The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 1, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


The Tax on Tea, 1773--Dunmore was transferred to Virginia 1771, and William Tryon arrived in July. He was the last royal Governor of New York, if Robertson of military status be exempted. One cause of friction was temporarily swept away from New York when the British soldiers who had for so long irritated the Sons of Liberty in the matter of Liberty Poles, were sent away from the province. Soon another irritant being introduced, a parliamentary act which had no possible chance of being observed in America. British politicians, apparently, had not yet grasped Pitt's theory of legislating for America without taxation. While during Stamp Act days, Pitt had steadfastly maintained that Britain had a right to legislate but not to tax the people of the colonies, most members of the English Parliament could see no distinction between the right to legislate and the right to tax. Pitt said: "We may bind their trade, confine their manufacture, and exercise any power, except only that of taking their money from their pockets with their own consent." English legislators could not see the force of this argument, as they could not feel the pinch, inasmuch, as the appropriating, or taxing, hand was not reaching into their own pocket. While an indirect tax might have passed unnoticed, or be not strenuously resisted, in New York, Americans could not shut their eyes to the latest direct attempt of the English Parliament to tax them. It happened in this way. The British Government, in 1773, remitted to the East India Company all export duties payable by the company in England on tea sent to America, but the new plan called for the collection of a tax of three pence per pound from American importers.

This impact immediately caused the Sons of Liberty to organize thoroughly to meet the emergency. They formed active bands of Vigilants known as "the Mohawks," whose duty it was to meet all incoming ships, and prevent the landing of tea on which a tax would be imposed. When an inkling of this plan was carried to the East Indian Company, they hesitated to send tea-laden ships. However, the experiment was made eventually, and much tea was thrown into the sea. The Boston "tea-party," is the outstanding incident noted by most historian, but not the only such case. Though in New York the manner in which Boston disposed of its political problems were considered somewhat imprudent, when tea-laden ships came into New York waters, in April, 1774,. The Sons of Liberty, or the Vigilance Committee of New York, as it was in this emergency known, disposed of the cargoes in the way Boston had.

The Tory Assembly--Responsible New York would not have gone so far, and the conservative merchants of new York felt that a way should be found of bringing the Sons of Liberty back to a more orderly manner of expressing the opinion that will, save the Tories, held, as to taxation by the English Parliament. As a matter of fact, New York at that time was so evenly balanced between those who persistently fought the Crown and those who advocated conciliation with it that it is somewhat surprising that the resolute belligerent faction could have gone so far. With the Peace Party dominating the New York Assembly, whatever action New York might officially take would necessarily reflect the political attitude of the House. So New York could not fully cooperate with Massachusetts, in Samuel Adams' plan of Committees of Correspondence. #5 The new York Assembly, indeed, did form such a body, but the Peace Party necessarily controlled it. The New York committee, in its correspondence, would hardly go all the way with Adams, who, in a letter to Warren, when he first formulated his plan, declared: "It is more than time to be rid of both tyrants and tyranny." Several members of the Popular party were appointed to the committee of Correspondence, but they were always a minority; and the functioning of the committee was hardly such as to make its records pleasing reading to patriots. A year later, when Colonel Schuyler, in the Assembly, moved that the records of this committee of Correspondence be made public, the Tory Assembly declined to do so. By this time other committees were caring for the cause of the people, and the Assembly itself was barely functioning.

Outside the Legislature there were two active political groups in 1774; the Sons of Liberty, recruited mainly from the more active young men of the trades, mechanics, and so forth; and the more conservative body of merchants and professional men. The first group, led by MacDougall and Sears, came to be known as the Tribunes, and the latter as Patricians. These were the three political parties of the last years of New York Province. In American politics, of course, the Peace Party would be pout in the Tory class, and the Tribunes and Patricians would be grouped with the Whigs.

