The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter II
Part I

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

CHAPTER II

THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR.

With the passing of the French from American sovereignty there passed, as Kahn said," the best means" that England had had "of keeping her colonies in due submission." This assertion is supported by the colonial history of the next decade. Of course, there were other reasons for the rebellion. In any case, recognition of this one reason would hardly have deflected England from her course during the French and Indian War. Present dangers weigh more than future perils. France with the sword, or even with the sceptre of state, could not be tolerated in America. As to England's fractious children in the colonies, they were just children; they could be lectured into good behavior later, if the need arose. The one task that called for England's immediate attention was the ousting of the French from Canada and the interior.

As a matter of fact, prior to the Seven Years' War, England had been lackadaisical in colonial administration. For a century or mote she had exercised only a nominal control over her American colonies--at least by comparison with the sternness of Crown efforts during the last decade of the colonial period. England had been of easy mind as to their loyalty, and so had allowed administrative problems to drift. Indeed, the tie that bound the colonies to the motherland had been fastened not so much by Crown enactment's as by the dread that France might gain the upper hand in America, and that, with this change in sovereign rule, would come some restriction of religious liberty.

The passing the French would not necessarily have brought the Revolution. Insurrection mighty have grown ugly in New York long before the French lost Canada, had England striven sternly to thwart the will of New York. The economic reason for the Revolution was undoubtedly reinforced by the fact that the colonies had become accustomed to independence, or at least to pursuing their own way despite the feeble protest of their governors. As in most wars, trade rivalry, which in the essence is money, has a place among the causes. AS early as 1652, Berkeley had shown the Virginia Assembly that trade rivalry, not royal despotism, was the factor most likely to jeopardize the liberty of the colonies. "What is it can be hoped for" (From the Parliament) he asked, "which we have not already?" Is it liberty/ The sun looks not upon a people more free from all oppression. Is it wealth? . . . . Industry and thrift in a short time may bring us to it. Is it. . . . . peace? The Indians, God be blessed, round about us are subdued; we can only feat the Londoners." Still, the French danger was not so acute at that time. Also Virginia was not very near the centre of French authority, nor to the seat of the aboriginal power. New York had them both at her threshold. After the French danger had been cleared, however, it must have been obvious to all colonies that they were strong enough to meet any Indian danger without aid from Britain.

This would establish a surer element of independence, even though the colonists as yet hardly thought of freedom of action by that word. New York indeed had been master of its own affairs for very long. The journals of the New York Colonial Assembly are sufficient evidence that, during the last century of the province, New Yorkers had been almost free from Crown control., or rather that in all disputes between the Crown and the people, as represented by Governor and Assembly respectively, the Crown had invariably bowed to the people. "Not the suffering, but the prosperity of the colonies, not their weakness but their strength, not the tyranny of an autocratic government but the obvious lack of any effective supervision at all, caused the Revolution" writes Usher. England did not begin to show strong hand in colonel government until a new vista of empire opened for their in the triumphs of the Steven Years' War.

Why had England been so lackadaisical in the past? Can it be attributed to the natural indulgent forbearance of a loving parent? Idealists may think so, but political economists will see a more practical reason for this laxity. Earlier, the colonies had held only a precarious footing. The revenue yield had not been large enough to justify strenuous assertion of Crown authority in America. A poor man usually gives little thought to the guarding of his purse. It is of little consequences, whereas that of a rich man has to be protected by extraordinary means. Unquestionably, England had shirked her administrative responsibilities in her profitless colonies of former days; but with the conquest of New France, the status of England's colonies in the New World assumed a more vital place in the plans of the Crown. Only a small part of it had yet been developed, it is true, but colonies which already had more then two millions of inhabitants, and now had unrestricted sweep over the vast territory must obviously be viewed as potential.

So, with the seven seas opening for her in 1763, with the means of building a world-wide empire thrown into her lap, as it were , by the Treaty of Paris, England began to consider closely ways and means of centralizing the government of her empire. It could be effectively administered in no other way, thought the ministers--at least not by the Crown, by agents of the Crown; and, thinking along mercenary lines, if monetary profit lay in the offing, it would be well to make sure of the reliability of one's collectors.

