Home  »  New York  »  The Unrest before the Revolution. 1764–1774

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


The Unrest before the Revolution. 1764–1774

NO sooner was the long succession of French wars closed by the conquest of Canada, than American history entered on a new stage. Hitherto the contests had been waged between European powers for the possession of the various colonies, both the interests and the efforts of these colonies being of secondary importance. From this time on, however, the American settlements became themselves the chief factors in solving the problems of their own future, and the questions of policy hinged on the issues between them and the mother country.

The colonial system, which at this time was common to all seafaring European nations, was essentially vicious, and could not possibly last when the colonies grew in strength. England did not treat her colonies exceptionally ill; on the contrary, she behaved much better toward them than the other European nations of that day did to theirs. If she had not done so, the revolt against her power would have come far sooner; for no other nation had planted beyond the seas such a race of freemen as was growing up on the North Atlantic coast of America. They came from a people long accustomed to a considerable measure of liberty, and all their surroundings in their new home tended to foster an independent and self-reliant spirit. They would not have tolerated a despotism like that of France or Spain for a day; and it was inevitable that they would eventually try to throw off even England’s milder yoke, unless she adopted a course of colonial policy which was at that time understood by none but the most far-seeing or lofty-minded. Nor, indeed, is it certain that the colonists themselves, split up as they were by their province lines into jarring fragments, would have been capable of appreciating and profiting by such a course of colonial policy, even had the mother country adopted it.

The European theory of a colony was that it was planted by the home government for the benefit of the home government and home people, not for the benefit of the colonists themselves. Hardly any one grasped the grandeur of the movement by which the English-speaking race was to spread over the world’s waste spaces, until a fourth of the habitable globe was in its hands, and until it became the mightiest race on which the sun has ever shone. Those in power did not think of the spread of a mighty people, and of its growth by leaps and bounds, but of the planting of new trading-posts; they did not realize the elementary fact that if the men who stretch abroad the race limits by settlement and conquest are to be kept one with those who stay at home, they must be granted an equal share with the latter in administering the common government. The colony was held to be the property of the mother country,—property to be protected and well treated as a whole, but property nevertheless. Naturally the colonist himself was likewise held to occupy a similar position compared to the citizen of the home country. The Englishman felt himself to be the ruler and superior of the American; and even though he tried to rule wisely, and meant to act well toward the colonists, the fact remained that he considered them his inferiors, and that his scheme of government distinctly recognized them as such. The mere existence of such a feeling, and its embodiment in the governmental system, warranted a high-spirited people in revolting against it.

Of course the colonists on their part did much that was blamable also. They would rarely make any sustained effort to help themselves if they could persuade England to make it for them. They knew she warred for their interest because it was her interest to do so; and they were glad to throw on her shoulders as much as possible of the burden of their defense. The colonial armies performed some notable feats of warfare; and for a short campaign the colonies were always willing to furnish thousands of stout and vigorous though ill-disciplined soldiers. But they hated to pay their bills; they would never make provision for any sustained effort, nor carry through any far-reaching policy; they were impatient of restraint; and they wrangled perpetually among themselves. As a result, their parsimony, greed, and selfishness, and their jealousy of one another, caused them at times—in spite of some heroic actions—to cut but sorry figures in the struggles with France. They swindled and overcharged the very troops sent out to protect them; and their legislatures could with difficulty be persuaded to vote sufficient money to prosecute the wars with proper vigor. New York was vitally interested in seeing Canada cowed and the French intrigues among the Indians definitely stopped; yet the New York Assembly insisted that the whole expense of the conquest of Canada ought to come on the mother country. New England looked on unmoved when the French merely raided on New York; and New York sold arms to the savages who attacked New England. All the provinces were dependent on the British fleets for the defense of their open seaboard and widely scattered trade; but doubtless feeling that both trade and seaboard were menaced by foes that were primarily foes to Britain, not to America, they evinced no inclination to do their share in paying for the navy to which they trusted. On the other hand, it must be said that the citizens were much readier with their lives than their purses; and though they did not share the expense of England’s fleets, they furnished in the last colonial war nearly twenty thousand of the seamen who manned them.

