New York Legislature Committee of Correspondence to George Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“There are large Magazines of Wheat and a good deal of Flour contiguous to the River, which Ought Immediately to be moved and purchased for the use of the Continental Army—they will otherwise be Exposed to the Enemy’s Shipping.”

Summary Overview

In the early spring of 1777, the New York colonial government was in the process of transforming the colony into an independent state. A select group of political leaders was engaged in the painstaking process of approving a state constitution, laying the legal basis for a new government that did not rely on royal sanction for its legitimacy. One of the men involved with debating the details of the New York Constitution was William Duer, who had settled in New York at the beginning of the decade and became acquainted with some of the most important Patriot leaders in the region.

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary War was beginning to rage on in earnest. General George Washington, the leader of the Continental Army, had been badly defeated in New York in the late summer and fall of 1776. The British had taken full control of New York City and were using it as a recruiting base for Loyalist fighters, colonists who supported the British Crown and chose to take up arms against their American countrymen. British troops and their mercenary allies were roaming throughout New York, hunting down Patriot leaders, and seeking material support for the occupation. As a result, the members of the New York Constitutional Convention were on high alert and moved a number of times to avoid capture.

Washington spent the beginning of 1777 in New Jersey fighting a series of skirmishes against British forces, mainly seeking to secure food supplies for his troops and horses. In order to keep the respected general abreast of happenings in New York, the members of the emerging New York government formed a committee of correspondence, headed by Duer. Through the efforts of a trusted American spymaster named Nathaniel Sackett, Duer and Washington traded a series of letters. In his March 2, 1777, letter to Washington, Duer paints a rather grim picture of current affairs in the area. Duer writes that there was an overall lack of new recruits to expand the ranks of the Patriot military forces in New York. Worse, General David Wooster had fled from his position covering British troops on Long Island, leaving a huge unprotected gap in the American line.

Duer was very concerned about how this would affect public morale and material support for the American troops in the area. He appeals to Washington to consider supporting legislation that would compel farmers to sell supplies to the American military at fair prices, instead of holding out to see if the British would give them more money. Duer also strongly suggests that Washington order another attack on the British. According to his intelligence sources, the British were drawing down forces from New York City and were actually fairly weak in Long Island. Duer recommends that the American army take advantage of this opportunity to send in a surprise attack to take back Long Island, which he believed would cut off other British troops in the region from precious food and fodder that they needed to continue their occupation.

Defining Moment

The Revolutionary War, and the events that led up to it, arguably affected New York more than any other region of the American colonies. Part of the reason for this was New York’s unique economic development under British rule. Between the time the British military took Manhattan from the Dutch in 1664 and the beginning of the revolutionary movement a hundred years later, New York enjoyed significant growth. New Amsterdam, as administered by the Dutch West India Company, had a population of fewer than two thousand permanent residents. A century later, the city, renamed New York, had more than twenty thousand residents. It had become one of the most important seaports on the Atlantic seaboard and had made vast fortunes for many of the merchants who lived in the wider New York colony.

One major source of wealth in New York was the exploitation of the trading network linking Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. This trade route was a conduit of African slaves and sugar, which was used to distill rum, into the American colonies. Between 1754 and 1763, the British took on significant debt fighting the French and Indian War, defending their American colonies from perceived French colonial expansionism in the area that is now eastern Canada. In an effort to offset potential future costs associated with fighting the French, which had largely taken place in northern New York, the British government imposed a series of tax measures on the colonies. The Sugar Act, passed in 1764, enforced a much-ignored importation duty on sugar. This became a major problem for the many New York merchants who were heavily invested in the transatlantic rum and slave trade.

Another unpopular tax act passed in 1765 was the Stamp Act. This compelled colonists to purchase special paper, printed by British customs collectors, for use in business activities such as drawing up deeds, legal papers, and legally binding receipts. The Stamp Act was widely unpopular throughout the colonies, and especially in New York, where a band of early revolutionaries called the Sons of Liberty held demonstrations and rowdily petitioned the public to resist British taxation and rule.

The British government also passed the Quartering Act in 1765. This forced New York colonists to pay for a permanent garrison of British troops in the city. At first, it only required New Yorkers to allow British troops to use military barracks within their colony. When fifteen hundred British troops came to New York in 1766, however, they found that there was not enough room in barracks to house them. Therefore, the British troops asserted the right to inhabit any abandoned houses and outbuildings and to sleep in inns and taverns. This proved highly unpopular with the New York public and was touted by the Sons of Liberty as another reason to rebel against the throne.

