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Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). New York. 1906.


The Closing of the Colonial Period. 1720–1764

IN 1710 New York City contained some 6,000 inhabitants, in 1750 over 12,000, and at the outbreak of the Revolution about 20,000. It was a smaller town than either Boston or Philadelphia, with a society far less democratic, and divided by much sharper lines of caste. Strangers complained, then as now, that it was difficult to say what a typical New Yorker was, because New York’s population was composed of various races, differing widely in blood, religion, and conditions of life. In fact, this diversity has always been the dominant note of New York. No sooner has one set of varying elements been fused together than another stream has been poured into the crucible. There probably has been no period in the city’s growth during which the New Yorkers whose parents were born in New York formed the majority of the population; and there never has been a time when the bulk of the citizens were of English blood.

All this is in striking contrast to what has gone on in some other American cities, as, for instance, Boston. Colonial Boston was a Puritan English town, where the people were in all essentials wonderfully like one another. New York, however, never was really an English town, and its citizens always differed radically among themselves in morals, manners, and physical well-being, no less than in speech, blood, and creed. From time to time new ethnic elements have made their appearance, but the change has been not from one race to another, but from one mixture of races to another.

Of course there are very sharp points of contrast other than those of mere size and growth between colonial New York and the New York of the United States. The three leading religious denominations of the present United States had but small and scanty followings in colonial times. In New York, just prior to the Revolution, the Methodists and Baptists had but a small meeting-house apiece, and the handful of Catholics no recognized place of worship whatever; whereas at the present day the Methodists and Baptists form the two leading and characteristic denominations in the country districts of America, while Catholicism has forged to the front in the cities.

In eighteenth-century New York both the Quakers and Jews had places of worship. The Germans had one Lutheran and one Calvinistic Church; but the German pre-revolutionary immigrants did not produce many men of note, and their congregations remained small and unprogressive, their young men of spirit drifting off to other churches as they learned English. The Presbyterian congregations, on the other hand, throve apace, in spite of the petty and irritating persecution of the Episcopalians. They received many recruits from the Scotch and Scotch-Irish immigrants; and to a man they were all zealous upholders of popular rights, and truculently defiant toward Great Britain. The Irish of that day were already a prominent element of New York life; but they were Presbyterians, not Catholics. They celebrated Saint Patrick’s day with enthusiasm, and their toasts to Ireland and America, together with their scarcely veiled hostility to England, would not be out of place on similar occasions at present; but some of their other toasts, such as those to the memory of King William and to the Protestant succession, would scarcely appeal to a Milesian patriot nowadays.

The Huguenots were assimilated more easily than any other element of the population, and produced on the whole the highest grade of citizens. By the middle of the century the Hollanders likewise had begun to speak English. It was the official language of the colony, and the young men of push, who wished to make their mark in the world, had to learn it in order to succeed. The conservative men, the sticklers for old ways and customs, clung obstinately to Dutch; and the consequence was that the energetic young people began to leave the Dutch churches, and to join the Episcopalian and Presbyterian congregations in constantly increasing numbers,—doing exactly what we see being done by the Scandinavian and German Lutherans in portions of the Northwest at the present day. The drain was so serious that in 1764, as the only means of putting a stop thereto, it was decided to hold the church services in both English and Dutch; and forty years afterward Dutch was entirely abandoned. These measures arrested the decay of the Dutch Reformed Church, and prevented its sharing the fate of total extinction which befell the Swedish Lutheran bodies on the Delaware; but they were not taken in time to prevent the church from falling much behind the place which it should have occupied, taking into account the numbers, intelligence, and morality of its members,—for throughout the colonial period the Dutch remained the largest of the many elements in New York’s population.

As the wealthy Dutch and Huguenot families assimilated themselves to the English, they intermarried with them, and in many cases joined the Episcopal Church; though a considerable number, especially among those whose affiliations were or the popular party, remained attached to one or the other of the Calvinist bodies. The Episcopal Church—or, as it was then the Church of England—was the fashionable organization, the one to which the Crown officials belonged, and the center round which the court party rallied. Among its members were to be found most of the influential people,—the manorial lords and large merchants, who controlled the affairs of the colony, and were the social and political leaders. It claimed to be in a sense the State Church, and had many immunities and privileges; and as far as it could, though only in petty fashion, it oppressed the dissenting bodies,—notably the Presbyterians, who were not, like the Huguenots and Hollanders, protected by treaty. When King’s College, now Columbia, was founded by the colony, it was put under the control of the Church of England, and was made in a small way a seat of Tory feeling. The various Protestant bodies were all filled with sour jealousy of one another, and were only united in cordial hatred of the Romanists, to whom they forbade entrance into the colony; and though they tolerated the presence of the Jews, they would not for some time let them vote.

