“Should you . . . think proper to instruct our . . . Delegates in Continental Congress . . . to cause these United Colonies to become independent of Great Britain, it would give us the highest satisfaction.”
Beginning in 1765, tensions developed between the American colonies and the British government. This was mainly the result of the royal government passing three unpopular laws: the Sugar Act, which enforced tariffs on imported molasses; the Stamp Act, which required a range of legal documents to be printed on special paper sold by British tax collectors; and the Quartering Act, which forced the colonists to house British troops in their midst. Out of the tension emerged a group of revolutionaries known as the Sons of Liberty, sometimes known as Liberty Boys.
In early summer of 1776, the American colonies were on the brink of outright war with Great Britain. There had already been several skirmishes between Americans and British troops, and the royal government was attempting to enforce an embargo against American ships to economically strangle the colonies into submission. Nonetheless, many colonial politicians wanted to avoid all-out war at any cost, fearing that it was impossible to take on an enemy as powerful as Great Britain.
A radical faction of the Sons of Liberty movement, comprising members of what might be called the working class, those who earned their livings through manufacturing goods, petitioned the New York Provincial Congress to support independence. The group, the General Committee of Mechanics in union, drafted a brief but impassioned letter outlining its position; the letter was read aloud to the New York Provincial Congress by a mechanic named Lewis Thibou on May 29, 1776.
New York was centrally important to the Revolutionary War partly because the capital of the region, New York City, had developed into one of the most important port cities in the colonies. The New York region was first settled by the Dutch, who called it New Netherland, with New Amsterdam as its capital on the island of Manhattan. When the British forcibly took New Amsterdam from the Dutch in 1664, the capital had a population of approximately two thousand. Within a century, under British rule, the number had expanded to more than twenty thousand.
The reason that New York, as New Amsterdam was dubbed by the British rulers, enjoyed such exponential growth was that it became an important economic hub for the northeastern region. Merchants grew wealthy engaging in the rum, sugar, and slave trade between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America, as well as the industries that thrived on the periphery of this main economic pursuit. As a result of its commercial success, New York City grew into a metropolis, with a large population of upper-middle-class citizens.
In 1765, the British government imposed a series of unpopular laws on the colonies. The first was the Sugar Act, which enforced an existing but largely ignored duty on molasses, which was a key component in the sugar-rum-slave trade. The enforcement affected merchants specifically involved in the trade but also had a wider impact on those businesses that catered to the wealthy merchant class.
Another unpopular law passed in 1765 was the Stamp Act, which required the colonists to purchase special paper sold by British tax collectors for business activities such as drawing up commercial contracts, legal documents, and real estate deeds. Many people throughout the colonies, and especially in New York, considered the Stamp Act to be an egregious affront to their rights, as it applied only to the people living in the American colonies and not to British citizens in England.
The third law imposed on the colonists in 1765 was the Quartering Act, which forced New York colonists to pay for the housing of British troops in the city. The act was probably a response to the fact that the British government had incurred a massive debt defending the colonies against French aggression during the French and Indian War (1754–63),which was largely fought in northern New York State. British troops soon found that their barracks were not adequate for the large number of troops garrisoned in New York City, and the British government claimed the right to take over vacant buildings as well as any taverns or inns that served alcohol to the public.
One result of these affronts by the royal government was the creation of a radical group of protorevolutionaries known as the Sons of Liberty. The members of the partially clandestine group engaged in acts of resistance to British rule, sometimes in the form of rowdy, drunken riots. They also delivered inflammatory speeches and distributed revolutionary pamphlets throughout the colonies, particularly in New York City.
Although the shooting incident in March of 1770 known as the Boston Massacre is often remembered as the beginning of the violent struggle between the Americans and British, the first real act of violence between British troops and colonists involved the Sons of Liberty in New York. In January of 1770, a Sons of Liberty mob and the British Sixteenth Division fought at an area known as Golden Hill, in what is now downtown Manhattan at John Street.
Exactly who, or even what, the General Committee of Mechanicks was is not well understood by historians. It was certainly not a union in the modern sense; instead, it was an ad hoc group of revolutionary activists who shared a similar class background. In the parlance of the time, mechanics were those members of the working class who earned their livings through making goods rather than trading them. The category encompassed a wide range of professions, from bricklayers to carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, gunsmiths, silversmiths, and ironworkers. The working class was defined in contrast with the merchant class: the members of society who did not make anything but simply sold goods manufactured by others.