The first major incident of bloodshed leading to the Revolutionary War is often thought to be the Boston Massacre, which took place in March 1770. It involved a small and unorganized group of protesters being fired upon by British troops as they protested against increasingly strict control over the American colonies by the royal government. However, another event occurred in New York two months earlier, in January 1770, which was probably more significant. The Sons of Liberty engaged in a violent altercation against members of the British 16th Infantry at Golden Hill in Manhattan.

New York was also an epicenter of fighting during the war itself. The first major confrontation between the British military and the American army under the control of George Washington was the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place on August 27, 1776. It was a resounding defeat for the American forces, who had grossly miscalculated the number of British troops in the area and made a series of tactical errors. Washington managed to save his army by fleeing across the East River on a particularly foggy night, but the British pursued and continued to punish the Revolutionary forces at skirmishes on Manhattan.

At the end of this ordeal, New York City was abandoned to the British. Washington initially wanted to torch the city to deny his enemy such a rich prize but was talked out of this drastic action by Alexander Hamilton. New York City became the major base of operations for the British army during the Revolutionary War and a beachhead for General Howe’s massive expeditionary force of twenty-two thousand British troops, the largest sent abroad by the British government until World War I. The British took advantage of the reluctance of many wealthy members of New York City society to turn against the Crown and actively recruited Loyalist fighters to defend the king’s interests in the colony.

With the British firmly in control of New York City and sending patrols throughout the New York region to squelch pockets of revolutionary fervor, society split over the revolutionary issue, and the Patriot cause had a very difficult time forming an independent New York government. A small group of lawmakers hashed out the details of New York’s new government between July 1776 and April 1777. One of the members of this nascent New York government was William Duer, who also served as a representative of New York’s interests to the Congressional Congress, which met to discuss opportunities for forming a new federal government. It was Duer who wrote the famous letter of correspondence to George Washington, sending the beleaguered general much-needed intelligence at a time when the outcome of the revolutionary struggle was uncertain.

Author Biography

Details of William Duer’s birth and death are disputed. Sources agree that he was born in Devonshire, England, the son of John Duer, who was a successful plantation owner in Antigua and kept a small estate in his native England. Duer’s mother, Frances, was the daughter of Frederick Frye, the naval commander in charge of defending British interests in the West Indies. Most biographies state that William Duer was born on March 18, 1747, but the year stated in these sources is likely mistaken. More recent scholarly inquiries into Duer’s life contend that he was actually born March 18, 1743.

Young William received an early education at the prestigious Eton College. In 1765, he served as an assistant to Robert Clive, one of the most important officers of the East India Company who did more to assert British interests in India than any other man of his day. William suffered from poor health in India, and returned to England to recover. When his father died in 1767, William took over the family’s West Indian estate and moved to Antigua to ensure a smooth transition of ownership.

In 1768, William Duer made his first visit to New York, which was the most important North Atlantic port linking the British West Indian and American colonies. He first came to New York to obtain lumber supplies for his holdings in Antigua and purchased land at Fort Miller near Saratoga. Preferring the cooler climate and more interesting social scene, he soon came to spend more and more time in the northern city. Through a business colleague named Philip Schuyler, who served as an assemblyman in the New York colonial government, Duer befriended many of the most important Patriot politicians in New York.

Sometime around 1773, Duer established a thriving timber business that supplied timber for commercial and military ships, including the British navy. Perhaps because of his far-flung commercial interests, Duer was initially reluctant to take a position in the emerging revolutionary conflict. When war broke out in 1775, however, he threw in his lot with his Patriot friends.

During the war, Duer worked to establish viable, independent New York and American governments. He became a member of Provincial Congress of New York in 1775, participated in the committee to approve a constitution for New York in 1776–77, and then served in the New York Senate in 1777. He also was one of New York’s delegates to the Continental Congress in 1777 and 1778 and a signer of the Articles of Confederation. In 1779, Duer resigned from the congress to pursue his business interests as a merchant. He became a major supplier of provisions to the Continental Army, an enterprise that proved to be very profitable for him.

