In 1788, New York’s African-American community petitioned the City Council to stop medical students from stealing corpses out of the Negro Burial Ground. The petitioners understood “the Necessity of Physicians and Surgeons consulting dead subjects for the benefit of mankind,” but they were dismayed that the students, under cover of night, would carry away the bodies of their relatives and friends “without respect to age or sex, mangle their flesh out of a wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds.” Nothing was done, however—not, that is, until the body snatchers or “resurrectionists” began raiding Trinity’s whites-only graveyard as well. Digging up blacks was one thing, whites quite another, and indignation ricocheted around town.
On Sunday, April 13, a boy peered in a window at New York Hospital and observed a cadaver being dissected. The medical student at work waved a severed arm at the boy and told him it belonged to his mother, who had in fact recently died. The boy ran off to tell his father, a mason at work on a nearby building. The man gathered some friends, went to the graveyard, and found his wife’s coffin empty. Soon an enraged crowd charged into the hospital, wrecking dissection equipment and gathering up bits and pieces of human bodies for respectable reburial. They also captured and abused several medical students, but surrendered them to magistrates when promised that legal action would be taken.
The next day another crowd, perhaps as many as five thousand strong, demanded to reexamine the hospital. Finding no more stolen bodies, they searched the buildings of Columbia College and the residences of city doctors (including that of Sir John Temple, the British consul, mistakenly identified as “Surgeon” Temple). At sunset, their wrath still unappeased, the rioters regrouped and headed for the jail, where a number of doctors and medical students had taken refuge. Governor George Clinton, Chancellor Robert Livingston, John Jay, Baron Friedrich von Steuben, and Mayor James Duane all pleaded for restraint, only to be answered with a hail of bricks and stones. Jay, struck in the head, was carried home unconscious. Duane summoned a troop of militia to disperse the crowd and was met with another shower of missiles. Baron von Steuben, also struck in the head and bleeding profusely, shouted, “Fire, Duane! Fire!” Duane, or perhaps Clinton, gave the order. The first volley killed three rioters outright and wounded many others. Before a second could be fired, the crowd had scattered.
Spontaneous, short-lived, and aimed at redressing a specific offense against communal sensibilities, the so-called Doctors Riot closely resembled pre-Revolutionary popular disorders in the city. That resemblance was strengthened by the willingness of public authorities to address the rioters’ grievances. Within a year the state legislature passed an act banning “the Odious Practice of Digging up and Removing, for the Purpose of Dissection, Dead Bodies Interred in Cemeteries or Burial Places.” (The law also allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be assigned to the doctors.)
But in certain crucial respects the Doctors Riot was unprecedented. No colonial mayor or governor had ever ordered soldiers to open fire on a crowd. Never before had gentlemen ever proved so ineffectual in controlling the actions of a crowd or (with the possible exception of Leisler’s Rebellion a century earlier) actually come under attack themselves. In retrospect, indeed, that violent clash in front of the jailhouse was an early manifestation of what would become increasingly antagonistic relations between patrician and plebeian residents of the city. For over the next ten or twenty years, even as the rich grew more clannish and disdainful of laboring people, laboring people grew more conscious of themselves as a class with markedly different interests, values, and social practices.
In the 1790s the streets of the East Ward, hard by the East River waterfront, were home to watchmakers, printers, bookbinders, tailors, hatters, and other skilled craftsmen who catered to an affluent clientele. Typically, they lived and worked under one roof—as did silversmith Daniel van Voorhis, who resided above his workshop and retail store on Hanover Square, along with his wife, Catherine Richards, their children, and some of his journeymen and apprentices. But Van Voorhis and his kind were a vanishing breed. Artisans in the capitalizing and competitive trades, caught between rising rents and declining incomes, found themselves obliged to adopt new living arrangements. One downtown shoemaker bundled both his family and his workshop into the household’s first floor, then rented out the upstairs to a Scotch journeyman carpenter and his family. The carpenter’s wife, in turn, took in boarders to meet the rent, and two immigrant nailmakers moved into the attic along with three of the carpenter’s sons.
Even with this additional income, the shoemaker found himself squeezed out of the wharf district and pushed uptown. With other priced-out artisans, he trekked to the northern wards, especially the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth, which together formed a broad band across Manhattan. Anchored on the west by Trinity’s Church Farm along the Hudson, this plebeian belt ran through the mid-island area dominated by the slowly disappearing Fresh Water Pond and its swampy tributaries, and on into the now parceled-out Rutgers and De Lancey estates, before terminating in Corlear’s Hook on the East River. By the turn of the century, migrants had pressed this perimeter of settlement as far north as modern Houston Street.
Sledding at the corner of Greenwich and Warren streets, 1809, by the Baroness Hyde de Neuville. In the one- and two-story frame buildings of this plebeian quarter it was still possible for artisans to maintain their traditional single family house-and-shop living arrangements. (© Museum of the City of New York)
One of the artisan communities within this zone lay just west of City Hall Park in the blocks bounded by Greenwich, Hudson, Warren, Murray, and Chambers streets. Chambers Street, for one, had been unpaved and largely uninhabited at the end of the Revolution. By 1800 the now cobbled thoroughfare was a neighborhood of independent proprietors, the kind of community no longer sustainable near the docks. Its seventy-six row houses, built on land leased from Trinity, were occupied by the representatives of twenty-five different trades: carpenters, joiners, coachmakers, carters, grocers, stonecutters, and others. These houses employed the neoclassical motifs of Federal architecture, like the residences of wealthy downtown merchants, but were smaller (often only eighteen feet wide) and more cheaply made (some entirely of wood). Signboards on or above their front doors made it clear, too, that their interiors were organized to suit the needs of domestic production. The family lived on the second floor. The first floor (in front) was given over to workbenches, tools, and storage space, along with (in the rear) a kitchen, spinning wheels, bins, and tubs. In the back yard, protected from ambulatory hogs by high fences, were the vegetable garden, fruit trees, privy, woodpile, cistern, smokehouse, and open fires over which the housewife boiled the wash.
The Chambers Street community proved short-lived, however. Merchants and professionals edging their way northward, away from downtown disease and disorder, bid up land prices. After 1806 Trinity demanded that its leaseholders put up only substantial brick houses, driving out small builders. By 1812 most of the artisanal home-and-workshops were gone, along with their occupants. Chambers Street had been gentrified.
Some dislocated building tradesmen, grocers, and cartmen headed farther upisland to Greenwich. The opening of Newgate Prison in 1797 and repeated infusions of fever refugees had transformed the rural hamlet into a booming village in need of their services. “The demand for houses at Greenwich,” noted a Boston paper in 1805, “is scarcely greater than the rapidity with which they are raised.” A Greenwich Market opened in 1808, just below Christopher Street, and quickly filled with wagons and carts. The Greenwich Hotel (1809), established on the prison’s doorstep, became the terminus for the stagecoach that rumbled back and forth from Federal Hall at least five times a day.
Other artisans headed across town to Bowery Village, the community that had grown up around Petrus Stuyvesant’s country house and chapel. Throughout the eighteenth century it had remained sparsely settled—a few houses plus blacksmith, wagon shop, general store, and tavern—partly from fear of highwaymen lurking in the Bayard woods. But now the developmentally minded Petrus Stuyvesant III laid out a street system on his ancestral property, squared with the points of the compass, and he donated land and construction funds for an Episcopal parish church. By 1807 St. Mark’s in the Bowery (completed in 1799 at what is now East 10th Street and Second Avenue) attracted as many as seventy worshipers in winter and two hundred in summer, reflecting the village’s new popularity as a fever refuge for city folk (the Manhattan Company erected a branch office there for banking during epidemics).
