Thirteen Colonies > Middle Colonies > Province of New York

Province of New York

Background

England's attempt to make the colonies pay the expenses of the war by means of the stamp tax thoroughly aroused the opposition of commercial New York, already chafing under the hardships imposed by the Navigation Acts and burdened with a war debt of its own exceeding £300,000. The assembly was almost unanimous in voicing its protest to the governor. It authorized its committee, which had been appointed to correspond with the New York agent in London, to correspond also with the committees in the other colonies and this committee represented New York in the Stamp Act Congress, a body which was called at the suggestion of Massachusetts, met in New York City in October 1765, was composed of twenty-seven members representing nine colonies, and drew up a declaration of rights, an address to the king, and a petition to each house of parliament. When the Sons of Liberty, a society composed largely of unfranchised mechanics and artisans of New York City, which began to dominate the movement immediately after the Congress adjourned, resorted to mob violence—destroying property and burning in effigy the governor and other officers—the propertied classes drew back, and a few years later the popular or patriot party lost its control of the assembly.

Since the Zenger trial there had been a court party and a popular party: the former included many wealthy Anglicans and was under the leadership of the De Lanceys, the latter included many wealthy and influential dissenters and was under the leadership of the Livingstons. During the administration of Governor Clinton (1743-1753) a quarrel between the governor and James De Lancey, the chief-justice, had greatly weakened the court party, and nearly all its members supported their rivals in opposition to the Stamp Act. In the series of events which followed the first violence of the Sons of Liberty important changes were made in party lines. Personal rivalry and creed became subordinate to political principles.

The court party became the Loyalist party, standing for law as against rebellion, monarchy and the union of the empire as against republicanism; the popular party became the patriot party, determined to stand on its rights at any cost. The Stamp Act was repealed in March 1766, but the Townshend Acts, imposing duties on glass, paper, lead, painters' colours and tea, followed closely. They were met in New York by fresh outbursts of the Sons of Liberty and, as in the other colonies, by an association of nearly all the merchants, the members pledging themselves not to import anything from England until the duties were repealed. New York had also been requested to provide certain supplies for the British troops quartered in the city. This the assembly refused to do but parliament answered (1767) by forbidding it to do any other business until it complied.

It was under these conditions that the Loyalists, in the elections of 1768 and 1769, gained control of the assembly and in the latter year passed an act granting the soldiers' supplies. When, in 1770, all the duties except those on tea were repealed, the conservative merchants wished to permit the importation of all goods from England except tea. The Sons of Liberty strongly opposed this, but the conservatives won and went over to the Loyalists. The moderate Loyalists joined in the election of delegates to the first Continental Congress; but the great body of Loyalists in New York strongly disapproved of the “dangerous and extravagant” measures adopted by that body, and the assembly, in January 1775, refused to approve its acts or choose delegates to the second Continental Congress. The patriots met this refusal by calling a provincial convention to choose the delegates.

Scarcely had they done this when news of the encounter at Lexington produced a strong reaction in their favour, and in May 1775 they called a Provincial Congress which usurped the powers of the Assembly. Still, conditions were such in New York that a fight for independence was not to be lightly considered. The failure of Montgomery's expedition against Canada at the close of 1775 left the colony exposed to British attacks from the north. In the south the chief city was exposed to the British fleet. Sir William Johnson died in 1774, but under his influence and that of his son, Sir John Johnson, and his nephew Guy Johnson, the Mohawks and other Iroquois Indians had become firmly attached to the British side and threatened the western frontier. In various sections, too, considerable numbers of Loyalists were determined to aid the British. When, in June 1776, a vote on the Declaration of Independence was pending in the Continental Congress, the New York Provincial Congress refused to instruct its delegates in the matter; but a newly elected Provincial Congress, influenced by a Loyalist plot against the life of Washington, adopted the Declaration when it met, on the 9th of July.

The position of New York made it naturally one of the principal theatres of military operations during the War of Independence. It was a settled point of British military policy throughout the war to hold New York City, and from it, as a base, to establish a line of fortified posts along the Hudson by means of which communication might be maintained with another base on Lake Champlain. Such a scheme, if successfully carried out, would have driven a wedge into the line of colonial defence and cut off communication between New England and the southern colonies. A few days after the fight at Lexington and Concord, Connecticut authorized an expedition under Ethan Allen which surprised and captured Ticonderoga and Crown Point. In the following year (1776) the British began their offensive operations for the control of the Hudson; an army under Sir William Howe was to capture New York City and get control of the lower Hudson, while another army under Sir Guy Carleton was to retake Crown Point and Ticonderoga and get control of the upper Hudson. Howe, with a force of British and Loyalists vastly superior in equipment and numbers to Washington's untrained militia, landed in July on Staten Island and late in August defeated Washington at the battle of Long Island within the present limits of Brooklyn borough.

In the following month Washington withdrew from New York City which the British entered and held until the close of the war. Washington prepared to withstand the British behind fortifications on Harlem Heights, but discovering that Howe was attempting to outflank him by landing troops in the rear he retreated to the mainland, leaving only a garrison at Fort Washington, and established a line of fortified camps on the hills overlooking the Bronx river as far as White Plains. This brought on the battle of White Plains late in October, in which Howe gained no advantage; and from here both armies withdrew into New Jersey, the British capturing Fort Washington on the way, the Americans leaving behind garrisons to guard the Highlands of the Hudson.

In 1777 General John Burgoyne succeeded in taking Ticonderoga, but in the swampy forests southward from Lake Champlain he fought his way against heavy odds, and in the middle of October his campaign culminated disastrously in his surrender at Saratoga. Colonel Barry St Leger led an auxiliary expedition from Oswego against Fort Stanwix on the upper Mohawk, and on the 6th of August he fought at Oriskany one of the most bloody battles of the war, but a few days later, deserted by his terror-stricken Indian allies, he hastened back to Montreal. The British government intended that Howe should co-operate with Burgoyne by fighting his way up the Hudson, but as the secretary of state for the colonies neglected to send him such instructions this was not undertaken until early in October, and then an expedition for the purpose was placed under the command of Sir Henry Clinton.

Clinton met with little difficulty from the principal American defences of the Highlands, consisting of Forts Montgomery and Clinton on the western bank, together with a huge chain and boom stretched across the river to a precipitous mountain (Anthony's Nose) on the opposite bank, and ascended as far as Esopus (now Kingston) which he burned, but he was too late to aid Burgoyne. The year 1778 saw the bloody operations of the Tory Butlers and their Loyalist and Indian allies in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys and notably the massacre at Cherry Valley. In retaliation a punitive expedition under Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton in 1779 destroyed the Iroquois towns, and dealt the Indian confederacy a blow from which it never recovered. The American cause was strengthened this year also by several victories along the lower Hudson of which General Anthony Wayne's storming of the British fort at Stony Point was the most important. The closing episode of the war as far as New York was concerned was the discovery of Benedict Arnold's attempt in 1780 to betray West Point and other colonial posts on the Hudson to the British. On the 25th of November 1783 the British forces finally evacuated New York City, but the British posts on Lakes Erie and Ontario were not evacuated until some years later.

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Sources

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Secondary Sources

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 19