In 1779, Duer married Catherine Alexander, the daughter of a celebrated major general in the American army named William Alexander. George Washington was an honored guest at the wedding. In 1786, Duer returned to politics as a member of the New York General Assembly. When Alexander Hamilton became the first secretary of the treasury for the United States in 1789, Duer joined him as assistant secretary.

The end of Duer’s life was tragic. Along with other important members of the Patriot movement, he had invested heavily in the bonds that financed the nascent United States government. These were largely issued by the Bank of New York. In 1792, disagreement over the actual value of these bonds caused a panic that resulted in a run on the bank, and Duer lost his fortune in the crisis. Unable to pay back his financiers, Duer was sent to a debtor’s prison for most of the remainder of his life. He died in New York City while on furlough from prison in May 1799, though the specific date is disputed.

Document Analysis

The letter penned by William Duer to George Washington on March 2, 1777, is one in a series of correspondences between the general and the New York legislature going back to June 1775. The initial letters were mainly notes of mutual encouragement, with both parties expressing their wishes for a swift victory over the British occupation army and an opportunity to create a new American government. As the fighting in the Revolutionary War became more intense, these letters came to take on a more concrete tone. The March 2, 1777, letter is an example of the practical planning that took place between the nascent New York government and the Continental Army.

Indeed, by March 1777, both the New York legislature and Washington were deeply enmeshed in the revolutionary struggle, and neither side was certain of the independence movement’s success. New York political leaders, including Duer, were working to approve a final draft of the constitution for their new state. They were hunted and harried by British troops and forced to move several times for their own safety. Meanwhile, Washington’s Continental Army had been defeated in Brooklyn and Manhattan, had given up New York City to the British, and was engaged in a string of desperate battles throughout New York and New Jersey. With little success beating back the British on the New York and New Jersey fronts, Washington was contemplating a strategy to confront royal forces in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Duer revealed in the course of this letter that he hoped Washington would not give up on the possibility of victory in New York and would commit more resources to the state.

In the chaos of war, Washington did not have an entirely clear picture of how much potential for success still remained in New York. Moreover, he was haunted by his gross tactical failures at the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776, in which he nearly lost the entire war but for a lucky escape on a foggy night. In his attempt to develop a workable war plan, he sought intelligence about conditions on the ground in New York and information about whether the emerging New York government would be able to supply him with troops and provisions adequate to the challenges the British posed in that region.

Duer became the representative of the New York legislature in its efforts to supply information to Washington. Beginning with a letter he wrote on January 28, 1777, Duer discussed the possibility of raising new battalions to retake control of New York with the general. Fearing capture of potentially sensitive information by British patrols, the men employed the talents of Nathaniel Sackett, who became Washington’s most trusted spy during the war. Washington replied on February 3, 1777, that while he would like to see new battalions organized in the state, he did not think that it seemed practical in the near term but that the matter deserved further consideration.

Duer began his letter of March 2, 1777, by stating that he should have replied sooner to this letter but that he did not because he was waiting to hear back from key leaders in the state, namely Prussian-born Colonel Frederick Von Weissenfels of the Second New York Regiment and John Livingston, the noted intellectual and revolutionary agitator. Duer states in the opening of his letter that he expects to meet with John Livingston any day but has not yet done so, and therefore he hesitated to pass along incomplete information to Washington.

He goes on to state that to the best of his knowledge, the Tenth New York Regiment under Henry Livingston, the Second New York Regiment led by Philip Van Cortlandt, and the Fifth New York Regiment under Lewis DuBois were only half full. He expresses concern that New York would not be able to raise more than five more battalions. He attributes this partly to the fact that the British had recently increased the land grant bounties they were offering to people in Connecticut who fought for the Loyalist rather than revolutionary cause.

Duer then writes that since General William Heath’s defeat in January 1777 at Fort Independence—which he euphemistically refers to as his “departure”—there simply have not been enough troops in the New York area. As a result, he states, the American forces in New York did not have enough manpower to procure adequate supplies of food from the countryside or post a defendable line from the Long Island Sound to the North (Hudson) River to exclude the British from roaming the territory.

Heath, Duer then says, had left General David Wooster behind to defend against British raids and told him to coordinate this defense with the members of the New York Constitutional Convention, including Duer. Duer enumerates the number of troops committed to each location. He states that five hundred troops from a Connecticut regiment were to form a defensive line between New Rochelle and Eastchester, three hundred New York troops were placed in the mile or so between Benjamin Drake’s farm on the White Plains Post Road to Stephen Ward’s house in Tuckahoe, and the rest of the Connecticut soldiers between Tuckahoe and the North (Hudson) River.

