One evening toward the end of April 1806, two miles off Sandy Hook, the sixty-gun British frigate Leander spied the American schooner Richard making her way up the coast to New York from Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania. Leander was searching for deserters from the Royal Navy and fired a shot across Richard’s bow as an order to heave to and prepare for boarding. The American promptly complied, but a second shot followed, and then a third—possibly meant for another vessel nearby—which smashed into Richard’s stern, decapitating the helmsman, John Pierce.
Pierce’s death was a grisly reminder that since the resumption of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, both Britain and France had redoubled their efforts to curb the lucrative carrying trade of neutral nations, the United States above all. For Britain’s Royal Navy, that task had been made immeasurably easier by Admiral Nelson’s 1805 destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar. But the Royal Navy was experiencing severe shortages of manpower. Able seamen were deserting by the thousands—more often than not for the rapidly growing American merchant marine, where conditions and pay were vastly better and captains wouldn’t look too closely at a man’s documents. So new instructions had gone out for British warships to search neutral vessels with particular vigor and “press” deserters back into service. Since Britain didn’t recognize U.S. naturalization laws—and since her captains were also given to a certain carelessness about paperwork—as many as a thousand men every year, the innocent along with the guilty, American as well as British, found themselves serving time before the mast in the Royal Navy.
As the hub of American neutral commerce, New York was an obvious place for His Majesty’s forces to ferret out both contraband and deserters (virtually every British vessel that put into the port after the turn of the century was said to leave shorthanded). Since as early as 1804, the Royal Navy had been patrolling nearby waters so relentlessly that the British consul in the port admitted it was as good as under blockade. The Lean-der, one of three frigates on station outside New York in the spring of 1806, routinely detained a score or more ships at a time. Any seaman suspected of being a British subject was impressed on the spot.
As word of Leander’s attack on Richard raced through the city, angry crowds converged on the waterfront. One party of volunteers set out in a pilot boat to recover a pair of merchantmen taken by the Leander and about to be sent up to the prize courts in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Other parties seized five of the Leander’s supply boats, and a “prodigious mob—huzzaing” hauled their contents off to the almshouse for distribution to the poor.
When John Pierce’s headless corpse went on display at the Tontine Coffee House a day or so later, the mood in New York turned so ugly that the British consul predicted his house would be burned by a mob and he himself would be taken hostage. Mayor Clinton and the Common Council had Pierce buried at public expense and directed all ships in the harbor to fly their flags at half-mast. President Jefferson barred Leander from American ports and issued an unenforceable order for the arrest of her captain (who, to no one’s surprise, was afterward exonerated by a Royal Navy court-martial). Newspapers in Philadelphia and Richmond talked of war.
O GRAB ME
But there was to be no war—not yet.
A week before the Leander incident, already incensed by British violations of neutral commerce and the impressment of American seamen, Congress had passed a Non Importation Act. Reminiscent of American resistance to parliamentary taxation in the 1760s and 1770s, the measure promised to end the sale of numerous British manufactures in the United States, effective the following November—unless, that is, His Majesty’s government mended its ways before then. Secretary of State James Monroe sailed at once for London to open negotiations.
The threat of American economic retaliation could not overcome the momentum of events. In mid-May, with the American public still in a furor over the Leander, the British blockaded the European coast from Hamburg to Brest. Napoleon’s answer came in the Berlin Decree of December 1806, which demanded that all neutral nations discontinue further trade with Great Britain. More concerned with bringing pressure to bear on France than avoiding trouble with the United States, His Majesty’s government scuttled a treaty just negotiated by Monroe and Ambassador William Pinkney. Nonimportation had failed.
The year 1807 opened with a volley of British orders in council further curtailing neutral trade between France and France’s allies. American hostility to the former mother country mounted in June when HMS Leopard fired on the USS Chesapeake off Norfolk Roads, Virginia, killing three sailors. Jefferson, in a fury, directed all British warships to leave American waters. His Majesty’s government replied that it intended to pursue deserters with even greater zeal—and its resolve was stiffened by outrages like the one that occurred in New York the following September, when a crowd of dockworkers and sailors prevented six escaping British seamen from being returned to their ship. In a General Blockade Order of November 1807, the British then prohibited all neutral trade through ports closed to English shipping: if France barred British trade, in other words, France would have no trade. Napoleon retaliated in December 1807 by asserting that any vessel that submitted to British inspection, willingly or unwillingly, was subject to seizure. If the Americans didn’t make Britain respect their rights as neutrals, the emperor would treat them as Britain’s de facto allies.
As the probability of American involvement in the Anglo-French struggle increased month by month, “fortification fever” swept New York. The invasions of 1664, 1673, and 1776 left no doubt as to Manhattan’s vulnerability to attack by sea, but only Fort Jay on the northern end of Governors Island—thrown up during the war scare of 1794 and rebuilt as Fort Columbus in 1806—afforded the city any protection from enemy warships. Over the spring and summer of 1807, therefore, teams of military engineers got to work on a system of forts and batteries for the Upper Bay that would take four years to complete.
President Jefferson was now coming round to the view that a second war with Great Britain was both inevitable and necessary. In mid-December 1807 the president asked Congress to place a total embargo on vessels leaving American ports—not to bring economic pressure on the belligerents, he explained, but to get American ships and seamen “out of harm’s way” and give the nation time to prepare for war. An Embargo Act quickly passed both houses and was signed into law three days before Christmas.
It was a colossal blunder. Besides causing no appreciable harm to the British economy, the embargo gave Napoleon the opportunity to grab ten million dollars’ worth of legitimate American shipping on the grounds that it must perforce be illicit. In a single stroke, moreover, the embargo brought a decade of unprecedented American prosperity to a dead stop. Exports tumbled 80 percent in 1808. Imports fell 60 percent. What this amounted to, one critic charged, was a deranged act of self-mutilation—an attempt “to cure the corns by cutting off the toes.”
In New York the whole leg seemed to have been amputated. John Lambert, who returned to the city in April 1808, was overwhelmed by its “gloomy and forlorn” appearance. “The coffee-house slip, the wharfs and quays along South-street, presented no longer the bustle and activity that had prevailed there five months before,” Lambert wrote. “Not a box, bale, cask, barrel, or package, was to be seen upon the wharfs. Many of the counting-houses were shut up, or advertised to be let; and the few solitary merchants, clerks, porters, and labourers, that were to be seen, were walking about with their hands in their pockets. Instead of sixty or a hundred carts that used to stand in the street for hire, scarcely a dozen appeared, and they were unemployed.”
A few quick-witted merchants managed to stay afloat in the crisis, here slipping through loopholes in the law, there falling back on old-fashioned smuggling. John Jacob Astor got permission from President Jefferson to let an “esteemed citizen” of China named Punqua Wingchong return home on the Beaver. No sooner had the Beaver cleared port than Punqua Wingchong was rumored to be “a common Chinese dockloafer” conscripted by Astor to hoodwink the government (in fact Wingchong appears to have been a Hong merchant sent to collect some outstanding American debts). When the Beaver eventually returned to New York, its cargo netted Astor a profit of two hundred thousand dollars.