However, admitting all that can be urged against them does not alter the fact—by none more freely conceded than by English historians nowadays—that on the main question the mutinous provinces were in the right. They were in many ways well treated, but they were never treated as equals, and they were sometimes treated badly. They needed and wished, not mingled favors and injuries, but justice. There were many public men in England who strove to do right by the colonies; but there were very many others who looked on their dependencies purely from the standpoint of British interest. When in the warfare of factions and parties the latter wielded the power of government, they were certain to produce such intense irritation in the minds of Americans that even the non-fulfilment of their plans or the return of the friends of America to power, could not allay the ill feeling. There were numerous English statesmen of high rank and great influence who avowedly wished to check and hamper the growth of the colonies; who desired to stop the westward march of the settlers, and to keep the continent beyond the Alleghanies as a hunting-ground whereon savages might gather furs for British traders; who forbade the building up of American manufactures, and strove to keep the seaboard towns as trading-posts for the sole benefit of British merchants. The existence of such statesmen, and the ever-recurring probability of their taking the control of affairs, rendered it impossible for Americans to retain their loyalty to the home government. It is hard at the present time to realize how totally the theories of colonization and of colonial possessions have changed; and it was our own Revolution, and the struggles which followed in its train that changed them. It is owing to the success of the United States that Australia and Canada of to-day are practically independent countries as regards their internal concerns and their external relations with other nations in time of peace. The fiercest reactionary in Britain would not now dream of asking Australians and Canadians to submit to regulations to which even the most truculent American patriot never thought of objecting before the Revolution.

For the colonists were so used to the yoke that though they grew restless under it, they only dumbly knew it galled them, and could not tell exactly where. They submitted quietly to some forms of oppression which really amounted to heavy indirect taxation in the interest of British merchants and manufacturers, and then revolted at a very small direct impost, on the ground that there should be no taxation without representation; and all the while they were objecting almost as strenuously to paying their share of certain perfectly proper expenditures undertaken in their interest by the home country. The truth was that they were revolting against the whole system, which they dimly felt to be wrong before they were able to formulate their reasons for so feeling; the particular acts of oppression of which they complained were the occasions rather than the causes of the outbreak. The reasons for discontent had existed for many years, and their growth kept steady pace with the growth of the colonies. The French and Spanish wars had kept them in the background, all other matters being swallowed up by the stress of the struggle with the common enemy; but as soon as Canada was conquered, and the outside pressure taken off, the questions between the mother country and the colonies became of the first importance, and speedily showed signs of producing an open rupture.

In truth, the rupture was as beneficial as it was necessary,—always assuming that the alternative was the continuance of the old colonial system. Had England’s King and Parliament been guided by the most far-seeing statesman, and had causes of irritation been avoided, and a constantly increasing measure of liberty and participation in the government allowed the colonists, it may have been that the empire would have been kept together. The revolt of America was not one of those historic events which are inevitable and foreordained, and in no way to be averted; wise statesmanship, and a temper in the British people willing to correspond, might have prevented it. But as the conditions actually were, it was a benefit. The acceptance, by both sides, of the theory of the supremacy of the mother country was quite enough to dwarf the intellectual and moral growth of the colonies. The “colonial” habit of thought is a very unfortunate one. The deferential mental attitude toward all things connected with the old country, whether good or bad, merely because they are connected with the old country, is incompatible with free and healthy development. No colonist will ever do good original work so long as he thinks of the old country as “home.” The mere fact that he so thinks, prevents his reaching the first rank as an American or Canadian or Australian, as the case may be, and yet entirely fails to make him even a second-rate Englishman. If the men who stay at home and the men who settle new lands can continue members of the same nation, on a footing of perfect equality, this is the best possible outcome of the situation; and the highest task of statesmen is to work out some such solution. But if one party must remain inferior to the other, it is in the end better that they should separate, great though the evils of separation be. It is of incalculable advantage to Oregon and Texas, no less than to New York and Virginia, to be members of the mighty Federal Union; but this is because the citizens of all four States stand on precisely the same footing. If Texas and Oregon were not given the full rights of the original thirteen commonwealths, freely and without the least reserve, it would be better for them to stand alone. But in reality we have become so accustomed to the new system that we do not conceive of the possibility of any failure to grant such rights. The feeling of equality among the different commonwealths is genuine and universal. The difference in their ages never occurs to any one as furnishing a ground for a feeling of superiority or the reverse; it does not enter at all into the jealousies between the different States or sections. The fact that the new communities are offshoots of the old is never taken into account in any way whatever. This feeling now seems to us part of the order of Nature; and its very universality is apt to blind us to the immense importance of the struggle by which it was firmly established as a principle. Until the Revolution, it may almost be said to have had no recognized existence at all.

