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


The Growth of the Colonial Seaport. 1691–1720

FOR three quarters of a century after the collapse of Leisler’s rebellion the internal and external politics of New York City ran in monotonous grooves, and were largely merged in those of the province, the interests of the town and country being as a rule identical. There was a succession of long wars with France, the New Yorkers, like the other English colonists, and like England herself, soon coming to look upon the French as their hereditary and natural foes. This continuous struggle with a powerful common enemy was a potent cause in keeping the colonists of Manhattan, like those of the rest of America, loyal to the mother country; and the growth of sentiments and interests hostile to the latter, though steady, was unappreciated even by the colonists themselves. Their internal politics were marked by unceasing struggles in the Assembly,—struggles, sometimes between the aristocratic and popular factions, sometimes between one or the other or both of these factions and whoever happened for the time to represent the Crown. The overthrow of the Stuart dynasty had resulted in an immense gain for liberty, and for free and orderly government in New York. The last Stuart king had never granted the liberties he had promised to the colonists; but by his successor they were immediately given in full. Hitherto New York’s share in self-government had depended purely on the pleasure of her successive rulers. Under and owing to William of Orange, she made the first noteworthy advance in the direction of self-government by right, irrespective of the views of the royal governor who might be over her.

Throughout all this period New York was a little seaport town, without manufactures, and dependent upon ocean industries for her well-being. There was little inland commerce; everything was done by shipping. The merchants were engaged in the river trade with Albany and the interior, in the coast trade with the neighboring colonies, in the fisheries, and in the sea trade with England, Africa, and the East and West Indies. Every few years there occurred a prolonged maritime war with either France or Spain, and sometimes with both. Then the seas were scourged and the coasts vexed by the war-ships and privateers of the hostile powers; and the intervals of peace were troubled by the ravages of pirate and picaroon. Commerce was not a merely peaceful calling; and those who went down to the sea in ships led troublous lives.

The seafaring folk, or those whose business was connected with theirs, formed the bulk of New York’s white population. The poor man went to sea in the vessel the richer man built or owned or commanded; and where the one risked life and limb, the other at least risked his fortune and future. Many of the ventures were attended with great danger even in times of peace. Besides the common risks of storm and wreck, other and peculiar perils were braved by the ships that sailed for the Guinea Coast, to take part in the profitable but hideously brutal and revolting trade for slaves. The traffic with the strange coast cities of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean likewise had dangers all its own. Pirate and sultan and savage chief had all to be guarded against, and sometimes outwitted, and sometimes outfought.

Moreover, the New York merchants and seamen were themselves ready enough to risk their lives and money in enterprises where the profits to be gained by peaceful trade came second, and those by legal warfare or illegal plundering first. In every war the people plunged into the business of privateering with immense zest and eagerness. New York Province dreaded the Canadians and Indians, but New York City feared only the fleets of France; her burghers warred, as well as traded, chiefly on the ocean. Privateering was a species of gambling which combined the certainty of exciting adventure with the chance of enormous profit, and it naturally possessed special attractions for the bolder and more reckless spirits. Many of the merchants who fitted out privateers lost heavily, but many others made prizes so rich that the profits of ordinary voyages sank into insignificance by comparison. Spanish treasure-ships, and French vessels laden with costly stuffs from the West Indies or the Orient, were brought into New York Harbor again and again,—often after fights to the severity of which the battered hulls of both the captor and the vanquished vessel bore unequivocal testimony. When the prize was very rich and the crew of the privateer large, the home-coming of the latter meant a riot; for in such a case the flushed privateersmen celebrated their victory with wild orgies and outrages, and finally had to be put down by actual battle in the streets. The landowners were often merchants as well; and more than one of them was able to flank the gateway of his manor-house with the carved prows and figure-heads of the vessels his own privateers had captured.

