The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. (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)
As Washington made his way back to Mount Vernon, New Yorkers got down to the business of rebuilding a city that seven years of enemy occupation and two calamitous fires had reduced to a shambles. In the burned-over district east of Broadway, the spectral shell of Trinity Church loomed menacingly over block after rubble-choked block where, as William Alexander Duer recalled, the skeletal walls of gutted buildings “cast their grim shadows upon the pavement, imparting an unearthly aspect to the street.” Many private residences were unfit for human use. James Duane returned on Evacuation Day and found two of his houses looking “as if they had been inhabited by savages or wild beasts.” Churches and public buildings, commandeered for service as stables or hospitals or barracks, stood in desperate need of repair. Many streets, stripped bare of trees, were obstructed by trenches, redoubts, and other fortifications. Garbage and refuse lay everywhere. Wharves and warehouses had crumbled from years of neglect. The merchant fleet had all but vanished.
Vanished too were the Caribbean markets on which New York’s prosperity had hinged for the better part of a century. British orders in council of July and December 1783 opened the British Isles to American trade but banned American meat, fish, and dairy products from the British West Indies and restricted trade in all other goods to British ships—a tremendous blow to the livelihood of every merchant and artisan in town, not to mention commercial farmers and stockmen in the city’s hinterland. According to some observers, this was only the beginning. John Adams, the American ambassador in London, believed that His Majesty’s government actually had “disigns ofruining, if they can our carrying Trade, and annihilating all our Navigation, and Seamen.” It didn’t improve matters that Spain and France, having opened their West Indian possessions to American trade during the war, promptly closed them again with the return of peace.
The ruins of Trinity Church, 1776. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)
Perhaps the only really good news was that the Continental Congress had decided to meet in New York pending the selection of a permanent seat for the national government. Congress arrived in the spring of 1785 and took up quarters in City Hall at the head of Broad Street. It was a tight fit: the building already housed the Common Council, the state legislature, and a school. Desperate for space, a rare commodity in the wardamaged city, Congress eventually occupied parts of various other public buildings as well and leased rooms in Fraunces Tavern.
For the first year or two after Evacuation Day, it appeared that New York’s future in these parlous times, if indeed it were to have a future, would be determined by the same radical Whigs who had been driven out by the British in 1776. Their return to power began when the Council for the Southern District, a provisional government set up by the state legislature for the formerly occupied counties, scheduled Common Council elections for mid-December 1783. Revived by rumors that Tories would attempt to cast ballots—thousands still remained in town, and even conservative Whigs like Robert R. Livingston worried about their intentions—the Sons of Liberty mobilized working people to ensure a substantial margin of victory for radical Whig candidates. Concurrently, a “Committee of Mechanicks” put forward a slate of nominees for the Assembly and Senate elections to be held later that same month. Again there were warnings that Tories might try to participate.
Polling began at City Hall on December 29 and closed a week later, with the Mechanics Committee candidates—including Marinus Willett, John Lamb, and Isaac Sears (who had just moved back from Boston)—winning by a four-to-one margin. Instructions for the new assemblymen soon followed from a committee of “late exiled Mechanics, Grocers, Retailers and Innholders.” The committee, whose members included a tallow chandler, a saddler, and a pewterer, demanded that Tories be explicitly disfranchised and excluded from all “advantages of trade and commerce.”
Early in 1784 the Council of Appointment tapped the rich and conservative James Duane for the job of mayor. At first glance this looked like a setback for the radicals, but they raised no complaint. Duane was a proven patriot, after all, and following his inauguration in February, he demonstrated that he was public-spirited as well by donating money earmarked for the customary entertainment, some twenty guineas, to the poor. A Committee of Mechanics, Grocers, Retailers, and Innholders made a special point of complimenting the new mayor on his good judgment.