Few New Yorkers were so nimble. By the spring of 1808, some 120 firms had already gone out of business, the sheriff held a record twelve hundred debtors in custody (five hundred owing sums less than ten dollars), and a pandemic of unemployment was savaging the city’s laboring population. Over the winter of 1807-8 the tally of destitute persons was said to have grown tenfold. Residents grimly spoke of the crisis as “O Grab Me”—“embargo” spelled backward.
“BREAD OR WORK”
No one suffered more than sailors. There were, Lambert reported, “above 500 vessels in the harbor, which were lying up useless and rotting for want of employment” while thousands of seamen were “destitute of bread.” Unable to find shore jobs, many braved the icy winds to fish for food off the Battery. Early in January 1808 a committee of the Common Council declared that the municipal government should do something “to alleviate the evils which must result from a suspension of the ordinary vocations of the laborious part of the community”—perhaps by hiring “industrious persons” to improve Broadway.
Shortly thereafter, on Saturday, January 9, unemployed Jack Tars rallied in the Park, then paraded through the streets with placards that demanded “bread or work.” They dispersed peacefully after presenting a petition to the mayor that was respectful but laced with hints of menace. If municipal authorities failed “to provide some means for our subsistence during the winter,” they said, “we shall be necessitated to go on board foreign vessels.” What was more, many of them could no longer pay their boardinghouse bills. “By what means shall we discharge these debts? Should we plunder, thieve or rob, the State prison will be our certain doom.”
A special session of the Common Council promptly organized relief operations. By Thursday a soup kitchen had been built; by Friday the almshouse was supplying food to over a thousand of the unemployed, five times more than the week before. By early February nearly six thousand were lining up for rations at the almshouse three times a week—receiving a quart of soup, a pound of bread, and three-quarters of a pound of beef. The program was terminated in the spring, then started up again the following fall. All told, between 1807 and 1809 municipal expenditures for relief climbed from forty-six to seventy-eight thousand dollars—a 70 percent increase.
The city also initiated the nation’s first work-relief project for persons “who are capable of labouring and who are destitute of occupation.” The street commissioner hired workers to help fill the Fresh Water Pond, raise streets and lots near Corlear’s Hook, lower Murray Hill, and dig the foundation for City Hall. The Common Council also devised a plan for the Navy Yard to hire unemployed seamen, at city expense, paying them not with money but “victuals, drink, fuel, candles, and accommodation for lodging.” Many tars, however, feared being “trepanned”—kidnapped—by the navy, and only fifty-three accepted the offer. They did, on the other hand, flock to a War Department program, initiated at the urging of city authorities, which hired men to work on forts around the city.
Private relief organizations like the Humane Society contributed to the relief effort as well. To coordinate their work, forty civic leaders formed the General Committee of the Benevolent Associates for the Relief of the Poor. In December 1808 it organized a new, broadly based Assistance Society, which promised “to combine moral improvement by the recommendation of religion, with temporal relief distributed in the most economical and cautious manner.” In the last week of February 1809, the society provided food, clothing, and fuel to over eight hundred indigent families (after first dispatching visitors to investigate the applicants).
It was beginning to look, however, as if no amount of governmental ingenuity or private charity could save New York from Jefferson’s embargo. Not perhaps since the terrible depression of the early 1760s had the city experienced privation and despair on such a scale. Its streets swarmed with beggars, and “thousands of mariners, mechanics, and laborers” remained “destitute of cloathing, food and a lodging.” Obviously, wrote the Democratic-Republican newspaper editor James Cheetham, New York faced a crisis of such magnitude that it could only be solved at the federal level. “The NATION,” Cheetham insisted, “should provide for the distress which the nation inflicts.”
UNLAWFUL COMBINATIONS AND RIOTOUS ASSEMBLIES
While protests against the embargo poured into Washington from every corner of the country, Jefferson defiantly bore down, tightening enforcement of the law until he exercised near-dictatorial powers. By the beginning of 1809, however, Congress was in open revolt. On March 1 it killed the fifteen-month-old embargo, adopting in its place a Non Intercourse Act that permitted trade with all nations except Britain and France. It also provided for the resumption of trade with whichever of those two agreed to respect neutral rights. Jefferson, in one of his last official acts as president, resignedly signed the measure. New York greeted the news with ringing bells, fireworks, and cannonades.
Business picked up a bit in the months to come, but not enough to neutralize anxiety and contentiousness in the city. One symptom of the mood was the increased appeal of the “mechanic preachers” who had been active in New York since the turn of the century. Seasoned evangelists like Jesse Lee and Johny Edwards drew record crowds after 1808—Lee said he “never knew so great a revival of religion in the city before”—while the messianic Amos Broad preached to exuberant throngs of worshipers (mostly apprentices and mechanics) in his new hall on Rose Street. Alarmed municipal authorities tried to crack down on these meetings, so inconsistent with established religious practices, and when Edwards and the female evangelist Dorothy Ripley sponsored an open-air revival in May 1810, a squad of city marshals dragged Ripley off the pulpit while she cried out, over and over, “Lord have mercy upon them; Lord have mercy upon them for Christ’s sake!”
Violent outbreaks against African Americans became common. In 1807, and virtually every year thereafter, the trustees of the AME Zion Church pleaded with the City Council to do something about the gangs of white working-class youths that routinely harassed worshipers on Sundays; the Common Council wondered whether a watch box should be built outside the church. The Abyssinian Baptists faced similar problems.
Paralleling this new eruption of racial hatred were sharply rising tensions between masters and journeymen. As unemployment caromed through the trades after 1807, the bricklayers, printers, carpenters, cordwainers, masons, tailors, and cabinetmakers were plunged into a succession of acrimonious confrontations and strikes. Journeyman printers established a New York Typographical Society, whose 120 members protested that they were “sinking in the estimation of the community” and denounced master printers for employing half-trained apprentices and “full-grown men (foreigners).” Journeyman house carpenters issued an 1809 manifesto asserting that “every class of society ought to be entitled to benefit in proportion to its usefulness.”
The most significant clash took place among the city’s shoemakers. In 1808 the Journeyman Cordwainers’ Society expelled one of their members for nonpayment of dues and “raising a rumpus” during a meeting. The society’s by-laws required the offender’s employer, the firm of James Corwin and Charles Aimes, to discharge him at once or lose the services of all other members. Corwin and Aimes obliged, which might have ended matters, except they refused to fire the man’s apprentice as well. When the journeymen in their shop awoke to the fact that this apprentice was now doing a journeyman’s work for less than a journeyman’s wages, they walked out. Then, discovering that the city’s master cordwainers had banded together to help Corwin and Aimes by filling the firm’s orders, the journeymen struck them all.
To this the master cordwainers responded by swearing out a complaint charging two dozen leaders of the journeymen’s society with illegal conspiracy. Early in 1809 the journeymen were duly indicted for “perniciously and deceitfully forming an unlawful club and combination”—the first time New Yorkers had been prosecuted for uniting to raise their wages. To represent them at the subsequent trial, they hired William Sampson, the exiled Irish revolutionary and well-known Jeffersonian. The masters, shrewdly, retained Thomas Addis Emmet, whose reputation eclipsed even Sampson’s.
