The Road to City Hall

The revolution did little to change either the structure or orientation of municipal government. Aldermen continued to be elected by freeholders and freemen of the corporation (until the right of representation was expanded in 1804), and the Common Council was still composed overwhelmingly of merchants and lawyers, with a sprinkling of substantial master craftsmen. Its standing committees—like Lamps, Streets and Roads, Public Buildings, Auditing of Accounts—carried on as they had before the Revolution, supplemented, as necessary, by special committees for, e.g., repair of the Brooklyn ferry house, improvements at the Battery, or building a new watch house. The mayor and council continued to function as the Court of Common Pleas (for civil cases) and the Court of General Sessions (for criminal cases).

Beneath this apparent stability, however, lay an ongoing metamorphosis in the city’s relationship to the state. In colonial days, all council actions had to be approved by the governor, who could veto them at will. Now there was much more give and take. The city often asked the state legislature—the acknowledged font of sovereign authority—for explicit grants of power to undertake actions not authorized under the Montgomerie Charter. Almost always the legislators approved these ad hoc requests for specific delegations of authority to raise money or undertake particular public projects. At other times, however, the legislature intervened in municipal affairs on its own initiative, overriding the city on matters that were clearly within its competence under the charter. The state was particularly active where patronage was concerned, and the first decades after independence witnessed a considerable transfer of appointing power from the mayor and Common Council to the statewide Council of Appointment (which appointed the mayor).

By increments, without anyone expressly intending it to happen, the corporation gradually came to be recognized as primarily an agent of the state, with its “private” personality, so jealously guarded by earlier generations, remembered, if at all, as a relic of the rapidly receding colonial past. New York City did not, however, become a puppet of New York State: politically, the municipality remained active in shaping its own destiny, with the state acting in tandem rather than in opposition to its initiatives.

As the city-state association grew ever closer, the two governing bodies drew physically farther apart. Before 1796 the state Legislature and Common Council often cohabited in the Broad Street Exchange. In January 1797 however the state government moved north to Albany. A variety of reasons were advanced for the change of venue: epidemics, threats of war, the high cost of living, and proximity to the state’s developing hinterland. Also a factor was the already well advanced rivalry between upstate and downstate interests. Perhaps not coincidentally, the decision to relocate came shortly after John Jay became the first Manhattanite in state history to win the governorship.

Whether together or at opposite ends of the Hudson River, however, the two jurisdictions agreed in continuing many colonial-era mercantilist policies in the new republican world. While the state relinquished control of customs-related matters to the national government—after 1789 the Port of New York’s collector, gaugers, weighmasters, land and tide waiters, surveyors, and searchers became federal officers—it was the Council of Appointment that chose the seaport’s harbormasters, wardens, and pilots.

The state also took control of monitoring exports, even though its charter specifically authorized the corporation to do so. The state gave the Council of Appointment the right to name the surveyors and packers of bread, flour, beef, and other inspectors of commodities being shipped out from the port, and a series of laws between 1785 and 1799 laid down elaborate specifications regarding the quality and packing of flour and meal and the dressing, grading, branding, casking, and storing of beef and pork. Staves, lumber, flaxseed, pot and pearl ashes, butter and lard—all were examined and certified by state inspectors.

When it came to examining products brought to the city for local consumption, an army of municipal measurers, weighmasters, gaugers, and inspectors took over. Stationed at markets, slips, and wharves, they measured, weighed, gauged, and inspected timber, planks, grain, salt, hay, lime, charcoal, coal, hemp, flax, hides, anchors, and cables—for a fee, half paid by the buyer, half by the seller. By 1800 there were at least sixty-four public measurers, five weighmasters, four weighers of hay, twenty-two inspectors of hay, two gaugers of liquor, and thirteen inspectors of firewood.

The city-run system of public markets was flourishing at century’s end. Although two of the five leading pre-Revolutionary markets had been abandoned, three new ones had been added (including Catherine Market near Catherine Slip). The old ones had been improved, including the oldest—the Fly Market, at the foot of Maiden Lane—which now consisted of three market houses, for meat, country produce, and fish. Under the aegis of the mayor, who served as clerk of the market, and the council, which regulated the deputy clerks, markers and sealers of weights and measures, inspectors, porters, packers, and cullers, the city prohibited forestalling, engrossing, and regrating and paid close attention to sanitary conditions (oysters could not be sold between June 1 and September 30). As a result, the quality of food sold in New York City was generally good.

At the same time the city was maintaining close oversight of distribution, however, it was dismantling pre-Revolutionary restrictions on production. In this they were supported by entrepreneurial masters, who believed that the explosive commercial and demographic expansion of the nineties would pay off only for those having the freedom as well as the character to act. What was the point of the Revolution, they asked, if not to free individuals from arbitrary, artificial, and oppressive restraints?


The Fly Market, 1816. Women are conspicuous in this scene both as venders of produce and, in the covered meat market (background), as consumers. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

During the later 1780s and 1790s the old requirement that none but freemen be permitted to engage in “any art, trade, mystery, or occupation, within the city, saving in time of fairs” was permitted to lapse. On the books, violators remained subject to fivepound fines, but as one observer noted in 1807, “no prosecutions are brought against those who carry on business without taking out their freedom.”

For a time, the city insisted that all butchers have their cattle slaughtered at the municipal abattoir, but vigorous protests won a ruling that licensed butchers could kill their own livestock on their own premises. The city would continue to crack down on fraudulent practices—for example, falsely designating meat as having been slaughtered according to Hebrew law—but tended to overlook sharp practices such as forestalling (meeting drovers up-island, cornering whole herds, and charging other butchers what the market would bear), in this case a latitude butchers deplored, as they were the ones who got skinned.

