The History of New York State
Book II, Chapter III
Part IV

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

The houses wee by this time nearly all of brick, but still with their pointed gables, crow-stepped or straight sides, facing the streets. The city remained predominately Dutch in aspect and when Governor Montgomerie died it gave such satisfaction to the predominately Dutch population that the government fell into the hands of the oldest member of the Council, who happened to be a through Dutchman, Rip Van Dam. Van Dam and his wife were regular members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and their fifteen children helped to fill up the baptismal register of that body. He could understand English pretty well, but could hardly speak it. He had been born in Albany some sixty years before this, and had come to New York at the age of twenty, where, after some experience as a sea-faring man, a captain of trading vessels, some of which he came to own, he settled down to the mercantile business on land became very prosperous. He appears to have given his support in the main to the element that was in opposition to Leisler, but took no prominent part in affairs until he was appointed to Cornbury's Council in 1702, twenty-nine years before. By virtue of this long service he was president of the Council and at the death of Governor Montgomerie it devolved on him as such to act as Chief Magistrate until the arrival of the new appointee. As this did not occur till August, 1732, the Dutch people had the satisfaction of seeing one of their own number exercising the virtual functions of governor for more than a year.

The Avarice of Cosby--The next Governor was William Cosby, a man of shady reputation, which was not enhanced by his performance in this country. He was a disagreeable sort of man, whose chief concern seemed to be as to what he could get out of his position and out of any transaction associated with it. He received a hearty welcome from the colonists, whose hope was always stronger then their experience, and who were always willing to think the best of their new executives until they found out reasons for thinking otherwise. The Assembly very generously granted him a revenue for six years, a grave which they had steadfastly refused to grant to three of the other Governors, and they gave him £750 besides. The Governor thought this a very small sum and told them so. He presented an order from the king which said he was to have half the salary that Rip Van Dam had received during the tine he acted as Governor. This meant that Van Dam was expected to hand out to this new arrival half of the salary he had received for his work while acting as deputy, and needles to say he refused flatly to part with remuneration that had been paid him. Needless to day, moreover, the people sided with him, for they had grown tired of the type of Governor who came to the country with no other predominant motive then to repair their fortunes and to use the country as a milch cow of endless productivity. However, Cosby's avarice was part of his strength in this affair and he considered the money belonged to him and was determined to use all the authority which his position gave him to get hold of it. He sued Van Dam and the suit was conducted in a court where there were three judges, two of whom were friends of Cosby. One of them was James De Lancey, a son of Stephen De Lancey, who had made the city the gift of its first public clock. So by means of his two friends on the bench Cosby won his suit, and Van Dam was ordered to give up half the salary he had received. More than this, Chief Justice Morris, who had disagreed with the other two judges, was removed from office, and James De Lancey thus became Chief Justice. The mass of the people looked on all these proceedings with great disfavor and there were murmurs of discontent. But the Governor had got hold of the money he was hankering after, had made his partisan Chief Justice, and was in a position to run matters much as he pleased, so he paid little attention to what those who were opposed to him thought.

The Press and Free Speech--Already the press was lifting an infantile voice in comment on the affairs of New York. On October 16, William Bradford, who had been appointed as government printer at New York in 1693, issued the first number of a weekly newspaper which he called the "New York Gazette." Success attending this modest venture, in 1726, the paper was enlarged to four pages, or a full sheet of foolscap. AS Bradford was in the government employ it is perhaps natural that he would not allow anything to appear in his sheet reflecting on the representative of the English King, So the paper provided no channel for the expression of popular indignation that was rising against Cosby. Some of the ablest men in the province had found solid ground for a position of antagonism to the Governor. Some of them were far from inarticulate. They could speak out and had plenty to say, while men like Van dam and his friends had ample resources, which might be drawn upon in any plan to assail the government. The combination of talent and resources finally issued in the establishment of a second weekly newspaper.

