The City of New York from 1700 to 1770  Part I

With the opening of the eighteenth century, the city of New-York entered upon a course of steady, though moderate progress toward its present state of greatness and prospective increase. In population it had attained a size corresponding to that of a middle class country village of the present time, though in wealth and social advancement it was doubtless much below that standard. Its population was made up of immigrants from several countries in Europe, or the children of such immigrants, having all the characteristics of their several nationalities. The fusing process by which this heterogeneous mass has been reduced to its present homogeneousness had not then advanced to any considerable degree.

Composition of the Population

The largest division of the inhabitants were of Dutch origin, though the natives of the British islands and their descendants nearly equaled the original Dutch population. A considerable number of Swedes and other Scandinavians had been brought from the Swedish colony on the Delaware, and were settled in the city and its vicinity. The French Protestants also constituted a very respectable body in the population of the city and province: while a considerable number of Jews and other refugees from religious persecution contributed to the motley character of the social body. And last of all, of the population of the city, amounting in all to less than five thousand, about eight hundred were negroes, mostly slaves. Such were the conflicting elements of the social and political body of our infant metropolis, one hundred and fifty years ago of which it were too much to expect that its action would be altogether harmonious. The process by which most of these classes have since become amalgamated, was then in its incipiency, and it is not strange that the fermentation caused some disquiet.

Lord Cornbury's Administration

Lord Bellemont, the late popular governor, died early in the year 1701, and was buried in Trinity church-yard. After his death the colonists were broken up into factions, the soldiers in the garrison became mutinous, and a violent party spirit prevailed among all classes. Next year Lord Cornbury, son of the Earl of Clarendon, and grandson of the celebrated statesman and historian of that name, arrived in the province, bearing a royal commission as governor of New York and New Jersey. Though descended from an illustrious family, the new governor possessed very few qualities adapted to awaken the admiration of his subjects, or to commend the excellence of hereditary dignities. A profligate in life and character, he had been a burden to his friends at home, and was now sent abroad that he might be out of the reach of his creditors. He immediately identified himself with one of the leading factions in the province, and succeeded in procuring the election of an assembly having a majority of his own party. Two thousand pounds were voted by this assembly, ostensibly to pay the expense of the governor's voyage from England, but really as a present, and his annual salary fixed at $4,000 more than double the amount ever before allowed to a provincial governor. Soon after a large sum was voted to fortify the harbor, and the expenditure of it intrusted to the governor; but the fortifications were not made, nor was the money ever satisfactorily accounted for.

Troubles About Church Mailers

Cornbury was zealous for the Church of England, and denied the right of preachers and schoolmasters to exercise their functions in the province without a bishop's license. He accordingly caused two Presbyterian missionaries, sent out by some dissenters in England, to be arrested; but the jury acquitted them in the face of the evidence proving the charges laid against them, and the verdict was greeted by the people with a shout of applause. The governor's unpopularity continued to increase during the whole course of his administration, and, after many and strong remonstrances had been sent to England against him, he was at length dismissed from office in 1708, and immediately seized by his creditors and thrown into prison. But the death of his father, soon
after, made him a British peer, and, quitting the debtors' jail, he assumed his seat in the House of Lords.

An Epidemic in New York

During the months of June and July, 1703, the city of New York suffered from an epidemic, for the first time of which we have any account. No less than seventeen persons lay dead and unburied at the same time a very large number compared with the whole population. Among the victims were the mayor of the city and other distinguished citizens. The general assembly met at Jamaica, on Long Island; the people removed from the city, and a general alarm prevailed.

The King's Farm Given to Trinity Church

Reference has several times been made to the farm on Manhattan Island, originally the property of the Dutch West India Company, and known successively as the Company's, the Duke's, the King's and Queen's
Farm. This farm was now presented by Queen Anne to the new English Church recently completed in New York, and incorporated by an act of the assembly. In process of time this farm became covered with buildings,
which, let on long leases, produce a large revenue, and render Trinity Church the most wealthy ecclesiastical corporation in the country.

Growth of the City

The internal affairs of the city present but few notable points about these times. The population increased gradually but slowly, only at the rate of about twenty-five per cent in ten years. In 1732 the number had reached eight thousand six hundred and twenty-four, and the dwellings about one thousand four hundred. The only building specially noticed by the chroniclers of the early part of the past century, as erected during its first ten years, was " a rope-walk in Broadway, opposite the Common, covered with. bushes and brushwood." The Presbyterian church in Wall-street was erected in 1720, the Middle Dutch church (now occupied as the Post-office) in 1729, and the Jews' synagogue in Mill-street in 1730. About the same time a lot of ground, one hundred and twelve
feet long and fifty wide, situated to the south of Chatham-square, was granted to the Jews for a burying-ground.

