The Battle For New York: The City At the Heart of American Revolution

The Battle For New York: The City At the Heart of American Revolution

by Barnet Schecter, Ellen Cipriano

The Battle for New York tells the story of how the city became the pivot on which the American Revolution turned: from the political and religious struggles of the 1760s and early '70s that made the city a hotbed of political action to the campaign of 1776 that turned today's five boroughs and Westchester County into a series of battlefields to the seven


The Battle for New York tells the story of how the city became the pivot on which the American Revolution turned: from the political and religious struggles of the 1760s and early '70s that made the city a hotbed of political action to the campaign of 1776 that turned today's five boroughs and Westchester County into a series of battlefields to the seven years of British occupation and martial law. The struggle for control of New York was by far the largest military venture of the Revolutionary War, involving almost every significant participant on both sides from General William Howe to Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold to George Washington. Barnet Schecter brilliantly links eighteenth-century events with the city's modern landscape, illuminating the forgotten battlefield that remains in our midst.

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Penguin Publishing Group
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6.08(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.03(d)
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Read an Excerpt

The Battle for New York

The City at the Heart of the American Revolution
By Barnet Schecter

Penguin Books

Copyright © 2003 Barnet Schecter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0142003336

Chapter One

The Bastions of Authority

* * *

The night of Friday, November 1, 1765, was moonless and still. At the southern tip of Manhattan, two restless mobs surged through the dark streets of New York, lighting their way with lanterns, torches, and the glow of 500 candles. During the day the hated Stamp Act had taken effect, and New York City shut down. Residents deserted the streets and closed up their shops, while in the tense quiet the equally detested Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden prepared for the outbreak of violence that promised to accompany his enforcement of the new tax.

In his forty-four years as a royal official in New York, Colden had antagonized the colonists at almost every turn while failing to win more than tepid approval from his superiors in London. For the previous two years, residents had anxiously awaited a successor to the last royal governor, Robert Monckton, while Colden filled the vacancy. In this latest crisis, the stubborn seventy-seven-year-old lieutenant governor asked that marines from the British warships in the harbor take up positions inside Fort George at the foot of Broadway.

Instead of cannonballs, the fort's guns were loaded with canvas sacks of small lead and iron balls called grapeshot-far deadlier against a crowd at close range. Two guns were wheeled up against the inside of the fort's wooden gates in case demonstrators broke through, while others were aimed up Broadway. Colden in turn was warned that if the soldiers opened fire, he would pay with his life; the death threat, posted in the Merchants' Coffee House during the day, was delivered to the gates of the fort at dusk.

Inside the fort, a ton and a half of specially marked paper, parchment, and vellum awaited distribution to City Hall, the courts, lawyers' offices, printing houses, and retail stores, among other enterprises that required paper to conduct business. The embossed square stamp on every sheet constituted a tax that would be added to the price Americans paid when they bought a newspaper or almanac, for example, or when they needed a legal document, such as a marriage or liquor license. For the first time, the Crown attempted to reach beyond tariffs for regulating trade within the empire and imposed a tax that invaded the daily life of every American.

Adding to the burden, the Currency Act of the previous year had abolished colonial paper money as legal tender, even though it was badly needed as a medium of exchange. Despite the shortage of hard currency, the new law required that the stamp tax be paid in silver. Prime Minister George Grenville's new program for taxing the colonies was ostensibly for their own protection: Britain, heavily in debt from the Seven Years' War that had ended in 1763, needed the colonists to defray the cost of defending vast territories on their own frontiers that had been won in the struggle against France. New York's economy, meanwhile, was in the depths of a postwar depression; when the military contracts and British soldiers disappeared, the boom years of the 1750s came to an end.

When the stamped paper first arrived toward the end of October, an angry mob of 2,000 people had stood on the wharf to prevent the ship Edward from unloading its cargo. However, Colden had tricked them by sneaking the stamps into the fort at night. On Thursday, October 31, more than 200 New York merchants struck back with the first act of open rebellion in the American colonies: They gathered at George Burns's City Arms Tavern, five doors up from the fort on the west side of Broadway, and signed an agreement to boycott British goods until Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. Merchants in other colonies soon committed themselves to similar non-importation pacts.