There was another printer in town. John Peter Zenger had come over as a lad in 1710 with the German emigrants from the Palatine. He had served an apprenticeship of about seven years to Bradford and had later set up in business for himself. His printing office was located in Stone Street, not far from the corner of Whitehall. He was heartily in sympathy with the popular cause and shared in the indignation generally felt against Cosby, and he was easily induced to establish a paper that would take a line opposed to that of Bradford. So on November 5, 1733, friends formed a sort of literary coterie which met weekly and discussed and decided on the articles. Following the custom of the day the writers used pen names, selecting the names of classic authors or some other form of nomenclature that gave expression to their sentiments. On November 12, 1733, in the second number, we find a certain "Cato" asking Mr. Zenger to insert the following "in your next." It was an essay setting forth the importance of the "Liberty of the Press." A lively war of wit was waged with pen and printer's ink for about a year. There were a lot of personalities. Harrison, the city recorder, sided strongly with the Governor. He was called a monkey. The Governor himself was handled with a certain lack of reverence. It had been contended that rulers merit to be treated with respect, it was asked: "If all governors are to be reverenced, why not the Turk, and old Muley, or Nero?" There was a good deal of excitement in the town following the discovery of a letter on the doorstep of James Alexander, one of the Governor's opponents, threatening destruction to himself and all his family. The "Journal" printed the letter and bluntly declared that it was written by Harrison. Harrison, on reply, accused Alexander of writing it himself in the hope of thus discrediting his opponents and drawing notoriety on himself. Cosby offered a reward of fifty pounds for information as to the author, while threats were made to Zenger that he would be beaten up for printing it. So the argument between the parties grew more bitter and personal and party animosities found expression.

The trial that grew out of these disputes is worth giving a little in detail, as being the first instance in New York of an attack on the liberty of the press and the discomfiture of those who attacked it. In September, 1774, occurred the elections for aldermen and assistants, and the contest was decided in favor of the popular party. All but one alderman, or assistant, of that side was elected, so that Cosby had but one man elected in the common council who was on his side. As might be expected, the democratic triumph was celebrated with great paeans in the columns of the "Journal." The jubilation roused strong resentment in Cosby and he at once undertook a series of high-handed proceedings with the object of punishing Zenger and silencing his paper. First De Lancey, the chief Justice, demanded an indictment of Zenger from the grand jury. Next Cosby called on the council to move in the matter and was rewarded b y a rather craven reply, for the Council sent a message to the Lower House referring to the scurrilous effusions of Zenger. But Morris was in the Assembly and the complaint of the Council was "laid on the table." The supporters of the "Journal" greatly enjoyed these futile moves and gave expression to the their feelings in poetry. Two ballads appeared, using as their subject matter the recent election, and deeply enraging De Lancey, who succeeded in procuring a presentment against the paper from the grand jury. The numbers containing the ballads were ordered to be burned by the hangman at the place of execution. This being done the Council then ordered numbers 7, 47, 48, and 49 to be similarly burned in the presence of the common council of the city. The aldermen refused to obey the mandate and issued orders to the hangman not to burn the papers, so that the act was performed by the Negro servant of the sheriff in the presence of Harrison and some soldiers and some other people.

Finally Zenger was arrested on November 17, 1734. The grand jury would find no indictment against him, so the Attorney-General Bradley filed an information for libel, and on the strength of this the Governor's Council ordered Zenger's arrest. He was imprisoned in the common jail. A habeas corpus put the bail at a prohibitive figure--£400 down, and two sureties besides at £200 each. Thus Zenger was forced to remain in prison until the grand jury could be induced to bring in an indictment, and it formally refused to do on January 28, 1735. Zenger should, as a result of this decision, have been set free, but his enemies wee unwilling to let him off so easily. The attorney-general came forward with a new charge based upon numbers 13 and 23 of the "Journal," in which it was alleged that he had printed matter that was false, scandalous and seditious. So there was to be a trial after all before the court over which De Lancey presided. On April 6, 1735, the case came up. Zenger's counsel were Smith and Alexander, and they began by calling in question the legitimacy of the judge, Morris having been removed, and De Lancey appointed by the mere willful act of the Governor, without consent of Council. The reply of the vindictive De Lancey was to disbar the two lawyers, and thus leave Zenger without defense, for these was only one other lawyer in the town, Joseph Murray, and he had been retained by the government. But Zenger and his friends proved equal to the emergency. With steadfast courage he continued to conduct his paper from his prison cell, whispering directions to his journeymen through a hole in the cell door. Finally, the preliminaries of the trial were set for the month of July, and a lawyer, John chambers, was appointed to defend the prisoner by the court. A packed jury was got together and on august 4, 1735, the prisoner was brought in trial. His counsel pleased "not guilty," and the argument began. The passages in the "Journal" that were complained of were read. They represented a citizen of New York who was about to remove permanently to Pennsylvania and giving his reason for the change of abode. In New York, it was claimed, liberty and property were in danger; the people were sinking into slavery' judges were removed without cause; new courts erected in arbitrary fashion; trail by jury was set aside; and the information of an official made sufficient to convict; deeds were destroyed so that valuable property might be left at the mercy of the authorities. N The attorney-general called the language "false, scandalous and seditious."

