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

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

These committees enabled us to see how the common people in their various communities throughout the State were doing their share to win the blessings of self-government. In these local centers of colonial life, faith and courage were creating in America, a real democracy--intelligent, self-reliant, and efficient. Indeed, the actual revolution did not take place on the fields of bloody encounter, it occurred first in the changed ideas of individuals. Then it expressed itself through the resolves and activities of the numerous committees representing the patriot portion of the people. Finally, it was realized through the changed institutions--political, social, economic and cultural--of the colonists. The defeat of the English and the Loyalists on the field of battle did not bring on the Revolution--it merely cleared the stage for its realization. The committees and congresses, without the sanction of either colonial or imperial law, organized the Revolution, and military victory itself was largely dependent upon the successful accomplishment of the tasks of these various committees.

These committees of the people began to function long before the provincial Assembly ceased to represent the people. At first, their purpose was to supplement and support a Provincial Legislature, which was resisting the Crown scheme of centralizing government of the empire in the English Parliament. The committees of Stamp Act days disposed of that threat against colonial liberty so satisfactorily that in later troubles the people leaned more and more upon such committees. In April, 1768, the merchants of New York appointed a committee to "revive the non-importation agreement as the best means of securing the repeal of the Townshend Act" of 1767. To make the boycotting of all English goods effective, a committee was named in march, 1769, "to inspect all European imputations" at New York. "Up-river towns like Albany had their own local committees to communicate intelligence and to enforce the non-importation pledge." Whigs had made the Assembly a troublesome legislative body. In January of that year, the Governor have dissolved the Assembly as "repugnant to Great Britain"; but he was to find the next Legislature just as troublesome and, consequently, just as repugnant. In April the Assembly debated a measure which would exempt all Protestants from taxes for the maintenance of the established Church of England in southern New York. The Legislature also, in April, thanked the merchants for observing the non-importation agreement.

The "Friends of Liberty" and the "Sons of Liberty" were the active factors in enforcing the boycott. They watched suspected merchants closely. some merchants who were inclined to place monetary gain before patriotism they disciplined. Alexander Robertson, in June, was forced to apologize for importing boycotted foods. Later in the year Thomas Richardson did the same when confronted by a gibbet near the Liberty Pole. Tories and English sympathizers were beginning to realize that the sons of Liberty were strong enough and determined enough to make the boycott effective. On July 7, 1769, the New York City body had met to adopt a constitution. This had been published, and Crown officials and New York Tories soon saw that the resolutions adopted were not mere platitudes. "At this alarming crisis when we are threatened with a Deprivation of those invaluable Rights, which our Ancestors purchased with the Blood," read the published constitution of the "United Sons of Liberty," rights which "once torn from us will in all probability never be restored." The associators pledged themselves "strictly to adhere" to resolution's "to secure their common rights"; and in publishing their constitution they invited every lover of constitutional Freedom to meet with them." #5

It is not surprising that such an aggressive organization should eventually clash with the armed forces of the province, e. g., with the British soldiery. The presence of the latter was a constant irritant to the people, and the persistence of the soldiers in countering public demonstration of the "Liberty" spirit around the "Liberty Pole" made matters worse. On December 18, 1769, a mass meeting of the people was held in the fields, to protest against the voting of public money for British soldiery. On January 5, 1779, Acting-Governor Colden signed appropriations for such purpose. On the 13th the people successfully resisted an attempt by British soldiers to cut down their Liberty Pole. Four days later, the pole was cut down. Then 3,000 citizens met to consider the Billeting Act and the boycotting of the soldiery. On January 19th what has been called "the first battle of the revolution" occurred.