The Revolutionary Committees, 1774-76--In the failure of the New York committee of correspondence to cooperate wholeheartedly with the committee of other colonies, the leaders of the Tribunes--Isaac Sears and Alexander MacDougall--had written to Boston, pledging their support of New York in any measures adopted. The Patricians, on the other hand, did not like the Boston plan, which was to renew the non-importation agreement. This did not seem to the New York merchants to be a happy way of meeting the situation. So, on May 23d, a committee of Fifty-one was organized by responsible citizens. It was designed to embrace all protesting parties and at the outset MacDougall and Sears both belonged to it. When they found that the Committee of Fifty-one would not support them in their scheme to absolutely boycotting British commerce, they withdrew. The more conservative members of the committee were of the opinion that the renewal of the non-importation agreement should be a matter left for discussion to, and discussion by, "a Congress of Deputies from the colonies in General." Accordingly, a subcommittee, consisting of Isaac Low, James Duane, and John Jay, was formed, and correspondence was entered into with other colonies without delay. John Jay drafted the latter, duly adopted, which called for prompt gathering of colonial deputies, to consider all matters that were then endangering, or might jeopardize, their "common rights." This letter, rather than the action of Samuel Adams in 1774, "was the real initiative of the first Continental Congress." It was the first practical suggestion of united deliberation and action for the common welfare of all. Response was not immediate, and when the Congress did meet, it was, in fact, at the call of Massachusetts; nevertheless, the intuitive seems to have been that of New York.

Before the Continental congress could convene, serious political differences in New York were composed. The leaders of the more active Sons of Liberty had not liked to see the initiative passing from them to the Committee of Fifty-one. In an endeavor to regain lost prestige, or to further the MacDougall plan of boycott, an unsigned call to a popular meeting in the Fields on July 6 had been issued. Alexander MacDougall had presided at this gathering, and resolutions favoring complete boycott were passed. This meeting was especially remarkable for an interruption by a young college student. Alexander Hamilton, then a youth of seventeen years and an undergraduate of Kings College, forced his way to the platform, and, uninvited, addressed the meeting with impassioned eloquence.

Next day, the Committee of Fifty-one had condemned the Fields meeting "as calculated to excite disunion among our fellow-citizens." It had been decided to draft resolutions which would more truly represent the attitude of the people of New York. That the committee desired unity above all things is seen in the naming of Sears and MacDougall as members of the sub-committee formed to draft said resolutions. These two leaders of the Tribunes declined the invitation, and nine of their colleagues withdrew from the committee also. However, the committee pursued its purpose, and passed resolutions declaring that the people of New York earnestly desired to remain British subjects, but could only look upon the closing of the port of Boston as "subversive to every idea of British liberty." The sub-committee, however, recommended hat action be left to the Continental Congress which was to convene. Candidates named to sit in the Congress widened the breach between the Sons of Liberty and the Committee of Fifty-one. Another attempt was made to compose the differences and close the breach. On July 19 it was decided that the people should elect the deputies; and on the 28th of that month the election was held. Sears and MacDougall of the democracy, and Jay and Livingston of the aristocracy were elected. Thereafter, until the Crown was no longer a factor in American politics, partisanship gave way largely to patriotism.

In November, 1774, a Committee of Sixty, otherwise known as the Committee of Inspection, superseded the Committee of Fifty-one. This new citizens' committee was especially charged with the enforcement of the non-importation agreement, inasmuch as the Continental Congress had decided to continue the boycott.

The New York Assembly was given an opportunity to fall in with the popular movement, but their response showed that the House was still in Tory hands. In February, 1775, Colonel Woodhull's motion; "that thanks be expressed to the delegates to the Continental Congress" was voted down by the Assembly. Furthermore, the House refused to consider the proceedings of the Congress, and would not countenance the election of further Congressional delegates. By that time, however, the Assembly was like a dying ember--emitting a spluttering spark now and then, but having no hope of renewed life. A couple of months later, on April 3, 1775, the General Assembly of the Province of New York closed its last session.