Emmet’s argument before the Mayor’s Court in 1809 played upon the stillwidespread belief that extragovernmental associations had no place in a republic. In banding together to advance their private interests, Emmet contended, the journeymen had breached their sacred duty as citizens to uphold the common good. By the same token, their so-called right to strike violated the right of masters in every trade to dispose of their property as they saw fit. But Sampson too appealed to republican principles. The real problem here, he said, was “the rapacity of the masters.” They, not the journeymen, had put private gain ahead of the public interest, forming their own “sordid combination” to sustain excessive profits while “crowding their shops with more apprentices than they could instruct.” Besides, when merchants could meet to fix prices, politicians to nominate candidates, and sportsmen to wager on horses, why should poor men be indicted for “combining against starvation?”
Judicial hostility, if not Emmet’s oratory, carried the day. Mayor Jacob Radcliff instructed the jury that the accused journeymen had indeed employed “arbitrary and unlawful means,” whereupon the jury found in favor of the masters. Not all was lost: the journeymen received comparatively mild fines of one dollar apiece, and the court acknowledged their right to “meet and regulate their concerns, and to ask for wages, and to work or refuse” as they saw fit—so long as they didn’t do it together.
Strife continued nevertheless, and in 1810 the city’s “architects and surveyors” issued an unusual appeal for calm, condemning the “increasing evils and the distressing tendency of the disputes between the Master and Journeymen Mechanics.” It did no good. Six months later, several hundred striking journeyman house carpenters converged on Mechanic Hall, headquarters of the General Society, smashing all the windows in what may well have been New York’s first labor dispute involving serious violence.
“MUCH EXULTATION AMONG THE FEDERALISTS”
Political strife also grew as Jefferson’s foreign policy handed New York Federalists one issue after another. They vilified the president for his cautious response to British and French attacks on American shipping. They criticized nonimportation as ineffectual and cited it as further proof of the government’s indifference to the welfare of saltwater ports like New York. When Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin balanced the budget by cutting back on naval expenditures, they accused the administration of disregarding the safety of American ships and seamen. When work on the new harbor fortifications seemed not to move along briskly enough, they scolded Governor Tompkins and Mayor Clinton.
Nothing, though, gave the Federalists more cause for hope than the outcry against the embargo. During the winter of 1807-8, as the city’s economy croaked to a halt, public opinion swung heavily against the administration. Federalist writers and pamphleteers made a great show of concern for the miseries Jefferson had inflicted on working people and urged them to put their trust, again, in the party of Washington and Hamilton, In the spring 1808 elections, although Democratic-Republicans held on to both the city and state, the Federalists doubled the number of seats they occupied in the legislature. Some began to discern a chance of victory in the upcoming presidential election as well.
Over the spring and summer of 1808, a new Federalist organization, the formidable Washington Benevolent Society, took the field to rally the faithful. What the Tammany Society did for the Republicans, the Washington Benevolents now set out to do for the suddenly rejuvenated Federalists: mobilize disaffected voters and lead them away from the party in power on election day. Its Tammany-like tactics—secret rituals, colorful parades, public banquets, low dues, inexpensive loans to members—succeeded brilliantly. Before the year was out, thousands of New Yorkers had joined the Washington Benevolents, and chapters of the society were sprouting up all over New England and the mid-Atlantic states.
Toward the end of August 1808, Federalists from eight states gathered secretly in New York to hold what has been called the first national political convention in the country’s history. The delegates chose Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina for president and Rufus King of New York for vice-president (the same ticket Jefferson and Governor George Clinton had clobbered four years earlier). A caucus of congressional Republicans then nominated Jefferson’s Virginia neighbor, James Madison.
Madison won the election handily, a blow to the Federalists that was partly offset by the continuing good news from New York. In the 1809 elections, notwithstanding repeal of the embargo, the Federalists captured the Common Council, the state legislature, and the Council of Appointment and broke the Democratic-Republican hammerlock on the city’s congressional delegation. Their revival as a party was celebrated on July fourth of that year when the Washington Benevolents marched through town, two thousand strong in thirteen divisions, to the corner of Broadway and Reade Street, where the cornerstone was laid for the society’s new headquarters, Washington Hall.
Since the Revolution, writers and editors from all over the country had been trickling into New York City, drawn by its energy, its wealth, its clubs and theaters, its expanding book and newspaper markets, its contentious public life. Noah Webster arrived in the late eighties, Philip Freneau in the early nineties, Charles Brockden Brown later in the decade. Following them, soon after the turn of the century, came James Kirke Paulding, Samuel Woodworth, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and John Howard Payne, among others—including one southern newspaperman who explained in 1806 that he moved to New York in order to work “at the confluence of the greatest number of the streams of knowledge.”
None of these out-of-towners, however, held the promise of an easygoing, blueeyed, twenty-year-old native named Washington Irving. The fifth son of an Englishwoman and a Scots hardware merchant who had settled in the city before the Revolution, Washington was born the year the British evacuated New York and was named by his mother in honor of the general. The prosperous William Street household was Federalist and strictly Calvinist, and young Washington began a legal apprenticeship in 1802 with Josiah Hoffman, a prominent Federalist judge. Hoffman introduced him to the cream of city society and affectionately indulged his obvious passions for convivial company, for the theater, and for literature. Irving was still with Hoffman when he wrote the Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent. (1802), a series of high-spirited if callow forays into dramatic criticism that initially appeared in the Morning Chronicle, edited by his older brother Peter. In 1804 his brothers William and Ebenezer, worried about Washington’s health, sent him off on a lengthy grand tour of Europe.
On his return to New York in 1806, Irving resumed his man-about-town life and emerged as ringleader of the Lads of Kilkenny, a loosely knit pack of literary-minded young blades out for a good time. They haunted the Park Theater, Dyde’s London Hotel (which stood next to the theater and advertised hospitality “in the true Old English Style”), and Thomas Hodgkinson’s Shakespeare Tavern, which opened in 1808 at the corner of Nassau and Fulton streets and was for the next thirty years the rendezvous of New York literati. None of the Lads lived by pen alone. Like the members of the old Friendly Club, they were men of affairs—lawyers, merchants, physicians—except, that is, for Irving himself, whose adoring brothers actually gave him a share of the family business so he could continue his literary pursuits without having to depend on what he wrote (or indeed the law) for his livelihood.
And write he did, along with his brother William and William’s brother-in-law, the sensitive, bookish James Kirke Paulding. Over the course of 1807 the trio collaborated on Salmagundi, a running collection of droll essays on current events in “the thrice renowned and delectable city of GOTHAM” (thereby affixing a nickname to New York). Their irreverent commentaries—named after a spicy appetizer of chopped meat, pickled herring, and onions—were intended “to present a striking picture of the town; and as every body is anxious to see his own phiz on canvas, however stupid or ugly it may be, we have no doubt but that the whole town will flock to our exhibition.”