Duane’s ability to influence the course of events was limited, in any case. Under the terms of the Montgomerie Charter (reaffirmed by the 1777 state constitution) he presided over the Common Council, the Mayor’s Court or Court of Common Pleas (for civil cases), and the Court of General Sessions (for criminal cases). He was clerk of the markets, he appointed subordinate officials such as the high constable and marshals, and he licensed all butchers, tavern keepers, scavengers, cartmen, and porters. The powers of the Common Council, however, were at least as extensive. It regulated all markets and trades in town. It set the terms under which the mayor granted licenses and made appointments. It also had a fair number of lesser municipal offices at its disposal, and it could change the mayor’s compensation by raising or lowering the various market and license fees out of which his salary was paid. With the subsequent appointments of Marinus Willett as sheriff and John Lamb as collector of the port, those posts too belonged to the radicals. So long as Governor Clinton ran the state, they had little to fear from Mayor Duane.
Clinton had in fact already given city radicals their cue to step up the pace of their anti-Tory campaign. Toward the end of January 1784 he opened the new session of the legislature—the first to be held in New York City since independence—with a lament on “the ruins of this once flourishing city” and an impassioned attack on the Tories for the “cruelty and rapine” with which they had opposed the cause of American freedom. Stirred by Clinton’s rhetoric, the Sons of Liberty—along with shadowy ad hoc radical groups like the Whig Society—organized a series of mass meetings, culminating in a huge demonstration in the Common at the end of March, to demand not only stricter penalties for former adherents to the crown but also their immediate expulsion from the city by the first of May. Particularly unpopular Tories were tarred and feathered or hamstrung. A party of visiting British officers was set upon and beaten.
With equal zeal, the legislature’s radical majority began to spin off anti-Tory legislation. One law barred Tories from holding public office. Another, enacted over the veto of the Council of Revision, authorized election officials to disfranchise any Tory on the testimony of a single witness. A subsequent law ordered the immediate sale of all confiscated property, though doing so plainly violated the Treaty of Paris. Still another imposed a punitive tax of one hundred thousand pounds on those residents of the five lower counties who had chosen to remain under the British occupation and thus hadn’t yet paid their fair share for “the blessing derived from freedom and independence.”
The state commissioners of forfeitures meanwhile proceeded to auction off confiscated property. James De Lancey’s huge Manhattan estate went on the block, the purchasers including some fifty butchers, gardeners, cartmen, grocers, carpenters, farmers, and assorted other working people—at least some of whom had been De Lancey’s tenants before independence. For fifty-eight pounds, a ropemaker named William Arnold bought a half interest in seven lots of De Lancey’s West Farm; John Buchanan, mariner, obtained four lots for £271; James Galloway, rigger, spent eighty pounds for a half interest in eight lots.
The radicalized Common Council now moved to enlarge the powers and responsibilities of the municipal corporation. For seven years now the assorted rents and fees that were the corporation’s sole sources of revenue had gone uncollected, leaving it no money with which to repair the ravages of war or pay its outstanding debts. Taxation was the obvious solution. But the mayor and council only had the authority to govern the estate of the municipal corporation: they couldn’t levy taxes on residents of the city generally.
At the corporation’s request, therefore, the legislature passed a law granting its officers the power to levy a tax on all inhabitants of the city. Although this was a onetime measure—if and when the corporation wanted to impose additional taxes, it would again need to seek legislative approval—it was nonetheless a momentous extension of the corporation’s power to govern. Ratifying the popular impulse to local self-determination expressed in the Revolutionary committee system, it began a gradual but inexorable metamorphosis of the corporation from a “private” into a “public” entity that governed as a surrogate of the legislature. Necessarily, too, it cast new doubt on the restrictiveness of the municipal suffrage. Who should now constitute the “commonality” of the corporation: merely those property-owning (male) residents formally admitted to the freemanship, or a broader cross-section of the city’s population?
Conservative Whigs protested the delegation of legislative power to the municipal corporation, all too aware that both corporation and legislature were dominated by radicals. The Council of Revision vetoed the tax bill, in part because it permitted assessments “according to the estates and other circumstances and abilities to pay taxes” (thereby pitting rich against poor), and in part because it could elevate the city into an “independent republic,” a rogue state-within-a-state, immune from higher authority. But the legislature easily overrode the veto, and the law stood.