As we have seen, the Assembly had had only a negative part in New York affairs fro very many months. The Committee of fifty-one had quite effectively "blanketed" it during 1774, and the succeeding Committee of Sixty quite "took the wind out of its sails." Both committees had vigorously assumed the authority of the Assembly, and, upon the refusal of the latter, in February, 1775, to send delegates to the next Continental Congress which was to be held in May, the committee of Sixty, early in March, issued a call to the counties to elect deputies to a Provincial convention to be held in New York City on April 20, to choose Congressional delegates. Fifty-one deputies accordingly met at the Exchange in New York on April 20. Nine counties were represented. The deputies, in the main, were of leading families of the province, as witness these names: Livingston, Schuyler, Jay, Van Cortlandt, Vanderbilt, Clinton, Roosevelt, Graham, Platt, Ward, Duane, Ten Broeck, Morris. This convention was therefore sufficiently representative of responsible New York to justify the deputies in proceeding confidently. Under the chairmanship of Philip Livingston, they named delegates to the Continental Congress "to concert and determine upon such measures as shall be judged most effectual for the preservation of American rights and privileges, and for the restoration of harmony between Great Britain and her colonies." Having transacted this, the only business for which the deputies had been elected, the convention dissolved itself on April 22.

From their proceedings, it is evident that, although the leaders and the people were determined to meet resolutely all encroachments upon their rights, few of them had yet reached the point where they advocated separation from Britain. Had news of the Lexington engagement reached New York before the convention closed, the resolutions of that body might have contained less conciliatory words.

On the very next day, April 23, rumor of the Lexington clash reached New York City. These rumors were soon confirmed, whereupon the Committee of Sixty at once resolved to strengthen its organization. On May 1 the committee of Sixty gave way to a provisional war committee, consisting of 100 members. This committee of One Hundred, or of Safety, or of Resistance, as it was otherwise called, resolved "to stand or fall with the liberty of the continent." Even then, however, there was little thought of secession from the Empire. On May 5 an address to the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London was signed. John Jay's name heads the list of signatures, there is little doubt that he was then both the curbing influence and the controlling factor in keeping the resolutions of the people within sane limits. All patriots were grimly determined to insist upon their rights, but the cal Jay was able to take some of the suicidal heroics out of the impassioned expressions of the less cautious young patriots. Still, the address was sufficiently declarative to convey to London men of business the gravity of the situation. The people "could never submit to slavery,' declared the memorialists; indeed, "all the horror of civil war" would "never compel America to submit to taxation by authority of Parliament." It is interesting to remark that the response of the city of London to this "Letter from the Committee of the Association of New York" indicates that, in that exciting time, there was a sincere bond of sympathy between the municipalities of London and New York. The Livery of the city of London had, in April, 1775, warned the King of the ruinous effect on commerce of the American plans of the King's ministers. "Not deceived by the specious artifice of called Despotism--Destiny, your petitioners plainly perceive that the real purpose is to establish arbitrary power over all America." Again, On June 24, 1775, when new so the actual beginning of war reached London, the Livery remonstrated with their King, declaring that "every moment's prosecution of this fatal war may loosen irreparably the bonds of that connection on which the glory and Safety of the British empire depend." But politicians have little in common with trades-people; the pessimisms of the prosaic men of business cannot chill the fiery parliamentarian whose raucity steals heroics from the rattling sabre but can find nothing inspiring in a ship chandlery. On May 4 Lord Dartmouth notified Governor Tryon that it was the King's pleasure that he should return to New York at once. Tryon obeyed and took the seals of office from Lieutenant-Governor Colden, for the last time, on June 25. Four months later the governor became convinced that his person would be safer on a British warship than on land.