Few Salmagundian sallies were intended to do serious injury—apart, perhaps, from those ridiculing the American “mobocracy” or mocking Jefferson as “a huge bladder of wind.” Irving and his circle were, after all, gentlemen (or aspiring gentlemen). They knew their way around respectable society, and they knew that no true gentleman would wish to shock, offend, or inflict original ideas upon his readers: light, facile essays, in the knowing and self-ironic tone of the Spectator or the Gentleman’s Magazine were the objective. As Richard Henry Dana later said, Salmagundi made “exceedingly pleasant morning or after-dinner reading, never taking up too much of a gentleman’s time from his business and pleasures, nor so exalted and spiritualized as to seem mystical to his far reaching vision. It was an excellent thing in the rests between cotillions, and pauses between games at cards.”
Salmagundi’s strict adherence to the cultivated standards of eighteenth-century English letters didn’t bother Irving any more than it did Duncan Phyfe or John McComb: “We are,” he would write, “a young people, necessarily an imitative one, and must take our examples and models, in a great degree, from the existing nations of Europe. There is no country more worthy of our study than England.” (The original “Gotham,” immortalized in proverb and nursery rhyme, was of course that old English village whose inhabitants turned aside King John’s wrath by pretending to be fools.)
Yet the denizens of Shakespeare Tavern were poised to transcend the merely provincial. Imbued with a sense of patrician stewardship, they would take on the task of originating a genuinely American tradition of thought and expression—a “National Literature,” in Paulding’s phrase—reflecting the country’s growing cultural as well as political autonomy and bolstering the republican character of its institutions. Paulding, a more ardent nationalist and republican than Irving, was soon building a career out of twisting John Bull’s tail. The passionately anti-British, pro-American essays, poems, and satires that followed Salmagundi would make him a major figure in the “paper war” waged between British and American writers over the next several decades.
Irving himself, for all his aesthetic and political conservatism, had taken a step in that direction as “Jonathan Oldstyle”—“Jonathan” being the current shorthand for an uncouth American—and his contributions to Salmagundi rivaled Paulding’s in lampooning British snobbery. But he was soon to go considerably farther and become the first American writer to exploit the full literary potential of local speech, characters, scenery, folkways, and history.
On October 26, 1809, the Evening Post carried the following notice: “Left his lodgings some time since, and has not since been heard of, a small elderly gentleman, dressed in an old black coat and cocked hat, by the name of KNICKERBOCKER. As there are some reasons for believing he is not entirely in his right mind and as great anxiety is entertained about him, any information concerning him left either at the Columbian Hotel, Mulberry-street, or at the Office of this paper will be thankfully received.” Two weeks later, a letter writer to the Post reported that he had spotted the man, just above Kingsbridge, trudging wearily northward. The proprietor of the Columbian Hotel then announced that he had discovered “a very curious kind of a written book” in Knickerbocker’s room—and that if the vanished lodger didn’t soon pay his bill, the manuscript would be sold off. Finally, on November 28, New York’s cleverest prepublication publicity campaign to date culminated with an announcement of the availability of A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. . . by Diedrich Knickerbocker.
Irving later explained that the idea for Knickerbocker’s History came to him after reading Samuel Latham Mitchill’s Picture of New-York. Irving found it shallow and self-important—the Lads had already mocked it in Salmagundi—and it seemed a perfect target for a spoof “written in a serio-comic vein, and treating local errors, follies, and abuses with good-humored satire.” Accordingly, with the assistance of his brother Peter, Irving concocted a “crude mass of mock erudition,” brimming with mordant sarcasm, goofy wordplay, and spurious footnotes, jumbling hilarious make-believe events together with bona fida history.
Casting himself as a serious scholar—though admitting that his name probably came from knicker, “to nod,” and boeken, “books,” hence a great nodder or dozer over books—Knickerbocker/Irving recounted the story of New York’s origins, doing for it what Virgil had done for Rome but with tongue in cheek. When Hudson first sights Manhattan, for example, he is given the memorably vacuous line: “See! There!”
It helped that in Irving’s day knowledge about the city’s Dutch roots was very skimpy. The New-York Historical Society had only recently issued a plaintive request for information: “Is there any thing known concerning Wouter Van Twiller, or William Kieft, who preceded Governor Stuyvesant in the Chief Magistracy of the New-Nether-lands? How long did each remain in office? What stations or offices did they fill prior to their appointment here? Were they removed by death or resignation, or for ill behaviour?” William Smith’s History of the Province of New York(1757) didn’t have the answers: it gave only nine pages to the entire half century of Dutch rule. Small wonder, then, that readers often couldn’t tell when Irving was pulling their leg, and in later editions he had to warn that the History was a “whimsical and satirical work, in which the peculiarities and follies of the present day are humorously depicted in the persons, and arrayed . . . in the grotesque costume of the ancient Dutch colonist.”
Knickerbocker’s History was certainly in part a sendup of contemporary politics, particularly Jefferson’s foreign policy. It portrays Kieft (“William the Testy,” Knickerbocker calls him) as an intellectual who lacks the ability or patience to run a government and whose notions of defense against foreign aggression are limited to empty proclamations and self-defeating limitations on trade—an unmistakable allusion to the recently retired president. Stuyvesant, by contrast, was an ur-Federalist who believed that “to render a country respected abroad, it was necessary to make it formidable at home.”
Irving/Knickerbocker also took a jaundiced view of contemporary cobblers, blacksmiths, and tailors—the “swinish multitude,” the “enlightened mob”—who, believing themselves competent in “matters above their comprehensions,” attempted to “attend to the measures of government.” He ridiculed modern “hoydens” who, unlike the domestic goede vrouws of yore, were “very fond of meddling with matters that did not appertain to their sex.” He bemoaned the “pride of family and ostentation of wealth, that has since grown to such a height in this city,” and heaped scorn on the “satisfied struttings of wealthy gentlemen with their brains in their pockets” and on “smart young gentlemen, with no brains at all.” Indeed Irving’s History can be read as one long screed, tempered somewhat by self-irony, that denegrates the “degenerate days” in which he lived, by comparing them to a fictive Dutch Golden Age “when every thing was better than it has ever been since.”
The History was also an exercise in literary nationalism. For all its obeisance to Sterne and Swift, Knickerbocker’s earthy irreverence, extravagant bombast, and blustery tall tales would soon be considered hallmarks of American humor. Walter Scott claimed that reading it made his sides “absolutely sore with laughter,” Dickens wore out his copy with repeated reading, and Coleridge, who picked up a copy at an English inn (a remarkable fact in itself), couldn’t put it down until he’d finished. Irving’s was the first American book so favorably received abroad. It put the United States—and New York City—on Europe’s cultural map.