Equally disturbing to conservatives was the radical assault on two other powerful corporations—King’s College and Trinity Church. A group of prominent Whigs led by Mayor Duane had petitioned the legislature to give King’s College a new charter embodying “that Liberality and that civil and religious Freedom” secured by the Revolution. What they got instead from the radical majority was an act creating the University of the State of New York. King’s College, renamed Columbia, would henceforth be only one among many prospective institutions of higher learning belonging to and controlled by the university. Furthermore, the university was to be governed by a giant board of regents, most of whose members came from rural parts of the state and could be counted upon to harbor no particular sympathy for an elitist, Anglican institution in the city. This was borne out when the board proposed three highly controversial candidates for president of the university: Joseph Priestly and Richard Price, radical dissenters who had actively supported the American cause, and John Jebb, a reformist Anglican cleric.
Trinity Church presented an even more complicated and potentially explosive case. Only weeks before Evacuation Day, the Tory vestry of Trinity had picked a staunch supporter of the crown, the Rev. Benjamin Moore, to take over as rector (the Rev. Charles Inglis having lately realized that his future looked brighter in Nova Scotia). Even moderate and conservative Whigs were dismayed by Moore’s elevation—he “preached and prayed against us during the war,” Robert R. Livingston recalled—and the Council for the Southern District decided to place the church under the control of nine trustees, all Whigs, including James Duane, Francis Lewis, Isaac Sears, and William Duer. For rector the trustees chose the Rev. Samuel Provoost, whose forebears had years before drifted with so many other well-to-do Dutch families into the Anglican fold.
Moore refused to step aside. Accordingly, in April 1784, the legislature issued a new charter for Trinity, empowering the trustees to call and induct a rector. Simultaneously, in conformity with the principles of religious liberty embodied in the 1777 constitution, the legislature repealed the Ministry Act of 1693, disestablished the Anglican Church, and adopted a law for the incorporation of non-Anglican religious bodies in the state. Later that same year New York Anglicans hosted a convention that organized the American Episcopal Church in strict accordance with the practices of the Church of England.
What really caught the imagination of the legislature’s radical majority, though, was Trinity’s valuable Manhattan real estate. Its centerpiece was the sprawling tract known as the King’s Farm, bestowed upon the church almost a century earlier. Soon after Evacuation Day, heirs of Annetje Jans, the original owner, petitioned the legislature for recovery of the property, whereupon the Assembly decided the land properly belonged to the state. In February 1785 it ordered the attorney general to sue the church for possession. The judicial expropriation of Trinity’s holdings, if successful, would be a milestone in the transformation of society and an invitation to push that transformation still further.
How much further wasn’t clear, although there were plenty of hints. Since Evacuation Day, the Sons of Liberty, the Mechanics Committee, and other radical groups had expressed an interest in such matters as the popular election of mayors, free public schooling, easier naturalization laws, and the abolition of primogeniture and entail. During the war, many had urged the state to combat inflation with policies not unlike those exercised by the municipal corporation—wage and price controls, prohibitions against monopolizers and hoarders, stiff penalties for profiteering, and heavy taxation of unimproved land as well as personal property. John Holt, editor of the New-York Journal, had been especially outspoken against the notion that merchants should be free to charge what the market would bear.
At least some radicals seem to have had a penchant, too, for the moral legislation that always lurked just beneath the surface of Anglo-American Whiggism. In March 1784, as a case in point, the Common Council enacted the city’s strictest Sabbath law to date, strictly prohibiting labor, public gatherings (except of course at church), sports, games, and even children making noise or playing in the streets on Sunday. Petitions were said to be circulating for “the annihilation of taverns, coffee-houses, billiard tables, ale-houses and theaters.” Next year, when Lewis Hallam’s Old American Company returned from exile and applied for license to reopen the John Street Theater, the Common Council turned them down with the stern rebuke that this was no time for frivolity. What was more—putting a new spin on an old complaint—the theater’s notorious tendency to corrupt manners and morals was a danger to the republic. “Attendance on public Stages intoxicates a populace and diverts their minds from what ought to be the grand object of their study, the public good,” asserted one newspaper writer.
NEW NEW YORKERS
Thousands of people had meanwhile continued to pour into New York, boosting its population from twelve thousand at the end of 1783 to twenty-four thousand two years later. Most were refugees hoping to pick up the pieces of their former lives in the city. Scattered among them, however, were wealthy and cosmopolitan newcomers from elsewhere in the state, from other parts of the United States, and even from abroad.