The Continental Congress, 1775--The Second Continental Congress assembled on May 10, 1775. It was theoretically in perpetual session until March, 1781. One of its first recommendations was that the associated colonies should set up some form of provisional government without delay. New York took prompt action, and the Committee of One Hundred sent circulars to all counties, inviting them to send delegates to New York City, to form a provincial Congress, which could "direct such measures," as might be "expedient for our common safety." The local congress, which comes into the records as the First Provincial Congress of New York, convened on May 22, 1775. Its ratification of the proceedings of the Provincial Convention maybe looked upon, perhaps, as the first act of the free State of New York.

The Provincial Congresses, 1775-76--The First provincial Congress consisted of eighty-two members. Some of them were radical in inclination and speech, but there were many conservative members holding them well in hand. The Congress adopted resolutions favoring conciliation and continued union with Great Britain, but looked to the Continental Congress for guidance. Even the latter body had not yet abandoned hope of conciliation with the mother country' indeed, at that time, "nearly all of the Continental leaders were outspoken in their declaration of loyalty to the Crown." The First Provincial Congress of New York held three sessions: May 22 to July 8; July 26 to September 2; October 4 to November 4, 1775. The officers were: Peter Van Brugh Livingston, president; with the following pro tem presidents: Nathaniel Woodhull, August 28; Abraham Yates, November 2. The vice-president was Volkert P. Douw. The secretaries were John McKesson, who had been secretary of the provincial convention, and Robert Benson.

During these sessions of the Provincial Congress, Gouverneur Morris, then twenty-three ears old, and one of the members from Westchester County, came into prominent notice. Continental currency, it seems, had its origin in his initiative, for out of his efforts to devise a financial means of meeting the emergency of his own province came the suggestion of the New York Congress that each colony be responsible for redemption in gold of any emissions of paper money made to meet local needs. The Continental Congress, however, was to be asked to guarantee the entire issue.

The sessions of the First Provincial Congress of New York were marked by many exciting incidents and much Tory opposition. At last, the Patriots exasperated and desperate, resolved to take harsh measures to stamp out Toryism. The plan comprehended the arrest and imprisonment of the leading Loyalists, and the removal of Crown functionaries from provincial office. They determined to go to the seat of opposition--to begin with Governor Tyron. The latter, however, took refuge on a British warship on October 14. Several other notable Tory leaders also took flight. Nevertheless, Tory interference was not stamped out, for it was responsible for the nullification of the first session of the Second Provincial Congress which convened n November 2, 1775. Some Tory counties quickly repudiated, or at least ignored, the Congress, and it was found that a majority of the counties were unrepresented. The proceedings, therefore, were irregular. So the session was ineffective and ended on December 2, 1775. Four days later, however, another session began, under proper organization. Nathaniel Woodhull was chosen as president, and the House had ninety-five members, made up as follows: Albany County, 12 members; Charlotte (Washington) County, 1; Cumberland, 2; Dutchess, 9; Kings, 5; New York, 26; Richmond, 2; Suffolk, 8; Tryon (Montgomery) County, 3; Ulster, 8; Westchester, 9 members. Richmond and Kings were only partly represented, and Orange and Queens counties did not send a single representative. Still, the charge that the Congress was not representative of New York Province, as a whole could not now be properly made. The session lasted until December 22; and two more sessions were held in the next year, February 12 to march 16, May 8-13.

Aware that Toryism was seriously hindering the functioning of the local emergency governments, the Continental Congress, during the winter of 1775-76, sought in every way possible to strengthen the local authorities in measures pursued to suppress the Tory faction. The lot of the Loyalist in that chaotic time was indeed hard, and would have been harder if the bitter feelings of Patriots against Loyalist found full vent in action. It was well recognized by the national leaders that the people's cause was not prospering, and that confusion and chaos threatened them unless extreme measures were taken. In May, 1776, Continental Congress felt that there was only one way of clearing the situation, and of gauging American forces and resources properly. While regretting that the course carried them farther and farther from the mother country, the Continental Congress recognized that a Declaration of Independence could not be delayed much longer; also that the future pointed positively to absolute independence as the only satisfactory means of gaining and perpetuating their right of untrammeled government. So they recommended to each associated colony or province that prompt steps be taken to adopt State constitutions, and erect permanent State governments, to succeed the existing emergency congresses.