A similar ambivalence marked the bakers’ response to the assize—the regulation of bread prices by a committee of the Common Council. Although officials kept close track of the price of flour and adjusted bakers’ charges to bakers’ costs, the breadmen grew increasingly restive. Finally, in 1800, the Common Council acceded to demands by master bakers that the price of bread, like that of other commodities, be determined in the marketplace. Competition, they argued, “would create an Emulation among the Bakers and would of course produce good Bread . . . at a reasonable price.” A year later, however, when the cost of flour fell sharply, the bakers refused all appeals to lower their prices accordingly. The council then reinstated the assize, at which point the bakers went on strike, refusing to bake until allowed the price they wanted for their bread. Although the council got them back to work with a substantial increase, a group of “wealthy citizens” formed the New York Bread Company to manufacture bread in such quantities that residents would never again have to pay more than the market would bear. This wasn’t at all what the bakers had intended in denouncing the assize: free markets were one thing, industrial enterprises operated by semiskilled labor another. Besides driving them out of business, cried the bakers, the Bread Company was the opening wedge of a capitalist labor system that would in time annihilate the crafts, reduce mechanics to mere wage-slaves, and destroy the republic. The threat receded after a spectacular fire—apparently accidental—destroyed the Bread Company’s main building in May 1803, but wrangling over the pros and cons of unfettered market economies went on in earnest. Not until 1821 would the City Council finally abandon the assize once and for all.

Cartmen continued to be strictly supervised. The mayor issued licenses, the council set prices they could charge to haul loads, and city officials disciplined violators of ordinances. To avoid monopolization and price-gouging, the city insisted that all cartmen remain independent one-horse entrepreneurs; fleets of company-owned carts driven by wage-workers were strictly forbidden. The city did, however, organize the men into companies of forty-nine (each under supervision of a foreman), and by 1800 there were twenty such, comprising a thousand truckmen. In an effort to rein in street chaos, moreover, a 1799 state law required that carts, carriages, wagons, and sleighs keep to the left when passing other vehicles; the city adopted a like ordinance in 1800.

Like bakers and butchers, cartmen were ambivalent about municipal regulation, though in general they found paternalism in their interest. The freemanship requirement, dropped for others, continued in effect for carters, protecting them against competition from farm-based laborers, Irish immigrants, and black slaves. On the other hand, cartmen complained that by issuing so many licenses, the city created excessive competition and lowered their incomes, keeping many on the edge of subsistence.


In 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever battered Philadelphia, and compassionate New Yorkers raised five thousand dollars for the suffering city. There was, however, no agreement on what caused the yellow fever (in fact, the agent was a virus transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito), and in a politicized era the dispute quickly took on political overtones. Federalists tended to depict it as a foreign contagion—the biological counterpart, so to speak, of French Jacobinism. Republicans answered that it was the product of “nauseous stenches” rising up every summer from the city’s “abominably filthy” waterfront and other unsanitary conditions for which only the negligence and incompetence of Federalist magistrates were to blame. Yet etiological positions were not rigid. Many merchants, generally Federalist in their politics, preferred to fault the local environment rather than imported contagions, which could lead to trade-disrupting quarantines. Indeed, virtually every city body that addressed the problem chose to sidestep the controversy by advocating both quarantine and sanitation.

In 1793 the predominately Federalist municipal government established a semiau­tonomous Health Committee, composed of aldermen and citizen volunteers, which cut off communications with Philadelphia, presumed source of the pestilence. Committee inspectors patrolled the waterfront with full power to turn away or quarantine persons as well as goods arriving from that city. In close conjunction with these efforts, the committee also set out to track down “Nuisances in this City,” such as the “dead horses, dogs, cats, and other dead animals lying about in such abundance, as if the inhabitants accounted the stench arising from putrid carcasses a delicious perfume,” as one letter to an editor put it sardonically.

The fever passed by in 1793, and the following year Governor George Clinton officially reinsitituted the Health Committee. The group in turn got the Common Council to lease Bellevue, a rustic estate owned by Quaker merchant Lindley Murray that overlooked the East River north of the settled city, for the use of fever victims.

In 1795 yellow fever was reported to be widespread in the West Indies. Early summer, while hot and humid, passed uneventfully, though Dr. Valentine Seaman noticed (without understanding the significance of his observation) that “musquetoes were never before known, by the oldest inhabitants, to have been so numerous as at this season, especially in the south-eastern part of the City.” In mid-July, the health officer was summoned to attend three sick seamen aboard a vessel in the East River. He caught the disease and died eight days later. More cases surfaced on the waterfront. The Health Committee denied any occasion for alarm, but many wealthy men sent their families out of town in August. Then the number of cases shot upward, touching off a mass September exodus. Well-to-do residents shuttered their businesses and decamped for Greenwich, Harlem, and other nearby country villages, leaving thousands of unemployed mechanics and laborers to fend for themselves. Health Committee members made daily rounds, giving medical treatment, distributing relief, and sending victims up to Bellevue. The fever burned on through October until cool weather brought a sharp reduction in mortality, but by then the epidemic had claimed a record 732 victims—and had proved, according to Mayor Richard Varick, “most fatal among the poor emigrants, who lived and died in filth and dirt.”

Milder outbreaks followed in the summers of 1796 and 1797, during which the Health Committee removed the sick to a new “pesthouse” on Bedloe’s Island, while at the same time moving to purchase Bellevue outright, as well as the adjoining property of merchant Samuel Kipp, for an isolation hospital. The legislature, meanwhile, created a permanent Health Office, staffed by commissioners selected by the Council of Appointment, and gave it the right to make and enforce ordinances for cleaning the city.