Preeminent among these newcomers—and soon to take the lead in organizing an opposition to the radical resurgence—was twenty-seven-year-old Alexander Hamilton. Although he had lived briefly in the city while a student at King’s College, Hamilton spent the first four years of the war traveling the country as Washington’s confidential aide and secretary, then settled in Albany after marrying General Philip Schuyler’s daughter, Elizabeth. In the company of men like Washington and Schuyler, moreover, Hamilton had become convinced of the need for a strong national government to combat what he considered to be state parochialism and fiscal irresponsibility. His Continen-talist essays of 1781 called for a constitutional convention to replace the Articles of Confederation (adopted back in 1777) and lavished praise on his friend Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who served as superintendent of finance for Congress and was largely responsible for the creation of the Bank of North America. The following year, Hamilton appeared before a joint committee of the state legislature to urge “a solid arrangement of finance” for the state and drafted a plan for overhauling state taxes. New York’s “radically vicious” system of taxation, he confided to Morris, was a symptom of “the general disease which infects all our constitutions—an excess of popularity. The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefitthe people.”
Needing an occupation, Hamilton took a crash course in the law and was admitted to the New York bar in the summer of 1782. A year later he moved his family down to the city, opened a law office on Wall Street, and began to build a practice by representing Tories ensnared by the Trespass Act. “Legislative folly has afforded so plentiful a harvest to us lawyers that we have scarcely a moment to spare from the substantial business of reaping,” he gloated to Gouverneur Morris. Publicly, Hamilton professed to have no political ambitions and fended off attempts to nominate him for office. Privately, though, he made no secret of his alarm at the radical clamor for retribution against the Tories. This “epidemic phrenzy,” he said, could only be the work of “levellers.”
Like Hamilton, William Duer was a newcomer who needed no introduction to New York. Born in England and educated at Eton, Duer had served briefly as an aide to Lord Clive in India before making his way to the West Indies, where his family owned plantations on Antigua and Dominica. In 1768 he came up to New York to buy lumber and was introduced to General Schuyler, a. prominent Hudson Valley landowner as well as Hamilton’s father-in-law. On Schuyler’s advice, Duer purchased a tract on the east side of the Hudson near Saratoga, took up permanent residence there, and over the next half-dozen years did a handsome business supplying masts to the Royal Navy and speculating in land. By 1776, now a prominent Whig, Duer had become the main supplier of the Continental forces in New York, raking in profits of a thousand dollars per month. He married Kitty Alexander, daughter of General William Alexander, and with his father-in-law outfoxed their mutual creditors by paying off prewar debts with depreciated Continental paper. Unfazed by the occupation of New York, he arranged to sell flour, cattle, and other provisions to His Majesty’s army under flags of truce and bragged of regularly making 500 percent profits on his investment. When Congress balked at the price General Alexander asked for iron shot manufactured at his New Jersey ironworks, Duer coolly sold it to the British army instead. In another scheme, he took money appropriated to buy food for Continental troops, funneled it into his private account, then bought 6 percent Loan Office certificates—i.e., loaning the money back to the government at a tidy, risk-free profit to himself.
Long before the war ended, radical patriots everywhere had come to regard Duer as the kingpin of corruption among military suppliers and a perfect illustration of the self-seeking that, if unchecked, would sooner or later destroy the republic. In New York, Duer’s wheeling and dealing made him a ready target for radical critics and fed widespread resentment against “mushroom gentlemen” who prospered while their fellow citizens did without. Contemptuous of public opinion, like so many of his associates, Duer brushed off such criticism as the carping of “Paine lovers.” During the spring or early summer of 1783, now very rich and heavily engaged in the business of supplying provisions to the army, he shifted his residence down to the city.