In time of war both risk and profit were great, yet they were but little less in the short periods of peace, or rather of truce. Under the system of jealous trade-exclusion which then obtained, each trader was a possible smuggler, and the cruisers of every naval power were always harassing the merchantmen sailing under rival flags. Even if a vessel did not smuggle, she was liable at any moment to be seized on the pretext that she was trying to; and so, as she had to undergo the dangers in any event, she felt no reluctance in attempting to gather the profits when occasion offered. Again, the line dividing the work of the privateer from the work of the pirate was easy to overstep, and those who employed the one were not reluctant at times to profit by the deeds of the other. The pirate merely continued in somewhat exaggerated form against all nations, at all times, the practices which the privateer employed against certain nations at certain times. There were plenty of both merchants and seamen in New York who failed to draw any nice distinction between the two classes of vessels; and the full-armed, strongly manned trading-ship, which alone was employed in the more perilous water-paths of commerce, and which was always ready to do privateering work in time of actual war, in time of peace was not unapt to hoist the black flag for the nonce in distant seas, or at least to barter freely with the acknowledged pirates. The slavers in particular, whose crews and captains were sure to be rough, hardened, greedy men, wonted to bloodshed and violence, were very likely to turn pirate as occasion offered; while the pirates were equally willing to engage in the slave-trade, and to sell their living cargoes to the regular slavers, or to attack the latter, as circumstances dictated. The lawlessness was greatest in the Oriental seas. The huge Arab and Indian coasters, freighted with rare and precious stuffs, were sought after with furious eagerness by both pirate and privateer; while the former also swooped down on the Dutch and English East Indiamen. At Madagascar there was a regular fort and station to which some of the New York merchants sent ships for the sole purpose of trading with the pirate vessels who carried their ill-gotten goods thither. Many a daring skipper who obeyed the law fairly well in Atlantic waters, felt free to do as he wished when he neared Madagascar, or cruised through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The rich cargoes of Oriental goods, the spices, perfumes, silks, shawls, rugs, pearls, and golden coin and jewels, were of such value that men did not care to ask too closely how they were acquired. There were plenty of adventurous young New Yorkers, of good blood, who were themselves privateersmen, Red-Sea men, or slavers; and in the throng of seafaring men of this type, the crews and captains of the pirate ships passed unchallenged. The taverns and low houses along the water-front of the little seaport were filled with wind-roughened sailor-folk, outlandish in speech and dress, wild of look, black of heart, and ripe for any desperate venture. Their dare-devil commanders were not only tolerated but welcomed as guests at the houses of many among the gentry and merchants, who had themselves in one way or another gained great profit from lawless ocean warfare. Their mad freaks and furious orgies and carouses made them the terror of quiet people; but their lavish extravagance with their stores of strange Spanish, Indian, and Arabian coin gave them also a certain popularity.

The goods brought from the far eastern lands by these men, and by their fellow sea-rovers of slightly stricter morality, gave a touch of quaint luxury, and their own presence added an air of dash and adventure, to the life of the growing town on Manhattan Island. There was a suggestion of the Orient and of hazardous fortunes, ill made and lightly lost, in the costly goods with which the rich burghers and manorial lords decked their roomy houses, and clothed themselves and their wives. The dress of the time was picturesque; and the small social world of New York, as haughty and exclusive after its own fashion as any, looked leniently on the men whose deeds made it possible for the titled Crown officials, and the untitled leaders of the local oligarchy, alike, to go clad in rich raiment. More than one sea-chief of doubtful antecedents held his head high among the New York people of position, on the infrequent occasions when he landed to revel and live at ease, while his black-hulled, rakish craft was discharging her cargo at the wharves, or refitting for another mysterious voyage. The grim-visaged pirate captain, in his laced cap, rich jacket, and short white knee-trunks, with heavy gold chains round his neck, and jewel-hilted dagger in belt, was a striking and characteristic feature of New York life at the close of the seventeenth century. Soon afterward the boldness and the serious nature of the piratical ravages thoroughly roused the home government, which made resolute efforts to stop them. The colonial authorities joined to hunt the rovers from their coasts; and though the men of the black flag continued to ply their trade in tropical seas, they never after that time appeared in the colonial seaports save by stealth.