In 1798, amid frantic preparations for war with France, the fever slammed into New York with greater fury than ever. The first cases came to light at the end of July, again in the dock areas by the East River. Within weeks every resident able to do so had fled, crowding into “every vehicle, from the humble dungcart to the gilded carriage” to escape, as Grant Thorburn described the scene, “fear quickening their pace, and the destroying angel at their heels.” Left behind were the poor and dependent, many made destitute by the death or incapacity of the household wage-earner. The doctors of New York remained on the job—twenty of them falling victim to the fever—while the new state health commissioners, aided by zealous watchmen, carted the sick up to Bellevue and established three “cook houses” where the poor were given soup, boiled meat, and bread. At the peak of the epidemic in September and October, sixteen hundred to two thousand were fed each day, and another eight hundred at the almshouse, the cost covered by Common Council appropriations and donations from wealthy merchants and other towns. Thorburn too stayed on, making nails for a Warren Street carpenter who was trying to keep up with the demand for coffins; two little boys hawked the pine boxes around town on a bandwagon, stopping at intersections to sing out, “Coffins! Coffins of all sizes!” “Death and we shook hands so often in those times,” Thorburn recalled, “that his bony fingers appeared as soft as a lady’s glove.”

When the crisis finally passed, the disease had claimed 2,086 lives—close to 5 percent of the population. While a number of prominent citizens lay dead, Melancton Smith and printer Thomas Greenleaf among them, the great majority of victims, as in previous epidemics, were poor. Many were buried in the new potter’s field, just opened in 1797, to the north of town on the site of today’s Washington Square.

Shaken by this catastrophe, the Common Council established a committee to investigate its causes. Their report, made public in 1799, came down hard on unsanitary conditions, attributing the disease to “filthy sunken yards” filled with offal, putrefying matter in pools of stagnant water, damp cellars, foul slips, decayed docks, open sewers, and overflowing privies. The report called for sweeping reforms, which it admitted would inconvenience and abridge the property rights of citizens. But the public welfare came before individual rights, the committee concluded, and the Common Council should have “great and strong power, to clean up the city.”

The Common Council drafted a bill for the legislature embodying virtually all the recommendations. The legislature enacted it promptly, and in the next few years municipal authorities would embark on a series of unprecedented interventions in hitherto private affairs. (The state also passed a new quarantine act in 1799 and built a quarantine station on Staten Island, at Tompkinsville. By 1800 the first buildings of the new Marine Hospital were ready to receive fever victims and to accommodate sick passengers removed from incoming vessels.)

While these initiatives were underway, fever flare-ups remained mild until the summer of 1803, when again, one physician wrote, “the wealthy early abandoned the city, and the poor are daily falling victims to its ravages.” The state-appointed Health Commission did excellent work, but in the wake of this latest epidemic the Common Council decided to establish its own Board of Health, to be headed by Mayor De Witt Clinton. The legislature agreed and ceded all powers to the new body, including the authority to order any vessel into quarantine. The city supplemented the new Board of Health with an even more novel office, that of city inspector. Its mission would be to gather information about public nuisances and propose ordinances to “remove or correct” them, in order to ensure “the future health of the City.” The task was soon assigned to John Pintard, who had on his own been collecting mortality statistics for the city since 1802. At his urging, the Common Council soon expanded the city inspector’s tasks to include maintaining a Register of Births and Marriages and keeping a record of admissions and deaths at Bellevue.

The first Board of Health was constituted just as the epidemic of 1805 broke—during which time, Pintard reported, twenty-seven thousand of the city’s estimated seventy-five thousand residents fled town, most to Greenwich Village, taking along the Customs Office, the post office, and the offices of many newspapers and businesses. The Board of Health didn’t hesitate to use its powers, and the Common Council backed it up with a virtually unlimited expense account. The board evacuated all contaminated streets near the East River and set up tents and barracks at Greenwich and Bellevue for anyone who couldn’t afford to rent temporary quarters. This proved effective, though the Board didn’t know why (evacuation left no one for the infected mosquitoes to bite).

After 1805 yellow fever disappeared from New York for fourteen years. While this probably had more to do with a parallel decline of the disease in the West Indies, it was due in part to the burst of municipal action triggered by the disaster of 1798, above all a drainage campaign that might have reduced, albeit inadvertently, breeding places for mosquitoes.


When city authorities cast about for possible sources of pollution, they didn’t have to look much farther than the no-longer Fresh Water Pond. The seventy-acre-wide, sixty-foot-deep spring-fed basin where the Lenapes had once caught fish and killed ducks was, by 1800, what one contributor to the Daily Advertiser termed “a shocking hole . . . foul with excrement, frog-spawn and reptiles.” Nearby residents had made the pond a “very sink and common sewer. It’s like a fair every day with whites, and blacks, washing their clothes, blankets, and things. . . sudds and filth are emptied into this pond, besides dead dogs, cats,” and the like. Worse yet were the potteries, breweries, tanneries, rope-walks, and furnaces that lined the pond’s southern and eastern banks. Landed and mercantile interests meanwhile complained that runoffs from the pond fed a stretch of marshes and swamps between modern Chambers and Canal that nearly cut the island in two, blocking the northward flow of population. One outlet, a sluggish stream, ran along modern Canal Street before losing itself in the swampy wooded salt marshes known as Lispenard’s Meadows, where for decades gentlemen had taken guns and dogs to shoot woodcock and snipe. To the southeast, a second outlet ran through a smaller tidal marsh, still known as “the Swamp,” and along the course of Roosevelt Street, a foul muddy alley, to the East River.

The city had been eyeing these obstacles for some time, and in 1791 it purchased all claims to the pond from the heirs of Anthony Rutgers. It could not, however, decide on what to do next. Some advocated a Venetian strategy: making the pond into an inland harbor by cutting broad canals to both rivers. Others wanted to embark on a giant real estate development. But in the aftermath of the 1798 epidemic, the health commissioners pressed for and got a Common Council decision to drain the swamps, then in 1803 ordered the Fresh Water itself filled in. A drain was cut through the marsh along the line of present-day Canal Street to carry off water from the underground springs that fed the pond and meadows. Then Bunker Hill, east of Broadway on what is now Grand Street, was leveled and its earth and stone dumped in the pond. By 1807 the pond was “rapidly turning to dry land”; by 1813 (some say 1815) it had disappeared.

