Dr. Polin is Associate Professor of Political Science, Graduate School, St. John’s University, Jamaica, New York.
In July 3, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted a resolution which has become a familiar part of the living language of America. We easily recognize these words contained in the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The conclusion of this document solemnly promises: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
An expression of similar sentiments and language is contained in a broadside which was distributed in the streets of New York City and reprinted in its weekly press. Its opening paragraphs, directed against the British home government’s misuse of its political power, declare:
These sacred Rights we receive from God in our Nature, and for their Preservation we are accountable both to Him, and to Posterity, to whom it is our indispensable Duty to hand them down inviolate as we received them from our Ancestors.
The Laws and Constitution of the Government of England, our native Country, are founded upon these Laws of God and Nature, and on that Account, receive all their value.—On that Account, the People by Common Consent, exalt Men naturally their Equals, to be Magistrates and Rulers over them, and endow them with Riches and Honour; and with Power to enforce the Laws for the public Good,—to protect Individuals in the Enjoyment of their Rights, and to restrain or punish Oppressors.
The Experience of Ages has shewn this excellent Constitution of the English Government, to be the best that ever obtained in the World, for preserving the natural Rights, and promoting the Happiness of Mankind. No Wonder then, that this Constitution should be so dear to every Englishman—to all that are acquainted with its Value. Who, that deserves the Name of an Englishman, would see an open Attempt made to destroy, and for ever root it out from America, without exerting all his Power, and hazarding his Life and Fortune for its Preservation?
Does this broadside indicate that its author, who signed himself Freeman, borrowed rather heavily from Thomas Jefferson in order to reinforce the message that had been proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence? Not at all. For this throw-away was distributed on December 17, 1765, and it was reprinted in the New-York Mercury on December 23, 1765, more than ten years prior to publication of the Declaration.
Does this indicate, instead, that perhaps Thomas Jefferson borrowed from or was influenced by the writings of John Morin Scott (1730?-1784), the New York lawyer, soldier, and congressman who is generally identified by historians as Freeman? This is more logically conceivable; but no one should jump to any unwarranted conclusions of impropriety on the part of Jefferson or that there is necessarily a direct relationship between the two documents quoted.
For one thing, it is always possible—and more likely—that both Jefferson and Scott (assuming that Freeman is Scott) were influenced by and borrowed heavily from the same sources. These would include especially James Otis, Emmerich von Vattel, John Locke, Algernon Sidney, Roberto Bellarmino, and Cicero, to say nothing of the general intellectual climate of the Age of Reason.
Sons of Liberty in New York
But one conclusion that does properly suggest itself, is that New York may not be receiving the deserved recognition of its role in promoting the Independence movement and the Declaration that symbolizes it, and that the role of the New York City press in this regard is also usually underestimated.
For example, in line with popularly accepted notions concerning preparation for the struggle, we find that long years after occurrence of the events, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—among others—argued the question of whether the Committees of Correspondence which were so intimately connected with the American Revolution, originated in Virginia or Massachusetts in the 1770′s. Yet it is now more than a hundred years since Henry B. Dawson wrote and privately printed in 1859 his little work entitled The Sons of Liberty in New York which showed that, instead, it was New York that was entitled to this honor by approximately ten years.
But Massachusetts and Virginia still continue to be regarded with a glamor and distinction that is not matched by New York in the popular mind. For after all, did not the acts of armed resistance begin in Massachusetts with the
Boston "Massacre" of 1770, the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and the fighting at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in 1775? Were not George Washington and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia respectively Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and author of the Declaration of Independence? Were not all of the early Presidents exclusively from Virginia and Massachusetts? And was not Pennsylvania of a similar character, with the Continental Congress meeting there and Washington wintering at Valley Forge, to say nothing of the writings and activities of Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Thomas Paine and the later meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?
The proper answer contains some strong reservations, especially in terms of contributions to the spirit and contents of the Declaration of Independence, the military struggle against Britain, and the movement for the Constitution.
Early Signs of Resistance
To begin with, there is not a significant idea contained in the Declaration of Independence which was not expressed vocally and in print in New York long before July, 1776. Even the language, including many of the phrases themselves, as we have shown above, appeared in the press of New York City before the decade of the 1770′s.
Indeed, as early as 1753 we find asserted in the New York City press the right of resistance against a King and government that did not properly limit their power by observing the inalienable, natural rights of the people and the separation of church and state. Opposition to the founding of King’s College (today Columbia University) as a religiously established agency of the provincial government evoked a lively article in the Independent Reflector which is usually assigned to William Livingston or possibly William Smith, Jr. Both Livingston and Smith were close friends of John Morin Scott and fellow agitators across the years. Regardless of authorship, we find a prophetic discussion in this article of the reservation unto the people of this right of resistance against illegal power:
Such Reservation would only be corroborative of their radical inherent Right of Self-Defence; which is not the Donation of Law, but a primitive Right, prior to all political Institution resulting from the Nature of Man, and inhering in the People till expressly alienated and transferred, if it be not in its Nature unalienable, which may admit of debate….
