Alexander McDougall



The die was cast. Opposition to taxation without representation was the prevailing rule in all the colonies. In Boston the people endured the presence of soldiers, with whom almost daily irritating collisions took place. In New York, late in 1769, there was much political excitement growing out of an indirect method of cheating the people into a compliance with the provisions of the mutiny act proposed by a desperate tory coalition. It was the issuing of bills of credit, on the security of the province, to the amount of $700,000, to be loaned to the people, the interest to be applied to defraying the expenses of the colonial government. It was none other than a proposition for a monster bank, without checks, for the purpose of applying the profits to defraying the expenses of keeping troops in the province. It was also a game for political power which menaced the liberties of the people. When an act for this purpose was before the Assembly, the leaders of the popular party raised a cry of alarm. Early on Sunday morning, the 16th of December, 1769, a hand-bill was found widely distributed over the city of New York, addressed, in large letters, "To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York," and was signed, "A Son of Liberty." It denounced the money scheme as a deception covering wickedness; declared that evidently the proposition to grant supplies to the troops unqualifiedly was an acknowledgment of the right to exact such subsidies, and a virtual approval of all the revenue acts; and that the scheme was intended to divide and distract the colonies. It directed the attention of the Assembly to the patriotic attitude of the other colonies, and exhorted them to imitate their example. It hinted at a corrupt coalition between the acting-governor (Colden) and the head of a powerful family (De Lancey), and called upon the Assembly to repudiate the act concocted by this combination. It closed with a summons of the inhabitants to a meeting in The Fields the next day, to express their views and to instruct their representatives in the Assembly to oppose the measure; and in case they should refuse, to send notice thereof to every Assembly in America, and to publish their names to the world.

Not less than fourteen hundred people assembled around the Liberty-Pole, on Monday, where they were harangued by John Lamb, an active Son of Liberty and afterward an efficient artillery officer in the Continental Army. He was then thirty-four years of age; a prosperous merchant, a fluent speaker, and vigorous writer. He swayed the multitude on that occasion by his eloquence and logic; and by unanimous vote they condemned the action of the Assembly in passing obnoxious bills. Their sentiments were embodied in a communication to that House, which was borne by a committee of seven leading Sons of Liberty, namely: Isaac Sears, Caspar Wistar, Alexander McDougall, Jacob Van Zandt, Samuel Broome, Erasmus Williams, and James Varick.

The leaven of toryism then permeated the New York Assembly. When the obnoxious hand-bill was read by the Speaker, Mr. De Lancey moved that the sense of the House should be taken "whether the said paper was not an infamous and scandalous libel." When the vote was taken, twenty of the pliant Assembly voted that it was so, and only one member voted No. That member was Philip Schuyler. He boldly faced the rising storm, and by his solitary vote rebuked, in a most emphatic manner, the cowardice of those of his compeers who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him in former trials. The assembly then set about ferreting out the author of the hand-bill. They authorized the lieutenant governor to offer a reward of $500 for the discovery of the offender. Lamb was cited before the House, but was soon discharged. The printer of the hand-bill, when discovered, was brought to the bar, when the frightened man gave the name of Alexander McDougall as the author. He was the son of a Scotchman from the Hebrides, a sailor, an ardent Son of Liberty, and afterward a major-general in the Continental Army. He was taken before the House, where he would make no acknowledgment and refused to give bail. He was indicted for libel and cast into prison, where he remained fourteen weeks until arraigned for trial, when he pleaded not guilty, and gave bail. On that occasion "he spoke with vast propriety," William Smith wrote to Schuyler, "and awed and astonished many who wish him ill, and added, I believe, to the number of his friends." Several months afterward he was again brought before the House, when he was defended by George Clinton, an active member of that body, who became the first governor of the State of New York. To the question whether he was the author of the hand-bill signed "A Son of Liberty," McDougall replied, "That as the Grand Jury and the Assembly had declared the paper a libel, he could not answer; that as he was under prosecution in the Supreme Court, he conceived it would be an infraction of justice to punish twice for one offence; but that he would not deny the authority of the House to punish for a breach of privilege when no cognizance was taken of it, in another court." His answer was declared to be a contempt, and he was again imprisoned. In February, 1771, he was released and was never afterward molested. "I rejoice," said McDougall, when ordered to prison, "that I am the first to suffer for liberty since the commencement of our glorious struggle."

McDougall was regarded as a martyr. "The imprisoned sailor," says John C. Hamilton, in his biography of his father, General Alexander Hamilton, "was deemed the true type of imprisoned commerce. To soften the rigors of his confinement, to evince the detestation of its authors, and in his person to plead the public wrongs, became a duty of patriotism. On the anniversary of the repeal of the stamp act, his health was drank with honors, and the meeting, in procession, visited him in prison. Ladies of distinction daily thronged there. Popular songs were written, and sung under his prison bars, and emblematic swords were worn. His name was upon every lip. The character of each individual conspicuous in the great controversy became a subject of comment; and the applause which followed the name of Schuyler, gave a new value to the popularity his firmness had acquired."

McDougall was emphatically a "man of the people." He thoroughly sympathized with those classes in society--the working men and women--who are generally weak in social and political influence where, as then in New York, an aristocratic class bears rule, because of their inability to make their voices heard by those in authority. Without any of the spirit of a demagogue, he was a popular leader, because the people saw that his whole soul was enlisted in his efforts in their behalf, and like every really earnest man, the utterances of his convictions carried with them great weight. He was a true type of what is generally known as the "common people"--the great mass of citizens who carry on the chief industries of a country--its agriculture, commerce, manufactures and arts.





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