When the attorney-general had finished there was a stir in the court room and a venerable figure came forward to address the jury, writes Van Pelt:

Smith and Alexander had prepared a genuine surprise for the Court and the Governor, for this aged man, bearing the weight of eighty years, was none other then Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, the foremost lawyer and forensic orator in the colonies. He announced that he appeared for Zenger, the defendant in the case. "And," he added, "I'll save Mr. Attorney the trouble of examining witnesses; we admit the publication of the papers," Bradley thereupon exclaimed, "then the verdict must be for the King." "Not so, neither, Mr. Attorney," quickly responded the aged lawyer, "you have something more to do; the words must be proven libellous." This would have been a dangerous expedient for Court and governor; it would have too glaringly exposed the ugly face of the case, and the legitimacy of their own actions. Hence Chief Justice De Lancey refused to allow the bringing of witnesses to prove that the passages complained of were correct. He claimed that the truth of a libel made it none the less a libel, nay, a worse one. This was an out-and-out star chamber principle, Hamilton reminded him, for it was the undoubted privilege of Englishmen to complain of unjust government and oppression. "But," he went on, "since his honor refuses us the liberty to prove our case, gentlemen of the jury, we must now appeal as witness of the facts; you are to be judges now both of the law and of the facts." He thereupon set out to explain this point to the jury, exhorting them as men and citizens to bear in mind what was at stake; how the government had sought in every way to hedge in and cover its iniquitous acts by illegitimate court and civil proceedings, till, to save the cause of liberty, they must go outside of mere technicalities and judge of the merits of the case, and the reality of the facts complained of in the papers, in order to arrive at a verdict whether or not he prisoner were guilty of libel, or had spoken the truth; a truth which had need of being spoken to save an oppressed people from being utterly undone. In conclusion the venerable counselor said: "I am truly unequal to such an undertaking on many accounts. And you see I labor under the weight of many years and am borne down by many infirmities of body; yet, old and weak as I am, I should think it my duty, if required to go to the utmost part of the land, where my service could be of any use in assisting to quench the flame of persecutions upon informations set on foot by the government to deprive the people of the right of remonstrating and complaining, too, against the arbitrary attempts of men in power." Then reminding them that the cause before them was not the cause of a poor printer, or even of New York, but "of every freeman upon the main of America," he ended with this prophetic peroration: "I make no doubt but your upright conduct this day will not only entitle you to the love and esteem of your fellow-citizens, but every man who prefers freedom to a life of slavery will bless and honor you as men who have baffled the attempts of tyranny, and by an unpartial and incorrupt verdict, have laid a noble foundation for securing to ourselves, our posterity, and our neighbors, that to which nature and the laws of our country have given us a right--the liberty of both exposing and opposing arbitrary power in these parts of the world, at least by speaking and writing truth."

When these noble words had ceased to flow from the aged lips an outburst of pent-up feeling came from the crowd that thronged the courtroom. Bradley made a brief reply, very tame and ineffectual by the side of what had just been spoken. Chief Justice De Lancey attempted to persuade the jury that they were no judges of the law, and the facts not having been proved, the verdict must be against the accused. But Hamilton's immortal plea for the cause of liberty and the freedom of the press was too much for the technical objections of a judge notoriously prejudiced. Only a few minutes were required for the jury to come to a unanimous verdict. They came back to the courtroom. With breathless anxiety the crowd awaited the announcement, and when the words, "Not Guilty" were uttered the tremendous applause and loud huzzas drowned the voice of the remonstrating judge. Hamilton was fairly carried from the building. On this and the next day he was honored by banquets. The freedom of the city in a gold box was presented to him by the common council, and when he set forth on his return to Philadelphia, the thunder of cannon bore salutes to him as his barge left the shores of Manhattan. Thus Cosby had given occasion to a grand vindication of the freedom of the press. Zenger went back to his office in Stone Street and continued to publish the "New York Journal" until his death in 1746. It was then conducted by his widow and son, John Zenger, until the year 1752. In the meantime the "New York Gazette" had undergone some changes. Bradford was still living in 1743, being at that time eighty years old, and he lived ten years after that, but about that year he gave up publishing his newspaper. It was continued by one James Parker, who published it under the double title of the "New York Gazette and Weekly Postboy."