New Streets—Sales of Real Estate

Public improvements during this period advanced very slowly. In 1729 Rector street and others to the south were laid out and regulated. Cortlandt street was opened by the proprietors, and registered as a highway, in 1732; and about the same time Water street first appears among the public ways of the city. The price of land was steadily advancing, and attention began to be directed to the public domain in the vicinity of the city. In 1728 " that little island in the Fresh Water was appropriated as the most suitable place for building thereon a magazine and powder  house." About this time ten lots, each twenty-five by one hundred and twenty feet, " in the Swamp, near the cripple bush," were sold to Jacob Roosevelt at ten pounds each, through which Roosevelt street was afterward opened. The same individual, a few years later, purchased the whole of Beekman's Swamp for one hundred pounds, through which he soon after opened Ferry-street. In 1732 there was a sale of seven lots on Whitehall street, near the Custom-house, at prices ranging from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pounds a great advance upon the prices paid a few years before. About this time a small gore of land, one hundred and three feet in length at the junction of Liberty-street and Maiden-lane,) was given to Rip Van Dam, on his petition, for the sum of ten shillings, " being of little or no value to
any one else but him." From 1732 to 1740 the increase of houses in the city was only sixteen.

The First Newspapers

The first regular newspaper in the city was a small weekly sheet called " The Gazette," issued in the year 1725. At first this was designed to serve only as a medium of commercial intelligence and general news. But during the controversy between Governor Cosby and his partisans on one side, and the council and people on the other, this paper was used by the governor as a political organ. This led to the establishment of a rival paper—the " Weekly Journal," published by John Peter Zenger which was filled with articles freely criticizing the conduct of the governor and his supporters, and denying the legality of certain recent acts of the administration. Not satisfied with replying through the Gazette, Cosby ordered the Journal to be burned by the sheriff, imprisoned the publisher, and prosecuted him for libel.

The only two lawyers in the city who would undertake his defense were excluded from the profession for calling in question the authority of the court, and Zenger seemed to be in danger of lacking proper counsel in his defense. But on the day of trial, to the dismay of the prosecutors, the venerable Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia, a Quaker lawyer of great eminence and speaker of the assembly of Pennsylvania, appeared for the defense. Hamilton first offered to prove the truth of the alleged libel, but, according to English precedents, this was disallowed. He then appealed to the personal knowledge of the jury; no evidence, he contended, was necessary the facts were notorious, and the jury knew the statements in question to be correct, and they ought to feel themselves obliged to Zenger for having exposed them, as the cause was the common interest of the whole province. In spite of the instructions of the court to the jury to convict Zenger, they, without leaving their seats, rendered a verdict of acquittal, which was responded to by shouts of applause from the people. The freedom of the colonial press was thus vindicated; but, as too often happens in such cases, the poor printer, having served a purpose, was left to struggle, overwhelmed with debts, the victim of official odium.

The Negro Plot

The year 1741 is noted in the annals of our city as the time of the celebrated negro plot, and the terrible effects of that delusion. It should be observed that nearly thirty years before this there had been a similar panic in the city relative to a negro insurrection, at which time nineteen unhappy wretches were sacrificed by the popular phrensy. But the delusion of the latter period was yet more fatal in its consequences. Whether, indeed, there was any plot at all, among any portion of the blacks, is exceedingly doubtful ; there is no ground at all for the suspicion that there was any of a formidable character.

How the Panic Began

The city of New York, at the time of this remarkable excitement, contained a population of about eight thousand, of which from twelve to fifteen hundred were negroes—and most of these slaves. On the 18th of March a fire occurred in the fort, which consumed the secretary's office and the Dutch church. About a week later another, though inconsiderable
fire occurred, and within two or three weeks later some half dozen more, most of them however only the burning of chimneys. These frequent fires, together with a prevalent belief that a great deal of petty robbery was carried on by the negroes, with the aid of certain white men, gave rise first to a general uneasiness, which soon increased to a panic. This was greatly heightened by a public proclamation offering a reward of a hundred pounds for the discovery of the incendiaries. The reward was too tempting to be long resisted. An indented servant-woman soon after obtained her freedom and the hundred pounds by pretending to divulge a plot formed by her master, a low tavern-keeper, named Hughson, and three negroes, to burn the city and murder the entire white population. This information was like a spark among tinder. The whole population was thrown into a paroxysm of rage and fear. The militia paraded the streets almost continually; the accused parties were arrested and hurried away to the jail, and the utmost rage against the negroes inflamed every breast. So intense was the panic that the most unreasonable and contradictory statements were greedily caught up, and the least suspicious circumstances were construed as plain evidence against the accused.

Its Progress

When the panic was once fairly begun, it readily supplied itself with the necessary stimulants. The prize obtained by the servant-woman became an object of envy, and soon further pretended revelations were made. An Irish woman of infamous character, who had been convicted of a robbery, was tempted to turn informant by a promise of pardon. In this manner the matter grew and extended. Informants increased on every hand, and though their tales were quite inconsistent, all were greedily received by the magistrates and people. In a very short time a hundred and fifty-four negroes and twenty whites were committed to prison, as accomplices in the pretended conspiracy.

