Political History of New York in 1774



The state of political society in New York in 1774 was peculiar. The professed republicans were divided by political distractions and social differences, and were designated by the respective titles of Patricians and Tribunes. The former were composed of the merchants and gentry, and the latter were mostly the mechanics. The former, who were conservative, joined with the loyalists in attempts to check the influence of the radical democrats of Hampden Hall. With these conservatives were found most of the leading merchants, who, as a class, were (as usual) averse to popular commotions which disturbed trade. They were not ready to enter into nonimportation agreements again hastily; and the letter which the Hampden Hall patriots sent by Ludlow, to Boston, alarmed them and the conservative republicans. A meeting was called at a public-house, "to consult on the measures to be pursued in consequence of the late extraordinary advices received from England." At that meeting a Committee of Fifty were nominated as "representatives of public sentiment in New York." A few of the radicals were placed upon the committee; and at another meeting held on the 19th of May, the nomination was ratified and one more added to the committee, making the number Fifty-one. Concerning this movement, Governor Morris wrote to a friend:

"The heads of the nobility grow dangerous to the gentry, and how to keep them down is the question. While they correspond with the other colonies, call and dismiss popular assemblies, make resolves to bind the consciences of the rest of mankind, bully poor printers, and exert with full force all their tribunitial powers, it is impossible to curb them. But art sometimes goes further than force, and, therefore, to trick them handsomely, a Committee of Patricians was to be nominated, and into their hands was to be committed the majority of the people, and the highest trust was to be reposed in them by a mandate that they should take care quod republica, non capiat injuriam. The Tribunes, through the want of good legerdemain in the senatorial order, perceived the finesse, and yesterday I was present at a grand division of the city, and there I beheld my fellow-citizens very accurately counting their chickens, not only before they were hatched, but before one-half of the eggs were laid. In short, they fairly contended about the future form of our government--whether it should be founded on aristocratic or democratic principles."

The grand Committee of Fifty-one publicly repudiated the strong letter sent to Boston by the radicals on the 14th of May. They received Paul Revere courteously, but did not agree with the proposal of the Bostonians to revive nonimportation or non-intercourse agreements. They sent a letter to Boston (supposed to have been written by John Jay) expressing their dissent, but heartily approving of a General Congress; and in another letter on the 7th of June, they requested the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence to name a time and place for the holding of a General Congress. The people of the other colonies approved non-intercourse, and New York, as represented by the Grand Committee, stood alone in opposition to a stringent nonimportation league. The loyalists rejoiced, and a writer in Rivington's Royal Gazette exultingly exclaimed:

"And so, my good masters, I find it no joke, For York has stepped forward and thrown off the yoke Of Congress, Committees, and even King Sears, Who shows you good nature by showing his ears."

But the "Committee of Vigilance," appointed by the Hampden Hall patriots, were not awed by the acts of the Grand Committee. They called a mass-meeting of citizens in The Fields on the 19th of June, when, by resolutions, the lukewarmness of the Committee of Fifty-one was denounced; sympathy with, and a determination to support the Bostonians were expressed, and the appointment of delegates to the General Congress, instructed to advocate non-intercourse with Great Britain, was urged. Nothing further was done to excite public attention until many days afterward, when the Committee of Fifty-one met on the evening of the 4th of July, and on motion of Alexander McDougall, five deputies to the General Congress were nominated. These were Philip Livingston, John Alsop, Isaac Low, James Duane, and John Jay. McDougall proposed to submit the nominations (which were approved) to the Tribunes, or "Committee of Mechanics," for their concurrence. The proposition was rejected. McDougall was offended, and the next day a handbill, doubtless prepared by him, appeared throughout the city, inviting the people to a meeting in The Fields at six o'clock in the evening of the 6th. An immense gathering was there, for they were called "to hear matters of the utmost importance to their reputation and security as freemen." It was ever afterwards known as The Great Meeting in The Fields. McDougall was called to the chair, and a series of strong resolutions, among others one in favor of a stringent non-intercourse league, were adopted.

On that occasion, a notable event occurred. In the crowd was a delicate boy, girl-like in personal grace and stature, about seventeen years of age, who was a student in King's (now Columbia) College, and known as the "Young West Indian." This boy had been often seen walking alone under the shadows of great trees on Dey Street, sometimes musing, and some-times talking, in low tones, to himself. Some of the residents in that neighborhood had, occasionally, engaged him in conversation, and had been impressed with his wisdom and sagacity. When they saw him in the crowd they urged him to address the meeting, but he modestly refused. After listening to several speakers, and finding that important considerations had been overlooked by them, he summoned courage to present himself before the people. It was then almost sunset. The great multitude were hushed into silence at the appearance of the slender boy. "Overawed by that multitude, he hesitated and faltered," says a recent writer; "but as he proceeded, almost unconsciously, to utter his accustomed reflections, his mind warmed with the theme--his energies were recovered. After a discussion, clear, cogent and novel, of the great principles involved in the controversy, he depicted in the glowing colors of adult youth the long-continued and long-endured oppressions of the mother-country. Insisting upon the duty of resistance, he pointed to the means and certainty of success, and described the waves of rebellion sparkling with fire, and washing back on the shores of England the wrecks of her power, of her wealth, and her glory. The breathless silence ceased when he closed, and a whispered murmur `It is a collegian! it is a collegian!' was lost in loud expressions of wonder and applause at the extraordinary eloquence of the young stranger."

The orator was Alexander Hamilton, a native of the Island of Nevis, in the West Indies, who then first entered upon that extraordinary, useful and brilliant career in public life, for thirty years afterward, which placed him in the front rank among the statesmen of our country.

The Committee of Fifty-one were alarmed by the great demonstration in The Fields. They submitted the nominations of deputies to the Tribunes, but neutralized the effect of their concession by declaring that the resolutions passed by the great meeting were seditious. This offended several of the staunch republicans of the committee, and eleven of them instantly withdrew. It was not long before that aristocratic body disappeared as an organization, and the Hampden Hall Sons of Liberty became the tribunes of the people. The city of New York elected the nominees. Neighboring counties chose four others, and the delegation from the province of New York were nine in number.





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