With prosperity insight, the time might soon come when the Crown would derive much satisfaction in realizing that crown officials, not colonial servants, were in control of the sources of colonial revenue. If Crown coffers were to be assured of steady replenishment, the ld system of colonial supervision must be abolished. England's colonial children must no longer be permitted to run wild. Parental tolerance must cease. The revenue leaks must be topped. With a whole continent open to the exploitation of the thirteen colonies, this prosperity must be watched more closely. Townshend, the King's minister was shrewd. He thought of "the weaving of this land into our system. . . . .so that Great Britain may be. . . . .a grand maritime dominion consisting of out possessions in the Atlantic and in America united into one empire, into one centre where the seat of government is." So as to more effectively control England's overseas possessions, he planned to standardize colonial government. Particularly, he south to make firm and absolute the power of the Crown over the colonial purse. But he, and his successors, were to find that the colonial legislatures already had such firm grip on the public treasury that not even the threat of war could loosen their hold of it.

In the governmental, constitutional, and legal surveys that make up other chapters in this "History of New York," these matter have been reviewed in greater detail; and here, in this chapter,, it will be only necessary to refer to them generally, in passing on to the military story of the Revolution. England, in her role of parent, thought that in the past she had been indulgent and forbearing with her colonial children, whereas, it seems, in close analysis, that she had been merely indifferent, or at least neglectful. Her colonial children had been permitted to go their own way, for the simple reason that the effort to regular their governmental conduct would hardly have paid. Earlier attempts to enforce English revenue measure in the colonies had been dismal failures. The navigation Acts had made smuggling almost general in all the seaports on the Atlantic coast. The Sugar Act of 1733 had been to all intents ineffective in America. Molasses, rum, and sugar from the foreign West Indies had come into port in such volume that sugar was openly sold in Boston for less than the duty. In detecting contraband, the Crown officials at one time were spending about £7,000 a year to reap an annual revenue of only £2,000. Close supervision of colonial administration had been a costly undertaking, but now, with a potential future before the American colonies, the old arguments did not apply. For example: The Sugar Act of 1764, if enforced would have drawn very much more form American pockets. The English sugar-growing colonies were aware that the American colonies were rapidly increasing their imports, to operated the many costly distilleries that had been established. On the other hand, the distillers complained that they would be ruined if denied foreign molasses. It was an economic question of major importance, and it was stirring both sides into more alert attention. Indeed, the strength of the policy of centralization and of that of resistance lay more in the opposition of the merchants on both sides of the Atlantic than in the attitude of legislators, or of the general public. Magna Charta was not so vividly in the minds of the agitators as the "fear of bankruptcy." The King's ministers did not look upon enforcement of the Navigation Acts, and the repression of illicit trading, as oppression; yet its effect upon the mercantile communities of America justified the latter in looking upon the enforcement as such. Enforcement would cripple their trade.

The English West India Islands could not take the exportable output of the American colonies in exchange for imports. One grievance added to another swells the weight of both. Wrongs brooded over generally get beyond logical proportion. Gradually, the American people came to view the measures of the Crown as "nothing but a fixed design to strangle colonial trade and to ruin colonial merchants simply in order to increase the profits of British merchants." The discontentedness spread. It was seen that the misfortune of one section of a people is a detriment to all. Angry passions were aroused. American students of politics and government very soon came to see, in the enactments, violation of Magna Charta, oppression, slavery. "Single acts of tyranny," wrote Jefferson, in the "Summary View of the rights of British America," "may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematic plan of reducing us to slavery." At the same time students of political economy in England began to see in American resistance to taxation the ruin of the British Empire which had opened so promisingly. Consequently, on both sides of the Atlantic, the opposition of each to the will of the other grew sterner and stiffer, with the passing years.

Armed resistance prior to 1775 was mostly sporadic, the efforts of individuals rather than of communities, the disturbances being confined largely to radical politicians, and to the those whose living took them to the quays and mercantile areas. Very few of the people had any thought at all of separation from England. Even Franklin thought we should "bear England's infirmities a little and gradually they will come to treat us well." he was convinced that "our security lies in our growing strength," and that "England will soon value our friendship for it." He thought that England would see that her advantage lay in granting us all that we pleaded for, and that actual fighting would be unnecessary. But blood blots reason. Passion never was sensible even to self-interest. Fury has no use for arithmetic, no use for figures save those it can hit.