Because Bowery Village lay just outside the city limits, farmers could sell there without paying a market tax. Wagon stands soon flourished along 6th and 7th streets, along with a weigh scale for Westchester hay merchants. Comfortable residences went up along the upper Bowery, still a country road edged with blackberry bushes, drawn perhaps by the continuing presence at Petersfield of Mrs. Stuyvesant, the former Margaret Beekman, who stayed on after Petrus died in 1805. Artisan house-and-shops arrived too; so did groggeries, a brothel, and a post office (in truth an oyster house where the postrider left mail for the village). From 1804 the community even had its own (short-lived) newspaper, the Bowery Republican.
Farther down the Bowery Road, just above Chatham Square, the city’s meatprocessing industry expanded outward from the Bull’s Head Tavern, abattoir, and stockyards, owned since 1785 by Henry Astor. In the early 1800s, as additional butchers herded into the area, slaughterhouses multiplied along Chrystie and Elizabeth streets. With them came a profusion of new taverns—the Gotham Inn, the Duck and Frying Pan, the Pig and Whistle, the Crown and Thistle—and in 1801 the New Circus in the Bowery, whose bill included bullbaiting and bearbaiting. Chatham Square itself featured a horse market, a livery stable (headquarters for the Boston stagecoaches), Hendrick Doyer’s distillery (at the present Doyers Street), a watch house, and blocks of stores and workshops.
Chatham Square, in turn, bordered the former Rutgers estate, now the Seventh Ward. Colonel Henry Rutgers, grandson of Harmanus the Second, who remained in residence at the family mansion on the East River, cut up and leased out much of his land on a long-term basis. Strict building covenants required each leaseholder to erect a “workmanlike brick building.” This drew merchants and professionals to the high ground along East Broadway, Rutgers, and Monroe streets. But Rutgers’s terms were reasonable enough, and the area close enough to the Corlear’s Hook shipyards, that his property attracted shipwrights, coopers, chandlers, joiners, sailmakers, and ropemakers as well.
From the shipyards, it was but a short ferry ride to two other outposts of the old artisanal world. In Brooklyn Village, at the foot of the Old Ferry Road (now Fulton Street), lay a clustering of houses, taverns, stables, and shanties, through which the country road straggled on and out through Bedford Corners toward Jamaica. Just to Brooklyn Village’s right—from an arriving horse-ferry passenger’s perspective—rose the bluff generally known as Clover Hill, studded still with farms, orchards, gardens, and pastures.
To its left, a little way up the East River shore, lay the “City of Olympia,” founded by Comfort and Joshua Sands back in the mid-eighties. Since 1795 it had been accessible directly, via the “New” or Catherine Street Ferry that docked at Main Street. This artery, which wandered toward an inland connection with the Old Ferry Road, was lined with wood-frame buildings that housed ex-Manhattanites and settlers from Connecticut (a big contingent of whom had come down after yellow fever devastated New London in the late nineties). Slightly further upriver, between Olympia and Wallabout Bay, shipbuilder-turned-developer John Jackson had laid out yet a third village. Having sold most of his holdings to the government, the savvy promoter now began advertising his remaining lots, on the Navy Yard’s western border, as Vinegar Hill. His intention was to attract fugitives from the ill-fated Irish rebellion, the climactic battle of which had occurred at a place of the same name in 1798.
Between 1790 and 1810 the population of Brooklyn township nearly tripled, rising from sixteen hundred to just over forty-four hundred—a rate of growth only slightly below that of New York City proper—and the influx of Yankees, Irish, Manhattanites, and freed slaves from Kings and Queens counties engulfed the area’s old Dutch inhabitants. The bulk of the town’s residents lived within Brooklyn Village, a thriving artisanal community whose growth was marked by the purchase of its first Town Bell in 1796 (it hung in a cupola on top of Buckbee’s Hay Scales on Fulton Street), by the advent of its first newspaper, the Long Island Courier, in 1799 (also the first in Kings County), and by the construction, in 1802, of its first “cage, or watch-house.” Besides numerous shops of coachmakers, pumpmakers, tailors, and cordwainers, the village boasted gristmills that used the East River tides to grind wheat for export as well as for local consumption and manufactories that produced chairs, tobacco, and floorcloth. Throngs of local carpenters, riggers, caulkers, coopers, and other craftsmen were employed in the maritime trades spreading along the waterfront, and the village’s many butchers maintained stalls in the old wooden market near the ferry slip, where they sold the meat wheelbarrowed over from nearby slaughterhouses (by black employees) or shipped it across the river to Manhattan’s Fly Market.
“Winter Scene in Brooklyn,” by Francis Guy, c. 1817-30. Imitating Pieter Brueghel’s paintings of peasant life in the Netherlands, Guy meticulously documented the life of what was still a close-knit village from a second floor window of his house on Front Street. This view along Front, ranging from Fulton Street (the old Ferry Road) on the far right to Main Street on the far left, records a mix of small shops, stores, and private residences (the dark building in the center was a slaughterhouse and butcher shop). Each of the figures is a portrait of one of Guy’s neighbors. Much of the area now lies under the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge. (Eno Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
The more remote farming hamlets that dotted Kings and Queens counties—Bushwick, Flatlands, New Utrecht, Gravesend, Newtown, Flushing, Jamaica—likewise experienced a modest rush of prosperity by supplying the New York market with food for consumption and export. The tiny village of Flat Bush (still often spelled as two words) got itself a new private academy, Erasmus Hall (two hundred students), and a lovely new Reformed church—both of which still stand at the corner of Church and Flatbush avenues.
Back in Manhattan, the negative consequences of economic restructuring were coming to malign fruition in the neighborhood known as Five Points. Ever since the Revolution, artisan proprietors had been colonizing the area east and south of the Fresh Water Pond, raising modest house-and-shops near its breweries, potteries, tanneries, and tobacco manufactories. The neighborhood had always been squalid, situated amid the swampy runoff from the ever more polluted pond. By the early nineteenth century, many of the streets here—Mulberry, Orange, Roosevelt, Bancker (now Madison), James, Oliver, Catherine, and Rutgers—were little better than foul, muddy lanes blocked by refuse-choked pools of slime and silt that washed down from hills around the pond. Some houses were half buried by erosion; when it rained, their cellars and kitchens filled with water, and many back yards were perpetually covered with green, stinking muck.
Sanitationists hoped that filling in the pond would revitalize the area, which many considered a breeding ground for yellow fever. It did, though not in the manner intended. Absentee landlords began to buy up houses once occupied by artisans, subdividing them or replacing them with new wood-frame structures: the dapper Edward Livingston, New York’s first Jeffersonian mayor, owned eight on Orange Street alone. Landlords then packed the buildings with tenants, transforming them into de facto boardinghouses for the wage-laborers now settling the area.
Some of these renters were artisans pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods and no longer able to establish independent households. Others were the recent Irish immigrants who began settling near the docks in the 1790s, then spread inland after the turn of the century. Still others were African Americans whose ancestors had been in the area since receiving half-freedom plots from the Dutch West India Company. Most of their forebears had long since sold off their little grants to white proprietors; still legally barred (until 1809) from inheriting or bequeathing property, they had rented or squatted near the pond. Now, together with recently freed relatives and friends coming in from the countryside, they settled in the sodden basements of buildings whose upper stories were filled with whites. Certain lanes, however, notably Bancker Street between Pearl and Catherine, became known for their concentration of all-black tenant houses, some of which packed in five men to a room.