This "Battle of Golden Hill" developed out of an attempt to prevent soldiers from publicly posting a placard which condemned the Sons of Liberty and commended the conduct of the soldier. Isaac Sears and Walter Quackenbos resisted an attempt to post one of the broadsides at the Fly Market, that declared it to be "a libel against the inhabitants." When one of the soldiers drew his bayonet, Sears struck him with a "ram's horn." The soldiers were outnumbered, and two of them were forcibly taken before the Mayor. A detachment of twenty soldiers, with cutlasses and bayonets, same to the rescue of heir comrades. They demanded release of the two, and when the anger of the people reached a threatening degree, they drew their bayonets. The Mayor ordered the soldiers to returned to their barracks at the Battery. This they slowly did, watching the excited populace as they would an armed enemy. At the summit of Golden Hill, the soldiers were reinforced and now grew bolder. They heaped insulting epithets upon the municipal officers, and loudly gave vent to their feelings against the Sons of Liberty. "Where are your sons of Liberty now?" they shouted, banteringly, as the people drew back as the soldiers prepared to execute the command: "soldiers, draw your bayonets and cut you Way though them." The soldiers "fell upon the citizens with great Violence, cutting and slashing." But reinforcement also came quickly to the latter, and the soldiers were dispersed. But blood had been shed. They had wounded one sailor, and had slashed the cheek of a Quaker; still "several of the soldiers that were on the Hill were much bruised and one of them badly hurt." Next day the fighting was resumed; in one affray "one of the Citizens was wounded in the Face, and had two of his Teeth broke by a Stroke of a Bayonet: A soldier received a bad cut on the shoulder." #6

Armed as the soldiers were, they might have inflicted much more serious casualties. Indeed, the desire of their officers was to avoid exciting the people. The latter, however, were getting out of hand, and unless the soldiers remained in their barracks the affray would continue. On February 6, 1770, the Sons of Liberty erected another Liberty Pole--the fifth they had raised. next day Alexander McDougall was arrested for printing :seditious handbills." A week later "forty-five gentlemen. . . . .real enemies of internal taxation" dined with McDougall. A month later he was pardoned and released, in order to allay the public excitement.

However, both sides were losing control of themselves. The public celebration of the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act occurred on the same day--that news reached New York of the Boston "massacre." Angry words passed between soldiers and citizens. On March 24th, the soldiers made another attempt to raze the Liberty Pole. They failed, and this increased their exasperation.

This state of ferment was viewed anxiously by many citizens. They felt that the time had come for New York to confer with citizen bodies of other places. The people's leaders in New York were determined to enforce the non-importation pledge, but other colonies, it seemed, were not preserving as effective a boycott. Unfortunately, however, the rigorous enforcement in New York was pointing to only one ultimate end--war. I view of the ominous trend, the New York Committee of Correspondence, in April, 1770, thought they had better bring all colonies into conference upon the question of non-importation. "For the benefit of the whole," the New York Committee took the initiative in urging other cities to send delegates to Norwalk, Connecticut, in June, to formulate a general plan. The other colonies, however, did not recognize the call by New York. Left to decide the matter for themselves, the New York Committee called together the local subscribers to the non-importation agreement. A public meeting was held in the City hall on May 30th, and it was then resolved to uphold the boycott "although other colonies were violating it."

It was apparent, however, during the next month, that sentiment was changing. Many of the subscribers favored a modification of the agreement. When a vote was taken, it was discovered that the moderates were supported by a majority of the people. (The voting was 3,000 to 1,154 in favor of limiting the boycott to tea.) Thus encouraged, the new York merchants resumed trading with England. This action opened New York to criticism by other colonies. "Connecticut was surprised that the people who were the first to sign the agreement should be the first to break it." As a matter of fact, New York had, up to that time, been the most faithful of all the colonies in observing and enforcing the boycott. New York had also been the greatest loser by the suspension of trading.

