All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1963

Foreshadows of the Declaration of Independence in the New York Press

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.