Social lines were very strongly marked,—the intensely aristocratic make-up of the town being in striking contrast to the democratic equality typical of a young American city of the same size nowadays. The manorial lords stood first in rank and influence, and in the respect universally accorded them. They lived at ease in the roomy mansions on their great tenant-farmed estates; and they also usually owned fine houses in either New York or Albany, and sometimes in both. Their houses were really extremely comfortable, and were built with a certain stately simplicity of style which contrasted very favorably with the mean or pretentious architecture of most New York buildings dating back to the early or middle portions of the present century. They were filled with many rooms, wherein a host of kinsmen, friends, and retainers might dwell; and they had great halls, broad verandas, heavy mahogany-railed staircases, and huge open fireplaces, which in winter were crammed with roaring logs. The furniture was handsome, but stiff and heavy; the books were few; and there were masses of silver plate on the sideboards of the large dining-rooms. The gentry carried swords, and dressed in the artificial, picturesque fashion of the English upper classes; whereas the commonalty went about their work in smocks or leather aprons. Near Trinity Church was the “mall,” or promenade for the fashionable set of the little colonial town. By an unwritten law none but the members of the ruling class used it; and no fine afternoons it was filled with a gayly dressed throng of young men and pretty girls, the latter attended by their negro waiting maids. Prominent in the crowd, were the scarlet coats of the officers from the English regiments, constantly quartered in New York because of the recurring French wars. The owners of these coats moved with an air of easy metropolitan superiority, a certain insolently patronizing condescension, which always awakened both the admiration and the jealous anger of the provincial aristocrats. The leading colonial families stood on the same social plane with the English country gentlemen of wealth, and were often connected by marriage with the English nobility; but they could never forget—and were never permitted by their English friends to forget—that after all they were nothing but provincials, and that provincials could not stand quite on an equality with the old-world people.

The New York gentry, both of town and country, were fond of horse-racing, and kept many well-bred horses. They drove out in chariots or huge clumsy coaches with their coats of arms blazoned on the panels,—the ship of the Livingstons, the lance of the De Lanceys, the burning castle of the Morrises, and the other armorial bearings of the families of note being known to all men throughout the province. On a journey the gentry either went by water in their own sloops or else in these coaches, with liveried postilions and outriders; and when one of the manorial lords came to town, his approach always caused much excitement, the negroes, children, and white work-people gathering to gaze at the lumbering, handsomely painted coach, drawn by four huge Flemish horses, the owner sitting inside with powdered wig and cocked hat, scarlet or somber velvet coat, and silver-hilted sword. In the town itself sedan chairs were in common use. There was a little theater where performances were given, now by a company of professional actors, and again by the officers of the garrison regiments; and to these performances as well as to the balls and other merrymakings the ladies sometimes went in chariots or sedan chairs and sometimes on their own daintily shod feet. The people of note usually sent their negro servants, each dressed in the livery of his master, in advance to secure good seats. There was much dancing and frolicking, besides formal dinners and picnics; sailing parties, and in winter skating parties and long sleigh rides were favorite amusements; all classes took part eagerly in the shooting matches. The dinners were rather heavy entertainments, with much solemn toast-drinking; and they often ended with boisterous conviviality,—for most of the men drank hard, and prided themselves on their wine cellars. Christmas and New Year’s day were great festivals, the latter being observed in Dutch fashion,—the gentlemen calling at all the houses of their acquaintance, where they feasted and drank wine. Another Dutch festival of universal observance was Pinkster, held in the springtime. It grew to be especially the negroes’ day, all of the blacks of the city and neighboring country gathering to celebrate it. There was a great fair, with merrymaking and games of all kinds on the Common, where the City Hall park now is; while the whites also assembled to look on, and sometimes to take part in the fun. Most of the house servants were negro slaves.