However, the merchants had made a decision, and not even vehement opposition by the sons of Liberty could turn them from their plan to boycott only tea. So far as New York was concerned, the next two years were comparatively uneventful. The centre of resistance passed, temporarily, to Massachusetts, in which colony Samuel Adams was especially active, in 1772 and 1773, in organizing local committees and in urging other colonies to act likewise. New York remained comparatively unexcited until the autumn of 1773. At a public meeting held in the Coffee House in New York on October 15th, captain of London ships were thanked "for refusing to carry tea to New York." But ten days later, news reached the port that tea would be sent. This report stirred "the ferment in the minds of many." Wrote Governor Tryon on November 3d, committees business themselves, and "Mohawks" warned the merchants that those who received the tea might expect "an unwelcome visit." The "Liberty Boys" on December, 1st, prepared to oppose the land of tea, which the Provincial council decided to store in the fort and barracks. During that month the tea agents in New York refused to accept the tea and on the 15th Governor Tryon decided not to attempt landing it by force. Some tea had come into Boston Harbor, and on the 16th the "Boston Tea Party" was staged. This sensational happening was not known in New York for another Week, but on December 17, 1773, citizens met in City hall, appointed a Committee of Correspondence of fifteen members, and voted 'that tea should not be landed" in New York.

On January 3, 1774, Governor Tryon reported that tea could not be discharged safely in New York, except at the "point of the bayonet and muzzle of the cannon." On January 20th, the New York Assembly appointed a committee of thirteen members "to keep watch of the acts of Parliament," and "to correspond with 'our sister colonies';" but Whigs were in the minority in the Assembly at that time, and the work of the committee was weakened.

However, the people of New York did not depend wholly upon the Assembly committee. The "Sons of Liberty kept faithful vigil, and no tea came into New York waters during the winter. There was need for constant vigilance, however. On March 14, 1774, the committee of the Sons of Liberty resolved to meet every Thursday until the long-looked-for tea ship "arrives and departs." On the last day of March the King signed the Boston Port bill, but another six weeks was to pass before New York became aware of it. Meanwhile, New York also had had a "tea party." On April 19th, a broadside posted in public places, announced the arrival of tea ships in New York. Action was prompt and emphatic. Members of the local committee waited upon Captain Lockyer, Captain of the "Nancy," and warned him not to attempt t land the consignment of tea. He made no effort to, but another ship in port came under suspicion. Captain Lockyer promised to take the tea he brought on the "Nancy' back to England, but Captain Chambers vowed that his own ship carried none of the banned commodity. The committee, however, resolved to search his ship. According to "Rivington's Gazetteer" on April 28, 1774, action was taken somewhat prematurely on April 22d. "the Mohawks were prepared to do their duty at the proper hour; but the body of the people were so impatient that before it arrived, a number of them entered the ship about 8 p. m., took out the tea which was at hand, broke the cases, and started their contents into the river." the news item continues: "At 10 the people all dispersed in good order, but in great wrath against the Captain; and it was not without some risque of his life that he escaped." So came New York into history as one of "tea party" ports; and so came New York leaders to realize that the scourging rod of Britain might be as likely to descend upon New York as upon Boston.

It seemed that the time had come for the organization of a stronger committee of the people; also fro a stronger union of the colonies. On may 12, 1774, news reached New York, from London, that the port of Boston would be closed on June 1st. On May 15th the New York committee met and drafted a communication to the Boston committee, regarding "the shocking and detestable Act of Parliament that shuts up your Port." They could not find language t express their "Abhorrence of this additional Act of Tyranny to America." They saw in it that America was "to be attacked and enslaved by distressing and subduing" Massachusetts. They wished to make common cause with Boston; and they were wishful to have delegations "from all the Principal Towns on the Continent, to meet in a general Congress" to be held in New York, to consider "a general Non-Importation, and Non-Exportation Agreement of Goods to and from Great Britain, until the American Grievances" were redressed. They wished the boycott to be all-embracing, absolutely severing all trade relations with Britain; and to convince Boston that New York was in earnest, the committee told them that they had "stimulated the Merchants to appoint a meeting tomorrow evening at seven o'clock to agree upon" such a general boycott.