The Motherland and the Colonies drifted from bad to worse. It was not an unnatural drift. Study given to the question by men of logical mind would have disclosed the fact that from the beginning of settlement, the colonists had been inexorably headed for independence. They were not necessarily revolutionists, but undoubtedly America had been peopled by strong, self-reliant men in whom the spirit of resistance to unjust government was strong. The common rights of man were the basis to which they clung. AS a New York State publication, "The American Revolution in New York," points out "When the Pilgrims and Puritans fled to New England for greater civic and religious freedom, when the Dutch carried their ideas of self-government to New Netherland, when the Quakers, French Huguenots, Roman Catholics and German Palatines fled to the New World to escape religious persecution, and when the cavaliers of the South came to America in protest against the Hanoverians, the germs of the Revolution were planted on this side of the Atlantic.". #1 In America, left to their own resources, fighting their own way through life with comparatively little interference, by the mother country with their local governments, they had been confirmed in Independence, and had passed on to their posterity an even stronger spirit of freedom and self-reliance. This could only have one ending. Children who have been neglected in their early years can hardly be brought under parental law after reaching man's estate. They have built homes for themselves, and will not be drawn again under the parental roof. The parent would merely court trouble and disappointment in attempting to assert parental authority under such conditions. But this is what King George and England resolved to do. At the end of the French and Indian War the Motherland was faced by an enormous national debt--about $700,000,000. She could not directly ask the colonies to assume part of this, but she ought to lighten her burden by passing some of it on tot colonies in indirect ways.

The "new system of colonial government" would do away with "requisitions from the King to the colonial assemblies for supplies." The colonial assemblies were to lose control of the public purse and be taxed by act of the English Parliament in which they had no voice. Governors and judges were to be paid by the Crown and supported by a standing army of twenty British regiments. The Sugar Act of 1764 was the parliamentary way in which the Crown expected the Colonies to meet the expenses of this standing army. The army itself was frowned upon by colonials. While the French were in arms a British army had been welcomed, but now that the danger was past, the English forces were viewed from another angle. Colonials looked upon a large British garrison as to all intents an army of occupation--occupying their own country, and at colonial expense. Resentment was general. Colonists, though still loyal, were murmuring with ever-increasing sternness. Rebellious thoughts and acts were suggested. Tampering with the people's purse tampered with their loyalty. If a neglectful parent exported to find filial love still strong, he was to find that these belated parental commands were effective only in undermining loyalty and alienating affection. Subconsciously, the cleavage had been made when the colonists left the homeland, and a century or more of paternal neglect or, if you will, of only weak attempts to interfere, had opened it wider, the will of the emigrants to be self-governed having grown stronger by their century or more to practice of it.

The Sugar Act was then, it seems, one of the first steps toward revolution. The other steps include "the Stamp Act of 1765; the Declaratory Act of 1766; the tax on tea, glass, paper, etc., in 1767; the suspension of the power of the Assembly of New York in 1767; the creation of a Customs House for America in 1767; the dissolution of the Massachusetts Assembly in 1768 for refusing to rescind a Circular Letter to other colonies; the seizure of John Hancock's sloop 'Liberty' for a false entry in 1768; the despatch of British troops to Boston in 1768; the parliamentary resolution for the trial of treason in the colonies in 1769; the riot of Golden Hill in New York and the Boston Massacre in 1770; the suppression of the 'regulators' in North Carolina in 1771; the arrival of tea in America in 1773; the passage of the Boston Port bill in 1774; the decision to take person accused of opposition to the government to England for trial in 1774; the concentration of British troops in Boston and the fortification of the city in 1774; the dissolution of the Massachusetts Assembly by royal order in 1774; and the act for restraining the trade of colonist in 1775," #2

The stiffening of England's determination to exact obedience merely brought a stiffening of resistance by the colonies. Nevertheless, the coercive acts of 1774, especially that which placed within the jurisdiction of the Province of Quebec, the former enemy, all land west of the Alleghenies, were measures which King George III supposed would bring the contentious colonies humbly upon their knees before him--in the hope of regaining a little of what they had lost and of avoiding at least some of the blows that a provoked and powerful motherland might aim at them. General Gage had told him that the sight of the rod would have a quieting effect upon the riotous supporters of the "Indians" of "Tea Party" affrays. He had confidently assured His Majesty that "they will be lions whilst we are lambs; but if we take the resolute part they will be undoubtedly very meek." Samuel dams, of Massachusetts, had been organizing resistance committees busily and the movement had spread to all colonies; nevertheless, King George and his ministers had been advised that only a small minority favored the proposals of the rebellious man of Massachusetts. The King, indeed, thought that, if the unrest should reach especially unsafe proportions, the American loyalists would be able, themselves, to bring the rebellious faction to order. In so thinking, however, King George erred in his weighing of man-power he did not realize that one fighting man with a gun an a ruffled temper could fight his way through a dozen unarmed men of passive disposition. The King's ministers also erred in their analysis of the colonial mind. Although the majority of the colonists were, and wish to remain loyal to king and country, e. g., to the monarchy and the motherland. Most of them abhorred George II, and were subconsciously wedded to independence. Indeed, there were few Anglo-Saxons of American birth who did not feel that they had reason to murmur against the hardships that the motherland had been heaping upon them during the last decade. Also, there were few who, by their lives, did not show that the filial status of England's American sons differed from that of Britons of the homeland. Having left the parental roof, having made way for themselves almost unaided, the colonists ,m as a whole, frowned upon the attempt of the mother country to interfere with their own affairs, even though they fervently desired always to maintain some degree of contact with the family home. King George did not realize that filial duty is governed by the degree of parental love. Filial love that will endure suffering to save to save the parent from distress is the recognition by the son of the parent's sacrifices and love in earlier years; but filial love can hardly be strongly developed in the neglected offspring. To him, the endurance of such suffering would be, rather, servile submission to arbitrary parental will; and Americans were not at that time, nor, indeed, at any earlier time has they been, of servile temperament.