As night fell on November 1, a huge crowd formed, this time on the Common. The demonstrators included day laborers, shopkeepers, tavern owners, blacksmiths, carpenters, and seamen as well as wealthy merchants. They placed a paper effigy of Colden in a chair and one of the seamen carried it on his head. Cheering loudly at each corner, the mob set off down Queen Street. When they reached the house of James McEvers at Wall Street, they gave him three cheers for giving up his post as stamp distributor for New York. Then they proceeded to the fort, broke into the coach house, and stole Colden's carriage. With the effigy of the lieutenant governor seated inside, and one man with a whip acting as the driver, the crowd pulled the coach around the city. At the corner of Water and Wall Streets, they were cheered by patrons of the Merchants' Coffee House. As more people joined the parade, it turned up Broadway and headed back to the Common. By this time the second crowd was coming down Broadway carrying a movable gallows from which they hung another effigy of Colden. The dummy held paper in its hands, representing the stamp tax, while the devil, hanging next to him, instructed his disciple.

The combined mobs-with 2,000 marchers, the coach, and gallows-became a grand procession that returned to the fort, where they threw bricks and stones over the walls, pounded on the gates with clubs, and taunted the troops to fire. When it seemed that the marchers were about to crash through the gates and storm the fort, their leaders intervened and restrained them. As Colden and his entourage watched from the ramparts, the mob regrouped at Bowling Green across the street. Right under the muzzles of the fort's guns the unruly crowd tore down the wooden fence around the lawn and used it to make a bonfire of the effigies, the gallows, and the costly carriage.

However, the climax of the night's violence was yet to come. As the mob stoked the funeral pyre, some of the protesters slipped away to Major Thomas James's mansion. James was the artillery officer in charge of the fort who had promised publicly to cram the stamps down New Yorkers' throats with the end of his sword. In response, a rumor circulated that he was to be buried alive. James had leased Vauxhall, an elegant estate overlooking the Hudson River between Chambers and Warren Streets at the northern edge of the city. The detachment of rioters chased off the fifteen soldiers standing guard and ransacked the house. Mahogany tables, silk curtains, featherbeds, mirrors, and china were all heaped on a bonfire while the mob raided the wine cellar and drank or destroyed more than nine casks of liquor. They kept going until four in the morning, destroying the valuable library and every other room in the house, as well as the gardens and summerhouses outside. Carpenters with crowbars and hammers smashed the windows and doors, including their frames, leaving only the mansion's shell intact. Having trampled the wealth and ostentation of Vauxhall, the rioters moved on to attack what they deemed to be nests of sin and corruption: several brothels that catered to British soldiers.

With daylight came the pealing of all the city's bells, as the rioters exulted and ended their rampage with a final flourish. In a city less than a square mile in area, with twenty-two churches and a skyline dominated by steeples, the din was inescapable. Captain John Montresor, the chief engineer who had prepared the fort to maximize the raking fire of its guns, wrote disgustedly in his journal: "The mob got the permission to toll the Bells of the several Churches, meetings and other houses of worship except the Churches of England, which they broke into and tolled the bells at half after nine."

Like Montresor, the city's wealthy merchants, including those who participated in what began as a nonviolent protest, were appalled by the sacking of Major James's mansion. New York's commercial aristocracy feared that its own property would be next. While these patricians resented British attempts to tax them without their consent and thereby curb the power of the provincial legislature, through which they exerted their influence, they also feared mob rule and the leaders they saw as demagogues inciting a social revolution within the province. Similar riots had broken out in other American cities earlier that year, and some members of New York's elite believed that a civil war across the entire continent was not far off. Ultimately, the wealthiest merchants' interests lay with Britain's commercial empire, and most of them would become loyalists when events forced them to choose.

The Churches of England that the rioters broke into, like Fort George, were bastions of royal power in New York City. The 175-foot steeple of Trinity Episcopal Church at Broadway and Wall Street towered above the rest of the skyline. The lavishly decorated interior, and the expensive carriages lined up waiting for their owners on Sundays, also proclaimed the wealth and influence of Trinity's Anglican congregation. Anglicanism was the official, established religion in England, and while its members in New York made up only 10 percent of the population, they included the governor, the lieutenant governor, most of the royal Council, and many members of the Assembly, as well as numerous wealthy merchants and landowners from old established families. Anglicans of modest means attended one of two other churches in less desirable locations: St. George's Chapel, near the stench of a tannery, or St. Paul's Chapel, six blocks north of Trinity, on the edge of a slum that housed the city's sex industry.