The meeting of New York merchants was held on May 16th, at the Exchange. Isaac Low was chairman, and a resolution "to appoint a Committee to correspond with the neighboring colonies, on the present important Crisis," was carried in the affirmative "by a great majority." It was also resolved to appoint a committee of fifty; and before the meeting ended fifty person were nominated. Three days later Francis Lewis was added to it, thus making a "Committee of Fifty-One" by which title it appears inmost records. "this committee was the first body in the colonies definitely organized for action, as distinguished from correspondence and measures of nonresistance against those measures which precipitated the Revolution and to its suggestion the Continental Congress ores its origin." #7 On May 23rd, Paul Revere, express-rider, was handed the Committee of Fifty-One's letter to Boston, asking for a Congress of the colonies. A week later, Boston replied that such a Congress was "indispensable." Early in July, the Committee of Fifty-One agreed to submit the names of five persons t the freeholders and freemen of New York for elections as New York delegates to the general Congress. On July 28th Philip Livingston, Isaac Low, John Jay, John Alsop, and James Duane were "unanimously elected" and n September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress began its session at Philadelphia. New York had taken the lead in establishing the directing body which through eight years of war was to control the mean of resistance by the colonies, and finally to release Americans altogether from Crown government.

Although the New York delegates to the Continental Congress were as resolute as any from any other colony in insisting upon their natural rights, they cannot be said to have been imbued with the thought of secession when they first appeared in Philadelphia. They had no desire to establish "an American empire," independent of the British empire. They were just as firmly determined to protect the rights of American but, as John Jay wrote in 1821: "Until the second petition to Congress in 1775, I never did near an American of any class, of any description, express a wish for the Independence of the colonies. It has always been and still is my opinion and belief, that out country was prompted and impelled to independence by necessity and not by choice." When it was suggested that some form of constitution be drafted, for the better control of governmental affairs during the period of disturbance, John Jay was of the opinion that "the measure of arbitrary power was not full, and it must run over before we undertake t form a constitution." As late as April 6, 1776, a New York Whig wrote: The Continental Congress have never lisped the least desire for independence or republicanism; all there publications breathe another spirit, and in their justice, wisdom and virtue I can freely confide for a restoration of peace and tranquillity upon just and honorable conditions." Yet, it seems that England had suspected American of desiring to revolt even fifty years before the Lexington affray began the clash of arms. On July 10, 1775, A Londoner wrote to a friend in New York: "The present struggle between this country and North America, I have heard old people 5o years go predict." #8

As a steadfast unflinching representative of America in the controversy with the mother country, John Jay towers over the heads of most of the delegates to the early Continental Congress. It is quite possible that, in English eyes, he seemed to be one

of the most unbending rebels; yet he labored long and earnestly for reconciliation with Britain, even while championing the cause of America with ardent fearlessness and unswerving loyalty. England could attribute to Jay much that happened to inspire the colonists to dogged resistance. He is credited with the authorship of the Declaration of Rights drawn by the Continental Congress. Jay drafted the Address of Congress to the people of Great Britain; and that address leave no doubt as to his determination to stand by his aggrieved fellow-colonists, no matter what befell them in their opposition to the Crown. "If you are determined that your ministers shall wantonly sport with the rights of mankind." Reads the address, "if neither the voice of justice , the dictate of law, the principles of the constitution nor the suggestion of humanity can restrain your hands from shedding human blood in such impious cause, we must then tell you that we will never submit to the hewers of wood or drawers of water for any ministry or nation in the world." Nevertheless, Jay and some other conservative New York leaders did their utmost to check the more impetuous patriots. The leaders of the "Liberty" wing were inclined to support the more aggressive Massachusetts group, but those who were of Jay's mind hoped for peaceful ways out of their difficulties. A few months after the convening of the First Continental Congress, a young student Alexander Hamilton, fired by patriotic zeal at a mass meeting in New York, mounted the platform and fervently appealed for American liberty; yet he expressed a "most ardent wish for a speedy reconciliation, a perpetual and mutually beneficial union" of the motherland and the colonists. The first National Congress was not conceived in the spirit of revolution; its sole purpose "was to uphold the American interpretation of the political relations of the various local governments to the imperial government." #9 Its national status gave weight to its recommendations and strengthened the common cause of the colonies, but it had neither desire nor power to interfere with local governments. In its role of advisor, or counsellor, the First Continental Congress led the local committees on to more effective and uniform measures of resistance. Regarded in most colonies as the "great national committee" to safeguard "the rights and liberties" of all, the continental congress's appeal to "every county, district, and town to organize a committee" was very generally heeded. And, speaking as it did for all the colonies, its voice should have been recognized in England as that of America. But "thumbs were down" in the English Parliament. The die has been cast. The colonial grievances were to be answered by the sword. Submission, not reconciliation, was the thought uppermost in the minds of the King's ministers at that time. They would not heed the memorial of even the Tory Assembly of New York, one of the last acts to which was to adopt, on March 25, 1775, a memorial to Parliament "reciting the grievances and asking for redress, with obvious desire for reconciliation." "Parliament refused to receive such a memorial, when offered by Edmund Burke."