And Irving really had provided Manhattan with a past, of sorts. “Cities of themselves” Knickerbocker told his readers, tongue only partly in cheek, “are nothing without an historian,” and Irving believed that creating his book had been an act of the highest civic patriotism. Although his version of colonial New Amsterdam was a burlesque, and deeply resented by New Yorkers of Dutch descent (Gulian Verplanck excoriated it as “coarse caricature”), Irving had done some real research, rummaging in documents and collecting family legends and lore from those same Dutch New Yorkers—who like it or not were soon known as Knickerbockers. Through Diedrich Knickerbocker, Irving wrote, “I hailed my native city, as fortunate above all other American cities, in having an antiquity . . . extending back into the regions of doubt and fable.” And he credited Knickerbocker’s flights of fancy with provoking serious research into that antiquity: “It is only since this work appeared that the forgotten archives of the province have been rummaged, and the facts and personages of the olden time been rescued from the dust of oblivion.”
Irving would recall, in the preface to a much later edition, that he had set out to give the Manhattan cityscape historical depth and texture—“to clothe home scenes and places with imaginative and whimsical associations, which live like charms about the cities of the old world.” He believed that he’d succeeded, too, claiming that the “popular traditions of our city” now formed a “convivial currency” and “link[ed] our whole community together in good-humor and good fellowship.”
Too good, perhaps, for Irving’s “community” was devoid of slavery, Indian wars, poverty, and other unpleasantness—and too many New Yorkers would for too long accept his affectionate mythmaking as authentic history. He had accomplished something remarkable, nevertheless. In inventing a past for his city, he chose not to revel in “gunpowder and carnage” but rather to detail the amiable everyday life of a contented and pleasure-loving people. Virgil he wasn’t, but New York could have done worse.
While Irving was imagining a past for New York, some of his fellow citizens were busily imagining its future. Their vision, however, would be inscribed on the landscape itself.
In the spring of 1810 De Witt Clinton threw his influence behind the efforts of Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Eddy, Philip Schuyler, and Jonas Platt—Federalist land developers and empire builders—to drive a canal between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes, a distance of some 360 miles. That summer, named by the legislature to a new Board of Canal Commissioners, Clinton accompanied a team of engineers and surveyors up the Mohawk, through the Finger Lakes, and on to a rude little frontier village called Buffalo. Their report, issued in March 1811, proposed construction of a single continuous waterway from Albany to Lake Erie at a cost of five million dollars.
It was an idea—a dream—of pharaonic proportions. This great “national work,” the commissioners proclaimed, was the “key to the commerce of our western world,” a conduit through which thousands of tons of lumber, furs, flour, and other products of the Great Lakes would pour down to New York every year, enriching the city as well as hastening the conquest of the frontier. Generations to come would stand in awe of it.
Clinton and Morris went down to Washington to lobby for the plan, but Madison refused: federal aid for “internal improvements,” the president said, was probably unconstitutional. Clinton didn’t lose heart, however, and over the next fifteen years he crusaded so zealously for the canal’s completion that it would come to be known as “Clinton’s ditch.”
Other momentous changes, more local in scope, lay closer to realization. In the spring of 1811, as workmen were finishing the facade of City Hall, New Yorkers got their first glimpse of a remarkable new plan—intricately engraved on an eight-foot-long map—for the city’s future expansion up the island of Manhattan. Some four years in preparation, the plan was the work of a state-appointed Streets Commission made up of Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt (the state surveyor), and John Rutherford (a respected city businessman and former New Jersey senator). After a decade of yellow fever epidemics, the Assembly had charged the commissioners with laying out “streets, roads, and public squares” in such a manner “as to unite regularity and order with the Public convenience and benefit, and in particular to promote the health of the city,” by allowing for the “free and abundant circulation of air.”
The commissioners had hired John Randel Jr., a young man in his early twenties, for the herculean task of surveying all 11,400 acres of Manhattan Island. He began in the spring of 1808, hiking each day from his residence in lower Manhattan to field headquarters at the corner of Christopher and Herring streets (passing Tom Paine’s house, where “frequently in fair weather [I] saw him sitting at the south window”). From there Randel and his men tramped on to distant parts of the island, often so thickly wooded as to be “impassable without the aid of an ax.” Additional obstacles included hostile property owners and squatters, who unleashed dogs on any who approached with measuring instruments, or barraged them with cabbages and artichokes.
Randel had worked (he later said) “with a view to ascertain the most eligible grounds for the intended streets and avenues, with reference to sites least obstructed by rocks, precipices, steep grades, and other obstacles.” But by the time he’d finished, in the fall of 1810, the commissioners had settled on an overlay pattern that brooked no such obstacles. Inasmuch as Morris (like Clinton) was also an active member of the Erie Canal Commission, it comes as no surprise that their vision of the streets of Manhattan had much in common with their vision of a great canal plowing across the state.
Several years before, the Salmagundians had playfully credited the right-angled, logical temperament of Philadelphians to the right-angled, logical pattern of their streets. “Whereas the people of New York—God help them—tossed about over hills and dales, through lanes and alleys, crooked streets—continually mounting and descending, turning and twisting—whisking off at tangents, and left-angle-triangles, just like their own queer, odd, topsyturvy rantipole city, are the most irregular, crazyheaded, quicksilver, eccentric, whim-whamsical set of mortals that ever were jumbled together in this uneven, villainous revolving globe, and are the very antipodeans to the Philadelphians.”
Now all that was about to end. In the Commissioners’ Plan, twelve avenues, each a hundred feet in width, would slice north, canal-like, from the edge of town (then roughly Houston Street), paralleling Manhattan’s central axis. Every two hundred feet, crossing these avenues at right angles, were fifty- or sixty-foot-wide streets (one of which, every half mile or so, widened to one hundred feet). The resulting grid appealed to the same republican predilection for control and balance, the same distrust of sinuous nature, that shaped the neoclassical architecture of John McComb and the furniture of Duncan Phyfe. It combined “beauty, order, and convenience,” the commissioners boasted.
There was nothing new about grids. City planners had relied on them for thousands of years, and they were deployed throughout the American colonies, from small New England towns to larger urban centers like Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. When Lady Deborah Moody founded Gravesend in the midseventeenth century, she laid out a grid adapted from the town plan of New Haven. What was new about the Manhattan grid was its ruthless utilitarianism.
In 1803 Joseph François Mangin and Casimir Goerck had come up with a plan for the future of Manhattan that served varying needs (health, recreation, commerce, community) with variable means: small blocks with streets close together in commercial areas, spacious and more separated blocks in residential districts, and plenty of parks. But the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 would have none of this. Like the proposed Erie Canal, it was an “internal improvement” that gloried in the supremacy of technique over topography. Manhattan’s ancient hills, dales, swamps, springs, streams, ponds, forests, and meadows—none would be permitted to interrupt its fearful symmetry. The commissioners admitted that it “may be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health.” Certainly, if New York had been situated alongside a small stream, “such as the Seine or Thames,” it might have needed more ample public places. “But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure, as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous.”