The favor shown to the pirates brought scandal on the name of more than one royal governor of New York. This was especially the case with Gov. Benjamin Fletcher, a stout, florid soldier of fortune, who came over to take control in 1692, the year after the tragic end of Leisler’s rebellion. He possessed both energy and courage, but was utterly unfitted for a civil post of such difficulty as that to which he was now appointed. Being a fawning courtier to the king, he naturally took a tone of insolent command in dealing with the colony. Though very strict in religious observances he was a loose liver, fond of luxury, and of extravagant habits; he was therefore continually in want of money, and both he and some of his council were in the habit of receiving valuable gifts—amounting to blackmail—from the different pirate ships. Finally, the scandal grew so great that he was recalled.

Other causes, however, contributed to bring about the recall. Fletcher was a stanch supporter of the colonial aristocracy, and bitterly opposed to the popular party. He interfered actively against the latter in the elections for the General Assembly, and helped to achieve a triumph which was largely due to wholesale intimidations,—for the partisans of the governor and the richer classes mobbed their opponents, and in many places drove them by force from the polling-booths. He granted the public lands right and left, doing his best to divide the soil of the province among a few rich families. He thus sought to build up a system of gigantic tenant-farmed estates, instead of allowing the country to become filled with small freehold farmers. He also connived at the acquisition by private individuals of great tracts of land from the Indians; and his grants were made to ministers and churches as well as to laymen. In short, his whole theory was to depress the freemen of small means, and to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the Church and the aristocracy; and according to his capacities he was an unwholesome and vicious force in the body politic.

For some of Fletcher’s acts, however, there was at least much excuse; and in certain of the wrangles in which he became engaged, his opponents behaved no better than he did. Thus, he allowed the merchants to evade the iron laws of trade. He probably winked at these evasions, partly from dislike of trouble, partly, perhaps, from worse motives; but it may be that he felt some genuine impatience with the restrictions by which the merchants of England sought to hem in the growth of the colonies and to keep their trade solely for the benefit of the ruling country. As regards most articles, the colonists could only trade outright with England, and the consequent loss to the merchants was immense. Of course, such a system put a premium on smuggling, and, for the matter of that, on trading with pirates, too, and on every other method by which the laws could be evaded. Yet these same laws were so in accord with the spirit of the time that there was little open protest against them, though they doubtless contributed to the growth of the vague feeling of discontent with the home government which gradually crept into colonial hearts. On the other hand the Assembly, or popular branch of the colonial legislature, was always striving to throw, as nearly as might be, the whole burden of colonial defense on the British Crown and Parliament; and its selfishness, short-sightedness, and very moderate ability, together with its unlimited capacity for ignoble squabbling, spake but ill for the body of electors to whose suffrages it owed its being. The different colonies, moreover, cared not a jot for one another’s misfortunes. Well-settled, thriving New England was quite content to let thinly-settled, struggling New York get on as best she might when almost overwhelmed by the Canadians and Indians. The Puritan commonwealths were well pleased to have such a buffer between them and French aggression. They looked on with cold and selfish indifference until the danger was brought home directly to their own thresholds; the money-making spirit was as yet too strong in their breasts to leave room for more generous and disinterested emotions. Fletcher spent much of his time in a wordy warfare with the New Englanders, because of their desertion of New York, and in quarreling with the Assembly of the latter province for its multifarious misdeeds, and especially for the heinous sin of endeavoring to whittle down his own salary. He was recalled to England early in 1698.