In the wake of the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Quartering Act, the Sons of Liberty developed into a popular but loosely organized voice of resistance against British tyranny. Its members engaged in revolutionary speech and rioted on a number of occasions. The Sons of Liberty also spearheaded a series of boycotts against British goods.
Even within the Sons of Liberty, however, there were political divisions. Those associated with the wealthier merchant class tended to seek a more moderate end result of their actions, perhaps even a compromise with the royal government that gave the colonies incrementally more power under British rule. The less radical Liberty Boys, as participants in the Sons of Liberty movement were often called, were often motivated by simple economic interests. They tended to be people who owned property and depended on the smooth functioning of international trade, including with Britain, to ensure their own incomes.
In 1774, the Sons of Liberty spent much of the summer and fall debating whether or not they should renew the boycott against trade with Britain. At first, the measure failed, as it was opposed by moderate merchants within the group. Eventually, however, a faction of less wealthy manufacturers emerged. This more radical faction, which called itself the General Committee of Mechanicks, had become increasingly influential throughout the year despite its relative lack of wealth. Its influence increased because as prolonged war with the royal government seemed more likely, the citizens of New York realized that they would need to depend on the mechanics to produce the gunpowder, firearms, cannons, uniforms, boots, and other hardware needed by the American forces.
It is not clear who exactly was part of this General Committee of Mechanicks. Sons of Liberty firebrands Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougal were certainly in support of it, but they may have come from wealthier backgrounds than most of those who were considered mechanics. A handful of men were known as spokespeople for the General Committee of Mechanicks, including Abraham Brasher, Hercules Mulligan, Victor Bicker, Theophilus Anthony, William Goforth, Jeremiah Platt, and Lewis Thibou. They were not rich or otherwise socially powerful men, and little is known of their individual lives. Also, not much is known of the rank-and-file members of the mechanics faction, or even how many of them existed at the peak of their influence over the wider Sons of Liberty movement.
As is noted by popular historian Howard Zinn, the Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson was actually a late entry into the revolutionary scene. By 1776, there were at least ninety other declarations of independence, created at the local and state levels, calling for some form of political separation between the colonial government and the British Crown. The New York mechanics declaration of independence was written as a letter at the Mechanics-Hall, the Manhattan headquarters of the General Committee of Mechanicks faction of the Sons of Liberty.
The letter was personally delivered to the Third Provincial Congress of New York by Thibou, who read it aloud to the assembled state politicians. The Provincial Congress had already agreed that merchants would no longer be allowed to supply British military vessels in New York harbor and were edging toward support for the wider revolutionary movement, but many of its delegates sought a peaceful compromise with the British Crown. Thibou presented a petition for far more radical change to this relatively moderate political assembly, presumably representing the opinion of the wider working class of New York.
The letter begins in interesting terms, stating that it is a humble request, as would have been expected by the wealthy and influential members of the Provincial Congress. However, it also states that the mechanics are speaking for a wider base of constituents. The importance of this phrasing would not have been lost on the politicians, who must have been aware of the growing practical importance of placating the working-class members of New York society who made the goods needed in the emerging state.
The letter conveys that New York is in a dire situation, saying that the state is “bleeding” as a result of British oppression. The term is almost certainly a reference to the violent acts carried out by British troops against revolutionary protestors. As a faction of the Sons of Liberty, the group involved with the bloodshed in January of 1770 by the British Sixteenth Division, the General Committee of Mechanicks would have been both personally impacted by British aggression and keen on redress for this perceived insult to American pride.
In the next passage, the mechanics paint a romantic picture of the North American continent. They describe it as governed by principles of freedom and religious tolerance, and boast that its land has been so exceptionally bountiful as to have attracted praise from around the world. They then contrast the happy situation that America had previously enjoyed with the present situation, which they say is marked by oppression and death.
