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From Privileges to Rights

Work and Politics in Colonial New York City

By Simon Middleton

Publication Year: 2011

From Privileges to Rights connects the changing fortunes of tradesmen in early New York to the emergence of a conception of subjective rights that accompanied the transition to a republican and liberal order in eighteenth-century America.

Tradesmen in New Amsterdam occupied a distinct social position and, with varying levels of success, secured privileges such as a reasonable reward and the exclusion of strangers from their commerce. The struggle to maintain these privileges figured in the transition to English rule as well as Leisler's Rebellion. Using hitherto unexamined records from the New York City Mayor's Court, Simon Middleton also demonstrates that, rather than merely mastering skilled crafts in workshops, artisans participated in whatever enterprises and markets promised profits with a minimum of risk. Bakers, butchers, and carpenters competed in a bustling urban economy knit together by credit that connected their fortunes to the Atlantic trade.

In the early eighteenth century, political and legal changes diminished earlier social distinctions and the grounds for privileges, while an increasing reliance on slave labor stigmatized menial toil. When an economic and a constitutional crisis prompted the importation of radical English republican ideas, artisans were recast artisans as virtuous male property owners whose consent was essential for legitimate government. In this way, an artisanal subject emerged that provided a constituency for the development of a populist and egalitarian republican political culture in New York City.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-10

When I began the research for this book, I had a fairly clear idea about where my project might fit within an established historiography. Three decades of social and labor history had provided a persuasive account of the transformation of colonial American artisans into waged workers during a contested transition to capitalism. ...

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1. “Earning a beaver”: Tradesmen in New Amsterdam

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pp. 11-52

On 11 September 1609 Henry Hudson guided the Half Moon from the open sea, through the narrows dividing present-day Staten Island and Long Island, and into the large bay that lay beyond. He had set sail from Holland in April, intending to explore the Arctic seas north of Norway for a possible eastern route to the Indies. ...

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2. “Like a child in their debt and consequently their slave”: The Transition to English Rule, 1664–1691

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pp. 53-95

In May 1664 James Duke of York dispatched Colonel Richard Nicolls with four ships and three hundred soldiers to secure the “entyre submission and obedience” of England’s newest colonial American subjects. In mid-August, the invaders disembarked from vessels anchored off Long Island in Gravesend Bay and moved west to Brooklyn, ...

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3. “Diverse necessaries and conveniences work found and provided”: Trading in a Craft Economy, 1691–1730

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pp. 96-130

The accession of William and Mary delivered a mortal blow to the Stuarts’ absolutist ambitions and affirmed the force of parliamentary sovereignty and English liberties over the claims of hereditary succession. Yet few in Parliament tolerated the philosophical abstractions and leveling sentiments of radical Whigs, ...

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4. “The only obstruction at this present is our want of people”: The Labor Problem, 1691–1730

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pp. 131-162

In 1705, the governor of New York, Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, wrote to the Board of Trade in London regarding the colony’s commerce. Routine reports on commercial comings and goings were a key administrative duty for England’s colonial governors, and in most respects Cornbury’s memorandum ...

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5. “So much as he should reasonably deserve to have”: Tradesmen and the English Common Law

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pp. 163-188

In May 1692, John Demares, a planter from East New Jersey, made a bargain with the brickmaker Jacob Fairen. Demares agreed to provide Fairen with meat, drink, and washing and to pay him “so much as he should reasonably deserve for his labor and pains” for making and burning a kiln of bricks on his land. ...

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6. “C’mon brave boys let us be brave for liberty and law”: Artisans and Politics, 1730–1763

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pp. 189-224

Toward the end of September 1730, the surveyor James Lyne submitted his “Plan of the City of New-York” to William Bradford for inclusion in the New York Gazette.1 The plan graphically confirmed the effects of more than three decades of urban expansion: in lower Manhattan, the well-to-do residents of Dock and Queen streets ...

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7. Conclusion

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pp. 225-228

This book began by observing that the view of a general and fundamental shift from independent and amenable craft work to alienated and penurious wage work, and the implied causal relationship between this shift and the formation of a new kind of working-class politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, ...


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pp. 229-294


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pp. 295-304


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pp. 305-306

E-ISBN-13: 9780812207224
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812239157

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies