery of New York City—proved notably cool to the patriot cause. Staunch patriots comprised only 12 percent of the nearly eleven thousand residents of Queens County (which then included what is now Nassau County). With loyalists often outnumbering patriots by better than two to one, a succession of Queens communities—Jamaica, Newtown, Oyster Bay, Flushing, Hempstead—openly defied Congress and issued protests condemning the Association. Indecisiveness seemed epidemic among the thirty-six hundred inhabitants of Kings County. A mere 6 percent have been counted as hardcore patriots, but they outnumbered hardcore loyalists, and the half-dozen towns of Kings County silently ignored the Association. The Flatbush Reformed Church hedged its bets by having services conducted by two ministers, one patriot, the other loyalist.

The strength of loyalism in these counties reflected a long-standing dependence on the export markets of New York City and, through them, on the entire system of international exchange protected by British imperial power. In parts of Kings and Queens counties, if not Richmond, loyalism drew as well on local traditions of hostility to New England-style radicalism dating back to the mid-seventeenth century (neighboring Suffolk County, still closely tied to New England, was overwhelmingly patriot). Also to be reckoned with was the role of religious, cultural, and ethnic heterodoxy: the least “English” areas of Long Island were most heavily loyalist, presumably because they had flourished under British rule and would have the most to lose in a new, majoritarian social and political order.

Nowhere, however, was loyalism rooted in formal ideological differences with the patriots. A shower of Tory placards, handbills, broadsides, pamphlets, and newspaper essays fell on New York in 1774 and 1775—many appearing courtesy of James Rivington’s printshop, source of the New-York Gazetteer, the single most important loyalist journal in the colonies. The bulk of this literature appealed to essentially the same Whiggish fears about tyranny, corruption, and conspiracy that shaped patriot thought. Many Tories, in fact, waited until the very last moment to decide which side they were on, for they saw Congress, not Parliament, as the immediate danger. Parliament may well have acted unwisely or unjustly, loyalist writers conceded. But Congress was an illegal and unconstitutional body, controlled by unscrupulous men whose secret objective was to gain wealth and power for themselves. They would stop at nothing until they had destroyed every remnant of British authority—and with it the prosperity, stability, and security the colonies had enjoyed for generations.

Still, there was something fundamentally elitist, even aristocratic, about loyalism. New York’s leading Tories—John Watts, Isaac Low, Cruger, Thomas Jones, William Smith, Peter Van Schaack, William Johnson, James and Oliver De Lancey, Frederick Philipse, William Bayard—were all men of wealth and power, long identified with British high culture. A large majority of the hundred members of the Chamber of Commerce sided with the crown, as did, overall, half of the city’s merchants, who as a group tended to be wealthier than their patriot counterparts. Religion too set New York Tories apart. Anglican clergy and their congregations by and large opposed independence, while dissenters favored it. Only one of the city’s Presbyterian ministers became a loyalist, and many rebel leaders, like John Lamb and Isaac Sears, had evangelical connections. Thirty-seven of forty-four Dutch Reformed ministers in the colony backed independence; the four exceptions were conservatives with a record of opposition to the church’s evangelical wing.

The most energetic and compelling loyalist propaganda in the middle colonies emanated from a circle of learned, profoundly conservative Anglican clerics: the Rev. Thomas Bradbury Chandler of New Jersey; the Rev. Charles Inglis, assistant rector of Trinity Church; the Rev. Myles Cooper, president of King’s College; the Rev. John Vardill, a sometime professor at King’s College moonlighting as a British spy; and the Rev. Samuel Seabury of Westchester County. To their way of thinking, constitutional liberty could be maintained only by the better sort of people—people of rank and distinction in society—because they alone possessed the capacity for reason and disinterested virtue. Common folk, ruled by base passions, always looked first to their own selfinterest and could not therefore be trusted with power. No wonder, then, that law and order had broken down: all those congresses, committees, and conventions now oppressing the colonies were the handiwork of vulgar upstarts, men ill equipped to govern themselves, much less others. A sad spectacle indeed, declared Cooper: “I feel indignation and shame mingling in my Bosom, when I reflect that a few men (whom only the political storm could cast up from the bottom into notice) have presumed to act in the character of representatives and substitutes of the Province.” That one Tory pamphlet after another would be consigned to the flames on the day of their publication by cheering crowds merely underscored the oppressive nature of mob rule. And it made perfect sense to Anglican loyalists that men who resorted to such desperate, illiberal measures frequently proved to be religious dissenters.