Fletcher’s successor was a nobleman of strong and high character, the Earl of Bellomont,—a man of pure life and strict honor, and altogether of far nobler type than the average colonial governor. He belonged to that limited class in the English aristocracy which combined intense pride and exclusiveness in social matters with a genuine belief in popular liberty and political equality, and a dislike of privilege and privileged castes. He seems to have clearly seen that the establishment in New York of an oligarchy such as Fletcher and the wealthy citizens in general dreamed of, meant injustice to the mass of the people for the time being, and therefore in the end an uprising, and the destruction of the iniquitous system by violence. His duty appeared to him plain; and he attacked the intrenched evils with the utmost resolution. It was an uphill struggle, for the most powerful interests of the colony were banded against him; and, moreover, in dealing with men his tact was not equal to his courage and probity.

Bellomont at once espoused the cause of the Leislerians, the champions of the common people; and during his three years’ rule in New York the popular party was uppermost. He even had the bodies of Leisler and Milborne disinterred and buried again with all honor. From the outset he was forced into an unrelenting war on many of the public officials, who were given over to financial dishonesty and bribe-taking, being in corrupt collusion with the merchants, pirates, and smugglers; for the whole governmental service had become thoroughly debauched. He enforced the laws of trade with rigid severity, put down smuggling, and checked in every way the unscrupulous greed of the great merchants. He also hunted away the pirates, and hung those whom he caught in chains on the different headlands of the coast; and it was while engaged in this pursuit that there occurred the curious incident of his connection with the famous Captain Kidd. The latter was a daring seaman who, when the earl first knew him, bore a good character, as seafaring characters went, and readily fell in with the earl’s plans for pirate-hunting. Finally the earl, in company with several other English noblemen, and with one New Yorker, Livingston, the founder of a line of manorial lords, agreed to fit out Kidd for a cruise against the pirates, whose haunts he well knew. All were to go shares in whatever plunder might be obtained from the ships of the captured freebooters. Kidd’s proposed enterprise attracted much attention, and as he was given a fine bark he found no difficulty in manning her with a crew better fitted for warlike than peaceful pursuits. He cruised after pirates for some time, but with indifferent success; whereupon he philosophically turned pirate himself, and became one of the scourges of the ocean. He still haunted the New York and New England coast at times, landing in out-of-the-way havens, and burying his blood-stained treasure on lonely beaches and islands; and finally the earl caught his backsliding friend, who was shortly afterward hung in chains at Execution Dock. The peculiar circumstances attendant upon Kidd’s turning pirate attracted widespread attention, though his exploits were, in reality, less remarkable than those of scores of other freebooters. He became a favorite subject for ballads, and gradually grew to be accepted in the popular mind as the archetype of his kind; while the search for his buried treasure, having been successful in one or two instances, became almost a recognized industry among the more imaginative of the dwellers by the sea.

Bellomont distinctly perceived the vast evils produced by the system of huge landed estates; and on behalf of the small freeholders he fearlessly attacked the manorial lords. He forfeited such of their grants as he considered to have been illegally secured; no inconsiderable number when the estates fraudulently purchased from the Indians were added to those acquired by judicious presents to the Crown officials. His aim was ultimately to establish the rule that no one estate larger than a thousand acres should be permitted. In attacking laymen he did not spare the Church; and assailed alike the excessive land-grants of the Dutch Reformed clergy and the Anglican bodies. His term of office was too short to permit him to put his far-reaching plans into execution; nevertheless, he did accomplish something of what he was aiming at.

Naturally Bellomont aroused the intense hostility of all the powerful, favored classes he had attacked. Almost every great landowner and rich merchant, every corrupt Crown official, every man who had thriven by smuggling and by winking at piracy, assailed him with venomous anger. His character stood so high, however, that these attacks could not shake him in the esteem of the home powers; while the common people loved and reverenced him exceedingly, and mourned him with bitter regret when in 1701 he died, after a short rule of three years.