In every colony outside of New England and Virginia there was a large Tory party; and nowhere was it relatively larger than in New York. The peculiarly aristocratic structure of New York society had a very great effect upon the revolutionary movement, which took on a twofold character, being a struggle for America against England on the one hand, and an uprising of the democracy against the local oligarchy on the other. The lowest classes of the population cared but little for the principles of either party; and sided with one or the other accordingly as their temporary interests or local feuds and jealousies influenced them. They furnished to both Whigs and Tories the scoundrels who hung in the wake of the organized armies, hot for plunder and murder,—the marauders who carried on a ferocious predatory warfare between the lines or on the Indian frontier, and who took advantage of the general disorder to wreak their private spites and rob and outrage the timid, well-to-do people of both sides, with impartial brutality. A large number of the citizens, possibly nearly half, were but lukewarm adherents of either cause. Among them were many of the men of means, who were anxious to side with the winners, and feared much to lose their possessions, and a still greater number of men who were too indifferent and cold-hearted, too deficient in patriotism and political morality to care how the affair was decided. Among them were many men also who were of ultra-conservative mind, not yet far enough advanced in that difficult school which teaches how to combine a high standard of personal liberty with a high standard of public order. The bulk of the intelligent working-classes, the most truly American members of the colonial body politic, formed also the bulk of the popular party. Here also all the Presbyterians and the majority of the members of the Dutch Reformed and Huguenot congregations naturally found their proper place. Very many of the gentry also belonged to it; and it was led by some of the great families,—the Livingstons, Schuylers, and others,—including all those whose pride of caste was offset by their belief in freedom, or was overcome by their profound Americanism, when caste and country came into conflict. Most of the Episcopalian clergy and the majority of their flocks, as well as minority of the Dutch Reformed congregations, belonged to the court party, as did the greater portion of the local aristocracy, led by the De Lanceys, De Peysters, and Philippses, and by the Johnsons, who ruled the Mohawk Valley in half-savage, half-feudal state.

Of course the lines between these various classes were not drawn sharply at the outset. In the beginning very few, even of the most violent extremists among the Whigs dared to hint at independence; while scarcely any of the most bigoted Tories upheld the Crown and the Parliament in all their doings. The power lay in the hands of the moderate men, who did not wish for extreme measures, until the repeated blunders and aggressions of the king and his advisers exasperated the people at large beyond the possibility of restraint. The ablest and purest leaders of the New York patriots during the Revolution—men like Schuyler, Jay, Morris, and Hamilton—disliked mobviolence as much as they hated tyranny, and felt no sympathy with the extremists of their own party. An English statesman like Chatham, or an English statesman like Walpole, might have held these men, and therefore the American colonies, to their allegiance. But the necessary breadth and liberality were lacking, possibly in of the temper of the age itself, certainly in the temper of King George and his ministers. They persevered in their course, offering concessions only when the time they would have been accepted was past. Then the break came, and the moderate men had to choose the side with which they wished to range themselves; and after some misgivings most of them—and the best of them—put love of their country above loyalty to their king, and threw in their lot with the revolutionary party. However, not a few of the leading families divided, sending sons into both camps.

When in 1765 the Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament, the popular party held the control of the New York legislature. Accordingly among all the colonial legislatures New York’s stood foremost in stout asseration of the right of the colonies to the full enjoyment of liberty, and in protest against taxation without representation. The New York newspapers were especially fervid in denouncing the law, while the legislature appointed a committee to correspond concerning the subject with the legislative bodies of the other colonies. Finally the Stamp Act Congress met in New York, nine of the thirteen colonies being represented, and voted a Declaration of Rights and an Address to the King. But the people themselves, acting through the suddenly raised, and often secret or semi-secret, organizations, took more effective measures of protest than either congress or legislature. The most influential of these societies was that styled the “Sons of Liberty”; all of them were raised in the first place with an excellent purpose, and numbered in their ranks many stanch and wise patriots, but like all such organizations they tended to pass under the control of men whose violence better fitted them to raise mobs than to carry through a great revolution.

The arrival in New York of the first ship bearing a cargo of the hated stamps produced intense excitement. The merchants met in a tavern and signed a non-importation agreement, in order to retaliate on the British merchants and manufacturers. The mob inclined to rougher measures; colonial New York was always a turbulent little town, thanks especially to the large number of seafaring folk among its inhabitants. The sailors had an especial antipathy to the soldiers of the garrison, and rows between them were frequent; with more reason, they hated the press-gangs of the British frigates, and often interfered to save their victims, with the result of producing actual riots, wherein bludgeons and cutlasses were freely used. This known turbulence of the townsfolk alarmed both the acting governor, Colden,—a loyal, obstinate, narrow-minded man—and the commander of the troops in garrison, General Gage. As the time for putting the Stamp Act in force drew near, the governor took refuge in the fort on the south end of Manhattan Island, which was ostentatiously put in good condition, while the troops were made ready for instant action. It was hoped that these open preparations would awe the city; but they produced only irritation.