Nature and Agents of the Pretended Plot

The pretended design of this fabulous plot was never very definitely made out. As darkly shadowed forth in the statements of the hired informants, there seemed to be a design to destroy the city and murder the white population, so as to afford free living to the blacks and the white conspirators. The infamous Irish woman implicated Hughson and his wife and daughter, and confessed that she herself had entered into the conspiracy. At length several other white persons were accused by her, especially one Ury, an English Episcopal clergyman, but acting as a schoolmaster who had fled from his own country to escape persecution, because he would not acknowledge the right of the reigning family. The case of Ury was peculiarly a hard one. He was entirely unconnected with the infamous gang to which most of the white victims of this delusion belonged; and he had at hand the means, could he have been heard, to prove his entire innocence. In the pretended revelations of this Irish courtesan, Ury was declared to be a disguised Jesuitical priest; yet he was able to prove the contrary beyond a question, and to trace his history continuously from the beginning to the time of his arrest. But the object of trial at that time was not to come at the truth, but simply as a formality preparatory to the infliction of death.

 Proceedings of the Courts

There were at that time only eight lawyers in New York, all of whom volunteered their services to the government, and assisted by turns in the prosecution, leaving the miserable prisoners without the aid of counsel. To obtain the required evidence upon which to base a sentence, pardon and freedom were offered to any who would turn king's evidence, and by this means any amount of testimony, to almost any fact, could be obtained. While there was no one to say a single word for the accused, the lawyers vied with each other in scurrility, in heaping abuse upon them, in which they were only outdone by the judge, when he came to pass sentence. Many purchased their own lives by confessing their participation in crimes of which it was afterward proved they knew nothing, and accusing others; and, strangest of all, some confessed at the stake their guilt, who knew nothing of the things with which they were charged.

As the result of this bloody delusion, thirteen were burned, eighteen hanged, and seventy were transported. The public thirst for blood seemed now to be somewhat satisfied, and the phrensy began to abate; a reaction at length ensued, and the persons remaining in prison were set at liberty.

How the Case Appeared Afterward

No sooner had the popular excitement subsided, than it became evident that the proceedings had been precipitate, and highly improper. As to the fires in chimneys, none but partially insane persons could suspect that incendiaries would seek by such means to burn up a city; and the fire in the fort could be traced, with almost absolute certainty, to an accidental cause. Just before that fire occurred, a plumber had been at work mending the roof of one of the buildings in the fort, having a pot of burning coals, from which a high wind was scattering sparks about the building. It was also seen that the testimony that had been used was wholly unreliable, since nearly all the witnesses had been bought up by rewards and immunities of such magnitude as to be sufficient to corrupt any but those of the severest virtue. It soon came to be doubted whether, if there had really been any conspiracy at all, its extent had not been greatly overrated a matter as to which there can now be no question.

Proximate Causes

A variety of causes united to create the delusion that resulted so fatally, and so deeply disgraced the good people of New York. The mass of the people were extremely ignorant, and the usual accompaniments of popular ignorance, unreasonable prejudices and cruel bigotry, seem to have pervaded all classes. Illiberality was a prevailing characteristic of the age, favored in this case by the almost perfect isolation of the colonial settlements. The prevailing antipathy toward the Church of Home, which was then cherished as a sacred religious and patriotic sentiment, contributed its violence to the prevailing phrensy. A non-juring schoolmaster, suspected, as already shown, but without any good reason, of being a disguised Jesuit priest, was accused of stimulating the negroes to revolt and burn the city, with assurances of immunity against future punishment by absolution; for which he suffered the extreme penalty of the law. Most of the inhabitants of New York knew nothing of Roman Catholics but from the tales of horror related by their ancestors of the cruelties of the Spaniards in Holland, or of gunpowder plots and Smithfield burnings in England; and therefore the suspicion that fell upon the poor schoolmaster was not only fatal to himself, but invested the whole affair with a deeper shade of bloody atrocity.

Primary Cause

But the primary cause of this cruel tragedy is doubtless to be found in the unnatural and oppressive relations of the two races. A consciousness in the mind of the oppressor that he is constantly inflicting a wrong upon the victims of his injustice begets in him a sense of guilt, and consequently of danger. Men always reckon those enemies whom they injure, and dread the occasion when the injured party may seize the opportunity to vindicate their long-deferred rights. Thus a suspiciousness is inseparable from such a relation, rendering the mind sensitive to the most vague intimation of danger, and suggesting the dreaded cause as operating to produce every fortuitous event that may transpire. There is but little doubt that this cause was powerfully active in producing the
panic and the cruelties of this pretended or real negro plot.


Website: The History
Article Name: The City of New York from 1700 to 1770 Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America by a New Yorker; Published by Carlton & Phillips 1853.
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