By the 1760s, New York had already acquired its modern reputation as a cosmopolitan center catering to every human desire-from the spiritual to the carnal. It had the most religious diversity of any city in America and also the most brothels. New Yorkers even had a sardonic nickname for the neighborhood where the sacred and profane overlapped. Because the Anglican Church owned most of the land north of St. Paul's Chapel and west of Broadway, the district-with its hundreds of prostitutes-was slyly dubbed the "Holy Ground." The concentration of brothels near the church was also convenient both to nearby King's College and to the barracks of the British soldiers across Broadway on Chambers Street. Prostitution rose sharply in New York at the end of the 1760s and in the early 1770s as a decade of economic hard times took an especially high toll on single women who had no other means of support.

The sources of the city's ethnic and religious heterogeneity were much older. New York inherited the richness of its urban culture from seventeenth-century Amsterdam, which was one of Europe's most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities because it sheltered a wide array of religious dissidents fleeing Spanish oppression in the southern provinces of the Netherlands. When the Dutch West India Company founded a trading post on Manhattan in 1624, it was called New Amsterdam, and its laws guaranteed freedom of worship to anyone who wished to live there and help the company make a profit in the fur trade. The city's success rested on these two mutually reinforcing pillars: unfettered commerce and freedom of conscience. However, this ideal of tolerance did not extend to the Native Americans just outside the city, many of whom were butchered in clashes with Dutch soldiers.

When the British seized New Amsterdam in 1664-and renamed it New York in honor of its new ruler, James Stuart, the duke of York-they granted religious freedom to the Dutch inhabitants. A little more than a century later, waves of immigration had brought more nationalities and religions to New York than to any other American city. Besides the English and Dutch, there were French, German, Scottish, Irish, Swedish, and Portuguese residents as well as African slaves. Most ethnic groups introduced their own religious denomination into the city's mix of Anglicans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, Methodists, Moravians, Lutherans, Baptists, German Calvinists, Anabaptists, Huguenots, Sephardic Jews, and Catholics. Hence the twenty-two houses of worship, half of which were either built or renovated during an upsurge of religious fervor in the quarter century leading up to the Revolution.

British toleration of diversity did not mean equality, however. As the Anglican Church guarded and expanded its own power, it sought to curb the growth of the dissenting churches. Nonetheless, Presbyterianism gained many adherents in the 1740s by attracting ethnic and religious groups that fervently opposed the English and Anglicanism, among them Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants, New England and Long Island Puritans, Dutch Reformed Converts, and individuals of mixed Dutch and Scottish descent.

The Presbyterian-Anglican rivalry was inextricably enmeshed with the Byzantine world of New York politics. The dominant pattern in this mosaic of intermarriage and political alliances between New York's patrician families was the contest between the commercial and landed interests. Among the American colonies, the emergence of equally powerful "merchant" and "country" elites was unique to New York because its rivers and harbor supported trade while large estates could be carved out of the vast hinterlands.

James De Lancey, who dominated city and provincial politics as acting governor for most of the 1750s, led a coalition of the city's wealthy, and mostly Anglican, merchants that included three other families at its core-the Schuylers, the Philipses, and the Van Cortlandts. (James De Lancey's father, a French Huguenot, had converted to Anglicanism to solidify his social position in New York.) Also in their orbit were the Stuyvesants, Waltons, Bayards, and De Peysters.

An alliance of landed interest groups gathered around the Livingston and Morris families-headed by Robert Livingston Jr. and Lewis Morris Jr.-and competed fiercely against the De Lanceyites for votes and influence. Presbyterians for the most part, the Livingstonites were vocal opponents of the Anglican Church and hoped to threaten its supremacy by gathering all of New York's dissenting churches under their banner. The two factions also disagreed on issues like taxation, since the De Lanceyites' fortunes stemmed from trade, while the Livingstons and their allies were primarily landowners and lawyers. These distinctions were not absolute, however: The leading merchants also invested in land, while the landed families could not sustain their opulent lifestyles solely by leasing farms on their vast estates and had to involve themselves in commerce to some extent.

In this oligarchic society, the great families exerted their political influence through a system of voice-vote elections, which denied voters the protection of a secret ballot. The tenant farmers on the manors along the Hudson and the middle-class artisans who made up the bulk of voters in New York City were equally susceptible to intimidation, because their loyalty could be monitored by the powerful landlords and merchants who controlled their livelihoods.


Excerpted from The Battle for New York by Barnet Schecter Copyright © 2003 by Barnet Schecter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Barnet Schecter is a historian whose writing has appeared in the New York Observer, Metropolis, Village Voice, Washington Post, New Art Examiner, and Terra Nova.

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