The despotic Cosby did not long survive the famous trial. It is said that he suffered from consumption, and in March, 1736, he died. But he left a legacy of trouble even after his decease. Some months before, anticipating his end, he had called his council secretly around him in his sick chamber and announced that he had suspended Rip Van Dam from the council. It was an act utterly unwarranted and illegal. No governor had a right to suspend or dismiss a member from his council in this summary manner. After his death Van Dam proceeded to take his place as usual at the council table. Being president by virtue of his long term of office he expected to act as govern, as he had done after the death of Montgomerie. What was his amazement when he was informed that he was no longer a member, and that George Clarke, former secretary, had been made president by the late governor. Van Dam was not the man to submit tamely, and he had almost the entire population at his back. When Clarke appointed the mayor and other city officers in September, Van Dam made his own appointment, Cornelius Van Horne as mayor, and William Smith, recorder. Each claimant appointed also a sheriff and coroner. Clarke retired with the fort and fell back upon the garrison, Van Dam felt quite as secure in the support of the people and the trainbands. It looked as if nothing short of civil war could come from the strained situation. But finally, on October 30, 1736, word was received from the Lords of Trade that Clarke had been appointed Lieutenant-Governor until a suitable man could be found for Governor. Clarke remained in office several years, as it was not till 1743 that Cosby's successor arrived in the city. He earnestly sought to allay the passions aroused by the previous administration; but my making too obvious an attempt to please both sides he drew down upon himself the displeasure rather then the favor of either. The years of his government passed along without such fierce partisan conflicts as had disturbed municipal harmony in the days of the Zenger trial, but it was during his term that the city was shaken to its foundation by a terrible event of quite another character. This was the famous Negro Plot of 1741. #6

"Negro Plot" of 1741--Slaves had been continually carried to New York so that at the date of Clarke's administration there were great number of them, something like a total of over 2,000. Early in the spring of 1741 several fires occurred in different parts of the city and citizens felt quite sure that the slaves had started them. As the hours passed the idea of a plot grew until it seemed a fact. Then a reward offered to anyone who would tell of a conspiracy or of anyone concerned in one. The history of rewards given for information concerning conspiracies is a long one, and the prevaricating informer is a conspicuous figure in it. Abut the time when the reward was offered in New York for information as to the goings-on among the colored folk, Mary Burton, a woman of bad character, was arrested for thieving. She heard at once of the reward and considered that with a little imagination she might not only placate the authorities, but do a little turn for herself. All at once she remembered that there had been a meeting of Negroes in the small tavern where she had worked. She told of a plan to kill every white person, to set all the Negroes free, and to make one of them a ruler in the city. The tavern-keeper, his wife and several other Negroes were hanged in short order. Still the fires kept on. there were over a score in ten days and among other dwelling the Governor's house in the fort was burned to the ground.

After the success of her preliminary tales the Burton woman began a series of remarkable confessions which grew wilder with each passing day. Negro slaves accused by her were arrested till they counted a considerable number. Liberty was promised all who would speak the truth, and speaking the truth was understood to mean giving so-called information about the so-called conspiracy. As a result of the tales that were told several more Negroes were burned at the stake in a little valley beyond the Collect Pond. The terrible scenes of death frightened many, who hastened to cry out that they knew all about the conspiracy. There were some who saved their lives by pretending knowledge and implicating individuals who were entirely innocent Thus during the summer of 1741 the hanging and the burning of Negroes went on, most of them judged guilty on the testimony of thoroughly unreliable people. Late in the summer, when the Burton woman had seen every individual she had accused arrested, she grew more bold than ever. She began to accuse all sorts of white people in the city of being implicated in the plot. Twenty-four white citizens had been arrested when the woman began to attack the most prominent of the townsmen, including even those who had been foremost in the prosecution of the Negroes. This opened the eyes of the officials, who had hitherto acted on her testimony. She was paid the £100 that had been promised her, and then disappeared, leaving no trace of her whereabouts.