The act was to go into effect on November 1, and the ship carrying the stamps hove in sight on October 23. A couple of war vessels escorted it to a safe anchorage under the guns of the fort, while the flags on the shipping in the harbor were half-masted as a sign of grief and defiance, and a huge crowd of New Yorkers gathered on the wharves with every sign of rebellious anger. In the night, placards signed “Vox Populi” and “We dare” were posted all over town, threatening the persons and property of whoever dared use the stamps; and the feeling was so violent and universal that not even the boldest attempted to meddle with the forbidden paper. November 1 was ushered in by the tolling of muffled bells; in the evening a crowd gathered, under the lead of a band of the Sons of Liberty. The radical men were in control; and after some inflammatory speech-making the governor was hung in effigy on the common. Not satisfied with this, the crowd marched down to the fort, headed by a sailor carrying another effigy of the governor in a chair on his head; and this they proceeded to burn on the Bowling Green, under the guns of the fort, hammering at the gates of the latter and yelling defiance at the garrison. By this time they had gotten past all control, and not only broke into the governor’s stable and burned his chariot, but also sacked the house of the major of one of the garrison regiments, a man whom they regarded as particularly obnoxious. Other houses were also attacked.

The moderate men, including all the leaders who afterward, when the real strain came, showed genuine ability, utterly disapproved of this mob-violence and lawlessness; and by their energetic conduct they succeeded in staving off for the moment further action by the mob, which was much emboldened by the lack of resistance. Soon, however, the populace became once more worked up to the pitch of violence by the taunts and harangues of the radical leaders,—hot-headed men of small capacity and much energy, part patriot and part demagogue. They threatened to assault the fort; and the mayor and aldermen, to prevent civil war, earnestly besought the governor to give them the stamps for safe keeping. The humiliation of such a course was at first too much for the governor; but neither he nor the commander-in-chief, General Gage, possessed the iron temper fitted to grapple with such an emergency. After some delay they yielded, and surrendered the stamps to the municipal authorities, while the people at large celebrated their victory with wild enthusiasm, and felt a natural contempt for the government they had overcome. The tyranny which imposes an unjust law, and then abandons the effort to enforce it for fear of mob-violence is thoroughly despicable. The least respectable form of oppression is that which is constantly miscalculating its own powers, and is never quite able to make up its own mind.

However, the repeal of the Stamp Act produced such universal satisfaction in America that all outward signs of disloyalty to the Crown disappeared completely. New York received a new governor who behaved with such wisdom and moderation, and showed such a conciliatory disposition, that the royalist or court party revived in full strength. In the struggle over the legislative elections of 1768, they won a complete victory, led by the De Lanceys,—the Livingston or popular party being in a decided minority in the Assembly. It was this legislature, elected in the moment of reaction, that was in session when the Revolution broke out; and it lagged so far behind the temper of the people that it was finally set aside, and the initial work of the Revolutionary government committed to various improvised bodies.

In their joy over the repeal of the Stamp Act the citizens erected a monument to King George,—which the American soldiers pulled down in the early days of the Revolution, receiving in consequence a severe rebuke from Washington, who heartily despised such exhibitions of childish spite.

Even during these years of comparative loyalty, however, there was plenty of unrest and disturbance. There was perpetual wrangling over the Billeting Act, by which Parliament strove to force the colonists to pay for the troops quartered in their midst; an act concerning which there was something to be said on both sides. If England was to assume the burden of the common defense, she had to quarter her troops in the colonial towns, and it seemed fair that the colonists should pay for their quarters. On the other hand, if the colonists were not consulted in the matter, and if they were forced to pay for troops sent among them in time of peace, when no foreign enemy was to be feared, it looked much as if they were being made to support the very force that was to keep them in subjection. On the whole, the colonists were right in objecting to the presence of the troops in time of peace except on their own terms; although they thereby estopped themselves from insisting that the mother country should do more than its share in protecting them in time of war. If, of two parties, one raises the army for common defense, the other cannot except to have much to say about its disposal.

The British troops in garrison naturally disliked the townsfolk, on whom in turn their mere presence acted as an irritant. The soldiers when out of barracks and away from the control of their officers were always coming into collision with the mob, in which the seafaring element was strong; and the resulting riots not infrequently involved also the respectable mechanics and small traders, and even the merchants and gentry. The great source of quarrel was the liberty pole. This had been erected on the anniversary of the king’s birth, June 6, 1766, to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act; there was a great barbecue on the occasion,—an ox being roasted whole on the common,—while hogsheads of punch and ale were broached, bonfires were lit, and amid the booming of cannon and pealing of bells a flag was hoisted with the inscription, “The King, Pitt, and Liberty,”—the colonists being enthusiastically devoted to their two great parliamentary champions, Pitt and Burke.