New Jersey-born Richard Varick, another of Washington’s wartime aides, had been admitted to the New York bar on the very eve of independence, but he too didn’t settle permanently in the city until after Evacuation Day. Neither did Varick’s better-known compatriot, Aaron Burr. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Burr, like Hamilton, had made a name for himself as a gallant young officer in the first years of the war, rising to the rank of major at the age of twenty and joining Washington’s military entourage. Unlike Hamilton, Burr soon broke with Washington, resentful of the commander-in-chief’s dependence on Hamilton and alleged opposition to his, Burr’s, further advancement. Transferred to the staff of General Israel Putnam, Burr subsequently won a promotion to lieutenant colonel and, for a few months, commanded the West Point defenses and the American forces patrolling Westchester County’s Neutral Zone. The Zone’s muchabused civilians praised his diligence and honesty; his men respected him as a fair yet quick-tempered disciplinarian (he once allegedly lopped off the arm of a mutinous soldier with a single stroke of his saber). By 1779, however, in ill health and believing his prospects still clouded by the rift with Washington, Burr resigned his commission to study the law. He was admitted to the bar in Albany in 1782 and moved down to New York the next year, launching his practice from a house on Wall Street near Hamilton’s residence and only two doors from City Hall. In no time at all he was making ten thousand dollars a year and setting his sights on a political career.
Melancton Smith arrived in New York only months behind Duer, Hamilton, Varick, and Burr. A native of Jamaica, Long Island, Smith had moved to Poughkeepsie in his teens and set himself up as a merchant. Well-to-do if not wealthy when the Revolution began, he joined the local Sons of Liberty and, like so many other “new men,” saw his public career accelerate. Dutchess voters sent him to the Provincial Congress, where he sat on the Committee for Detecting Conspiracies and developed a reputation as one of the most articulate radical Whigs in the state as well as a close adviser to Governor George Clinton. He also served as a contractor and purchasing agent for the new state government (in which capacity he struck a number of profitable deals with William Duer). In 1784, though, Smith abandoned Poughkeepsie and shifted his business to New York City. One year later, city voters sent him to Congress.
Another Dutchess transplant was Edward Livingston, younger brother of the chancellor, who forsook life among the upstate landed gentry to open a law office in the city. William Constable, born in Dublin but raised in Schenectady, moved up from Philadelphia (where, among other things, his name had been linked with Duer’s in a smuggling scheme) to take over the New York business of an English firm, Phyn and Ellice. John Pintard, a fourth-generation Huguenot born in New York but raised on Long Island and educated at Princeton, got to know the city while serving as the American deputy commissary for prisoners of war. Well before the last British troops had pulled out, Pintard had set himself up in trade. By the end of the decade he presided over one of the city’s leading mercantile houses.
A procession of merchants came down from New England, among them Daniel Parker, a native of Watertown, Massachusetts, who had prospered during the war selling flour and forage to the Continental Army, most of the time in partnership with Duer; early in 1783, spurred by news of the impending peace, Parker moved to New York and lobbied Sir Guy Carleton for a contract to supply the British army.
This migration also figured in the founding of Olympia, a speculative development just across the East River from Manhattan. Its story began with two Long Island brothers of New England extraction, Comfort and Joshua Sands, who had clerked with city merchants before the Revolution, taken part in the resistance to British policy, and left when New York fell in 1776. During the war they made a fortune in military provisioning (Washington, among others, considered them crooks), and when they returned to New York in 1783 they founded the highly successful firm of Comfort and Joshua Sands. They also bought the former Rapelje farm, a 160-acre tract lying northeast of the road (now Fulton Street) that ran down to the Brooklyn Ferry.
There the brothers laid out the “City of Olympia,” dividing the property into lots and selling them off to a group of interrelated Connecticut families. Many came from the New London area, where they had been employed in the maritime trades, and they seem to have envisioned Olympia as a shipbuilding center; the Sands themselves erected wharves, warehouses, and a huge ropewalk for the production of rigging and cables. A New England-style Independent church followed within a year or two, and by the end of the decade the little community appeared to be thriving.
In addition to this migration from New England there was an influx of well-to-do, ambitious businessmen from the British Isles. Some had settled in town during the war and collaborated with the British yet chose to stay after Evacuation Day, often to carry on the business of or manage property belonging to departed Tories. Others came over as soon as the outcome of the war was certain.