By that time the committees inmost of the colonies has become efficient organizations, and, with the sword already bloody, both sides were lining up their armed forces for nought else than the grim purposes of war. The New York Committee of Fifty-One had, on November 22, 1774, given way to a "committee of observation." This committee of sixty had, on march 1, 1775, asked the counties to send deputies to a Provincial Convention in New York City on April 20th, to elect delegates to the Second Continental Congress. The deputies duly met, all parts of the province except Tryon, Gloucester, Cumberland, and a portion of Queens counties being represented. This, "the first (New York) revolutionary body acting for the colony by direction of the people," went into session at the New York City Exchange, and on the second day twelve delegates were chosen to represent New York Province in the Continental Congress. The latter would have broader powers than the First Congress possessed, and although a New York Loyalist tried to belittle the significance of the New York Provincial Convention, remarking that the buzzing "harmless insects" were at last making "a feeble essay to sting as well as make a noise," there were many Crown adherents who fully realized that New Yorkers were organizing to sting.

The scope of the Provincial Convention did not extend beyond the electing of delegates to Continental Congress, and, having done so on April 22nd, the deputies dispersed. But out of it grew another people's Congress, empowered to carry forward, for the people, the government of the Province, in place of the defunct New York Assembly.

On April 23d, at noon, a travel-stained horseman dashed into New York, bringing news of the Lexington engagement of four days before. There was great excitement. On that eventful Sunday sedate citizens, returning to their homes after morning service, joined the throngs that filled the streets. All patriots knew that civil war was upon them, for few thought of any other answer to the challenge at Lexington than to resort to their arms. Marinus Willett said that the news from Massachusetts "produced a general insurrection of the populace." Colden described it as "a state of anarchy and confusion" and of "disorder and rage."

The people recognized that the call was "To Arms!" and they took prompt measures to provide themselves with them. In the City Arsenal were some; so the arsenal was seized. Six hundred muskets and some ammunition were distributed among "the most active of the citizens," who formed a "voluntary corps and assumed the government of the city.' The Mayor was soon to confess that his "authority was gone," and the Acting-Governor, Cadwallader Colden, likewise realize that the had little power. AS the Provincial Council pointed out to him, the militia units of the province were all "Liberty Boys." It is true that there was in the city a small force of British soldiers, but New York was to all intents in the hands of New Yorkers.

It was not expected that this advantage would lay long with the provincials. Rebellion had spread with incredible rapidity, and the people had gained the upper hand; but more British troops would come. The forces of defense must be organized more closely if the people were to maintain their initial advantage. Recognizing that the Committee of Sixty possessed only limited authority, its chairman, Isaac Low, on April 26th, called for the election of a larger committee vested with broader powers, to meet "the present unhappy Exigency of Affairs." He further asked that the counties be requested to unite with New York City in forming a Provincial congress, the enlarged committee to be organized at once and to function until the provincial Congress should meet and assume the responsibilities dropped by the New York Assembly.