But not completely. Although the springs remained (as they do to this day), the landfill process, having ignored the old watercourses, upset the area’s natural drainage. The result was a boggy tract that oozed and sank unevenly. The principal street across it—first called Collect, later Centre—had to be laid with planks to be passable, and the cellars of the buildings that soon covered it were constantly full of water.

To correct the situation, the Common Council had an eight-foot ditch dug down the middle of Canal Street to convey storm water from the Collect Street area to the Hudson. Because the canal didn’t flow swiftly enough, however, it became a stinking open sewer. When the city covered it over in 1819, the engineers failed to install air traps, and it became a stinking closed sewer.

Canal Street was not the only pathway along which New Yorkers were forced to hold their noses despite dramatic new cleanup efforts by fever-fearing municipal authorities. The 1798 post-epidemic report had urged the city to assume direct responsibility for cleaning the streets, rather than leaving the job to individual householders, and in 1798 it created a Street Commission. The commission hired carts and laborers to clear the streets of dirt, manure, and offal twice a week. In 1802 a separate Superintendent of scavengers was appointed to oversee the collection of garbage. The sweepers and scavengers were never particularly effective, however, and the city continued to rely heavily on its ever-present hogs to clean up.

Human excrement compounded the problem. Backyard privies routinely overflowed, sending their effluvia to mix with street debris and storm water in polluted puddles. In 1800 the city required that all privy pits on the east side be cleaned out, a labor largely undertaken by poor blacks attracted by the wages, but even then problems remained. Night soil was still dumped in the river, and the haphazard construction of docks and slips had so obstructed the natural movement of water that the noxious mass piled up along the waterfront, generating nauseous stenches in warm weather. Under the 1799 legislation, the Common Council had the power to require renovation of piers and wharves, with alterations to be assessed against the property owner; this brought some relief, but it was not a real solution. Only sewers that went beyond conveying excess storm water to carrying human wastes might do the job. And although an 1803 report on the London sewer system sent back by Rufus King, ambassador to England, was well received, nothing came of it, because only indoor water closets could supplant privies, and they in turn were dependent on a nonexistent supply of water.


New Yorkers were keenly aware that the city had a water problem. The 1798 postepidemic report had blamed many of the city’s health problems on the lack of plentiful fresh water. Some citizens began agitating to revive a municipal waterworks project that had been launched just before the Revolution.

In 1774 Irish-born civil engineer Christopher Colles had begun construction of a thirteen-mile conduit system of bored pine logs, connected to a well and pump just west of the (still) Fresh Water Pond. War intervened and the project lapsed. By the 1780s contamination of Manhattan’s underground streams had fouled nearly every source of drinking water, except Colles’s waterworks and the privately owned Tea Water Pump on Chatham Street, and they too were worsening rapidly.

When citizens called on the Common Council to revive Colles’s project, however, the authorities demurred, pointing to the expense involved. The populace pressed on, and many inhabitants signed a petition in 1788 requesting the city to begin laying pipes; again the corporation pled financial inability. Then came the epidemics, the 1798 report that called for a fresh water supply, and the launching of a public effort by Philadelphia. Responding to proposals for an aqueduct from the Bronx River, the Common Council now approved a municipal waterworks and drafted a bill for the legislature’s approval, explicitly disavowing a for-profit solution on the grounds that such an enterprise would “not be undertaken by a Company unless upon the Prospect of considerable Gain; and that such Gain must be acquired at the Expense of the Qty.” Aaron Burr, John Murray (president of the Chamber of Commerce), and Peter H. Wendover (president of the Mechanics Society), argued that the aldermen should abandon their plan in favor of a privately operated water company, a position Alexander Hamilton hammered home to the Council in a separate concurring opinion. Within weeks the Federalist-controlled legislature had approved a charter of incorporation drafted by Burr, for the Manhattan Company. The charter empowered the company to build dams, dig wells, divert streams, lay pipes, and do whatever else might be necessary to supply the city with fresh water (which, it was generally assumed, would be tapped from the Bronx River, as per the city’s original plan). A crucial, vaguely worded clause also permitted the company to use its surplus capital for any “monied transactions or operations” consistent with the law—including trade, insurance, and, Burr’s real object, a bank.

Burr and his wealthy backers had long been interested in launching a third bank in the city. The Bank of New York and the local branch of the Bank of the United States (known to all simply as “the Branch Bank”) had done very well since the outbreak of war in Europe, both moving into larger quarters before the end of the decade. Yet their clubby, interlocking directorates and their habit of loaning money only to shareholders had given rise to much discontent in countinghouses around town. There was ample capital for a third bank too, but Burr and his associates, worried that the two existing banks would fight if the legislature tried to create a third, devised the idea of using the water company as a front. No one was really fooled, in any event, and by September 1799 the bank of the Manhattan Company (forerunner of the Chase Manhattan Bank) was up and running. It soon proved extremely profitable.

The waterworks were another story. The Manhattan Company had no intention of tying up its capital in an expensive Bronx River Aqueduct and instead revived the Colles project, sinking new wells at Reade and Centre, right near the anything-but Fresh Water Pond. Although engineers urged iron pipes, the company, keeping the interests of its stockholders uppermost, opted for cheap hollow logs. And despite estimates that New York needed three million gallons a day—for which the city plan had envisioned a reservoir of a million gallons—the company erected on the north side of Chambers Street one that would hold only 132,600 gallons, then, perhaps in compensation for its fundamental inadequacy, grandly decorated its facade with four Doric columns and a statue of Oceanus standing guard. Instead of buying a steam engine, it made do with a horsepowered pump. By mid-1800 it had laid but six miles of pipe, which supplied only four hundred homes with water.