However, King George had no doubt that the filial law would work, and that the stern parental demands would be dutifully, if reluctantly, obeyed. England may not have had much part in the rearing of her American sons, but they were still her sons--lusty, productive sons, now almost fully grown. She would not permit them to evade filial duty. Rather, she would force them to contribute to the maintenance of the parental home.

England went her way heedlessly. No earnest attempt was made to view the cause of contention from the son's standpoint. The King's ministers would give no thought to the colonial side of the question. They would not see, for instance, the at the exclusion of the colonies from the Newfoundland fisheries, in 1775, would ruin the main industry of the New England colonies. They only saw that America was becoming increasingly potential to England, and that America would break away unless they fastened her to the motherland with stronger bonds. So the parental rod was raised to punish the disobedient son.

The latter, however, did not shrink from the rod. Chastisement could not subdue him. Strong-willed, self-reliant, resolute, the colonists were prepared to fight for their rights. No degree of punishment could alter their determination. Many colonists who had not hitherto been counted among Samuel Adams' following now agreed with him. On April 3, 1775, Joseph Warren wrote: "America must and will be free. The contest may be severe; the end will be glorious. We would not boast, but we think, untied and prepared as we are, we have no reason to doubt of success." The war began a fortnight later, and although the parental rod was often felt during the next eight years of privation and suffering, the will of America was recognized by England.

The foregoing general survey broadly shows the difference of through that divided Britons and Americans during the decade of unrest that followed the ending of the French and Indian War. Before going onto the ,military story of the Revolution, it would be well to trace more closely the actions of New York during the decade of pre-Revolutionary turmoil. When war broke out, in Massachusetts, in April, 1775, that colony was more advanced than New York in its preparations for warfare. If for no other reason than that Massachusetts was nearer to the British rod of wrath, there was incentive fro the speedier completion of the measure of defense in the Boston zone. Nevertheless, men of New York had been just as stalwart in resistance as the men of Massachusetts during the decade of agitation. In several notable instances they had taken the initiative in resisting the encroachments of Britain upon colonial rights. In 1764, the impressment of some fishermen in New York waters by a British ship of war had not been allowed to pass without emphatic and effective protest. When the commander of the British frigate, onto which the fishermen had been taken, visited New York next day, New Yorkers burned his boat and forced him to release the pressed men.

On March 8, 1764, New York merchants memorialized the Lords of Trade, protesting against the passage of the Sugar Act. This was followed by action by the New York Assembly, which brought modification of the Sugar Act. In the same year, the Assembly authorized a committee to correspond with other colonies with a view to the organization of resistance to acts of Parliament. The Assembly urged "united action in the name of English liberty," when word reached New York in 1764 of the probably passage of the Stamp Act. This was "the beginning of official action in behalf of American union for American interest, and the honor of it belong to New York." The passage of the Stamp Act profoundly stirred American. "Nowhere was opposition more active or determined than in New York. Acting Governor Cadwallader Colden reported the tumult as "universal." Governor Moore said that "the whole city rose up as one man in opposition."

A vigilance body, known as the "Sons of Liberty," strengthened those who were weak of heart and intimidated those who would assist the Crown to enforce the Stamp Act. The streets of New York were placarded with a notice that set all government servants or agents thinking apprehensively. It read: "Pro Patria. The first Man who either distributes or makes use of Stamp Paper, let him take care o f his House, Person & Effects. Vox Populi; We dare." A New York newspaper, earlier in the year, had announced that "Lady North American Liberty" had "died of a cruel stamp on her vitals," but had left only one son "prophetically named Independence" who was nearly "of age.' As Crown adherents viewed the public print during that exciting time, the newspaper "were crammed with treason."