The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. (I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
The commissioners hastened to add that they had indeed incorporated some open spaces into the grid. A huge 240-acre tract bounded by Third Avenue, Seventh Avenue, 23rd Street, and 34th Street was set aside for a “Grand Parade”—big enough, they said, “for Military Exercise, as also to assemble, in case of need, the force destined to defend the City.” Above the Grand Parade, four smaller squares—Harlem, Hamilton, Bloomingdale, and Manhattan—afforded further relief from the grid’s rectilinear monotony. Two final squares were set aside, one for a reservoir on an elevated bluff, another for a fifty-four-acre wholesale “Market Place” between 7th and 10th Streets from First Avenue to the East River.
Of “circles, ovals, and stars” there were to be none, however. Such “supposed improvements,” the commissioners argued—sniping at features incorporated by L’Enfant in his plan for Washington—not only obstructed traffic but violated “the principles of economy.” Cities are “composed principally of the habitations of men,” and it is self-evident that “strait-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in.” Carving Manhattan up to 155th Street into roughly two thousand long, narrow blocks, each further subdivided into standardized lots (usually twenty-five by one hundred feet), each of which was easily located in reference to numbered streets and avenues, would also make land easier to market: Randel later pointed with pride to the way his handiwork heightened opportunities for “buying, selling, and improving real estate.”
The grid enshrined republican as well as realtor values, in its refusal to privilege particular places or parcels. All plots were equal under the commissioners’ regime, and the network of parallels and perpendiculars provided a democratic alternative to the royalist avenues of Baroque European cities. The shift from naming streets to numbering them, beyond promoting efficiency, also embodied a lexicographical leveling; no longer would families of rank or fortune memorialize themselves in the cityscape. Indeed William Duer complained that the commissioners had swung “the scythe of equality” across the island, replacing the country estates of the privileged classes with block after democratic block, no one necessarily better than any other, each equally exposed to the ebb and flow of the market.
In a remarkable assertion of public authority over large estate owners, moreover, the city decided to shut up any previously laid-out streets that were not retroactively accepted by the Common Council. Petrus Stuyvesant’s Bowery Village grid, devised twenty-odd years before, ran afoul of the Commissioners’ Plan, as it had been laid out on a true north-to-south and east-to-west basis, rather than adopting Manhattan’s skewed axis. When the city began opening streets and avenues in the area—Third Avenue was cut through Stuyvesant property as early as 1812—the old roads were closed and the houses on them demolished or moved. After much bitter fighting with city officials, the powerful family was able to salvage several residences on Stuyvesant Street; it still survives, cutting diagonally between Second and Third avenues, a ghost of defunct ambitions.
Yet it was really the commissioners who were most ambitious of all. Their system of streets, which started at ist and swept grandly and numerically up-island, was an implicitly imperial blueprint with no logical stopping point. Indeed the commissioners felt compelled to apologize for having halted at 155th Street. The reason “the whole island has not been laid out as a city,” they explained, was not from any lack of expansionary will; they had, after all, already provided space enough “for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.” Going farther would simply have been pointless for the time being, both because “it is improbable that (for centuries to come) the grounds north of Harlem Flat will be covered with houses,” and because extending the grid higher “might have furnished materials for the pernicious spirit of speculation.” For—like the Erie Canal in yet another sense—their grid was intended to hasten the real development of the city’s hinterlands, not to encourage unproductive shenanigans. And no sooner were map and plan approved than Randel and his crew were set to work on staking out the actual landscape. Over the next decade they would place 1,549 yard-high white-marble markers at imagined intersections, each engraved with the number of its street-to-be, and wherever rocks barred the way, half-foot iron bolts, ninety-eight in all, were driven in to mark the spot.
New York’s dominant commercial classes thus engraved their vision on the city, reshaping it to meet their evolving needs, unhindered by the presence of powerful national or state officials who, following a different urbanist calculus, might have imposed corridors of power and display. In Manhattan—a city of capital, not a capital city—considerations of efficiency and economy came first.1
THE MAYOR WHO WOULD BE PRESIDENT
In the spring of 1811, while the streets commissioners staked out the Manhattan grid, President Madison’s fumbling attempts to protect the rights of neutral carriers moved the United States and Great Britain ever closer to open conflict. The idea of a second war of independence with the former mother country had become popular in many parts of the country, but not in New York, still reeling from the havoc wrought by the embargo. With a notable lack of enthusiasm, the city prepared for the worst by completing the construction of four forts designed to protect it from naval attack.
The circular West Battery, built on a rocky outcropping about two hundred feet off the tip of Manhattan, had been designed by John J. McComb. Its eight-foot-thick walls were pierced with embrasures for twenty-eight cannon to sweep the Upper Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River. Only a few hundred yards away, on the shore of Governors Island, stood Castle Williams, designed by the Army’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams (later the first superintendent of West Point and namesake of Williamsburgh). Three stories high, Castle Williams bristled with a hundred heavy guns that could lay down a deadly crossfire with both the West Battery and Fort Columbus (formerly Fort Jay), which commanded the north shore of Governors Island, facing the East River.
The West Battery was also designed to crossfire with the North Battery, which stood on the Hudson shore at the foot of Hubert Street (and whose walls of red Newark sandstone caused it to be nicknamed the Red Fort.) The North Battery, in turn, could crossfire with Fort Gansevoort, located further upriver near the foot of Gansevoort Street (and dubbed the White Fort because of its whitewashed brownstone walls).
All told, these installations, plus numerous mortar batteries and smaller forts sprinkled around on Bedloe’s, Ellis, and Staten islands, could train more than three hundred guns on enemy ships daring to enter the Upper Bay through the Narrows.
The day was fast approaching when they might be called upon to do so. In February 1812 Madison restored nonimportation against Great Britain. Two months later, on his recommendation, Congress adopted a ninety-day embargo that everyone knew to be the last step prior to an actual declaration of war. Everyone, that is, except the British government, which was just then preoccupied with rampant inflation, massive unemployment, labor unrest, and, early in May, the assassination of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval.
On June 16 Perceval’s successor, Lord Castlereagh, finally got around to repealing all restrictions on neutral trade offensive to the United States. But Madison had already asked Congress for a formal declaration of war. On June 18, unaware of Castlereagh’s action, Congress obliged him. Southern and western members tended as a rule to vote aye; northerners generally voted nay.
Well-to-do New York received the news sullenly. The state’s congressional delegation had overwhelmingly opposed the declaration of war, and as one woman wrote, it came “like an Electric shock upon the great part of the people who have been too sanguine, in regard to peace Measures.” Some feared that the city’s defenses remained inadequate. In Broadway dining rooms and at the bar of the City Hotel, the greater concern was that a second conflict with Britain would inflict irreparable damage on the city’s wounded economy. As Gouverneur Morris would remind the New-York Historical Society, “war with the greatest naval power is no happy condition for a commercial people.” Four days before the declaration was finalized, the Evening Post published a memorial of protest signed by fifty-six of the city’s principal merchants.