John Delafield, a thirty-five-year-old English merchant, arrived in the spring of 1783, traveling on the same ship that brought the provisional treaty of peace between Great Britain and the United States. Dominick Lynch, the son of a rich Galway merchant with extensive connections on the Continent, had been in Bruges when he learned that the war was over. Early in 1783, not yet thirty years old, he formed a partnership with Thomas Stoughton to do business in New York. Stoughton sailed immediately and had the firm of Lynch and Stoughton up and running on Greenwich Street well before Evacuation Day. Lynch followed in mid-1785, carrying, it was said, more cash than had been brought to America by any other single individual in living memory.
With “Don” Stoughton—so named because of his subsequent appointment as Spanish consul—Lynch also assumed a leading role in the city’s small yet burgeoning Roman Catholic community. Probably fewer than a thousand Catholics lived in New York at the end of the Revolution. Ferdinand Steenmayer, a Jesuit, had slipped into the city during the war to celebrate Mass secretly in a house on Wall Street. With the elimination of restrictions on Catholic worship, Steenmayer gathered his flock in a loft over a Barclay Street carpenter’s shop. The postwar surge of immigration, virtually doubling the Catholic population overnight, prompted Lynch, Stoughton, and other lay leaders, led by Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, the French consul in New York, to arrange for the construction of St. Peter’s Church, the city’s first Roman Catholic house of worship. Lots were purchased on Barclay Street, and the cornerstone was laid in October 1785.
Only months behind Delafield and Lynch was Archibald Gracie. A Scot by birth, Gracie had gone to Liverpool and worked his way up to the position of chief clerk in the branch office of a London shipping house. When the war ended he decided to go into business for himself, setting off for New York with a cargo of textiles, tin ware, watches, cheese, and “fine London Porter and Liverpool Beer.” By the spring of 1784, not yet thirty years old, Gracie had a house and shop on Queen (now Pearl) Street and was taking an interest in the tobacco trade. He moved to Petersburg, Virginia, in 1785 but often came up to New York with cargoes of tobacco destined for transshipment to European markets. In 1793 he would move back to the city for good.
Cornelius Heeney left Ireland for New York in 1784 and found work as a bookkeeper with a furrier named William Backhouse. Backhouse taught him the business, and Heeney was soon dealing in skins and furs on his own account out of a store on Little Dock (now Water) Street. Both Backhouse and Heeney (another benefactor of New York’s Catholic church) were sometime associates of another young immigrant, a short, stout, square-faced German named John Jacob Astor.
The third son of a butcher in Walldorf, a small village near Heidelberg, Astor had left home at the age of seventeen to seek his fortune in London, where an older brother was established in a musical-instrument house founded by their uncle. When word arrived several years later of the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Astor quit London for New York, where another brother, Henry, had gone to provision Hessian troops and was now flourishing as a cattle trader and butcher (he would soon own the Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery). Jacob arrived in March 1784, not quite twenty-one years old, with a modest financial stake in hand. His marriage to Sarah Todd the following year brought him a connection to the Brevoort family and a small dowry. In 1786 he went into business selling imported flutes, pianofortes, and violins in a building on Queen Street owned by his mother-in-law, but his future lay in the fur trade.
Over the winter of 1783-84, moderate and conservative Whigs became increasingly fearful that radical assaults on the city’s Tories would impede economic recovery, perhaps even precipitate some kind of social cataclysm. There were also international repercussions. “Violences and associations against the Tories pay an ill compliment to Government and impeach our good Faith,” John Jay wrote from France. Unfortunately, said Robert R. Livingston, “violent Whigs” had gained the upper hand. Reasonable men—men of property and social position—still hoped “to suppress all violences, to soften the rigor of the laws against the loyalists, and not to banish them from . . . social intercourse.” But never, Livingston intimated, had things looked so grim for them.
In January 1784 Hamilton published a little pamphlet entitled A Letter from Phocion to the Considerate Citizens of New-York. (Phocion was the Athenian general who helped defeat the Macedonians in 339 B.C. and then, over the objections of Demosthenes, advocated conciliation with his former enemies. When the democrats came to power, they forced Phocion to drink hemlock.) Hamilton’s Letter, the first sustained appeal for forbearance toward the Tories, “excited a general sensation” by saying openly what the propertied classes had been saying privately for months: that radical Whig attacks on the rights and property of men and women who had ended up on the wrong side of the Revolution were ruining the city’s chances of recovery from years of war and military occupation.