As the Fresh Water was filled in, streets and housing crept out across the boggy terrain, followed by grocers, tavern keepers, glue factories, slaughterhouses, and turpentine distilleries. As early as 1798 it was remarked that the area was “generally full of poor and dirty people.” By 1810, though the area was but a scant few blocks from the nearly completed City Hall, it had become a slum known as the Five Points, named for the intersection of five streets: Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth), Cross (now Park), Orange (now Baxter), and Little Water (now gone). The Five Points housed the city’s poorest residents, including the greatest percentage of those receiving public assistance in the form of outdoor relief. For years the neighborhood remained a notorious breeding ground for disease and a source of hefty profits for local landlords.
The emergence of the Five Points slum was only the most tangible sign of the rise of a class of permanent tenants in New York City. Around the city, master artisan householders were rejecting the paternalistic practice of providing year-round room and board to apprentices and journeymen. Instead, just as they hired and fired wage-workers according to seasonal demand, they now rented out household space (along with the domestic services provided by their wives) to boarders on a cash basis.
In an increasingly competitive economy such rental income could well provide the margin that smaller masters needed to preserve their own independence. For the more entrepreneurially inclined, profiting from real estate could become an end in itself. Some masters subdivided their houses into apartments, rented them out to lodgers, and then moved their own families to separate domestic quarters.
Some members of the new tenant class found liberty in mobility. They were free to move when and where they wished, just as they had an unfettered right to sell their skills to the highest bidder. But with housing a commodity rather than a customary right, purchasers could get only what they could pay for. For the majority—the 60 percent who worked in capitalizing trades and faced declining wages—this meant a steady erosion of living standards. Some journeymen formed their own “trade” houses, pooling the incomes of four or five skilled workers and crowding into a single residence. But most had to settle for one- or two-room apartments, wooden rear houses, or, in the case of illpaid laborers and mariners, boardinghouses that squeezed four to six men in a room.
Mobility did increase, but less out of choice than coercion. In a tight, impersonal, and utterly unregulated housing market, where landlords pressed to maximize returns, tenants outbid by competitive renters were compelled to move. The resulting dislocations—voluntary and involuntary—were apparent every year on the first of May, the date on which, by Dutch tradition, all New York City leases expired simultaneously. Of no great consequence in more settled times, Moving Day now became an ever more frenetic aifair. Especially in neighborhoods composed primarily of propertyless renters, thousands packed their belongings, hired a cartman (if they could find one), and moved to new quarters. As one commentator noted in 1799, the people “of this city are seized, on the first of May, by a sort of madness, that will not let them rest till they have changed their dwelling.”
TURMOIL IN THE TRADES
For New York journeymen, the degradation of housing in the city was only one element of the crisis they faced after the turn of the century. As capitalist relations of production penetrated one trade after another, fewer and fewer journeymen could look forward to becoming independent masters. Instead, they had to contemplate a future as permanent “hirelings”—mere wage-workers, thrown into the same proletarian pot as exslaves, former indentured servants, half-trained apprentices, and casual laborers. They knew who to blame, too: entrepreneurial masters whose hot pursuit of personal profit had caused them to betray time-honored principles of craft solidarity and mutual responsibility.
May Day, from H. P. Firm, Comic-Annual of 1831 (Boston, 1831). New York’s tumultuous “Moving Day” was now nationally famous. (Print Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
In many trades, journeymen attempted to mitigate the loss of personal independence by forming associations for the relief of members in distress. Pooling weekly or monthly dues, they built up common treasuries from which the sick or infirm could draw, thus forging the kind of mutual aid institutions that seemed ever more necessary in a postpaternalistic society. Some of these associations also fought against the growing use of poorly trained labor in the trades. In 1785 “a considerable number of Principal Journeymen Carpenters” criticized the master carpenters for hiring workers “so very ignorant of their business, that some of them have been at a loss to know the right end of their tools.” Similar concerns led journeyman printers to form the New York Typographical Society in 1794. The Journeyman Shipwright’s Society required members to refuse to labor alongside any other than “fully skilled and trained journeymen.”
The most aggressive journeymen went even further. As early as 1785 journeyman cordwainers banded together and refused to work until paid higher wages—arguably the first authentic “strike” or “turn-out” in the city’s history. (The latter term alluded to soldiers “turning out” for combat, the former to sailors “striking” or lowering a ship’s sails.) In 1802 white sailors and black seamen joined forces to demand that merchants and shipowners raise the basic wage from ten to fourteen dollars per month. For several days the two allied “combinations,” one white and one black, paraded the docks “with drums beating and colors flying,” but the strike collapsed when municipal authorities jailed its leaders.
In 1802 journeymen broadened their repertoire of tactics to include formation of worker-run businesses. When master cabinetmakers announced a 15 percent reduction in wages, eighty journeymen walked off the job and opened their own warehouse on John Street to sell furniture directly to the public. Sales proved disappointing, however, and after a six-month fight the strikers capitulated.
Masters answered the militant journeymen with combinations of their own—none more influential than the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, which while open to all resident artisans had become an organ of the city’s entrepreneurial masters. Its members (488 as of 1798) stoutly defended their right to lock out troublemakers, to import out-of-town labor to break strikes, and to hire ill-trained workmen. Such tactics, they said, were necessary to preserve the very things for which the Revolution had been fought: equality of opportunity, unfettered markets, and the sanctity of private property.
In effect, a kind of ideological mitosis was under way. Artisanal republicanism, reasonably coherent during the 1770s and 1780s, had begun to divide along its main social axis—one version for masters, another for journeymen and apprentices. The effect of this development on political alignments in the city was wrenching. Most artisans had switched from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans during the 1790s, believing that society should be governed by those who engaged in “real” labor—yeoman farmers in the countryside and independent craftsmen in the cities—as opposed to speculators, bankers, and lawyers. But the divisions within the trades gave Federalists no end of opportunities to drive a wedge between the masters of the Democratic Republican leadership and the journeymen who made up the party’s rank and file. Federalists pounced on one Democratic-Republican candidate for advising master tanners not to sell leather to any journeyman shoemaker in the city who attempted to get his wages raised. They likewise denounced the opposition for urging master cordwainers to hire only journeymen who had obtained a regular discharge from their last employer—a “rascally proposal” which put the journeymen on “the same footing with a hired negro wench, that must have a recommendation before she can get a place.”
Democratic-Republican masters parried such thrusts by stirring popular resentment against the poor as well as against the rich. Like riches, poverty implied a whole range of dangers to republican values and institutions—dependency, sloth, ignorance, immorality—and was thus a condition to be feared and despised by free people. The economic dislocations of the 1790s and 1800s, robbing even the most industrious workingman of the certainty that his labors would keep him and his family out of the almshouse, made it all the more urgent to hold the line. By 1800 no one in New York condemned poverty more insistently than those who seemed at greatest risk of winding up poor themselves.
In 1803 Mayor Edward Livingston proposed the creation of municipally owned and operated workshops where immigrants, ex-convicts, widows, and the indigent could learn such crafts as shoemaking or hatmaking. Reducing unemployment, Livingston reasoned, would reduce crime and vagrancy. Outraged mechanics protested that competition from Livingston’s workshops would drive hard-pressed masters as well as journeymen out of business, rewarding “idle and dissolute” elements of society at the expense of the most industrious. After a huge uproar, the state legislature quietly tabled Livingston’s proposal.