Complaints mounted rapidly—of inadequate delivery, of the company’s refusal to provide water to flush gutters, of its unwillingness to pipe water into the markets, of its habit of not filling in streets it dug up. Burr was removed from the board of directors, but his replacement and soon-to-be company president De Witt Clinton, himself one of the leading investors in the enterprise, proved to be no more public-minded. Indeed, after he became mayor in 1803, Clinton routed a bill through the Common Council stipulating that all city funds be held by the bank of the Manhattan Company, and despite now vociferous outcries at negligent management and insufficient facilities, a Democratic-Republican state legislature renewed the charter in 1808.

Thanks to Burr and his cohorts, who had hijacked a civic movement in order to launch a profit-making venture, New York would remain without a decent water supply for another four decades, the city would grow steadily dirtier as it grew steadily bigger, and in the not too distant future it would again be visited by yellow fever and even deadlier plagues.


The Manhattan Company didn’t do much to help the city’s efforts at expanding its firefighting capacity either. While in the beginning it refrained from charging the corporation for the use of its water in putting out blazes, its system was so limited that it reached only a small portion of the city. Also, it had no hydrants, only hard-to-find and harder-to-open fire plugs, forcing firemen to drill holes in the wooden mains to gain access.

The city nevertheless pressed ahead, energetically expanding its activities, though not to the extent of establishing a professional fire department. (The Fire Department of the City of New York, established in 1791 and incorporated in 1798, was not a municipal agency but rather an organization for the relief of disabled and indigent firemen and their families, to which the city contributed money from fees and chimney fines.)

What the city did do, in 1791, was pass an ordinance appointing fire wardens in each ward, who entered houses to check fireplaces and stoves and to make sure that each had its requisite number of leather fire buckets. Apart from the three hundred men named from among the freeholders and freemen to man the seventeen engine companies and two hook-and-ladder brigades, every citizen was required to turn out, buckets in hand, and assemble into bucket lines under the supervision of the wardens. The mayor, recorder, and aldermen were also expected to show, and they were supplied with special white wands, five feet long and topped by a gilded flame, to help direct the action.

In December 1796, however, a big fire swept through the commercial district and destroyed a million dollars’ worth of stores and merchandise, prompting city officials to adopt more effective approaches. In 1799 New York imported from Hamburg “two fire Engines with long Hoses, to convey Water from the River into the interior of the City,” and created Supply Engine Company No. 25 to man the new machines. Hoses, connected from one engine to another, soon proved more efficient than bucket lines, and after another great fire, in 1804, the Common Council redoubled its efforts to add engine companies. In 1806 it obtained authority from the legislature to pull down or blow up buildings to stop the progress of a fire. By 1807 City Inspector Pintard reported that the city’s firefighting force, under direction of a chief engineer, now included seven engineers, forty-eight fire wardens, thirty-six hook-and-ladder men, and 778 men to work the fire engines. It also invested in new equipment, soon acquiring 13,087 feet of hose. By 1811 bucket lines, and with them the colonial-era reliance on mass mobilization of the citizenry, were a thing of the past.

The municipality’s growing involvement in firefighting was echoed by its increased commitment to regulating construction. A statute requiring that new buildings be made of brick or stone and topped with slate roofs had been passed back in 1761, but its implementation had been postponed repeatedly. State laws of 1791 and 1796 resurrected the rules, and in 1801 the city got the legislature to grant it even more sweeping regulatory authority. Henceforth it could appoint surveyors to see that all new buildings (as well as streets, wharves, and slips) were constructed in a manner laid down by the Common Council: builders had to obtain certificates before starting work and adhere to city codes governing the quality of building materials.


Scene at a fire, c. 1800, from Ye Olde Fire Laddies, by Herbert Asberry. Rapid improvements in the city’s firefighting equipment would put an end to these citizen bucket brigades by 1820. (© Museum of the City of New York)

The city also received authority to make property owners correct or improve existing structures. An act of 1800 allowed the Common Council, within certain designated areas, to buy, at fair valuation, any houses or lots below city standards and dispose of them in such manner as “will best conduce to the health and welfare of the said city.” Municipal authorities even won the right to tear down houses and oversee the erection of “proper & wholesome Buildings thereon”—apparently the city’s first warrant to engage in slum clearance—though in the next decades such powers were usually exercised only in the case of abandoned buildings. The Board of Health, for its part, was given the right to enforce hygienic standards that went beyond issues of simple cleanliness to matters of population density. An 1804 Common Council ordinance regulating lodging houses was the first piece of legislation to specify maximum densities in housing.

Municipal powers were likewise expanded to include oversight of existing and future roads. In 1793 systematic house numbering and street signs (“direction boards”) were introduced, helping to rationalize the city’s built environment. The next year, one of intensely anti-British excitement, brought some overdue change in street names too. King, Little Queen, Prince, Princess, and Duke became Liberty, Pine, Cedar, Rose, Beaver, and Stone, respectively. Eventually, several dozen city streets would be named or renamed after Revolutionary heroes and other patriot worthies: Broome, Clinton, Duane, Franklin, Gansevoort, Greene, Horatio (Gates), King, Lafayette, Madison, Mercer, MacDougal (Street and Alley), Magaw, Montgomery, Sullivan, Thompson, Varick, Washington (Fort, Mews, Place, and Square), Willet, and Wooster, among others. A considerable number of Tory street names remained unchanged, however, including Beech, Cornelia, Desbrosses, Delancey, Abingdon, Fort Charles Place, Great Jones, Hanover, Nassau, Oliver (De Lancey), Pell, Pitt, Prince, Rivington, and Warren.