Besides putting at risk the rights and liberties for which the Revolution had been fought, Hamilton argued, such attacks violated the Treaty of Paris. This made the United States look irresponsible in the eyes of other nations and destroyed the climate of confidence essential to international trade. It infringed, too, upon the power of Congress to determine how, and upon what conditions, the war would end—diminishing in turn the ability of that body to lead the nation in time of peace. Finally, persecution of the Tories drove away the very men whose wealth and abilities were essential to the prosperity of a commercial society.
That last point was vital, and key passages in Phocion warned the city’s radical mechanics to take heed. Driving away Tory merchants and craftsmen, Hamilton wrote, will not raise your wages: the former are essential to the city’s economic health; the latter do you no harm. Wages in town have risen “sufficiently high” as it is, and “those classes of the community who are to employ you” will not in any case go on paying “exorbitant prices” for labor even if its supply dwindles. Besides, if you disturb “the economy of the political machine” by trying to elevate any of the “departments of industry” above its “natural height,” then “society at large suffers.” Indeed, “the only object of concern with an industrious artisan, as such, ought to be, that there may be plenty of money in the community, and a brisk commerce to give it circulation and activity.”
The Revolution is over, Hamilton continued. Direct popular intervention may have freed the nation from tyranny, but the liberty of the people—meaning “their right to a share in the government”—is now secure. The citizens of New York should return to their shops and countinghouses, leaving public affairs in the hands of those persons most fit to rule.
Just as dangerous as popular interference in government was the corporatist ethos that had in the past gone virtually hand in hand with radical Whig demands for economic and social justice. The truth was, Hamilton wrote, “that all monopolies, exclusions and discriminations in matters of traffick, are pernicious and absurd.” This applied not only to repeated attempts by local and state authorities to regulate wages and prices during the war but also to their continuing vendetta against the Tories. It didn’t necessarily apply to the central government. Unlike his mentor Robert Morris, Hamilton always saw a role for vigorous government intervention at the national level, now to promote trade, now to mitigate the competitive “jealousy” between states that could shatter the republic. Municipal laissez-faire and federal activism, in other words, were opposite sides of the same coin. New York’s future prosperity depended on both. And both, Hamilton repeated, had been gravely impaired by local and state abuse of the Tories.
Phocion, together with a Second Letter from Phocion that appeared in April 1784, underscored what many people in New York already suspected: Colonel Hamilton, as he was generally known, was the only moderate or conservative Whig gifted with a coherent vision of the city’s political economy. Resolutely opposed to arbitrary government and anchored in the principle of equality before the law, that vision was undeniably republican—the kind of republicanism that scorned popular opinion and trusted only governments led by the rich and well-born few.
THE EMPRESS OF CHINA
Perhaps, though, New York’s future was brighter than Hamilton imagined. One morning in late February 1784, only a month or so after the appearance of his first Letter from Phocion, crowds of spectators lined the East River waterfront to mark the long-awaited resumption of overseas trade. For months ice had jammed the Narrows and East River, bringing business in the city to a standstill while acute shortages of food, shelter, and firewood, exacerbated by heavy snowfalls, wore at everyone’s nerves. Now, as winter began to relax its grip on the city, ship after ship slid away from the East River wharves, shook out its sails, and filled away down toward the harbor.
As the fleet passed the Battery, said a report in the New York Packet, “A large party of gentlemen” could be seen, “congratulating each other on the pleasing prospect of so many large ships being under sail in the bay.” One ship in particular commanded their attention: the copper-bottomed, black-hulled Empress of China, bound for the Orient. She was, boasted the Independent Gazette, “the first ship from this new nation, to that rich and distant part of the world.” New York owed a special debt of gratitude to “the gentlemen, whose ambition to discover new resources of wealth, by forming new channels for the extensions of our commerce” had thus prompted them to “risque their property” in the voyage.