The liberty pole was an eyesore to the soldiers in the fort, and its destruction or attempted destruction became one of their standing pastimes. Several times they succeeded, usually when they sallied out at night; and then the liberty pole was chopped down or burnt up. The townsfolk, headed by the Sons of Liberty, always gathered to the rescue. If too late to save the pole, they put up another one, and stood guard over it; if in time to attempt a rescue, a bloody riot followed. In the latter part of January, 1770, parties of soldiers and townsfolk fought a series of pitched battles in the streets, the riot lasting for two days. It began by a successful surprise on the part of the soldiers, who cut down the pole early one morning. The townsfolk held an indignation meeting and denounced vengeance on the soldiers, who retaliated by posting derisive placards on the walls of the fort and public buildings. A series of skirmishes ensued in which heads were broken, and men cut and stabbed,—the soldiers being usually overcome by numbers, all of the working-men and every sailor in town swarming out to assail the redcoats. Some of the hardest fighting occurred when a troop of soldiers attacked a number of sailors, who were rescued by some of the Liberty Boys who had been playing ball on the Common. Several persons were badly injured, and in one scuffle a sailor was thrust through with a bayonet, and slain; after which his comrades, armed with bludgeons, drubbed the soldiers into their barracks. The upshot was that the townsfolk were victorious, and the liberty pole was not again molested.

This was the first bloodshed in the struggle which culminated in the Revolution. It occurred six weeks before the so-called “Boston Massacre,”—an incident of the same kind, in which, however, the Americans were much less clearly in the right than they were in the New York case. Even in New York the soldiers had doubtless been sorely provoked by the taunts and jeers of the townsmen; but there was absolutely no justification for their cutting down the liberty pole, and the New Yorkers were perfectly right in refusing to submit tamely to such an outrage.

The chief fault seems to have lain with the garrison officers, who should have kept their men under restraint, or else have taken immediate steps to remedy the wrong they did in cutting down the pole.

This rioting however produced no more than local irritation. After the repeal of the Stamp Act, the colonies were not again stirred by a common emotion until the passage by Parliament of the Tea Act, avowedly passed, and avowedly resisted simply to test the principle of taxation. Its enactment was the signal for the Sons of Liberty and other societies—such as that of the Mohawks—to reorganize at once. In Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, the sentiment was unanimous that the tea shipped from England should be thrown overboard or shipped back; and Boston was the first to put the threat into execution. New York followed suit in April, 1774, when the first tea ships reached the harbor, only to be boarded by an excited multitude who heaved the tea-chests of one vessel into the harbor, and forced the other to stand out to sea without landing her cargo.

The measures of retaliation against Boston taken by the British government, aroused in New York the liveliest sympathy for the New Englanders. The radical party, acting without any authority through a self-constituted Committee of Vigilance, began to correspond with the Boston extremists; and this gave alarm to the moderate men, who at once aroused themselves and took the matter into their own hands, so as not to be compromised by unwise and hasty action. Accordingly, to the chagrin of the extremists, they promptly disowned and repudiated the action of the vigilance committee. At the same time they thoroughly distrusted the zeal of their aristocratic legislature. They therefore convoked a meeting of the freeholders, who with due solemnity elected a Committee of Fifty-one to correspond with the other colonies. This committee was entirely in the hands of the moderate men, even containing in its ranks several Tories and very few of the radicals, and did a piece of work of which it is difficult to overestimate the importance; for it was the first authoritatively to suggest the idea of holding the first Continental Congress. This suggestion is said to have been adopted by the advice of John Jay, a young lawyer of good Huguenot family. Under the auspices of the committee the freeholders chose five delegates to this congress,—including John Jay, and as a matter of course, one of the Livingstons also. The radicals and extremists, the Sons of Liberty and the old Committee of Vigilance, with the Committee of Mechanics—the body supposed to represent most nearly the unenfranchised classes—were greatly discontented with the moderate measures of the Committee of Fifty-one; and there was very nearly a rupture between the two wings of the patriot party. By mutual concessions this was averted; and the delegates were elected without opposition. They took their full part in the acts of the first Continental Congress during its short session, the colony being thereby committed to the common cause. At the same time, when the Committee of Fifty-one went out of existence its place was taken by another, differing in little more than the fact of having sixty members.