Next day, the city was placarded with a broadside on which were the names of one hundred citizens recommended to constitute the new governing body; and on May 1st this "Committee of One Hundred" took the place of the Committee of Sixty. One of the last acts of the latter committee as to prepare an "association" for submission to the inhabitants for signature. Those who signed pledged themselves to obey all orders of the Continental and Provincial congresses, "for the purpose of preserving our constitution" and to meet with resistance "the arbitrary and oppressive acts of the British Parliament" until peace should come on "constitutional principals." There was a rush to sign the "general association" Many Tories, even, were among the signers, doing so, it seems, out of fear of what would befall them if they refused. There were many Loyalists however, who boldly denounced the "association" and refused to sign. These Non-associators were execrated as "enemies of the country." Their names appeared in the public prints, these "blacklists" becoming "the basis for future punishments." "This was the first decisive political test that labelled a man as either a patriot or a Loyalist." No efforts were made at that time, however, to suppress the Loyalists, though some were roughly handled.

The Committee of One Hundred which began to function vigorously on may 1st was composed of both Whigs and Loyalists, though the former dominated the body. "It was his body that called the people to arms, that ordered the militia to patrol the streets, that prevented provisions from being taken out of the city, that assumed the general direction of the province in the absence of the Provincial congress, and sent a letter to the lord mayor and magistrates of London. Colden olden complained that this committee ;assumed the whole power of government.' It took over the supervisors of the mails and the control of the customs house. It protected against the continuance of the duty on tea, the ;oppressive restraints' on colonial commerce, the blockade of Boston, 'arbitrary government,' the unconstitutional admiralty courts, the denial of trial by jury, and the 'hostile operations' of the British troops in America. It hoped that 'further effusion of human blood' would be prevented and that 'union, mutual confidence, and peace of the whole empire ' would be restored. A letter from New York on May 4th said: 'It is my opinion from the present spirit of the people, that there is a determined resolution to die with arms in their hands, or establish the liberties of the country on a permanent footing.' ' #10.

Well might he write in this strain, for, in truth, " a martial bustle pervaded the town.," "Citizens hastened to enroll themselves in the existing militia organization, or to take steps to form a new one." One of the first resolutions adopted by the Committee of One Hundred was to recommend "to every inhabitant to perfect himself in Military Discipline and be proved with Arms, Accoutrements and Ammunition as by law directed." By May 4th, New York City possessed four companies of volunteers, and the people of other places were urged to follow their example. The city which in normal times had throbbed with commercial activity now bustled with military vim. Arms were cleaned, swords sharpened, and recruiting agents were everywhere. The military commanders thought not only of small arms; "the people \hauled the cannon from the city of Kingsbridge to guard the river." Undoubtedly they expected that hard fighting was ahead, and they were determined to face it. Benjamin Franklin was "highly pleased" to find new York "arming and preparing for the worst events."

On May 10th, the Second Continental Congress went into session at Philadelphia. The chief and most urgent business before them was the organization of an American army It was recognized that New York City was one of the most endangered points, so it was decided to reinforce the local soldiery a son as possible. Meanwhile, its advice to New York, in anticipation of the imminent occupation of the city by more British troops, was, "to act on the defensive," so long as the royal forced "behave peaceably and quietly" but not to suffer them to fortify the city or to isolate it. If they should "commit hostilities or invade private property." The inhabitants were urged to "repel force with force."

This was tantamount to a declaration of war, though the provincials had no wish to be the aggressors. The excited populace, however, were not in the mood to be provoked, and as most of the young, able-bodied men had arms, or wee prepared to take arms, a clash might soon result if the King's troops then in the city raised a hand or if other troops should come. The committee warned Governor Colden 'to prevent the landing of British soldiers in New York." Meanwhile, the volunteers were kept within call, and plans to raise on or more battalions of infantry were advanced.

George Washington comes into the Continental Congress records for the first time on May 15, as chairman of a committee "to cooperate with New York delegates" in considering "what posts are necessary to be occupied in the Colony of New York." A week later, "the continental Congress ordered the erection of a fort near Kings Bridge, the construction of batteries in the Highlands on each side of the river. the arming and training of the militia of New York to act at a moment's warning, the placing of troops in New York City, and the enlistment of the Provincial Congress of not more then 3,000 men and appointment of officers, to serve until January 1st, to occupy the posts on the Hudson and Lake George." #11

 

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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