Such an undertaking would have been unthinkable before the Revolution, when trade with the Chinese was an exclusive privilege of the British East India Company. Independence removed that obstacle, and as the end of the war drew near China had beckoned to entrepreneurs in every American port. First off the mark was John Led-yard, a Connecticut adventurer who had served as a corporal of marines on the third and final voyage of Captain James Cook. Ledyard turned up in New York City in the summer of 1783, touting a scheme to trade for furs along the Pacific Northwest coast and peddle them in Canton. Unable to find backers, he went to Philadelphia and got the attention of the financier Robert Morris. Intrigued, Morris agreed to raise some $120,000 for the purchase of ships and trading goods, eventually putting up half the money himself. The other half came from the New York firm of Daniel Parker and Company, one of whose partners was William Duer.
Over the autumn of 1783, amid all the commotion of the British evacuation, Parker and Company found a ship on the ways in New England, hired a crew, and began to assemble a cargo. Three thousand pelts were purchased, but when the idea of a second voyage to the Pacific Northwest fell through, causing Ledyard to go off in a huff, Morris and Parker shifted their focus to another commodity: ginseng root. Ginseng was prized in China as a cure for everything from indigestion and high blood pressure to impotence; one Chinese emperor was said to have paid ten thousand dollars for an especially rare sample. Happily, ginseng also grew wild in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, where native peoples had been harvesting it for trade since the 1750s. Agents of Morris and Parker scoured the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Virginia for all they could get their hands on, and eventually they had some thirty tons of it stashed in the holds of the Empress of China when she passed the Narrows on her way to the Far East.
Six months later, having been escorted part of the way by friendly French warships, she dropped anchor in the Pearl River below Canton. Another four months of bartering ensued, during which her pelts and ginseng were exchanged for several hundred tons of tea and fifty tons of “export” chinaware (so called because it was manufactured specifically for the Western market). Trading on their own accounts, agents of the investors and members of the crew also packed in a wide variety of other commodities, including silk and satin clothing, wallpaper, lacquered fans, umbrellas, exotic plants, and even delectable Shanghai roosters.
A five-month return voyage brought the Empress of China back to New York on May 11, 1785, fifteen months after her departure. Her return caused a sensation. Local papers hailed it as a promise that the city would soon be out of the economic doldrums. New Yorkers could now look forward, said one, to “a future happy period in our being able to dispense with that burdensome and unnecessary traffick, which hitherto we have carried on with Europe—to the great prejudice of our rising empire. . . . Providence is countenancing our navigation to this new world.” Constable, Rucker, and Company of New York, whose partners included Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris, easily sold the Empress of China’s cargo, returning profits of between thirty and forty thousand dollars to her investors.
This was a 30 percent return on their original investment, but given the time and risks involved, it was disappointing. So was the venality of Daniel Parker. Scarcely had the Empress of China cleared New York than Parker’s creditors began to hear rumors of certain irregularities in his accounts. He finally admitted to embezzling huge sums of money, then skipped to Europe, leaving Duer and other investors to sort things out. Angry, embarrassed, and teetering on the edge of disaster themselves, they were looking for ways to cut their losses even before the Empress of Chinareturned to New York. Years of recrimination and litigation would follow.
Five ships left New York for China in 1786. There was excited talk around city taverns and coffeehouses about opening new routes to Russia too, and at least one New York vessel, Betsy, had already ventured out to Madras. In the decade or so to come, trade with China and the East Indies would make rich men of such merchants as John Pintard, John Broome, and Robert Lenox.
Isaac Sears wasn’t so lucky. After moving to Boston in 1777, Sears made a fortune during the war and was almost certainly the “Captain Sears of Boston” to whom Duer and his associates offered shares in the Empress of China in 1783. He too returned to New York late in 1783, moved into a mansion at Number 1 Broadway, opposite Bowling Green, and took an active part in the revitalization of the Sons of Liberty. By 1785, however, Sears was in trouble. Besieged by creditors, he pleaded immunity from arrest as a member of the Assembly and sailed for China. He died and was buried in Canton in October 1786.
The fate of the Empress of China—let alone what became of Isaac Sears—made it clear that no new trade route, even at a 30 percent rate of return, was in and of itself sufficient to ensure New York’s future prosperity. Two or three years after Evacuation Day, the fitful condition of business had become a subject of debate in local newspapers, taverns, and coffeehouses. It would also make Alexander Hamilton the man of the hour.