It is worth noting the rather hyperbolic nature of the language of the letter. Although it is true that America had been something of an economic miracle over the previous century, and indeed was blessed with a bounty of valuable natural resources, it was still not important enough to global commerce to attract such glowing praise from around the world. Furthermore, the enforcement of the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Quartering Act did not really represent a tyrannical burden that broke the back of an otherwise tolerant and liberal society. While there certainly had been several fatal incidents between British troops and American citizens by May 1776, the death toll was not really so great as to have affected many families in the colonies. Indeed, the death toll of the ensuing war, estimated to have been around twenty thousand (or more than the entire population of New York City at the time), dwarfed any violence that took place prior to it. However, drawing a stark contrast between the goodness of America and the evil nature of British oppression was popular on the eve of the Revolutionary War and had been a staple of Sons of Liberty rhetoric for more than a decade.
The mechanics turns its attention to the British monarch, King George III. He had ruled Britain and its colonies since 1760 and was widely perceived by Americans as having been the driving force behind the unpopular laws imposed upon them. The mechanics’ letter to the Provincial Congress states that the king, by virtue of his station and according to the oaths he had sworn, was obligated to protect all people under his rule, including colonial subjects. As free men (as opposed to slaves), the colonists should have the same rights as any people under the king’s rule, especially because the commerce generated by the hard work of the American colonists had helped to make Britain under George III as wealthy and powerful as it had ever been.
The letter then inquires if Americans should continue to remain silent when faced with a British monarch who refuses to hear their peaceful appeals for better treatment. It rhetorically asks if it is possible to support a king who does not intervene on behalf of his American subjects and instead allows them to become disenfranchised of their rights and liberties. According to the mechanics, King George III had not been willing to address the legitimate grievances of the American people. On the contrary, they state, the king has acted as though he was intent on the destruction of American society. The letter goes on to list acts of oppression for which they believe the Provincial Congress should hold the king responsible.
The letter mentions that the British had burned towns in the American colonies. Indeed, this had taken place in limited instances. The worst case occurred in the city of Norfolk, Virginia, at the beginning of 1776. Loyalist citizens who supported the king fled the town in the winter of 1775, and revolutionary sympathizers came to Norfolk as a show of strength. The revolutionaries seized abandoned properties and homes, and intended to use the city as a base of resistance against the British forces in the colonies. On January 1, 1776, British troops and Loyalist supporters torched many of the seized buildings in an effort to drive out the incoming Patriots. In the citywide blaze that ensued, much of Norfolk was destroyed. The other major fires of the Revolutionary War, including one in September 1776 that destroyed a large portion of New York City, were probably lit by American forces, however.
In the next part of the letter, the mechanics state that the British have encroached on the civil liberties of the Americans by seizing their ships. In late 1775, in an effort to crush the nascent rebellion against his power, George III gave the British military orders to halt trade in the American colonies by preventing shipping by American-owned ships. Although the blockade was never fully enforced, it did deal a staggering blow to the American economy, and its effects were felt strongly in New York Harbor. By 1776, the grievance had become an important staple of Patriot propaganda and would have been difficult for the members of the New York Provincial Congress to ignore. Many historians consider the passage of the Prohibitory Act, the law that allowed British forces to enforce a trading blockade against American ships, to be the edict that made the Revolutionary War inevitable.
The following line in the letter bemoans the fact that the British had killed “sons of liberty” and caused American families to suffer as a result. The use of the phrase “sons of liberty” is intentional. In small case letters, it was on its surface just a general way of signifying patriotic Americans. However, it also served to remind the members of the New York Provincial Congress who the Committee of Mechanicks represented. The Sons of Liberty, of which the Committee of Mechanicks was a part, was responsible for a series of destructive riots in New York City; thus, invoking the group’s name would have served as a veiled threat to the Provincial Congress to comply with the mechanics’ demands or face further riots.
The letter states that violence continues to be perpetrated against American colonists because they refuse to become slaves to the British and be taxed without consent. The equation of unfair taxation with the imposition of slavery on the American colonists may seem spurious to modern readers but would have been powerful rhetoric to the audience of the day. New York City was a major port of entry for African slaves, and, according to the racism of the day, African slaves were viewed as less than fully human. Slaves were not only the basest members of colonial society but also were considered to be morally bankrupt. The freemen of the day, no matter how poor they may have been, considered themselves to be intrinsically superior to the slave class. By imposing taxes on the colonists, the mechanics argued, the British were taking away their rights, and therefore relegating them to a debased existence equaled only by that of slaves.