Strategic improvements were effected on key routes. In 1796 the city horse market was removed from Wall Street. In 1802 the Common Council pushed to have the main roads leading in and out of town “turnpiked” (paved). Broadway was extended north and regulated up to Canal—which involved leveling a fifty-foot-high hill at Duane Street—and then on till it intersected the Bowery at 14th Street. The Bowery, meanwhile, was turnpiked from Bullock (Broome) Street on up to the forks of Kingsbridge and Bloomingdale roads, at modern-day 233rd Street, and another two new bridges were thrown across the Harlem River. Finally, and most grandly, in 1804 the corporation decided to regulate the city’s future expansion and ordered the commissioner of streets to prepare a plan for “new streets hereafter to be laid out and opened.”


Via the commissioners of the almshouse, the municipality continued to provide outdoor relief—usually food, clothing, and firewood—to residents pitched into temporary dependency. In February 1796 the commissioners visited and subsidized forty families, “either by giving them money, where they supposed they might be trusted with it, or by leaving orders on neighboring grocers.” In addition, they supported, as of 1795, 622 paupers inside the almshouse, including the aged, lunatic, and blind. Some residents had been there for decades, like blind Susana Wilson, who had entered in 1761.

Between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties, the almshouse budget soared from $12,500 to over $29,000, far exceeding all other municipal expenditures. A report to the mayor and aldermen by the commissioners of the almshouse in 1796 said: “We cannot help being alarmed at the enormous and still growing expense of this department, arising not so much from the increase of our own poor, as from the prodigious influx of indigent foreigners in the city,” especially the Irish, who often wound up in the almshouse. The almshouse, however, was falling apart. By 1796 there were 770 dependents in a sixty-year-old building capable of handling half that number. It was agreed that the structure was in such “Ruinous Condition” that repairs were useless. The state legislature authorized a municipal lottery, and in 1797 the new three-story, $130,000 almshouse (on the site of today’s Tweed Courthouse) was ready for occupants. Yet it was soon as outrageously overcrowded as its predecessor—by January of the following year it housed a record nine hundred paupers—and the Common Council began debating the possibility of erecting an enormous new edifice up at Bellevue.

Governor Jay proposed more immediate relief. Reacting to pleas from municipal officials, Jay urged the state legislature to assume some financial responsibility for alien dependents, suggesting they be treated as “the poor of the state.” The 1798 legislature agreed and authorized a 1 percent tax on auction sales in New York City to support the “foreign poor” there. The law also supported Manhattan’s first efforts at professionalizing the administration of relief, by allowing the Common Council to appoint and pay commissioners. After 1800 these commissioners in turn delegated direction of outdoor relief to an almshouse superintendent and his hired aides. By 1802 the city was spending thirty-five thousand dollars on outdoor relief alone, better than twice as much as a decade earlier.

Beyond this, authorities wouldn’t go. In the winter of 1804 City Inspector John Pintard told the council that winter fuel shortages were becoming endemic and that it was the “duty” of municipal government to relieve the situation. He urged the council to buy five hundred cords of firewood before winter then resell it according to ability to pay, using robust paupers from the almshouse to saw, stack, and deliver. The aldermen rejected the proposal, only to find that very winter an ice-clogged harbor forcing suspension of fuel deliveries from Westchester and New Jersey. In the ensuing crisis, committees of volunteers in each ward distributed fuel and food to the needy (fifty-four hundred persons were aided in just one week in January). But in June of that year, when warm weather had returned, Mayor Clinton authorized the chief marshal and his fortyplus deputies to round up “all idle Strollers, Vagabonds and disorderly persons whom you shall suppose would become chargeable to the City.” The magistrates would give them sixty days in the Bridewell or transportation out of the city.


Throughout these decades, as the city expanded its involvement in fire prevention, market regulation, sanitation, and poor relief, it also enhanced its police powers. Beside the marshals, it could call on an expanded constabulary, under the direction of High Constable Jacob Hays. Appointed by Mayor Livingston in 1802 to the position he would hold for nearly fifty years, Hays, of Jewish parentage though reared in the Presbyterian faith, would convert the job from its eighteenth-century role as a server of court writs into that of de facto police commissioner. Under his command were sixteen elected constables and seventy-two members of the watch.

Hays’s men increasingly absorbed the responsibility of the magistrates to maintain public order. The mayor and aldermen were still expected to appear at major disturbances to assert municipal authority, and while they still possessed considerable political and economic influence, the city was getting too big for such measures. In addition, upstanding citizens could no longer be counted on to rally on behalf of authority, any more than they could be counted on to show up with buckets at fires. Hays relied more on physical coercion than social deference to break up disturbances, plunging into crowds with his staff to seize individuals in a viselike grip and haul them off to jail.

The mayor and aldermen also drew back slowly but surely from the exercise of their judicial functions, giving rise to a de facto separation of powers. Under De Witt Clinton, the jurisdictional reach and number of meetings of the Mayor’s Court increased steadily, forcing him to turn its proceedings over to the recorder. He maintained his involvement in the Court of General Sessions, but there too specialization took hold, and the adjudication of petty criminal cases was spun off to new special justices of the peace. Since 1798, moreover, a new Police Office had been established, in which police justices sat to examine all those detained overnight by the watchmen; this new layer of judicial officials heard complaints, examined witnesses, imposed small fines or penalties, and passed only the serious cases on to the higher courts.

For those placed in detention while awaiting trial for violation of municipal ordinances or state laws, or those few found guilty and sentenced to prison—only eighty-three during the ten years between 1784 and 1794—the destination was the old New Gaol (1759) on the northeast corner of the Common. Here too were incarcerated debtors, who were expected to pay for their own food, clothing, and fuel. At the northwest corner—separated from the New Gaol by the almshouse—sat the Bridewell, built on the eve of the Revolution, with space for 400 vagrants, disorderly persons, and prostitutes. This creaky, colonial-era institution was about to undergo a transformation, however.