The man who took the helm of national opposition to Madison’s war policy was the mayor of New York, De Witt Clinton. Clinton had been thinking for some time about a run for the presidency in 1812. Knowing he couldn’t expect much encouragement from Republicans, the bulk of whom would surely remain loyal to Madison, Clinton had been making himself attractive to the Federalists, and they in turn had expanded their popular base by presenting themselves as the party of order, prosperity, and peace. In the spring of 1812 the Federalists put his name into nomination against Madison. Antiadministration Democratic-Republicans in the state followed suit. When war broke out only weeks later, Clinton was positioned as the candidate of bipartisan moderation and prosperity—willing to defend the nation’s honor yet unwilling to put its commerce at risk in an ill-advised struggle with the former mother country.
New York City Democrats (as the urban Democratic-Republicans had begun calling themselves) rallied patriotically around President Madison. Indeed Tammany Hall—the party headquarters maintained by the Society of St. Tammany—and the Long Room of Bram Martling’s Tavern on Chatham Street (Park Row) became bastions of the “Martling Men” or “Bucktails” (terms soon synonymous with “Tammanyite”), whose efforts to wrest the party away from Clinton would torment him for years to come.
Tammany belligerency reflected sentiment in the city’s plebeian quarters. Down by the East River docks, in taverns and seamen’s boardinghouses, or along the alleys that converged on the filled-in Fresh Water Pond, the prospect of war with Britain elicited significant enthusiasm. Many hundreds of workingmen signed on with regiments hastily formed for the defense of the city. One, the aptly named Old Butcher Troop, paraded through town behind banners proclaiming “Free Trade and Butcher’s Rights / From Brooklyn’s Fields to Harlem’s Heights,” and “Skin me well and Dress me neat / And Send me on board the Federal Fleet.” Another unit, the Irish Greens, was a reminder that in 1812 as in 1775, New York harbored numerous and vengeful victims of His Majesty’s attempts to pacify the Emerald Isle.
At the end of June, gangs of sailors roamed the waterfront attacking crewmen from Spanish and Portuguese vessels, on the theory that because their nations were allies of Britain, they were now enemies of the United States. Mayor Clinton moved swiftly to crush the disorders, however. Warning that “anarchy and tyranny” went hand in hand, he put the city’s constables, firemen, and militia on alert; at the next sign of trouble, he announced, they would be called out by signal rockets launched from the cupola of City Hall. The sailors grumbled and cursed—whose side was the mayor on, anyway?—but Clinton remained presidentially firm.
Although senior New York Federalists like Rufus King and John Jay still weren’t quite sure about Clinton, they proved to be in the minority. John Pintard and Gouverneur Morris, Clinton’s de facto managers, summoned Federalists throughout the Northeast to support the mayor as the party’s best hope of political resurrection and the only chance for maritime states to escape a ruinous war. In mid-August, at a meeting of the Friends of Liberty, Peace, and Commerce in Washington Hall, Morris went so far as to advocate secession of the northern states from the Union if Madison could not be stopped. A month later, when the Federalists gathered for a three-day national convention at Kent’s Tavern on Broad Street, Morris played a key role in persuading the delegates to endorse Clinton.
When election day came, however, even with the Federalists on his side, Clinton could muster only eighty-nine electoral votes to Madison’s 131. Besides New York, which he held thanks to the labors of a thirty-year-old upstate legislator named Martin Van Buren, Clinton carried New Jersey, all of New England except Vermont, and Maryland. Although the race was tighter than the final tally suggests—had he carried Pennsylvania, the mayor would have become president—the outcome was a clear warning to Clinton and his friends that if respectable New York didn’t approve of the war, much of the rest of the United States did.
THE WAR OF 1812
The war effort required two things above all else from New York City, money and skilled manpower; it got the first reluctantly, the second with enthusiasm.
For Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, financing the war proved to be a hellish task. As military expenditures ballooned, a British naval blockade cut deeply into tariff revenues that remained the federal government’s main source of income. In the past, Washington might have borrowed from the Bank of the United States, but in 1811 the Democratic-Republican Congress refused to renew its twenty-year charter. Opponents charged that much BUS stock was held in England and that the national bank had been hobbling boom-era venture capitalists by restricting the availability of credit. Proponents of development urged that federal deposits be transferred to the growing number of state banks, to use as a basis for expanding loans. In New York State, the legislature incorporated ten new banks between 1810 and 1812, including the chiefly Federalist Bank of America, the primarily Democratic-Republican City Bank of New York, and the Mechanics’ Bank, dedicated to supplying artisan entrepreneurs with capital.
After the demise of the BUS, the federal government was forced to borrow from private lenders. In 1813 Congress authorized a loan of sixteen million dollars, but selling the bonds proved hard going with so many New York merchants opposed to the war. Secretary Gallatin therefore turned to a small syndicate organized by the country’s two wealthiest capitalists, John Jacob Astor (an old friend of Gallatin’s) and Stephen Girard of Philadelphia. They invented the practice of American loan contracting by purchasing the bonds wholesale (at enormous discounts), then selling them retail to friends in the States and associates in Europe. In 1814 the syndicate agreed to grant the government an additional eight to ten million dollars—if it gave them generous discounts, and if it created a second national bank. They wanted a new bank on the theory that it would stabilize the economy by curbing reckless speculation; they also expected to make tidy profits for themselves by purchasing bank stock with depreciated federal bonds, at full face value. In the final desperate months of the war, with the treasury bare, congressional resistance crumpled. Presented with an ultimatum from a “deliberate concert among the Capitalists,” the government agreed to charter a new bank in exchange for emergency loans, chiefly from New Yorkers and Philadelphians.
Manhattan shipbuilders were less grudging in their contributions to the war effort. Henry Eckford, Christian Bergh, and Noah Brown led teams of ship’s carpenters from Corlear’s Hook to the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. There, over the winter of 1812—13, the New York artisans helped build the brigs and gunboats with which Captains Isaac Chauncey and Oliver Hazard Perry would defend the Niagara frontier with Canada. When Perry smashed a British squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813, the city celebrated with abandon. It subsequently accorded Perry a hero’s welcome, gave him the keys to the city, and named a street in his honor.
Eckford, Bergh, Brown, and other New York shipbuilders had plenty to do in Manhattan as well. In 1814 Adam and Noah Brown built for the U.S. Navy the world’s first steam-driven vessel of war— Fulton the First, or Demologos. The New York yards also constructed, outfitted, and repaired privateers. Enemy warships blocked the Narrows, but Long Island Sound remained open, and hastily armed merchant vessels of every description were soon streaming out to prey on British commerce. In the first year or so of the war, some 125 privateers operated out of New York alone, employing nearly six thousand men and returning with seven hundred prizes.
As in past wars, however, the profits of privateering were elusive. The typical privateer was fitted out and owned on shares, and if she returned with a prize, there were court costs, fees, and duties to be paid even before her shareholders, officers, and crew took their cuts. So few investors came out ahead, much less struck it rich, that New York merchants petitioned Congress to make the business more lucrative. Offer a twenty-five-dollar bounty for every enemy national captured or killed, they asked; give pensions to disabled privateersmen and their widows. Congress agreed, but it made no difference. By the end of 1813 the Royal Navy had extended its blockade along the entire New England coast, including the entrance to Long Island Sound. For the remainder of the war nothing under sail could get in or out of the port.