Governor George Clinton--Governor George Clinton arrived at his post in 1743 and was at the head of the province for a period of ten years. he came over with his wife and several children, among whom was the future commander-in-chief of the Brutish forces, during the war of the Revolution, Sir Henry Clinton. Clinton was the younger son of the Earl of Lincoln, and a naval officer of high rank, not at all fitted by temperament or experience to deal with a people whose development along the lines of untrammeled independence was more rapid than anything known in Europe, and the momentum of whose disposition to cut the traces held in foreign hands was eventually to prove irresistible. Clinton's administration was marked by frequent contests with the Assembly, and in the unending argument between the Governor and the people it is noteworthy that De Lancey, formerly the tool of the Governor, became an inveterate opponent, while Smith and Alexander, popular leaders during the Zenger trial, out of their opposition to De Lancey found themselves gradually drifting to the support of Clinton. Cadwallader Colden, a doctor of medicine, as well as writer and politician, with a reputation that reached Europe, likewise was led by his opposition to De Lancey to give his support to Clinton, at least in the earlier period of his administration. Clinton raised the old dispute about the convenience of being supplied with grants of money in lump sums, but the Assembly showed an unyielding dissipation to vote supplies only from year to year as they were needed, and took on itself the appointment of the provincial treasurer, and made tentative efforts in the direction also of seizing the power of appointing the officials whose salaries it paid. Clinton was also pressing upon the Lords of Trade the desirability of making the office of Lieutenant-Governor a permanent one concurrent with that of the Governor, a move that would have relieved him of much of the work and responsibility of his position. This new office he had at first intended for Chief Justice De Lancey, who had indeed served in such a capacity without having the name of doing it, but when De Lancey proved a broken reed, he turned to Dr. Colden and urged his name for the position. Clinton also tried very hard to have the Chief-Justiceship taken from De Lancey, after what he regarded as his recreancy, but De Lancey proved a doughty antagonist. He had influential friends at the court in England and when the position of Lieutenant-Governor was made permanent it was not Colden to whom it was given, but to De Lancey. Clinton's only move was to withhold the commission. It arrived in 1747, but it was not until his successor, Sir Danvers Osborne, arrived in New York, in 1753, that he handed it over to the appointee.

Sir Danvers Osborne's Tragic Death--The Osborne administration was brief and its end tragic. The new Governor arrived in the bay on October 6, and was on the following day banqueted by the city, while Clinton tarried at Flushing. Two days later Clinton came to town and there was a conference between him and Osborne, who was staying at the home of Joseph Murray, a member of the Council, with whose wife he was distantly related by marriage. On Wednesday, October 10, took place the ceremony of inauguration. A procession was formed from the fort to the city hall, and while the new Governor received welcoming cheers, imprecations fell on Clinton from the crowds on both sides. The enmity displayed toward Clinton cause much emotion in the new Governor, who imagined he foresaw in the popular enmity a fate that was in store for himself. On the following day he listened to an address from the city corporation, in which the hope was expressed that the new Governor would be averse from countenancing any infringements of the inestimable liberties of the people. The objurgation threw him into something like a panic. His instruction from the government at home had laid on him the duty of doing that very thing--curtailing as far as he was able the liberties and the privileges which the strong hands of the colonists had bit by bit wrested out of the hands of the King's representatives. After the ceremony was over he inquired from members of the Council concerning the feasibility of his success in obtaining grants and appointing officials where other governors had failed. He fund himself pitted against a determination among the people that impressed him as adamant. The words that at the time escaped from his lips showed the emotion of despair to which he had surrendered himself. "What then am I sent here for?" he cried in deep depression. That night he abstained from attending any function and retired to his room at the Murray home early in the evening. The next day the body of the unhappy Governor was found suspended by a handkerchief from a picket of the fence in Mr. Murray's garden. The discussions of the time were clearly not academic. They roused the deepest emotions not merely on the part of the people but of those who sought to govern them and who saw the privileges of their order menaced from many different angles. Osborne was, doubtless, in a poor state of health at the time of his appointment, and the death of his wife some time previously had apparently moved him greatly. But he had a genuine desire to serve his masters at home, and when he came to America and sensed the hopelessness of trying to dragoon a people who were bent on rebutting every attempt to hector him, no matter what the masses in Europe might from old custom be willing de tolerate, his will broke under him and probably carried his reason along with it.