In 1764, an Italian nobleman named Cesare Beccaria had published his landmark Essay on Crimes and Punishments, denouncing inhumane punishment as both the major cause of crime and an instrument of despotism. During the seventies and eighties Beccaria became a pillar of enlightened opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. His ideas influenced John Howard, an English penologist who fought the death penalty and advocated imprisonment at hard labor in place of corporal punishment. Howard and Beccaria in turn fired the imagination of Thomas Eddy. Born in Philadelphia in 1758 to a prominent family of Tory sympathizers, Eddy had settled in New York after the Revolution and become a successful insurance broker, a Federalist, a Quaker philanthropist who promoted a variety of humanitarian causes (including antislavery), and a commissioner of the almshouse. In the mid-1790s, Eddy marshaled politically influential acquaintances—Philip Schuyler and George Clinton, among others—to reform the state’s antiquated criminal code. It was, he said, a relic of “barbarous usages” and “monarchical principles” ill suited to “a new country, simple manners, and a popular form of government.”

The idea was to replace a system of harsh laws, mitigated by frequent grants of clemency, with milder statutes and fewer pardons. There were good practical as well as ideological reasons for modernizing the criminal code. It had, for one, patently failed to stop criminal behavior. The list of offenses punishable by death in New York had grown longer and longer during the eighteenth century and by Eddy’s day had come to include housebreaking and malicious mischief as well as murder; lesser infractions were punished by lashing, branding, flogging, and the pillory (though a 1785 city ordinance had given magistrates limited authority to substitute confinement at hard labor in the Bridewell for corporal punishment). Even so, the incidence of crime in every category had seemed to rise at least as rapidly as the city’s population, and its law enforcement officials had real trouble keeping up. In certain neighborhoods their authority had virtually evaporated. One resident later recalled that this was a time when “no man would venture beyond Broadway towards the North River by night without carrying pistols, and the watchmen marched on their beats in couples; one to take care of the other.”

Eddy now proposed to use imprisonment as an alternative to corporal punishment. In New York, as elsewhere, prisons had always been thought of only as places to detain idle and suspicious persons, vagrants, and debtors. Soon after the Revolution, however, this notion had begun to give way before the arguments of Beccaria and Howard—not merely that prisons could also be employed to punish, correct, and deter lawbreakers but that they were the most humane, effective, and politically appropriate means of doing so. After all, what more fitting penalty could a republican people impose on those who violated its laws than the loss of their personal liberty?

Eddy’s reform campaign bore fruit in 1796 when the state legislature abolished corporal punishment and trimmed the number of capital offenses from sixteen to three (treason, murder, theft from a church). Persons convicted of lesser crimes like burglary and arson were to be sentenced to hard labor in Newgate Prison, the state’s first penitentiary, which stood on the Hudson River shore at the foot of Amos (now roth) Street in Greenwich Village. Named warden when it opened in November 1797, Eddy saw Newgate as a historic opportunity to prove that a rational legal system, affording certain yet humane retribution for infractions of the law, would actually reduce crime and promote public virtue. To that end, he arranged religious and moral instruction for all inmates while subjecting them to strict discipline. Those who responded positively won special privileges; those who didn’t wound up in solitary confinement, which Eddy considered a progressive way to make prisoners “perceive the wickedness and folly” of their conduct, experience “the bitter pangs of remorse,” and prepare themselves for “future amendment.”


Newgate Prison from Greenwich Street. “Unseen from the world,” according to a contemporary account, evildoers here “expatiate their transgressions in contrition and repentence.” (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

In reality, Newgate was a fiasco. Designed to house 432 inmates in fifty-four eight-person cells, it soon became overcrowded, dirty, pestiferous, and violent. Its inmates resisted prison regulations and failed to work together productively. (Eddy himself described them as “wicked and depraved, capable of every atrocity, and ever plotting some means of violence and escape.”) Many were West Indian blacks—the “French Negroes”—who had a history of opposition to white authority. About 20 percent of the prison’s population, moreover, were women. They had separate quarters and exercise facilities, but their presence made for trouble. “The utmost vulgarity, obscenity, and wantonness characterizes their language, their habits and their manners,” said one scandalized ex-con. “Their beastly salacity, in their visual amours, is agonizing to every fibre of delicacy and virtue.”

Frequent riots—no fewer than four in its first seven years of operation alone—caused severe damage to prison buildings and at least several fatalities among the inmates. Breakouts grew so common that the city formed a special squad of armed watchmen to surround the prison at night; after an especially serious riot in 1804, the public outcry forced Eddy to resign.


Despite the failure or limitations of some of its parts, the municipal-state administrative apparatus as a whole had been transformed by the time Eddy departed office. Where power had been almost completely centralized in a handful of magistrates at the time of Washington’s inauguration, responsibility for various aspects of city government had now been parceled out to administrators with sharply denned duties. A superintendent of scavengers looked after the cleaning of streets, while their repair was the province of the Street Department. A Board of Health oversaw disease-related issues. A superintendent of wells and pumps concerned himself with water supply. A superintendent of public buildings and grounds (1800) had oversight of the Battery, the Common, and the potter’s field (with his own force of special constables and marshals to prevent injury to trees or grass). The chief engineer looked after firefighting, the high constable ran the police force, the almshouse commissioners tended to poor relief, the city jailer dealt with correctional facilities, and the city inspector had a wide range of responsibilities, including the collection of municipal statistics. In 1801, the legal responsibilities of the recorder were transferred to a new official, the corporation attorney. That same year, some duties of the city treasurer were transferred to a new office of the comptroller, whose particular duty was to audit municipal accounts.