Importers of finished wares coped with the blockade by moving cargoes up the Delaware River to South Trenton, overland to the Raritan River, and thence across the Hudson to the city. The volume of traffic was considerable—in November 1813 some fifteen hundred wagon teams reportedly worked the South Trenton-Raritan leg of the journey—but it was no substitute for direct access to the port’s wharves and warehouses. Nor did it appeal to exporters of bulky agricultural products, increasing numbers of whom found it easier (and a lot more profitable) to sell their goods to the British forces poised just across the Canadian border. New York’s business with the enemy would in fact grow so rapidly in the course of 1813 that President Madison was compelled, at the very end of the year, to slap another embargo on all American exports.
As the second winter of war approached, New York was once again like a city under siege. As during the embargo crisis of 1807-9, hundreds of vessels lay idle along the waterfront. Shuttered shops and stores lined every street, and on Broadway the cacophonous traffic of carts and wagons and carriages subsided to a mere rumble. Because profiteers had diverted so much of the city’s essential supplies to the British in Canada, food and fuel were almost prohibitively expensive. Unemployed working people deluged municipal authorities with appeals for relief, and in December a committee of gentlemen, including Thomas Eddy and John Pintard, organized the Fuel Association to provide the “meritorious” poor with firewood; over the next several months the association distributed wood to three thousand addresses in the city. “The times are very hard,” said one resident. “Money almost an impossibility. The necessaries of life are very high. . . . We are obliged to use beans steeped in hot molasses. Many are living on black butter-pears, apples and quinces stewed together—the poverty in the city is very great.”
Militarily, moreover, the first eighteen months of war had gone badly. Except for Captain Perry and a young frontier general named William Henry Harrison, American field commanders committed one blunder after another, allowing the enemy to capture Detroit, repulse two assaults on Montreal, and burn Buffalo. When Napoleon abdicated in April 1814, further humiliations seemed certain. His Majesty’s government, able at last to concentrate on the American theater, immediately shifted fourteen thousand veterans across the Atlantic and began massing naval forces off Sandy Hook and Gardiner’s Bay. As the summer began, New York braced for another British invasion.
Mayor Clinton and his Federalist allies extracted every ounce of political capital they could from the situation. They assailed Madison for getting the country into the war, and they assailed him for failing to wage it with vigor and dispatch. Time and again, they reminded the city’s mechanics of the years just after independence, when “industrious laborers had work, and having work they had money; and having money their wives and children were well clothed and well fed and well warmed. These were Federal times.”
Maybe so. But as in the mid-1770s and the mid-1790s, that sort of argument could not overcome the combination of nationalist pride and hatred of Great Britain that was integral to popular culture in New York. With every British victory, every new hardship, Clinton and the Federalists lost rather than gained credibility. In the charter elections at the end of 1813, branded by Republicans as the “Peace Faction—or to use a more correct term—the enemy,” their majority on the Common Council evaporated. The following spring, they lost control of the state legislature as well. Many a mechanic, it was observed, had come to the conclusion that “his children can freeze, but he must not let the Tories in.”
Over the summer of 1814, with the war’s opponents now effectively silenced, New Yorkers made ready for the expected British invasion. By the beginning of August, if not before, it was known that the enemy intended to strike down through Lake Champlain while diversionary forces harassed the Atlantic ports—meaning that the fortifications erected in the city between 1807 and 1812 were not likely to be of much use. On August 11, with the blessings of the City Council, thousands of residents turned out for a meeting to consider what ought to be done. After an impassioned speech by an aged Marinus Willett recalling popular resistance to British tyranny forty years earlier, it was agreed to form a Committee of Defense consisting of representatives from every ward. Like its Revolutionary predecessors, the committee was empowered by direct popular consent to form new military companies through the “voluntary enrollments” of ablebodied citizens, to organize citizens for “voluntary labor” on additional defense works, and to apprehend “all persons who shall be concerned in any illicit commerce or improper intercourse with the enemy.”
New York boiled with activity. Marshaled by the Committee of Defense, its residents rallied to construct additional forts, breastworks, and blockhouses on Brooklyn Heights, upper Manhattan, and other newly defined danger points. City artisans, organized by trade, contributed over a hundred thousand days’ worth of free labor. Patriotic ladies, lawyers, cartmen, merchants, and shopkeepers felled trees, dug trenches, and hauled artillery. The “free people of color” offered their collective services to the Committee of Defense and assisted in the erection of fortifications on Brooklyn Heights. In response to a congressional appeal for volunteers to defend New York, some 23,000 militiamen meanwhile flocked in from the surrounding countryside. From dawn to dusk they drilled and paraded, and the City Council appropriated money to pay them until they could be officially mustered into the regular service.
At the end of August, an enemy column burned Washington. The tension in New York became excruciating. “Your capital is taken!” cried one newspaper. “In six days the same enemy may be at the Hook. . . . Arise from your slumbers!. . . This is no time to talk!” Even Federalists professed their willingness to bear arms. “The enemy is at our doors,” Rufus King announced, “and it is now useless to enquire how he came there.” Gouverneur Morris, though, testily informed King that “anything like a Pledge by Federalists to carry on this wicked War, strikes me like a Dagger to my Heart.” When Morris learned that antiwar Federalists in New England planned a secret convention in Hartford at the end of the year, he rejoiced at the possibility of a New York-New England confederation. The Hartford Convention, he declared, was “a star in the East . . . the dayspring of freedom and glory. The traitors and madmen assembled at Hartford will, I believe, if not too tame and timid, be hailed hereafter as the patriots and sages of their day and generation.” (This wasn’t the first time Morris flirted with sedition, but it was the last: he died less than a year later, having attempted to relieve a urinary obstruction by forcing a whalebone through his penis.)
Inside of two weeks, however, the sense of crisis in New York subsided. The British were turned back at the gates of Baltimore. Captain Thomas Macdonough’s victory in the Battle of Lake Champlain removed the threat of an attack from Canada. Militiamen who had come to fight for the city soon started for home, and the Committee of Defense began to plan its final report to the Common Council.
PEACE! PEACE! PEACE!
One frigid evening in mid-February 1815, in the middle of a concert at the City Hotel (a witness recalled), “the door of the concert-room was thrown open and in rushed a man breathless with excitement. He mounted on a table and, swinging a white handkerchief aloft, cried out ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’ The music ceased, the hall was speedily vacated, I rushed into the street, and oh, what a scene! In a few minutes thousands and tens of thousands of people were marching about with candles, lamps, torches, making the jubilant street appear like a gay and gorgeous procession.” Over the next several days, in the wake of word that American and British commissioners had agreed to a treaty of peace, the still-rejoicing residents were treated to a spectacular display of fireworks from Governors Island and the erection of elaborate transparencies on public buildings and private houses depicting the long-awaited return of prosperity.
No one worried about the actual terms of the treaty: it was enough that the war had ended and that life could begin to return to normal. But what did “normal” mean—and how, exactly, was the city going to prosper now that the strife in Europe, the foundation of its expansion following independence, had ended as well?