The impact of the turmoil in the trades was magnified by the movement of masters and journeymen alike into a wider world of political and social discourse. An upswing in literacy rates during the 1780s and 1790s opened new, assertively artisanal markets for the printed word, and a string of local papers—the New York Journal (1787-1800), the Argus (1795—1800), and others—geared their contents toward a politically conscious mechanic readership. Record numbers of artisans were also buying books and magazines, and they accounted for half the initial subscriptions to the New-York Magazine (1790-97), among whose contributors were such eminent radicals as Joseph Priestly, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Erskine.
Equally important was the parade of radical emigres that passed through the city in the 1790s, along with numerous representatives of popular societies—United Irishmen, United Englishmen, Friends of the People, Levellers—that blossomed all over the British Isles in the early 1790s, only to be crushed in spasms of official repression and mob violence. Republican France was their inspiration, Thomas Paine their idol, the Rights of Man their creed, and when they reached New York they were still full of fight. Grant Thorburn remembered how he and a party of other young men, members of the Scottish Friends of the People, were rounded up and put on a boat to New York in 1794. “We had some hot characters among us,” Thorburn wrote, “which all the waters of the Atlantic could not cool.”
Like John Daly Burk, editor of the Time Piece, and James Cheetham, editor of the American Citizen, these firebrands gave a powerful impetus to the militancy of New York artisans by identifying their concerns with an international struggle for political and social justice. Foreign and home-grown radicals likewise rubbed elbows, compared notes, and cemented friendships at Hocquet Caritat’s famous bookstore on Broadway. The energy and excitement they generated there inspired Caritat to found a circulating library from which the principles of the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution could be disseminated at modest charges to working people throughout the country.
INFIDELS AND EVANGELICALS
By the mid-nineties Jacobin assaults on the French church and Thomas Paine’s attack on the authority of Holy Scripture in The Age of Reason (1794) were finding a receptive audience among New York’s book- and newspaper-reading mechanics. Some gravitated toward Elihu Palmer, a blind Baptist preacher devoted to spreading deism among the working classes. Palmer’s association with New York began in 1788 when he was called to the pulpit of the Presbyterian church of Newtown, Long Island. En route from his native Connecticut, he preached a Thanksgiving Day sermon that proved him “ill adapted for a Presbyterian pulpit,” in the words of his friend John Fellows (Paine’s American publisher and Hocquet Caritat’s sometime business partner). “Instead of expatiating upon the horrid and awful condition of mankind in consequence of the lapse of Adam and his wife, he exhorted his hearers to spend the day joyfully in innocent festivity, and to render themselves as happy as possible.” After six months at Newtown, Palmer moved on to Philadelphia, joined the Baptists, and set up a Universal Society. He lost his sight during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic and was run out of town the following year by “an immense mob” for attacking the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Returning to New York in 1794, Palmer treated the new Democratic Society to a raise-the-roof oration against clerical interference with the revolution in France. The society’s warm response convinced him to remain in the city, and later that same year, in a pamphlet defending Paine’s just-published Age of Reason, Palmer denounced Christianity itself as a system of “ignorance and credulity” designed to hold the lower classes in thrall and prop up monarchy. His alternative, the subject of frequent essays and addresses over the next decade, was a “natural morality” or “religion of nature” that acknowledged a divine Creator without violating the dictates of reason or subjecting its adherents to ecclesiastical tyranny.
A tireless organizer as well as publicist, Palmer founded a Deistical Society in the mid-nineties that actively recruited members from the city’s laboring population. He established two newspapers, the Temple of Reason (1800-1803) and the Prospect, or View of the Moral World (1803-5), that became the foremost vehicles of deistic thought in the country. In 1804 Palmer launched a “Theistic Church” and announced plans to build a Temple of Nature in Manhattan. This buzz of activity attracted other prominent deists to the city, including John Foster, the radical universalist and friend of Paine, and Dennis Driscol, a defrocked Irish priest who served as editor of the Temple of Reason.
Yet Palmer failed to ignite the mass movement he hoped for. Despite the crowds that initially turned out for his public lectures, membership in the New York Deistical Society dwindled to a mere handful of working people too poor even to pay their modest dues on a regular basis. Respectable mechanics and even hardened skeptics were shocked at his virulent disdain for Christianity. (He once scolded Christians that their “pretended Saviour is nothing more than an illegitimate Jew, and their hopes of salvation through him rest on no better foundation than that of fornication or adultery.”) Not surprisingly, Palmer’s allure soon paled alongside that of more temperate personalities like the Unitarian John Butler, who came to town in 1794, rented a hall on Cortlandt Street, and lectured before “truly alarming” crowds while the mainstream clergy railed against him from their pulpits. So, too, when Dr. Joseph Priestly, renowned both as a chemist and as a Unitarian advocate, visited New York that same year, he got a warm reception from the Tammany, Democratic, and other popular societies.
Neither Unitarians nor deists, however, were able to keep up with the itinerant evangelists who began trolling for souls among New York’s laborers, sailors, apprentices, and journeymen during the later 1790s and early 1800s. Prominent among these were Dominic van Velsor, known as the stove-fence preacher; Amos Broad, an upholsterer often at odds with the law; Johny Edwards, a Welsh scale-beam maker who harangued sinners from the back of his wagon and once stood in Wall Street, shouting through a three-foot tin trumpet for the moneylenders to repent; John Leland, the Baptist abolitionist, who came to town with a twelve-hundred-pound “Mammoth Cheese” inscribed “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”; and the Methodist circuit-rider Lorenzo Dow, who looked and talked like an Old Testament prophet.
Their open identification with the poor, their scorn for fancy educations and fine clothes and high-toned manners, their biblical literalism, millennialism, and mysticism—all of these qualities located the evangelicals in a tradition of charismatic “mechanick preachers” going back to the days of Cromwell. Dow in particular employed a “colloquial vulgarity” to which Palmer, much less Priestly, never stooped even though it purportedly attracted “large multitudes” of the city’s laboring poor whenever he preached. Dow “understood common life,” admitted a contemporary, “and especially vulgar life—its tastes, prejudices and weaknesses; and he possessed a cunning knack of adapting his discourses to such audiences.” At the same time, their frequent appeals to reason, science, natural justice, and the Rights of Man—Dow often began his sermons with quotations from Paine—linked the evangelicals to the radical republicanism let loose by the revolutions in America and France. Unlike George Whitefield a half century earlier, Dow and his fellow revivalists made it a point to steer newborn Christians away from the suffocating metaphysics and imposed authority of the established denominadons. Theirs was to be a democratized Christianity—a religion of, for, and by the people in which the individual conscience blazed its own, independent trail toward salvation, free at last of sectarian organization, inherited theological systems, and clerical oppression.
Respectable people, inevitably, stressed the connection between this disdain for conventional forms of piety and the tenets of mechanic republicanism. In 1785 the Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church in New York and New Jersey pointed to the burgeoning interest of working people in universalism, rationalism, freethinking, deism, and other newfangled theologies closely identified with the international republican movement—a “mighty flood of errors,” in their words, that threatened the very foundations of the faith.