It was at the suggestion of New York that the Massachusetts Assembly issued a circular letter, calling upon all colonies to send delegates to a colonial congress to discuss the Stamp Act and measures of resistance. In this congress, a New Yorker was the first to sound, clearly, the defiant note of independence and colonial union. John Morin Scott, a new York lawyer, declared that the "great fundamental principles of government should be common to all its parts and members, else the whole shall be endangered. If, then, the interest of the mother country and her colonies cannot be made to coincide; if the same constitution may not take place in both; if the welfare of the mother country necessarily requires a sacrifice of the most natural interest of the colonies--their right of making their own choosing--if such is really the case between Great Britain and her colonies, then the connection between them ought to cease; and sooner of later it much inevitably cease."

Stamped paper in due time reach New York, but Governor Moore had to confess that he was powerless to enforce the Stamp Act. Some stamped paper was forcibly taken by Sons of Liberty and burned. The disorders spread from town to country. Sir William Johnson, in November, 1765, complained of disorders beyond Albany. In January, 1766, tenants in the Mohawk Valley were in serious revolt again landlords. The spirit of independence was drawing them into civil war. In April, 1766, Governor Moore reported that "governmental authority was flouted on all occasions" in the country. Riotous tenant-farmers of Dutchess and Westchester counties threatened to march on New York City and burn it, unless their leaders were released from jail. Five hundred men, armed and angry, marched toward New York City. In one skirmish between tenants and officials twenty-four persons were killed and wounded on both sides. This state of civil war antedated Lexington by almost nine years. King George wondered "where this spirit will end." The attempt to enforce taxation without representation has failed. The act was rescinded, and the relation of motherland and colonies for some time thereafter were somewhat cordial.

The fundamental difference between them however, had not been altered. New Yorkers gathered around a Liberty Pole to toast the "best of kings," but their rejoicing was in their victory over King George, not in their love for him. Liberty was the keynote of their celebrations.

New York objected stubbornly to the billeting of British regular troops upon them. The Governors found it very hard to extort legislative grants for the maintenance of this British garrison. Niggardly grants were forthcoming, but, as Governor Moore reported, "more the result of compulsion than gratitude." Resistance grew steadily worse. Early in 1767 George III considered the acts of the New York Assembly, or rather their failure to act, as "rebellion." In July, 1767, the law making power of the Assembly was suspended by parliament. This was not enforced, however, and Governor Moore bore legislative stubbornness a little longer. Finally, in January, 1769, the governor dissolved the Assembly, "because of its insolent action." The next Assembly was dominantly Tory, and as a result, more accommodating to the dictates of the Crown.

The loss of the Assembly, however, merely resulted in the transference of the people's affairs to another defending body. If their own Assembly would not protect their interests, there were plenty of patriotic sons of New York outside the Legislature who were capable and ready to assume the dangers and burdens of taking over the government of the province in their behalf. At a huge mass meeting in New York City the Assembly was condemned "for having betrayed the cause of the people." John Lamb, who presided at this meeting, was arrested, but the courts released him. Alexander McDougall, another leader, was not so fortunate. For libel against the Assembly he remained in prison for a year untried--a year during which his incarceration merely stirred to greater excitement the spirit of revolt.

In the failure of the Assembly and the resultant expansion of the committee system, the people's leaders--many of them aristocrats of law-abiding conservative inclination--were actuated mainly by their sense of duty to their fellow-provincials. In picking up and gripping firmly what the Assembly dropped--the cause of the people--they were impelled by the theory that "whenever life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness suffer at the hands of an established government, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government. . . . .most likely to effect their safety and happiness." Their work was important, vital, indeed, the chief base of revolutionary preparation and direction. And if this chapter only touches the committee records in passing onto the military, it is not because the military effort was more important, but merely because the all-important governmental efforts of the provincial committees and congresses have place in other chapters, #3 The recent State review #4 of New York's part in the Revolution has a chapter devoted to the "Committee System," from it the following paragraph is culled:

The historical significance of the committee system in the change from a monarchical to a republican government has not been sufficiently recognized by historians of the Revolution. Too much attention has been centered on the military skirmishes and battles and too little on these extra-legal local and state committees which, before an orderly civil government was created, had to enact law and enforce it, perform judicial and police duties, suppress the Loyalists, raise funds, recruit soldiers, furnish military supplies and safeguard the rights of the people and carry on an orderly organized society. It took as much intelligence, heroism, sound judgment, foresight and patriotism to attain these objects as it did to defeat the enemy on the battlefield.

 

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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