William Duer also laments that Heath gave the nascent New York government the impression that Wooster would have around a thousand troops but that Wooster actually had far fewer than this number. As a result, the New York troops were unable to form a defensive line that extended farther west than Tuckahoe. This left an undefended area that the British could exploit for supplies. On February 22, 1777, the New York Constitutional Convention recommended that Wooster command his troops to torch all crops in this area to deny the British any food supplies. Wooster refused to do so, however, saying that the endeavor would unduly tax his weakened ranks.

According to Duer, Wooster stated that he really only had six hundred troops under his immediate command and that he worried that the British were interested in launching another assault against him from Long Island. In fact, Duer explains to Washington, the advance post under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Van Rensselaer at Stephen Ward’s house in Tuckahoe received a desperate message on February 24, 1777, that Wooster had retreated from his position at New Rochelle in fear of such an attack. The members of the constitutional convention were not as concerned about an attack as Wooster was, and they stayed put. Rensselaer decided not to abandon his post in retreat until he consulted the New York Constitutional Convention. They told him to stay put until he was actually forced to retreat by incoming British troops.

Duer next informs Washington that Wooster’s panic was very bad for public morale. The emerging New York government, he states, was just beginning to gain support from its citizens. Wooster’s apparent lack of faith in the Continental Army’s ability to defend New York would make the masses of people still deciding if they should support the Patriotic cause shy away from it and even support the British. Duer expresses a good deal of frustration and even anger, stating that he no longer felt that Wooster’s forces could be relied upon at all.

Duer writes that his main concern was the protection of a large stock of forage or horse fodder, approximately five hundred tons of grain and hay, at Wrights Mills. He says that he had already initiated measures to move the fodder supplies in case of emergency but that he felt that it was exposed to a potential enemy offensive. Duer contacted General Alexander McDougal for help, but the general stated that his own forces at Peekskill were too small to spare reinforcements. Duer did, however, receive a promise from McDougal that if Wooster did not advance back to his original position, he would send in Colonel Henry Livingston. Duer then mentioned that, as Washington surely knew, a Maryland citizen who had been forced to fight for the British but then deserted had said that at least four hundred British troops and their Hessian mercenaries were in the vicinity.

Duer then addresses intelligence that he had received, and that surely Washington had heard, about the state of affairs in British occupied New York City. He states that the populace was known to be unhappy about having to swear oaths of allegiance to the royal government and was suffering from a lack of fresh food. The British, he declares, seemed to be drawing down forces in the city, perhaps in an effort to gather their troops in the Philadelphia area. Duer suggests, however, that this strategy was in his opinion designed to trick the American forces into focusing on Philadelphia and away from the Hudson River Valley.

Their motivation, Duer surmises, might be to access the large supplies of food in Dutchess County. In order to prevent the British from gaining access to this prize, he says, the Continental Army should buy as much of the Dutchess County food as possible. Due to the greed of war profiteers, however, this had proved difficult, as dishonest merchants were holding out to set higher prices for the relatively more wealthy British military. Duer admonishes Washington to support a proposed measure by members of the New York Constitutional Convention that would force farmers to sell to the American military at an honest price. Such a measure, Duer concedes, would be highly controversial with the public and indeed within the New York government itself. If the highly regarded General Washington would lend his support to the measure, it would increase the chances of succeeding.

With apologies for taking up so much of Washington’s time, Duer next suggests in his letter that serious consideration be given to launching an attack on Long Island. According to reliable intelligence he has received, Duer explains, the British had drawn down forces there to a relatively weak defensive line. Moreover, many residents did not like working with the British and would take up arms for the American cause if motivated by an actual military accompaniment. This would secure a valuable territorial gain for the Patriot cause and help Washington in his ongoing struggles in the New Jersey region.

Duer suggests that General Samuel Parsons, Colonel Henry Livingston, General Benedict Arnold, General George Clinton, and General Alexander McDougal might be able to assist in this matter. Duer recommends that for the sake of secrecy, the planning of this proposed attack on Long Island should be limited to a handful of people: Colonel Henry Livingston; General Samuel Parsons; John Sloss Hobart, who was also on the committee of correspondence; and the mutually trusted spymaster Nathaniel Sackett. This expedition, Duer adds, would also be useful because the British had stocks of horse feed and salted pork scattered throughout Long Island. Depriving the enemy of these supplies would be of great help in discouraging the British from remaining in New York.