Nothing, however, concentrated attention on republican religion in the city quite so effectively as Tom Paine, who had returned to the United States from France in 1802. His first destination was Washington, D.C., where the resumption of his old friendship with President Jefferson caused such an uproar in the Federalist press that he decided to settle on the farm in New Rochelle that the State of New York had given him in recognition of his services to the nation. When he reached Manhattan in March 1803, his supporters, including many radical immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland, hailed him with a dinner at the City Hotel. Over the next year or two Paine often came down from New Rochelle to visit with freethinkers and republicans, stroll the streets, and attend parties (one evening he dined and jousted good-humoredly with John Pintard). In 1804 Elihu Palmer, who had proclaimed Paine “probably the most useful man that ever existed on the face of the earth,” drafted him to write articles on religion for the Prospect. Paine obliged with a series of forceful essays that reiterated his belief in God but emphasized that a narrow-minded, dogmatic, bigoted Christianity was inconsistent with a pluralistic and democratic republic.
Paine’s enemies retaliated with scurrilous personal attacks, he ran out of money, and his erstwhile admirers began to desert him, embarrassed now by his aspersions on Christianity, his increasingly unkempt appearance, and his unpaid bills. Mrs. Elihu Palmer, the young portraitist John Wesley Jarvis, Thomas Addis Emmet, and a few other steadfast friends struggled to keep Paine clean and well fed, and though he rallied briefly after taking up permanent residence in the city, his health deteriorated rapidly. For a while he lived with a baker’s family on Broome Street, then found quarters above a squalid tavern on Partition (now Fulton) Street, then moved again to lodgings in Greenwich Village on Herring Street (at what is now 293 Bleecker), where he was cared for by his old friend Madame Marguerite Bonneville. In 1809 she moved the ailing revolutionary into the back room of a small frame dwelling on the site of what is now 59 Grove Street.
There, in the last month of life, Paine was harried by devout visitors, determined to save his soul with an eleventh-hour conversion. Once two Presbyterian ministers pushed their way in, only to be rebuffed. “Let me have none of your popish stuff,” the invalid declared. “Get away with you, good morning, good morning.” He would be badgered one last time, in his final waking moments on June 8, 1809, when the attending doctor asked: “Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?” “I have no wish to believe on that subject,” he replied, and died peacefully in his unfaith. Paine’s theological and political adversaries did not give up, however, and spread rumors that he had undergone a deathbed conversion. When New York’s street commissioners, shortly after Paine’s death, named an adjacent lane Reason Street in his honor, Trinity Church managed to get it renamed Barrow Street, honoring a minor watercolorist who had done a drawing of their new building.
OUT FROM THE BACK OF THE CHURCH
Although the rapid pace of European immigration after 1800 made New York whiter than at any time since the mid-seventeenth century, the continued growth of its black population made African Americans an important element of the city’s new wageearning class—and made the city in turn the largest center of African-American life and culture in the United States. Black impatience with slavery and racism became an increasingly visible part of the city’s public life, as in 1807, when a “numerous and respectable meeting of the Africans” was held at the African Free School on Cliff Street to celebrate the new federal ban on slave imports. Similarly, emancipated men and women quickly abandoned the surnames of their former Dutch or English masters, choosing replacements that affirmed their release from bondage (Freeman) or advertised their artisanal skills (Cooper, Mason, Carpenter). For their children, they rejected the derisive and comical given names bestowed by slaveowners (Pompey, Caesar, Cato), often preferring those of biblical origin—not surprisingly, for black churches were anchors of the emerging African-American community.
Most New York denominations had long routinely segregated their black worshipers, confining them (as visiting Englishman William Strickland reported) to socalled Negro Pews—“usually the back rows in the Galleries”—whose occupants “are not permitted or never presume to mix among the whites.” Methodists were different. From 1787 the Methodist Episcopal Church condemned slavery and welcomed blacks as full participants.
The number of black congregants at the Wesley Chapel on John Street increased rapidly in the mid-ivgos, and in 1800 the denomination provided for the ordination of deacons among its “African brethren.” This initial enthusiasm for integration soon peaked, however. Whites grew uneasy with integrated worship, fearful that blacks might yet exercise leadership authority, and worried that antislavery sentiments were dividing northern Methodists from their southern coreligionists. Blacks, pushed to the fringe where other white churches consigned them, asserted their autonomy and pushed to form an independent church.
The mainstay of this movement was sexton Peter Williams. Born of slave parents in a cowshed adjacent to their masters’ Beekman Street town house, Williams had been purchased as a young man by tobacco merchant James Aymar and become an expert cigar maker. He also became a Methodist. In 1778 the Wesley Chapel purchased Williams, for forty pounds, and made him its sexton. He left the city during the British occupation, returned in 1780, bought his freedom out of his earnings, and became a successful tobacconist while retaining his position with the church.
In 1796 Williams joined with James Varick and other Methodists of color to establish the Zion Chapel in a cabinetmaker’s shop on Cross Street between Orange (Baxter) and Mulberry. The Zionites didn’t intend to withdraw from the John Street congregation, merely to worship together in an atmosphere free of racial animosity, but by 1799 they had concluded that they would be better off on their own. Encouraged by the example of Richard Allen, who had just founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, they obtained permission from Bishop Francis Asbury to form a new congregation.
Methodist Church on John Street, c. 1817. The figure in the doorway may be Peter Williams, the sexton. (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)
Peter Williams, sexton of the John Street Methodist Church. (Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
In 1801 the dissidents incorporated as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and raised a house of worship on the corner of Leonard and Church streets. In remembrance of the little Cross Street chapel, it would be known as “Mother Zion.” Williams didn’t join Zion; though he supported and shepherded the separatist project, he stayed at John Street out of gratitude. By decade’s end, Zion had attracted many blacks to settle nearby, and it had become the nucleus of a mini-community within the larger Five Points neighborhood.
Brooklyn blacks traveled a similar road. In 1794 a small integrated congregation built the Sands Street Church on the same location where in 1766 Captain Thomas Webb had first conducted outdoor services. Blacks, who constituted a third to half of the communicants, were relegated to an “end gallery.” As friction with whites increased, they broke away to form the Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Wesleyan Church (1818), the oldest black church in Brooklyn. In 1809, meanwhile, nineteen African-American men and women, unwilling to accept racially segregated seating, had withdrawn from Manhattan’s First Baptist Church on Gold Street and established the Abyssinian Baptist Church in a building on Anthony, between Church and Chapel streets.
At Trinity too African Americans moved toward greater autonomy. Black Episcopalians had been worshiping apart from whites since the revolution, and they had been buried apart since 1696. Now Trinity acceded to their request for a separate chapel, the germ of what would later emerge as St. Philip’s Church. In 1794, moreover, a group of blacks, possibly these same Episcopalians, noted that the Negro Burial Ground was slated for development and petitioned the Common Council for a new cemetery. The city granted the request, set aside four lots on Chrystie Street, and contributed funds (as did Trinity) toward establishing a graveyard there.
Blacks organized themselves in secular society as well, in response to gradual emancipation and the rise of systematic prejudice. Most whites simply couldn’t imagine blacks as full members of a republican society, and there were plenty of veterans in town who remembered, as one man told a local paper, that area slaves “fought against us by whole regiments” during the Revolution and therefore didn’t deserve freedom. Free blacks responded by forming associations for (in the words of a contemporary report) their “mutual support, benefit, and improvement.” In 1808, for example, Peter Williams joined with other blacks to form the New York African Society for Mutual Relief. In doing so they followed a now common practice among the city’s artisans; indeed, the society’s first president was a house carpenter, and six of its founders were bootmakers. In 1810, with the aid of Mayor De Witt Clinton, the society received a charter from the state legislature. That same year the legislature chartered an African Marine Fund and the Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society, named for the eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionist John Woolman.