The people of means sometimes had their children educated at home, and sometimes sent them to the little colleges which have since become Columbia and Princeton,—colleges which were then inferior to a good English grammar school. Occasionally the very wealthy and ambitious sent their boys to Oxford or Cambridge, where the improved opportunities for learning were far more than counterbalanced by the fact that the boy was likely to come back much less fitted than his home-staying brother to play a man’s part in the actual work of American life. The true colonial habit of thought, the deference for whatever came from the home country, whether rank or title, fashion or learning, was nearly universal, although the bolder and more independent spirits were already beginning to assume an attitude of protest against it. In truth it was very easy to get opinions ready-made from the Old World, while it was hard work to fashion them out originally from the raw material ready at hand in the New. New Yorkers had as yet been given little opportunity for deep thought or weighty action. Provincial politics offered but a cramped and narrow field for vigorous intellects; and to the native New Yorker, war held no higher possibilities than the leadership in a dashing foray against the Canadians and Indians, or the captaincy in a successful cruise among French and Spanish merchantmen. There was no home literature worthy of the name, and little chance for its immediate development; and art was not much better off.

The New York merchants and smaller landed proprietors stood next to the great manorial families; they mixed with them socially, and often married among them, following their lead in matters political. The merchants lived in comfortable brick or stone houses, and owned large warehouses and stores of every description. Many of them had great gardens round their homes; for New York was still but a little country town. Nevertheless, as the years went by, its growth, sluggish at first, became more and more rapid. Coffee-houses were started; there were good inns for the wealthy, and taverns for the poorer; and there were schools, a poorhouse, and a jail.

Next to the merchants came the middle class,—the small freeholders with whom the suffrage stopped short. They were the rank and file of the voters, and in political contests generally followed the banner of one or the other of the great families, from whom they were separated by a deep social gulf. Then came the class of free workmen; and below these,—though as years went by, merging into them,—the very distinct class of unfree whites, the imported bond-servants, redemptioners, apprentices, and convicts, who had been sent to the colonies. These were by no means all criminals and paupers, though very many such were included among them. Some were honest, poor men, who could not get a living at home, and had no money wherewith to go abroad; and these were regularly sold for a term of years to make good their passage money. They were of many nationalities,—English, Irish, and Germans predominating, though there were some Scotch, Welsh, and Swiss. On the arrival of a ship containing them, they were usually duly advertised, the occupation—as tradesman, farmer, or laborer—for which they were best fitted being specified, and were then immediately sold at auction into what was simply slavery for a limited period; and as they were sometimes harshly treated they were very prone to run away. Judging by the advertisements in the colonial newspapers the runaway white bond-servants were almost as numerous as the runaway slaves. After their term of service was over, some of them became honest, hardworking citizens, while the others swelled the ranks of the idle, vicious, semi-criminal class, clustering in the outskirts and alleys of the town. As a whole, this species of immigrant was very harmful, and added a most undesirable element to the population. It may well be doubted if relatively to our total numbers, we have had any class of immigrants during the present century which as a class was so bad; and indeed it is safe to say that in proportion, eighteenth-century New York had quite as much vice and vicious poverty within its limits as the present huge city; and most of the vice and poverty among the whites was due to this importation of bond-servants and convicts.

The negro slaves formed a very large portion of the town’s population,—at times nearly half,—for over a century after it was founded; then they gradually began to dwindle in numbers compared to the whites, for although they were retained as household servants, it was found that they were not fitted for manual and agricultural labor, as in the southern colonies. During the first half of the eighteenth century they were still very numerous, and were for the most part of African birth, being fresh from the holds of the Guinea slavers; they were brutal, ignorant savages, and the whites were in constant dread of a servile insurrection. In 1712 this fear was justified, at least partially, for in that year the slaves formed a wild, foolish plot to destroy all the whites; and some forty of them attempted to put it into execution. Armed with every kind of weapon, they met at midnight in an orchard on the outskirts of the town, set fire to a shed, and assaulted those who came running up to quell the flames. In this way they killed nine men and wounded some others, before the alarm was given and the soldiers from the fort approaching, put them to flight. They fled to the forests in the northern part of the island; but the militia, roused to furious anger, put sentries at the fords, and then hunted down the renegade negroes like wild beasts. Six, in their despair, slew themselves; and twenty-one of those who were captured were shot, hung, or burned at the stake.