This growing division of labor among financial officers was accompanied by a profound shift in the way the city met its expenses. The rising cost of poor relief, police, jails, street cleaning and repair, fire equipment, lamps, wells, and the compensation of public officials had quadrupled the city’s budget between 1790 and 1800 alone, driving per capita expenditures up from $1.87 to $4.29. To pay for it all, the city drew on two funds. The first, its revenue account, consisted primarily of receipts from corporate properties, franchises, and fines—including income generated by slips, docks, markets, the rental of corporation lands, and, particularly lucrative, the monopoly income gained from leases to ferry operators plying the East River between Peck Slip, Fly Market, and Catherine Slip and vajrious points on the Brooklyn and Queens shorelines. The second fund, its tax account, consisted mainly of income from state-authorized taxes and from a liquor excise levy.

At first, the city drew most of its income from revenues, but as its initiatives and expenses mounted, it began calling on the state ever more routinely for authorization to tax. In 1787 the mayor, recorder, and aldermen were constituted as a Board of Supervisors to set tax rates when special levies were allowed; the board in turn appointed city tax assessors. Soon the bulk of the city’s income was coming not from the corporation’s private “estate” but from taxes. In 1800 they amounted to $112,000.

Still the city’s income couldn’t keep pace with its spending. To cover the shortfall the corporation began to borrow—mainly from the Bank of New York—to cover specific contingencies, such as the costs of dealing with yellow fever, building a new almshouse, or acquiring Bellevue and the lots for a new potter’s field. Sometimes the city borrowed in anticipation of forthcoming tax returns. Finally, in 1812, the city was allowed to set up a permanent bonded debt of nine hundred million dollars at 6 percent interest, known as New York City Stock.


All of this activity—constructing wharves, fighting fevers, draining swamps, charting the future development of the city—had silently revolutionized municipal government, giving it, in practice if not yet in law, an increasingly “public” identity and legitimacy. Now the Common council decided that it needed a proper home. Nothing much was wrong with the old building down on Wall Street, elegantly renovated only a decade before. Nor was there a pressing need for additional office space. Government House, having served as the official residence of the governor, was currently being leased for a hotel and could easily have been pressed into service. What the council sought, rather, was the kind of public “ornament” that New Yorkers had never really given much thought to. The city’s present wealth and future prospects now exceeded those of any other in the country, the council complained, but it lacked even a single public structure of suitable size and opulence.

The Common Council chose the Common or Park—recently fenced and lavishly stocked with a variety of shade trees—as the site for a new city hall, then held a competition for the building’s design. Twenty-six architects and builders, including the renowned Benjamin Henry Latrobe, submitted plans. The winning entry, awarded a prize of $350, came from the firm of Joseph Francois Mangin and John McComb Jr.

Mangin was an emigre architect who had worked on the place de la Concorde in Paris and (allegedly) made his way to New York via Saint-Domingue in the midnineties. On Washington’s recommendation, he was commissioned to design fortifications for the city. Appointed city surveyor soon thereafter, Mangin, along with a German engineer named Casimer Goerck, prepared an official map of the town and projected new streets into the rolling meadows of northern Manhattan. By the end of the decade his credits also included Rickett’s Equestrian Circus on Greenwich Street, the Park Theater, and Newgate Prison in Greenwich. The exterior he and McComb proposed for the new City Hall clearly reflected his sense of scale and proportion.

Mangin’s role in the project soon faded, however. Nervous about expenses, the council insisted upon alterations—reducing the depth of the building, shortening its wings, and substituting Newark brownstone for marble on its rear (which was obscured by the nearby almshouse anyway). Maybe Mangin quit in a huff, maybe the council fired him for fighting the changes: one way or the other, he was out of the picture when construction got underway in the summer of 1803. McComb, his erstwhile partner, was now the supervising architect (at a salary of six dollars per day), and it was McComb who in the end got the credit for seeing the building through to completion eight years later (at a cost of half a million dollars—twice the initial estimate).

McComb, a home-grown “mason and master builder,” was to architecture in New York what Duncan Phyfe was to furniture—an enterprising artisan who would win fame and fortune purveying the new Federal style to the city’s propertied classes. In the facade of Government House, completed in 1791 when he was just thirty, McComb had combined a Georgian portico with four slender Ionic columns of the kind favored by the English architect Robert Adam. On the pediment above the roofline, along the cornices, and at the sides of the building, his judicious deployment of pilasters, dentils, and other classical motifs created an effect that was up-to-date and elegant without being pretentious.

As the work on City Hall progressed, McComb achieved the same effect with even more convincing artistry. He deftly blended the principal elements of Mangin’s French Renaissance facade—its palace-like horizontal massing, central pavilion, and swagged window panels—with Federal-style detailing derived from the design book of Robert Adam. Inside, inspired by plans of an English Palladian mansion, McComb created a magnificent rotunda that rises the full height of the building to a skylight at the center of the coffered dome. From the ground level of the rotunda, a pair of flying marble staircases sweep up to a second-story circular gallery ringed by Corinthian columns. In the wings that extend off the rotunda on both floors, McComb placed offices for the mayor and governor, the City Council chambers, and assorted other hearing rooms, committee rooms, and courtrooms, all finished with the moldings, swags, and pilasters that were by now his trademark.

When it was finally done, Benjamin Henry Latrobe sourly dismissed the new City Hall as a “vile heterogeneous composition . . . the invention of a New York bricklayer and a St. Domingo Frenchman.” Prevailing opinion, however, held that McComb had produced a masterpiece. As an emblem of the municipal corporation’s enlarged sense of responsibility for the city’s affairs—for its legitimacy as a “public” entity in a republican society—the building could hardly have been more apt.

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