By this time a new Provincial Congress had begun to function in New York, the Third provincial Congress having opened its only session on May 14, 1776. Notwithstanding that it was a stronger house than the Second provincial Congress, #6 the deputies felt that they were without authority to act upon the vital question put to them by Continental Congress; they felt that the people themselves should be asked to declare their will, as to the erection of a State government. Most of the leaders saw that the course suggested by the Continental Congress would be likely to cut away forever the bridges, shaky though they then were, that connected the province with the Empire; and there were few responsible New Yorkers who wished for such an outcome. Therefore, On May 31, 1776, the Third Provincial Congress of New York adopted a resolution, recommending that, in consequence of the "dissolution of the former government by the abdication of the late Governor, and the exclusion of the colony from the protection of the King of Great Britain," deputies should be elected "to institute and establish a government as they shall deem best calculated to secure the rights, liberties and happiness of the good people of this colony."

John Jay had been guiding the deputies in this vital issue. One of the first actions of the Third Congress, at the opening of its session on May 14 at the city hall, had been the granting to John Jay, of leave of absence from his duties at Philadelphia, where he had been representing New York--with Livingston and others--in the Continental Congress. The New York legislators needed his advise as to the suggestion of the National Congress. Jay reached New York on May 25, and seems to have been at once accorded the leadership of the Provincial Congress, in all matters that affected the relationship of the province to the united colonies. The resolution of May 31, therefore, voiced his conservative opinion. And as late as June 11 the provincial Congress expressed itself as powerless to declare the province to be independent of the Crown. While they were as one in disputing the right of the English Parliament over New York they were not ready to declare that the King was not their sovereign lord.

Possibly the local congress was not aware on that day that the National Congress had, on June 7, already begun positively to consider a Declaration of Independence. The situation was peculiar. As a matter of fact, the leaders of New York and those of most other colonies, were at that time almost as suspicious of the Continental Congress as of the English Parliament. The transference of power to a central government made up of revolutionists was dreaded perhaps more than the perpetuating of interference of the English Parliament, such as might come in the re-establishment of Crown rule. They knew approximately the measure of dominance by the English Parliament--knew that at best its powers could not be very well enforced; but they had no way of gauging what might happened to them if dominated by a vigorous American government. So every colony was determined to guard its own sovereign rights against rough handling by a central government. To most patriots, independence meant freedom of each of the thirteen colonies from outside control, British or American. If, to win their inherent right, they must cast aside their allegiance to the King, then they would see to it that the American independence won should be real, bringing to their own colony absolute independence from any other former part of the British Empire. As John Jay defined independence, In April, 1776, it should be "a government in every colony, a confederation among us all, and treaties with foreign nations to acknowledge us as a sovereign state." "There was naturally no accepted idea whatever of a Nation as we now conceive it; there was indeed no sentiment in favor of nationality; each colony wish to be independent not only of England but of its neighbors. In No colony was there a majority in favor of a national government superior in obligation in its relations to the individual to the latter's duty to his colony." #7 To the average colonist who gave the vital question any thought at all, "the continental form of government meant on which provided explicitly for the sovereignty of thirteen separate states." New York seemed to look upon the central government with greater suspicion than nay other colony, though all were suspicious. Indeed, conservative New York was, at that time, opposed to independence in general, and American independence in particular, if the latter would submerge the sovereignty of the State in a central government. It is quite clear that John Jay and other conservative leaders of the province, who were considering the suggestion of Continental Congress that a State Government be organized, were not of the opinion, in May and early June of 1776, that the plan suggested by the National Congress was the best way out of the political difficulties of New York. In nay case, they did not feel that the Third Provincial Congress has been given a popular mandate to follow the course suggested.