No black antislavery organization per se emerged, though the community occasionally engaged in direct action. When Madame Jeanne Mathusine Droibillan Volunbrun, an emigre slaveholder, tried to ship twenty slaves south in 1801 in violation of state law, hundreds of city blacks, led by “French Negroes,” threatened to “burn the said Volunbrun’s house, murder all the white people in it and take away a number of Black Slaves.” The crowd was dispersed by fifty watchmen, two dozen blacks went to jail, and Madame Volunbrun’s slaves went south as planned.
In much the same way that racism prompted the black community to circle its wagons, nativism prompted Irish immigrants to coalesce around the Roman Catholic Church. 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 the 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 Dominick Lynch, Thomas 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. Although the founders of St. Peter’s had envisioned a multiethnic congregation, the massive influx of Irish immigrants after the 1798 rebellion, boosting the number of Catholics in the city to some 10,000 by 1806, soon gave the new church a distinctly Hibernian orientation.
That was a matter of no small importance, because ethnic hostilities had mounted in tandem with the growing crisis in the trades. The Catholic Irish, abjectly poor, desperate for work, and alarmingly numerous, made a perfect scapegoat for the economic and social pressures rending mechanic republicanism—better even than the city’s relatively smaller and more marginal black population. Virulent anti-Irish sentiment spread rapidly among the city’s white Protestant laboring population during the 1790s and was further encouraged by the Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts. During the final years of the century, journeymen and apprentices revived the pre-Revolutionary Pope’s Day festivities and repeatedly marched about town bearing straw-stuffed effigies designed to mock St. Patrick. These “Paddy processions” met with militant resistance, often terminating in wild brawls and arrests. In 1709, only a year after the French-backed rebellion in Ireland had been crushed, marchers invaded the Irish neighborhood along lower Harman Street (East Broadway), touching off a melee that resulted in one fatality and many serious injuries. Three years later, after another explosion, the Common Council passed an ordinance outlawing the flaunting of Paddies or other insulting effigies.
In the new century, a set of gifted revolutionary leaders arrived from Ireland, among them lawyers Thomas Addis Emmet and William Sampson, physician William MacNeven, and printer John Chambers. Though all were Anglicans except for MacNeven, they helped make the Irish Catholic community a political force in New York. Emmet, perhaps the United Irishmen’s most gifted orator, had been arrested for his part in the abortive uprising of 1798. The British proposed deporting him to America, but Ambassador Rufus King persuaded the Adams administration to exclude Emmet and the other Irish “Jacobins.” As a result, Emmet spent nearly four years in prison (during which time his brother Robert was hanged and beheaded for conspiring against the British). Finally, with Jefferson in power, Emmet and the other United Irish leaders, like Paine, made their way to New York City.
Taken up by George and De Witt Clinton, themselves of Irish extraction, Emmet gained admission to the bar, over the protests of Federalist attorneys, and soon emerged as one of the city’s most popular and successful lawyers as well as a potent force in Democratic-Republican party. Rufus King had bragged of winning the “cordial and distinguished Hatred” of United Irishmen like Emmet. He was right, and in election after election, Emmet’s blistering denunciations of King as a British collaborator helped Clintonians win the burgeoning Irish vote.
One thing the Irish vote could not do, however, was elect Catholics to public office. A naturalization clause in the 1777 state constitution had required all new citizens of the state to “abjure and renounce all allegiance and subjection to all and every foreign King, prince, potentate, and state, in all matters ecclesiastical as well as civil.” Although this requirement was superseded by the U.S. Constitution ten years later, it had meanwhile been incorporated into a test oath required of all state officeholders—meaning that Catholics could become citizens but were effectively barred from serving in the legislature. They protested in vain until 1806, when Francis Cooper became the first of his faith to be elected to the Assembly. The congregation of St. Peter’s rounded up thirteen hundred signatures for a petition protesting the oath, De Witt Clinton won passage of a bill to abolish it, and Cooper took his seat.
Political victories, in turn, exacerbated tensions on the street. On Christmas Eve of 1806, less than a year after Cooper’s victory, fifty members of the Highbinders (or Hide Binders)—a nativist gang of apprentices and propertyless journeyman butchers—gathered outside St. Peter’s to taunt worshipers leaving midnight Mass. The watch prevented a serious disorder, but on Christmas Day, Irishmen fearing a Highbinder attack armed themselves with cudgels, stones, and brickbats. When the watch attempted to disperse a crowd on Augustus Street (now the site of the Municipal Building), a bloody skirmish broke out, and one watchman was killed. The Highbinders and a nativist crowd now invaded “Irishtown,” wreaking havoc until the magistrates managed to restore order.
Tensions on the street encouraged the Irish to greater political exertions. In 1807, when the anti-immigrant Rufus King stood for election to the Assembly, Emmet denounced him as a “royalist” and a “political dupe” of the British. King haughtily announced he would “enter into no explanations, leaving the Public to decide between me and these foreigners.” The voters decided emphatically against him and torpedoed his subsequent bid in 1808 for the governorship as well.
“HONEST FOLKS IN THE PIT”
One of those who took part in the 1806 Christmas riot against Irish Catholics was William Otter, a young plasterer’s apprentice from England, but he was there for pleasure, not principle. Otter was a rowdy, one of a growing number of young men who scorned journeymen’s associations, radical bookshops, and Methodist chapels. They preferred instead to go out on “sprees”—nighttime forays into the city’s brothels, rum holes, and oyster shops that often ended in drunken brawls. As Otter recalled in the careful notes he kept of these adventures, he and his mates once went to Mr. Green’s “for the express purpose of raising a row and were gratified to our heart’s content.” On another, they descended on Mr. Drake’s, where they “broke every glass in the whole house, and cleared it of men, women, and children,” then “scampered off to a grog-shop.”
Among their favorite targets were the city’s now-numerous dancehalls. “The dancing fever began to rage in Harman street,” Otter remembered, and he and his gang began dropping in at places like Mrs. Cunningham’s or the “Negro dancing cellars” on Bancker Street. Horace Lane, a white sailor, also recollected his 1804 visit to one such establishment: a “small room, well filled with human beings of both sexes,” with “a big darkie in one corner sweating, and sawing away on a violin.” Lane continued, “To increase vigour, and elate the spirit of fun, there stood by his side a tall swarthy female who was rattling and flourishing a tambourine with uncommon skill and dexerity” while in midfloor dancers were “jumping about, twisting and screwing their joints and ankles as if to scour the floor with their feet.”
Interracial camaraderie had shocked Daniel Horsmanden back in 1741, and despite all that had transpired in the intervening sixty years poor whites and poor blacks continued to mingle in gin mills, dance halls, and brothels that catered to both races. Such fraternizing took place, on occasion, in more public spaces, especially on Sundays and holidays like Pinkster. Although the old Dutch celebration of Whitsuntide had disappeared from anglicized New York City during the eighteenth century, it survived among the Dutch villages of Long Island and the Hudson Valley, where it was appropriated as a holiday by slaves, who then brought it back to the city in the 1790s and 1800s. As one resident remembered: “All made it an idle day; boys and negroes might be seen all day standing in the market laughing and joking and cracking eggs. In the afternoon the grown up apprentices and servant girls used to dance on the green in Bayard’s farm [west of Broadway].”