After the making the comparison between the colonists and slaves, the document gets to its main point. After a whole year of atrocities, the 1775–76 period, there was no sign that the royal government intended to act in a more humane manner toward the American colonists. Therefore, the mechanics state, Americans are left with no choice but to sever ties with the oppressive British government. On their own behalf and that of their constituents, the letter continues, the New York mechanics call upon the Provincial Congress to support American independence. Many members of the Provincial Congress were men of considerable wealth and had strong vested interests in compromising with the royal government. Until the early summer of 1776, they had resisted supporting succession as a solution to the growing tension between the British government and the American colonies.
Again, the fact that the mechanics mention that they are speaking for their constituents is telling. Although the mechanics class was, overall, not financially powerful, it had numbers on its side; the class formed the single largest part of New York society. The Provincial Congress would have known that they could not entirely ignore the wishes of such a large base of residents, even if the individuals who made up the mechanics class were not rich or powerful on their own.
The letter closes by instructing the members of the New York Provincial Congress to vote for independence from Britain at the Congressional Congress to be held in August in Philadelphia. The mechanics pledge to give their lives and their fortunes to the cause of independence, pledges that would have been understood as significant to the war effort. The mechanics class, by virtue of their large numbers, represented a significant percentage of the male population that would be called upon to take up arms in the Revolutionary War.
The pledge to give their fortunes to the cause was also important because they were the people who made the hardware needed in the war. Without the mechanics firm commitment to the war effort, the American side would have had a difficult time outfitting itself with materials needed for waging a prolonged war against what was considered to be the most powerful military of the day.
The first major theme the New York mechanics’ declaration of independence touches upon is the American colonies’ worldwide reputation for freedom and prosperity. The language that is used, describing the great natural bounty of the American frontier and the bastion of liberty that its new society represented, had been deeply ingrained in the American mindset. The earliest tracts about America, from the Dutch period onward, painted romantic pictures of the continent. The mechanics state that this idyllic America is threatened by the tyrannical actions of the British government.
The document also rails against the British monarch, King George III, for failing to uphold his sworn duty to protect all people under his rule. As free men living in the British empire, the mechanics should have the same legal rights as all British subjects, but the king has not lived up to his responsibilities in this regard. By stating that the king was not upholding his sworn duty, the letter follows a line of reasoning that had been used throughout British history both to undermine the legitimacy of rule and to justify usurpation.
The New York mechanics’ declaration cites some of the British abuses of the American colonies in the previous year. First, it speaks to the fact that British troops had torched some American cities. Patriot propagandists were outspoken about how such attacks could not stand unanswered, and they considered some of the instances of city burning to be clear acts of war that necessitated armed resistance and secession. Second, the mechanics speak to the seizure of American ships in an embargo aimed at suffocating the colonial economy and forcing the rebellion to give in to British rule of law. Throughout the colonies, but especially in New York where the international shipping trade was the backbone of the local economy, this policy was considered to be proof that the Americans could no longer be a part of the British Empire.
The most important point made by the mechanics was that the members of the New York Provincial Congress should support the move for independence. The New York mechanics stated that they were asking their Provincial Congress to support independence on behalf of the wider mechanics class. That was tantamount to declaring that the working class of New York would support the revolutionary cause and oppose those state representatives who obstructed it.
Further, the Committee of Mechanicks promised to support independence with their lives and wealth. The first part of this commitment was meant to signal that the working class would fight on behalf of the rebel cause, bringing significant numbers of troops to a Patriot army. The second part was perhaps even more important, signaling that the mechanics class, the manufacturers of essential products, would gladly put aside their own personal economic interests in order to produce the material goods the American army would need to fight the British.
In the end, the New York Provincial Congress reversed its earlier position calling for compromise and supported succession from Great Britain. Much occurred by the late summer of 1776 to provoke the congress to its change of heart, including an increase in the severity of skirmishes between British and American forces and a tightening of the trade embargo against American shipping. The fact that the mechanics class was on the side of independence, however, must have factored into the Provincial Congress’s decision to break with the royal government once and for all.
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