So the question was put to the people. On June 19, the people chose delegates to form a new Provincial Convention and gave them broad powers to "institute and establish" a new government. Maybe the menace of British occupation which then overhung New York was the deciding factor.

Many and portentous were the happenings of the next few weeks. The Fourth Provincial Congress, elected on June 19, did not convene until July 9. In the meantime a British fleet had appeared off New York City (June 25). Staten Island had been seized on July 2d, and additional British forces had arrived, to completely invest New York. Epochal advance had also been made in American politics. The Continental Congress had adopted the principle of independence on July 2, and two days later the Declaration of Independence had been printed. #8 Express riders had carried it, posthaste, to all colonies. The New York Provincial Congress had received a copy of the declaration for their consideration; and their delegates to the Continental Congress, who--in the absence of specific instructions from their province, and in view of the impending session of their provincial Legislature--had declined to vote, had hurried to New York to urge its ratification by New York.

So the Fourth provincial Congress of New York went into session in the White Plains Court House on July 9 for the specific purpose of considering the momentous instrument sent from Philadelphia. Had the British occupation of New York progressed with greater rapidity, the venue of the Congress would probably have been Kingston, whither the provincial records had been hurried for safer keeping upon the appearance off New York of the British fleet. The Third Congress had continued in session in New York City until June 30, and it had been planned that the Fourth Congress should convene in Kingston. However, many of the deputies had important military responsibilities, and those who were guiding the government at this critical time preferred to keep closely in touch with the military situation.

So it happened that on the opening day of the Fourth provincial Congress, when the momentous question of independence was to be considered, the deputies were almost within gunshot of the enemy. The Declaration of independence then laid before the House came therefore in dramatic setting. No time was lost. By unanimous vote the national document was referred to a committee, of which John Jay was chairman. This committee reported back to the House within an hour. Jealous as the New York leaders were of States' sovereignty, conservative as was the chairman of that committee, it was, upon perusal, quickly realized that, although the adoption of the Declaration of independence would sanction the functioning of a central government, the document did not call for a compact which would impinge the independence of individual colonies, or States. The "absolute sovereignty of the individual states over their own citizens and their complete independence of each other" was more than inferred by the words of the Declaration of Independence. The capitalization of the title was in itself explicit: "A Declaration by the representatives of the unites States of America, in Congress assembled." An even more explicit indication of the proposed relationship of the central government to the united colonies is to be seen in the phrases that follow the preamble of the Declaration: ". . . .the Representatives of the united States of American" . . . .'by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United colonies are, and of Right, ought to be Free and Independent States." #9 So the Fourth Provincial Congress of New York did not deliberate long over the Declaration of Independence. Before the close of the first day of the session at White Plains, a resolution, drafted by John Jay, was adopted by the House. The motion read: "Resolved, unanimously, that the reasons assigned by the Continental Congress for declaring the United Colonies free and independent States are cogent and conclusive, and that, while we lament the cruel necessity which has rendered that measure unavoidable, we approve the same, and will, at the risk of our lives and fortune, join with the other Colonies in supporting it."

Pledged to Independence, 1776--So the die was cast. Even unto death, New York had declared itself pledged to independence. And, having taken this epochal step, the next was not so difficult. On the following day, July 10, 1776, the Fourth Provincial Congress of New York officially became the Convention of the Representatives of New York. The province was non-existent; the State was sovereign. Independence, which a few weeks before had seemed to be far from the wish of the majority of New York patriots, was now acclaimed by all. When the Declaration of Independence was read from city hall steps at noon on July 18, it was received by the populace "with general applause and heartfelt satisfaction." On that occasion the King's coat-of-arms was taken from the hall, and "burned, amidst the acclamations of thousands of spectators." Into that bonfire went all the bridges of royal New York. The people of the State must go on to their republican destiny; retreat was no longer possible.


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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