Strong similarity to the language of the Declaration of Independence appeared again in another anonymous article which was printed a few months later in the Occasional Reverberator in support of the position of the Independent Reflector:
Therefore, when this Right of Liberty is infringed by Civil Government, such Government is degenerated into Usurpation and Tyranny; and the Right of Self-defence, in the Oppressed, is under no other Regulation, than that of Prudence. But Prudence directs rather to bear smaller Grievances, than oppose, Force to Force, on unequal Terms, in the Recovery of our Liberties.
For note the following words which also appear in the Declaration:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience bath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing inevitably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
And, again, it must be repeated that the effort is not being made here to ascribe any improper lack of originality to Jefferson. Indeed, many years after 1776, Jefferson himself disavowed what he would have considered an improper originality, declaring: "I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before." Instead, Jefferson stated, "I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it." He further described his purpose (in a letter of May 8, 1825, to Henry Lee) by saying: "Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiments, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind…." Jefferson’s own conclusion, therefore, is that: "All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public rights, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc."
A Center of Opposition
The effort is being made here, however, to demonstrate that the colony—or more properly speaking, the Royal Province—of New York, and New York City especially, were important in the early resistance movement, and later proved decisive during the course of the Revolution, however loyal much of the population remained to Great Britain. We may go even further and say that a similarly significant role was played by the people and press of New York City and State in the movement for the framing and adoption of the Federal Constitution in the 1780′s.
Why so? New York‘s strategic importance becomes evident with only a quick glance at the map. The British were aware of this, and before the Revolution made New York City their military headquarters for the entire continent of North America. Consequently, New York was the center of opposition to the various Mutiny or Quartering Acts and their requisitioning features which provided extra burdens for the taxpayers and households of New York. The Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 evoked especial protest in New York. As an important seaport, sparked by her merchants and their legal counselors, the Sons of Liberty, and a very vocal press, New York was host to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and the hub of the controversy for some time. She was also a leader of the Non-Importation movement that helped bring about repeal of most of the Townshend tax measures. Conflicts between the local citizenry and the British garrison soldiers occurred in New York City long before the so-called Boston Massacre of 1770.
Outspoken Lawyers and Publishers
Strong expressions of theoretical justification to support their violent and nonviolent actions of protest were often printed by the New Yorkers in their press before the Revolution. The weekly gazettes of New York published all important resolutions of official and unofficial bodies and quite a few letters to the printer representing even opposition viewpoints. The rival newspapers had serialized columns which belabored each other in both gentlemanly and ungentlemanly fashion over the long-drawn-out issues of the day. The so-called "New York Triumvirate" of Presbyterian lawyers who were graduates of Yale, and have been mentioned above (William Livingston, John Morin Scott, and William Smith, Jr.), were the principal authors of some of the more radical of these columns, indicating the influence of their religious and educational backgrounds. Smith, however, was later on to remain Loyalist. These firebrands were aided and abetted in varying degrees bysuch publishers as Hugh Gaine, John Holt, James Parker, and William Weyman, who frequently changed partnerships and titles to such weekly offerings as the NewYork Mercury, New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, New-York Gazette; or the Weekly Post-Boy, and the New-York Journal; or, the General Advertiser.
That this was a long-lived tradition in New York is borne out by the Zenger Case of 1734-35 which established basic freedom of the press in the colonies, and which represents one of the few instances in which New York and its press are customarily given their due.
There are other such examples. We may note that the strategic importance of New York was recognized by the French, who regarded the American victory at Saratoga as the possible turning point of the struggle, and who thereupon signed a treaty of alliance with the Americans in 1778. We may also add that so important was New York militarily, that the great treason of the Revolution committed by Benedict Arnold involved control of the Hudson River.
And following the Revolution, where did the critical struggle for adoption of the Federal Constitution, which consolidated many of the gains of independence, take place? In New York. Alexander Hamilton was the single most important voice and force in calling the Constitutional Convention into being at Philadelphia in 1787. During the struggle for ratification, James Madison of Virginia joined with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay of New York in writing The Federalist Papers, because they all realized that as New York went, so would go the fate of the Constitution. These were published in the New York City press and reprinted throughout the country—as had occurred with the public resolves, addresses, and columns printed in New York for decades before July 4, 1776.
It is ironical, therefore, that the New York press, which in so many ways foreshadowed the Declaration of Independence, has all too often underestimated its own proud heritage.