Lastly, Duer reports that the nascent New York government ordered livestock to be moved to lower Westchester County, outside of the reach of the British. He estimates that they originally had secured four hundred head of cattle. Duer then proudly writes that although the American forces in the region were weak, they led an expedition on March 1, 1777, to take another 150 head of cattle, fifty horses, and some pigs and sheep from British sympathizers in Frogs Kneck (now Throggs Neck). He amusedly recounts how the small American force used a feint tactic to mislead the British troops while they stole away the livestock, increasingly precious to the British military as their occupation wore on and their preserved meat supplies dwindled.

Essential Themes

The beginning of the letter that William Duer wrote to General George Washington on behalf of the New York Legislature Committee of Correspondence addresses the possibility of recruiting more soldiers for the Patriot cause in New York. Duer and Washington had previously discussed the practicality of raising a sixth battalion from the local population. Although he states in this March 2, 1777, letter that he was waiting to hear back from Colonel Frederick Weissenfels and John Livingston, Duer was not optimistic that they would be able to increase the number of troops serving the rebel cause in New York. Part of the reason for this, Duer mentions, was that the British were offering increasingly generous bounties or land grants to citizens who joined the Loyalist side, and the rebels could not compete against these British recruiting efforts without adopting the same method.

Duer next touches on a fundamental theme of the letter, the competition between the two armies over forage, or feed for horses. Having adequate food supplies for the cavalry horses was critical to the war effort, and the two sides were engaged in a desperate struggle to control local grain resources. The main reason that Duer laments having too few troops in New York was the fact that they could not efficiently secure forage or destroy feed supplies inside British lines. When Duer wrote this letter to him, Washington was in New Jersey engaged in foraging skirmishes, so he certainly would have understood the importance of this issue.

Another key point of the letter was to send Washington the regretful news that General David Wooster, left in charge of forces at New Rochelle by General Heath, had failed to defend his position. According to Duer, the New York Constitutional Convention received an urgent message on February 24, 1777, that Wooster had fled in anticipation of a British advance. This greatly angered Duer, who tells Washington that he felt this was an act of cowardice and that he no longer regarded Wooster as a trustworthy commander. In the context of what was then happening and to whom Duer was writing, this was a scathing criticism of General Wooster.

Duer closes his letter to Washington by suggesting a radical move designed to restore the faith of New Yorkers in the Patriotic war effort. He points out that the British forces were moving out of New York City and the adjoining area, making it an ideal time to launch a rebel offensive against garrisons on Long Island. This would disrupt the British food and fodder supply chains and swing the momentum of the war in the American forces’ favor. Washington, it must be noted, did not choose to apply his strength in the New York City and Long Island area but instead ordered his forces to fight a series of grueling battles, mainly throughout the colonies to the south. The British remained in New York City until November 1783. It is interesting to consider the possibility of a swifter American victory in the Revolutionary War had Washington taken Duer’s advice and massed an attack on southern New York in the spring of 1777.

Bibliography
  • Fish, Hamilton. New York State: The Battleground of the Revolutionary War. New York: Vantage, 1976. Print.
  • George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress 1741–1799. Lib. of Congress, 16 Feb. 1999. Web. 17 July 2012.
  • Gerlach, Larry. The American Revolution: New York as a Case Study. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1972. Print.
  • Jones, Robert Francis. The King of the Alley: William Duer. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Soc., 1992. Print.
  • Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York. New York: Scribner, 1975. Print.
  • Launitz-Schurer, Leopold. Loyal Whigs and Revolutionaries. New York: New York UP, 1980. Print.
  • Rakove, Jack. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Berlin, Ira, and Leslie Harris. Slavery in New York. New York: New Press, 2005. Print.
  • Burns, James MacGregor. George Washington. New York: Times, 2004. Print.
  • Catel, Patrick. Key People in the Revolutionary War. Chicago: Heinemann, 2011. Print.
  • Fredricksen, John. Revolutionary War Almanac. New York: Facts on File, 2006. Print.
  • Hannings, Bud. American Revolutionary War Leaders. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009. Print.
  • Reitano, Joanne. The Restless City. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Categories: History