- “As Serves our Interest best”: Political Economy and the Logic of Popular Resistance in New York City, 1765–1776
During the imperial crisis of 1765 to 1776, New York acquired the reputation of a “Tory,” or loyalist, colony. This characterization arose from the colony’s apparent reticence toward independence and the continued control of the same pre-crisis elite leadership in the final years before independence. Yet, the inhabitants of the city of New York undertook actions during the Stamp Act crisis that were as “radical” as any in the other colonies. Indeed, Pauline Maier once wrote that the “worst apparent threat of anarchy” during the colonial Stamp Act resistance “occurred at New York.”1 Hence, historians of colonial New York have long been left to wonder: Why were a people so riotous in the fall of 1765 during the Stamp Act crisis unwilling to lend similar support to the radicals in 1774? How are we to understand this seemingly paradoxical shift in the behavior of colonists in New York City? When and how did New York go from a city of radical Stamp Act protestors to a city of moderate patriots and outright loyalists?2 This article argues that, in fact, colonial New Yorkers’ response to the imperial crisis remained consistent throughout. [End Page 40]
Historians and contemporaries alike saw New York City as a loyalist stronghold that failed to heed “the united voice of America” and suffered from “a want of spirit in the cause of freedom.”3 Some historians, such as Roger J. Champagne, saw popular support for elite leadership throughout the imperial crisis as the product of a deferential political and social culture dominated by the elite.4 Alternatively, neo-progressive historians, including Edward Countryman and Gary B. Nash, viewed common New Yorkers in this period as radical proto-democrats engaged in a separate struggle with the colony’s elite over the “democratization” of “politics and society.”5 Neither interpretation consistently explains New Yorkers’ political behavior throughout the entirety of the imperial crisis. Surely, the people’s riotous and violent behavior during their rebellion against the Stamp Act in 1765 was anything but deferential.6 Yet, their support for the moderate, elite leadership, who were in no way committed to independence in 1775, hardly seems reconcilable with the picture of a radicalized populace seeking a “democratic revolution” ten years earlier.7 Both interpretations stem from a fundamentally ideological approach and, therefore, take for granted that New Yorkers were primarily concerned with political ideology. However, the seemingly varying popular response in New York City becomes not only reconcilable but also logical when one looks at the [End Page 41] economic circumstances surrounding the major turning points during the imperial crisis.
Rather than a microhistorical focus on a single event, this article looks broadly at the entirety of the imperial crisis in New York City refracted through the lens of political economy–i.e., the intersections between politics and economy–and suggests a new perspective on the city’s popular resistance. The abstract ideas behind imperial policy and colonial resistance mattered far less to many colonists than the immediate effects such policies and resistance had on their daily lives and their immediate prospects for social mobility. Therefore, an ideological interpretation alone is simply too narrow an analytical category to fully understand the processes and events occurring in pre-revolutionary New York City. Historians have largely ignored how New York’s self-interested commercial culture influenced popular politics, especially during the imperial crisis. They seem to have understood the elite political culture of self-interest and popular political culture as distinct and isolated from each other. Indeed, the historiography of colonial New York in the last forty years has focused on the colony’s divisive features such as factionalism, class conflict, and diversity.8
These interpretations, however, have obscured underlying unifying factors, particularly the economy’s interconnectedness between classes, which meant that common New Yorkers’ own economic prosperity was directly tied to that of the city’s elite. Studies have shown that income distribution in the Middle Colonies was much more level than it is today. In 1774, the top 1% of households earned...