“Negro dancing” was a familiar feature of Pinkster time. Slaves or country free blacks trooped in to the marketplace at Brooklyn Village from Long Island or New Jersey (the former with their hair tied up in a queue with dried eelskin, the latter favoring plaited forelocks fastened with tea leaves). Sometimes as many as two hundred would perform exhibition dances, toot on fish horns, play games, and drink. Others crossed over to Catherine Market or the fish market in front of Burnel Brown’s Ship Chandlery. There they sold roots, berries, herbs, and birds to raise money for the holiday. Some were hired by resident butchers to engage in a jig or “break-down.” This pastime, performed at home on a barn floor, became a competitive display of skill, performed on a springy board, with percussive accompaniment made by beating hands on sides of legs, followed by the taking up of a collection from bystanders.
When white rowdies attended interracial gatherings, however, they were likely as not to indulge in violence: victimizing blacks (like attacking Irish) seemed part of the natural order of things. “A parcel of us lads,” Otter reminisced, went to John M’Dermot’s oyster shop in George’s Street, played “patent billiards” for drink and oysters, got loud and obstreperous, and stomped M’Dermot when he tried to stop them; “some of the spare hands fell upon the negroes who were employed by him to shuck oysters, and drove them into the cooking room, and beat them, poor d———Is, into a jelly.”
Traditional “blood sports” like cockfighting and bearbaiting remained another popular pastime, and as promoters vied to stage more and more bizarre contests they drew larger and more turbulent crowds. One impresario threw up a two-thousand-seat amphitheater for such spectacles; box seats sold for seventy-five cents, while admission to the pit could be had for as little as a quarter. By the mid-nineties several circus troupes were also competing for public attention. The most successful was led by John Bill Ricketts, whose inventive deployment of clowns, tightrope walkers, tumblers, aerobatic riders, mounted Indians, and fireworks lured sellout crowds to his New Amphitheater on Greenwich Street.
Rowdies turned up as well among theatergoers, the bulk of whom still consisted of working people because only the poorest apprentices and journeymen were unable to scrape together the price of admission. In 1789 ticket prices at Lewis Hallam’s John Street Theater ranged from fifty cents for the gallery to seventy-five cents for the pit and a dollar for the boxes. The fancy new Park Theater on Chatham Street, for all its appeal to the Broadway-area gentility, was even cheaper, at twenty-five cents for the gallery and fifty cents for the pit. While some impresarios dreamed of performing only for cultivated audiences, this simply wasn’t possible. John Howard Payne, who made his debut on the New York stage in 1809, ruefully observed that the “judicious few” were “always to be found in a Theater, like flowers in a desert, but they are nowhere sufficiently numerous to fill one.”
Like the city itself, New York’s playhouses were in fact increasingly divided into distinct social zones, their boundaries defined as much by deportment as dress. At John Street, occupants of the pit and gallery—“Blacksmith’s apprentices and Canvastown girls,” in the words of Grant Thorburn—smoked and drank incessantly, talked loudly, traded punches, besieged the orchestra with calls for their favorite tunes, harangued the players, clambered onto the stage, and consorted with the numerous prostitutes who worked the halls. Box seats offered no immunity from the commotion: a series of incidents in 1795 prompted Hallam to place an announcement in local papers reassuring boxholders that bolts would be placed inside the door of each box “to prevent any interruption” and that “no persons of notorious ill fame will be suffered to occupy any seat in a box where places are already taken.”
It was the same at the Park. Not long after opening night, the management offered a fifty-dollar reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of “certain illdisposed persons [who] have made a practice of throwing at the performers in the Orchestra and on the Stage.” It did no good. Several years later, in his Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802), the youthful Washington Irving described how the “honest folks in the pit” milled about near the Park’s stage, noisily commenting on the play before them, while rowdy “gallery gods,” including platoons of prostitutes, added to the general din by “stamping, hissing, roaring, whistling,” “groaning in cadence,” and flinging “apples, nuts & ginger-bread” at those below. Even some boxholders carried on as if they were in “a coffee house, or fashionable lounge, where [they can] indulge in loud conversation, without any regard for the pain it inflicts on their more attentive neighbors.”
Their more attentive neighbors knew better than to object, too. The theater rules and idioms accorded audiences extensive powers of self-regulation as well as a voice in the content, length, and pacing of performances. Irving’s gallery gods and honest folks in the pit considered themselves, and were considered by others, an integral part of the production, with a right, even a duty, to make their views known.
Managers, accordingly, arranged programs and assembled troupes calculated to appeal to plebeian sensibilities. For the 1789 season at the John Street Theater, Hallam advertised thirty-one comedies, twenty-six farces, nine comic operas, six tragedies, and two pantomimes. Thirty-five different authors were represented, the most frequently produced of whom included David Garrick (Clandestine Marriage), Richard Sheridan (School for Scandal), and William Shakespeare (The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard HI)—a repertoire that seems remarkable only because (thanks partly to critics like Irving) the behavior of audiences has become confused with the extent of their sophistication. Shakespeare was a perennial favorite at both the John Street and Park theaters (a full-length statue of the bard stood in the Park’s lobby). By day, journeymen recited passages from Shakespeare to their shop mates; by night, they cheered, booed, argued, and whistled in possessive familiarity with the drama unfolding on both sides of the footlights.
Increasingly popular were plays that linked patriotism and republicanism. In 1787 John Street patrons hailed The Contrast, a sentimental comedy set in contemporary New York, which demonstrated the superiority of republican honesty and simplicity over European sophistication (at one emotion-charged point in the production, the entire house rose to sing “Yankee Doodle”). When the popular actor John Hodgkinson appeared in the red coat of a British officer, hecklers wouldn’t allow him to continue until he had explained, at length, that he was merely playing the part of an unworthy character.
Between 1798 and 1805 the young playwright (and Friendly Club habitue) William Dunlap, manager and part owner of the Park Theater, staged elaborate reenactments of the battles of Bunker Hill and Yorktown Heights. And his own efforts (like The Glory of Columbia— Her Yeomanry!)practically invented the “stage-Yankee,” a two-fisted patriot who became as recognizable to New York mechanic audiences as any Shakespearean character. Like him, they took pride in being plain people who produced objects of genuine usefulness with their own hands. Like him, they sensed that they had been ennobled by the Revolution—a despised and powerless rabble transformed into free citizencraftsmen. Their best qualities, like his, now seemed the very essence of republicanism: bluntness, self-reliance, unaffected decency, instinctive egalitarianism. They pursued an honest living, not wealth. They scorned privilege, ridiculed ostentation, despised avarice, and stood by their fellows.
As in matters of work, residence, religion, and politics, leisure-time pursuits became a bone of contention between the city’s working classes and its elites. In some respects this was nothing new; since the days of Peter Minuit, civic and religious authorities had been trying to impose decorum on the heterogeneous, turbulent inhabitants of Manhattan and to curb the popular predilection for swearing, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, alcohol, and blood sports. What gave these concerns a new edge was the desire of entrepreneurial masters to create a more disciplined workforce.
Masters especially were dismayed by the continuing interpenetration of leisure and work. City artisans still observed the practice of “jeffing”—periodic trips to nearby taverns and “groceries” for beer or gin—and they continued to take the frequent breaks for doughnuts, candy, and cakes that were a time-honored prerogative of journeymen and apprentices. They often observed “Saint Monday,” as well, taking the day off for horse races, boxing and shooting matches, drinking bouts, billiards, gambling, semiorganized brawling, and other long-established popular pastimes.