During the two years that followed the death of Osborne, De Lancey, as Lieutenant-Governor, exercised the office of Chief Magistrate, being the first of the native colonists recognized as head of the province by the authorities in England. The instructions sent to him from England of an anti-popular character he mechanically transmitted to the Assembly, but without pressure of any kind, for is was well understood that he was in entire sympathy with the attitude of the Assembly on the question of annual grants and salaries. When Sir Charles Hardy was appointed Governor, in 1755, and came to New York, it would appear that De Lancey remained the real Governor, even though the title had devolved on another. Hardy left practically all the duties of his position in the hands of De Lancey, while he himself importuned the government in England to relieve him of his job on land and entrust him with some naval expedition. In 1757 Hardy was made a rear-admiral and transferred to the naval work that appears to have been his chief interest, and De Lancey was consequently again made sole hear of the province. He was still acting in the capacity when, in 1760, he died suddenly at the country home occupied by him on what is now De Lancey Street.

the duties of his office thus devolved on Dr. Cadwallader Colden, as Governor George Clinton had desired them to devolve several years before, and he acted in the capacity of president of the Council until in 176 he commission of Lieutenant-Governor was made out for him. Dr. Colden was a quite remarkable old man. He was seventy-two years old at the time that he succeeded De Lancey, and yet for fifteen years longer he still bore the burdens of office, giving place from time to time to governors who came an went up to the period of the Revolutionary War, so that during half a dozen different periods the responsibilities of the head of the State was in his hands. It was during the administration of De Lancey that the more than half a century of conflict between France and England in America came to an end by the victory of Wolf over Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham and the taking of Quebec by the English troops in September, 1759. At the beginning of Colden's administration the conquest of Canada was completed by the taking of Montreal, just a year after Quebec, in September 1760.

During the French and Indian War that wrote the final chapter in Anglo-French rivalry in North America the strategic position of New York turned into a great military center. A great deal of feeling had been roused among the citizenry by the peremptory demand of the British commanders on the population to provide quarters for 10,000 troops and the spirit was thus intensified that was to result in the final expulsion of the British forced from America. But in spite of the animosities that were created by the presence of the British military the city derived great commercial benefit. De Lancey had pointed out to the British ministry the advantageous location of the city for a general magazine of arms and military stores, and for the source of supplies for the commissary department. the advantages were quite apparent. Arms and ammunition were ordered to be lodged in a storehouse at New York, subject to the "control and direction" of the commander-in-chief or of the Governor or commander of New York. The presence of the large military forces gave a great fillip to business, and an increased commerce in farm products, vegetables, horses, and cattle resulted. New York's natural position as the colonial capital gradually became apparent.

In the central years of the century Stephen Bayard, Edward Holland, and John Cruger were mayors of the city, the second from 1747 to 1756, and Cruger, during the eight years following. During the mayoralty of John Cruger, who coped with the British generals demanding free quarters for their troops, and who used his authority against the press gangs from British ships who sought to draft unwilling sailors, a line of stages was started to run between New York and Philadelphia in three days, and packet service was established between New York and Falmouth, England. An important step forward was the founding of King's College, which as since developed into Columbia University. A bill passed the Assembly on October 22, 1746, authorizing the raising of a fund of £2,250 by lottery. Large gifts came from individuals, among them Governor Hardy. Classes were formed about 1750 and the first president was Dr. Samuel Johnson, an Episcopal clergyman of Stratford, Connecticut. Trinity church gave ground for the buildings, comprising the block bounded by Murray, Church and Barclay streets and College Place, and on that site in 1756 the corner-stone was laid by Governor Hardy.

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

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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