Often only the finest of lines divided Tories from moderate or conservative patriots. For young Gouverneur Morris, a Whig like his grandfather Lewis but no admirer of the lower classes, these were gloomy and troubling days. “The mob begin to think and reason,” he declared after watching the mass meeting of May 19, 1774, in the Coffee House. “Poor reptiles! It is with them a vernal morning; they are struggling to cast off their winter’s slough, they bask in the sunshine, and ere noon they will bite, depend upon it. The gentry begin to fear this.” If this quarrel with Britain continues, Morris added dramatically, “we shall be under the worst of all possible dominions; we shall be under the domination of a riotous mob.” Yet Morris’s fears didn’t, in the end, fix his course. For whatever reason—the stirrings of national pride, a revival of confidence that the upper classes could maintain control, a sense of obligation to the Whiggism of his ancestors—he cast his lot with the patriots and supported independence.

So did James Duane, the city-born son of a well-to-do Irish immigrant merchant and landowner. After studying law in the offices of James Alexander, Duane built a practice of his own that by the early 1770s, just as he turned forty, was earning a handsome fourteen hundred pounds a year. Marriages to Maria Livingston and, after her death, to Gertrude Schuyler cemented Duane’s position in society. He became a vestryman of Trinity and a trustee of King’s College. He maintained a fashionable town house, a country seat, and a thirty-six-thousand-acre estate west of Schenectady where he managed 235 tenants and engaged in potash-making and milling.

It would hardly have been surprising if Duane, like so many other men of his class and connections, had drifted into loyalism by 1774 or 1775. He didn’t think highly of the .intelligence or intentions of ordinary people and helped prosecute Alexander McDougall. He worried about the advent of mob rule and warned Robert Livingston, his father-in-law, about the dangers of “a great and respectible Family becoming obnoxious to Government” by even appearing to associate with the Sons of Liberty. Though deploring Parliament’s attempts to tax the colonies, he revered the British constitution, regretted the absence of an American peerage, and abhorred republicanism. “God forbid that we should ever be so miserable as to sink into a Republick!” he exclaimed.

Yet Duane remained a patriot. In the First Continental Congress, he fought for a cautious statement of American rights, conceding almost everything but the right of the colonies to tax themselves. He returned home and plunged into the work of enforcing the Association and preparing the colony for armed conflict. While men no more conservative than he were turning their backs on colonial resistance, he attended the provincial convention and was named a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. In 1775 he moved that each inhabitant of the city take up arms and prepare for war.

John Jay was another unlikely rebel. Grandson of the Huguenot refugee Augustus Jay, he was reputed one of the most promising young attorneys in New York by the early 1770s. Besides a quick mind and natural eloquence, he possessed impeccable social credentials and was related to the Bayards, Stuyvesants, Van Cortlandts, and De Lanceys. Robert Livingston Jr. was for a time his law partner, and in 1774, not yet thirty years old, Jay married William Livingston’s daughter Sally. There was talk that year of getting him a royal judgeship.

As conservative as Gouverneur Morris and James Duane—“those who own the country ought to govern it,” he liked to say—Jay too found himself drawn step by step into revolution. His election to the Committee of Fifty-one marked his entrance into the struggle. Sent down to the Congress in Philadelphia, he signed the Association and drafted an Address to the People of Great Britain that was widely applauded for its ringing defense of American rights (“we will never submit to be hewers of wood or drawers of water for any ministry or nation in the world”). By the time he returned to New York, even radicals like Sears and McDougall were hailing Jay’s accomplishments.

Some of his friends worried that “to please the Populace he must have thrown aside his old Principles” but events proved them wrong. The more prominent Jay became, the more certain he was that men of property ought never yield to force from above or pressure from below. He became a revolutionary, in the end, because he couldn’t see an honorable way out of a predicament created by obstinate, venal politicians in London. “It has always been and still is my opinion and belief,” he said many years later, “that our country was prompted and impelled to independence by necessity and not by choice.”

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