There followed a period of the utmost confusion, the Leislerian and aristocratic factions coming almost to civil war; for the former had been raised to power by Bellomont, but now lacked his restraining hand, and feared the speedy triumph of the oligarchy under some new governor. The culminating points were reached in the trial of two of the aristocratic leaders for alleged treason, and in a disorderly election for aldermen in New York. Both parties claimed the victory in this election, the voting in many of the precincts being distinguished by the most flagrant fraud; and all the contending aldermen proceeded to try to take their seats at the same time, the resulting riot being ended by a compromise. In 1702, when Queen Anne had just ascended the throne, her nephew, Lord Cornbury, came out as governor. He promptly restored order by putting down the Leislerians; and by his influence the aristocracy were once more placed in power. To say truth, the popular party, by its violence, and the corruption of some of its chiefs, had done much to forfeit the good-will of the respectable middle classes.

Cornbury, however, did the democracy a good turn by forthwith drowning the memory of its shortcomings in the torrent of his own follies and misdeeds. He was very nearly an ideal example of what a royal governor should not be. He was both silly and wicked. He hated the popular party, and in all ways that he could he curtailed the political rights of the people. He favored the manorial lords and rich merchants as against the commonalty; but he did all he could to wrong even these favorites when it was for his own interest to do so. He took bribes, very thinly disguised as gifts. He was always in debt, and was given to debauchery of various kinds. One of his amusements was to masquerade in woman’s garments, being, of all things, inordinately proud that when thus dressed he looked like Queen Anne. He added bigotry to his other failings, and persecuted the Presbyterians, who were endeavoring to get a foothold in the colony; he imprisoned their ministers and confiscated their little meeting-houses. In this respect, however, he was but a shade worse than the men he ruled over; for the Assembly had passed a law condemning to death all Catholic priests found in the colony,—a law of which the wickedness was neither atoned for nor justified by the fact that the same measure of iniquity was meted out to the Protestants in the countries where the Catholics had control. He appropriated to other uses the moneys furnished by the Assembly to put New York harbor into a state of defense; the result being that a French war-ship once entered the lower bay and threw the whole city into terror. Finally, the citizens of all parties became so exasperated against him as to clamorously demand his removal, which was granted in 1708; but before he left the colony he had been thrown into prison for debt. In dealing with him the Assembly took very high ground in regard to the right of the colony to regulate its own affairs, insisting on the right of the popular branch of the government to fix the taxes, and to appoint most of the public officers and regulate their fees. Resolutions of this character show that during the score of years which had elapsed since the downfall of the Stuarts, the colony had made giant strides toward realizing its own rights and powers. With all their faults, the Leislerians had done good service in arousing the desire for freedom, and in teaching men—if often only by painful example and experience—to practise the self-restraint which is as necessary as self-confidence to any community desirous of doing its own governmental work.

After a couple of years of practical interregnum, New York received another governor, one Robert Hunter, whose term lasted until 1720. He was a wise and upright man, who did justice to all, though, if anything, favoring the popular party. But the personality of the governor was rapidly becoming of less and less consequence to New York as the city and province grew in size. The condition of the colony and the policy of the British King and Parliament were the really important factors of the problem.

About this time there was a great influx of Germans from the Rhine provinces. They were poor peasants who had fled from before the French armies; and while most went on into the country, a considerable number remained in New York, to add one more to the many elements in its population. As they were ignorant and poverty-stricken, the colonists of English, Dutch, and Huguenot blood looked down on and despised them, not wholly without reason. One feature of the settlement of America is that each mass of immigrants feels much distrust and contempt for the mass—usually of a different nationality—which comes a generation later. Presbyterians from Scotland and Ireland began to straggle in, were allowed to build a church, and got a firm foot-hold. There was an insurrection of negro slaves, of which more anon.

The city was growing slowly. English, Dutch, and Huguenot names succeeded one another in the mayoralty, showing that there was no attempt on the part of one race to exclude the others from their share of political power. The mass of the people were not very well off, and grudged taxes; the annual expenditure of the city government was only about £300 and was covered by the annual income. The Assembly was already dabbling in paper money, and it had been found necessary to pass poor-laws, and authorize the arrest of street beggars.