This attempted revolt greatly increased the uneasiness of the white inhabitants, and was largely responsible for the ferocious panic of fear, rage, and suspicion into which they were thrown by the discovery of another plot among the negroes in 1741. During this panic the citizens went almost mad with cruel terror, and did deeds which make a dark stain on the pages of New York’s history,—deeds which almost parallel those done in the evil days of the Salem witchcraft persecutions, save that in the New York case there really was some ground for the anger and resentment of the persecutors. Exactly how much ground there was, however, it is impossible to say. There is no doubt that many of the slaves, especially among those of African birth, were always vaguely hoping for, and perhaps planning for, the destruction of their masters, and that some of the bolder and more brutal spirits did actually indulge in furtive incendiarism, outrage, and attempted murder; but there is no reason to suppose that the great mass of the blacks were ever engaged in the plot, or that there was ever any real danger of a general outbreak. Slave-owners, however, live always under the hair-hung sword; they know that they can take no risks, and that their very existence depends on the merciless suppression of every symptom of hostile discontent.

During March, 1741, there broke out in New York so many fires in quick succession, that it seemed certain they were of incendiary origin; and the conduct of a few of the slaves greatly excited the suspicions of the citizens. At the same time the indented servant-girl of a low tavern-keeper had been arrested, together with her master and mistress and two negroes, for complicity in a robbery. Proclamations offering rewards to whomever would give information concerning the supposed plot were read to her, and she suddenly professed herself aware of its existence. She asserted that her master and mistress and a number of the poor, semi-criminal whites, together with a multitude of blacks, were all engaged therein; and many of the ignorant slaves when arrested strove in their terror to save their own necks by corroborating and embellishing all the wild statements she made. The whole of New York went into a mad panic, and scores of people were imprisoned and put to death on the strength of these flimsy accusations. Fourteen negroes were burned at the stake, twenty hanged, and seventy-one transported; while of the twenty whites who were imprisoned, four were executed. Among the latter was a Catholic priest named Ury, who was condemned both for complicity in the negro plot to burn the town, and for having committed the heinous crime of administering the rites of his religion; and on the double count, although as far as appears without a shred of damaging evidence being produced against him, the unfortunate man was actually hung, protesting his innocence to the last. This added the touch of cruel religious bigotry which alone was wanting to complete the gloom of the picture. At last, glutted with victims, the panic subsided, leaving behind it the darkest page in our annals.

Besides this tragedy, the political struggles of colonial New York in the eighteenth century seem of small importance; yet there was one incident worthy of note, because it involved the freedom of the press. The first newspaper published in the city was a small weekly, started in 1725, under the name of the New York Gazette. It was the organ of the governor and aristocratic or court party. Nine years later a rival appeared in the shape of the Weekly Journal edited by a German immigrant named Zenger, and from the start avowedly the organ of the popular party. The royal governor at the time was a very foolish person named Cosby, appointed on the theory which then obtained, to the effect that a colonial governorship was to be used as a place for pensioning off any court favorite otherwise unprovided for, without reference to the result of his appointment upon the colony. He possessed a genius for petty oppression, which marked him for the especial hatred of the people. Zenger published a constant succession of lampoons, ballads, and attacks on all the Crown officials, the governing class, and finally even on Cosby himself. He was arrested and thrown into jail on the charge of libel; and the trial, which occupied most of the summer of 1735, attracted great attention. The chief-justice at the time was one of the Morrises, who belonged to the popular party; and as he was suspected of leaning to Zenger’s side, he was turned out of office and replaced by one of the De Lanceys, the stoutest upholders of the Crown. De Lancey went to the length of disbarring Zenger’s lawyers, so that he had to be defended by one imported from Philadelphia. But the people at large made Zenger’s cause their own, and stood by him resolutely; while every ounce of possible pressure and influence from the Crown officials was brought to bear against him. The defense was that the statements asserted to be libellous were true. The attorney-general for the Crown took the ground that if true the libel was only so much the greater. The judges instructed the jury that this was the law; but the jury refused to be bound, and acquitted Zenger. The acquittal, which definitely secured the complete liberty of the press, was hailed with clamorous joy by the mass of the population; and it gave an immense impetus to the growth of the spirit of independence. From this time on, the two parties were much more sharply defined than before. The court party, the faction of the Crown officials and of the bulk of the local aristocracy, included most of the Episcopalians and many of the Hollanders and Huguenots, while the rest of the population, including the Presbyterians, formed the popular party. The former often styled themselves Tories, and the latter Whigs, in imitation of the two English parties. Each faction was under the leadership of a number of the great landed families; for even in the ranks of the popular party the voters still paid reverence to the rich and powerful manorial lords. These great families were all connected by marriage, and were all split up by bitter feuds and political jealousies. The De Lanceys held the headship of the court, and the Livingstons of the popular party; and the contest took on so strongly personal a color that these two families almost gave their names to the factions with which they were respectively identified as leaders.