Many masters began challenging such traditions in their shops, promulgating strict work codes, and constructing in the process a new bourgeois standard of order and personal decorum. The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen—that bastion of master craftsmen—bore down especially hard on the customary drinking rights of journeymen and apprentices, blaming them for drunkenness, gambling, swearing, and other antisocial evils. Duncan Phyfe, a pillar of the General Society known for his Scotch Calvinist rigor, was said to require that even the members of his own family be in bed by nine o’clock. At least a few mechanics, too, contended that the traditional values and attitudes of working people led only to poverty and misery. As one wrote with heavy sarcasm: “Pursue the gay and jocular companion through his weekly round of pleasures—On Monday evening at the play, Tuesday at Piken’s public dance, Wednesday at Rickett’s Circus, Thursday to see Gibonne and Coco, Friday Seely’s long room, and Saturday’s theater closes the week of mirth— Sunday, that long, that tedious heavy day hangs heavy on their heads.”
Some masters and merchants appealed to the authorities for help, at least in keeping the Sabbath holy (as they understood the term). After independence, church attendance failed to keep pace with population growth, and reports of Sabbath violations became standard fare for New York newspapers. As an indignant “Friend to Order” told the Weekly Museum in 1792, he had seen “near two hundred Negroes, Boys and Gentle-men (I mean those who have the appearance of Gentlemen)” skating on a recent Sunday. State as well as municipal authorities responded by renewing the old colonial prohibitions against profaning the Lord’s Day with work or sport; at one point the Common Council even appointed a special peace officer to go after offenders. It made little or no difference, for as one “Journeyman Mechanic” with an ear for rhyme declared, the working classes had the right to do as they pleased on Sundays:
Of rich and poor the difference what?—
In working or in working not
Why then on Sunday we’re as great
As those who own some vast estate.
“THE LIFE OF A CITIZEN IN THE HANDS OF A WOMAN”
Although white working-class women in New York led widely divergent lives—hotcorn girls and the wives of Episcopalian master craftsmen had very little in common—the changes sweeping the city during the 1790s and early 1800s left them collectively worse off than ever. Lowered property requirements for the suffrage, for example, boosted the political visibility of working-class men, but they also magnified the powerlessness and dependency of their still-voteless wives. The erosion of household production and the growth of wage-work likewise tended to privilege the labor that brought home the bacon over the unpaid labor that cooked it—along with raising the children, mending clothes, cleaning, and nursing the sick.
As jobs for men in the trades became less secure and wages declined, many working-class women found themselves obliged to shoulder additional responsibilities to supplement the incomes of their husbands: taking in piecework as milliners or seamstresses (black women took in laundry), hiring out as domestic servants in middle- and upper-class households, or renting rooms to boarders. A lucky few may have been able to earn an independent living—by 1800, eighty-eight of the 150 boardinghouses listed in the city directory were run by women—but the income generated by this kind of work was as a rule far too meager for that. For women whose husbands had died or run off, and who proved unable (or unwilling) to support themselves as domestic drudges, prostitution was frequently the only alternative to public assistance.
Indeed, the heightened vulnerability of working-class women to sexual exploitation—above all by upper-class men—became a familiar and explosive topic during the 1790s. Seduction dramas in which unscrupulous aristocratic cads took advantage of simple but pure working girls were hugely popular on the New York stage. Arguably the most widely read book of the era was Susannah Haswell Rowson’s novel Charlotte Temple, first published in London in 1791. Set in Revolutionary New York, her tale concerned an innocent fifteen-year-old schoolgirl seduced by a dashing British naval officer named Montraville, who then abandons her to take up with a wealthy local belle. Charlotte dies giving birth to his child, scorned by all except the laboring people, who haven’t lost sight of her innate decency and virtue.1
In 1793 life provided an ugly imitation of art, when a seventeen-year-old girl named Lanah Sawyer alleged that a certain Henry Bedlow had lured her into Mother Carey’s bawdy house on Ann Street, where he then raped her. Rape in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century New York was a crime of the poor: well-to-do women rarely if ever brought formal accusations of rape before the courts, and the men charged with rape were almost invariably mechanics and laborers. Sawyer, a sewing girl whose father was a little-known sea captain, fit the pattern perfectly. “Harry” Bedlow didn’t. His family was wealthy, and he had a reputation around town as a rake and libertine.
Bedlow’s trial before an all-male jury raised questions of power, privilege, gender, and class in a republican society. To the prosecution, Sawyer was a “poor and unknown” girl victimized by an arrogant rogue “of rich family and connections.” Bedlow’s attorneys, Richard Harison, Robert Troup, and Brockholst Livingston, admitted that a seduction had occurred. But they denied the charge of rape, arguing that Sawyer’s plebeian standards of “discretion and prudence”—why had she been out in the streets without an escort? why had she failed to reject Bedlow’s advances at the very outset?—were obviously looser than those observed in respectable society. And because a casual accusation of rape could put “the life of a citizen in the hands of a woman, to be disposed of almost at her will and pleasure,” its disposition was thus a matter of grave consequence for the (male) political community.
Bedlow was a “fellow citizen” regardless of his private shortcomings or station in life: to convict him just because Sawyer alleged he raped her was to violate an essential distinction between those who were active, useful members of the republic and those who stood outside it. All the more so in this case, the lawyers said, because Sawyer came from the most vicious and depraved class of society. Respectable women learned to tame their wanton passions; laboring women, exposed to the coarsest aspects of life, could not. No matter that Sawyer’s neighbors described her as modest and polite, Brockholst Livingston told the jury. They seemed “an obscure set of people, perhaps of no character themselves,” while she was just another working-class slattern who “had the art to carry a fair outside, while all was foul within.”
When the jury acquitted Bedlow after fifteen minutes’ deliberation, workingmen went on a rampage. The disorders centered around Greenwich, Warren, and Murray streets on the west side of town, home both to mechanics, shopkeepers, cartmen, and laborers and to “the Holy Ground,” the red-light district whose prostitutes and brothels were well known to young men of genteel backgrounds, not least of all those enrolled at nearby Columbia College.
For three days crowds of “Boys, Apprentices, Negroes, and Sailors” roamed through the Holy Ground and its immediate vicinity until chased off by mounted horsemen. The rioters—hundreds strong—focused their attention on Mother Carey’s bawdy house as well as two others operated by Mother Giles and Mother Gibbons. (Bawdy houses, like so many of the city’s boardinghouses, tended to be run by women, often widows.) All three establishments were looted of their luxurious appointments —“petty-coats, smocks, and silks, together with downy couches, or feather beds”—and then, after their roofs were unshingled, the houses were utterly dismantled. There were doubtless other possible targets in the area, but they escaped unscathed, and for good reason. Mother Carey and her girls had testified on Bedlow’s behalf. They were accessories to a system of upper-class sexual exploitation of young working-class women that might yet claim more of the rioters’ sisters and daughters. As anchors of that system in the city’s poorer communities, their house (and those of Mother Giles and Mother Gibbons) had to come down.
What was finally at issue here was not so much the insult to Lanah Sawyer’s honor, or the existence of bawdy houses per se, but whether working-class men or upper-class men would control the bodies of working-class women. The anonymous “Justicia” made this point forcefully, protesting to a local newspaper that the bawdy houses in question had been patronized over the years by the very magistrates who sprang to Bedlow’s defense and scrambled to quell the riots.
Street battles over gender rights thus joined strikes, ethnic tangles, racial tensions, and popular revivals as indications of growing strains in New York society. But the same prosperity that had helped generate these conflicts helped mute their consequences as well. Only a significant downturn in the economy would truly test the depth and degree of civic disaffections, and that was just what onrushing global events were about to provide.