Category Archives: Sestercentennial

Those Pesky Veterans

There is an eternal love-hate relationship between those who hold the scepter of Power and their former bearers-of-arms who they wielded against their enemies real or imagined, foreign or domestic. This is not unique in modern times nor just Western civilizations. Veterans themselves often chafe at the lackeys of those currently in power and how their image is manipulated in the eyes of the public.

The truth is that the wielder of the scepter sometimes does have to be concerned about veterans. On August 11th, 1766 this concern would manifest itself in the form of a naval captain, born in the colonies, who had formerly fought on the side of Great Britain during the French and Indian War (Seven Years War in Europe). His name was Isaac Sears and before day’s end he would find himself on the receiving end of a British bayonet.

Why he was in front of an outraged crowd of Colonials that day was obvious. The evening before British troops had descended upon the Liberty Pole and chopped it down. The Liberty Pole had been erected by the Sons of Neptune at the time to recognize the repeal of the Stamp Act. But who were the leaders of the Sons of Neptune?

New York’s Liberty Pole was largely the work of four Whig leaders: John Lamb, Joseph Allicocke, Isaac Sears, and Alexander McDougall. Their biographies were typical Manhattan stories. All were self-made men, humble in their origins and mixed in their ethnicity.

*Note to Student Readers: “Whig leaders” in this case means the Whig movement and does not refer to the Whig Political Party of the early 19th century.

Isaac Sears had been successful at sea during the war and returned to monetize his contacts in foreign ports into a small trading business. His straight talk and blunt language being more at home among the lumpers and longshoreman, the New York elites sarcastically dubbed the upstart nouveau-riche as “King Sears”.

After the war, Sears established himself as a West Indian merchant in New York, where by his mid-thirties he was living like a gentleman-though everyone could tell by his quarterdeck manners that he wasn’t one.

The notoriously tight-fisted merchant class needed to maneuver between the New York aristocratic elite, who had the King’s favor and whose gold they cherished, and the community of skilled workers in which they lived.  When it came time to organize an opposition without getting their own hands dirty or their own names sullied, they would choose for one of their leaders to be Isaac Sears.

Many leading names were proposed, but all refused the duty. Finally five men volunteered their services and were accepted. They were the most ardent members of the Sons of Liberty, and included Isaac Sears, John Lamb, Gershom Mott, William Wiley, and Thomas Robinson. Although Sears and Lamb were merchants and popular leaders, it is curious that the two hundred assembled conservative merchants of New York selected men having relatively little involvement in city affairs.

There are always military units that can be deployed in a pinch when you need to apply armed violence against a people. In this case the unit without qualms in that regard would be the 28th Foot. General Thomas Gage called for the unit to march down from Quebec and lodge themselves at the north end of the city. The troops would arrive earlier in August, just in time to make their mark.

New Yorkers reviled the Regulars and gathered around the Liberty Pole to tell them so. The Regulars made clear their contempt for the colonists and began to look upon the Liberty Pole as an affront to their honor. On the night of August 10, a party of soldiers from the Twenty-eighth Foot sallied from their barracks and cut down the Liberty Pole.

This event and the subsequent actions would be reported in print media. A protest occurred the next day (August 11th) at the site of the Pole where Issac Sears was found staring down the muskets and bayonets of the soldiers. It is from the sworn testimony of a carpenter that we know what happened next.

…that as soon as they came up to the deponent and others, they, the soldiers, fell foul of them by cutting and flashing every one that fell in their way; and those with him were obliged to retire for safety; that the said soldiers pursued them as far as Chaple-Street; that several persons were cut and wounded by the said soldiers, particularly Captain Sears, and John Berrien, and further saith not.

Fear and intimidation work because of the near-mythological aura carefully cultivated and cast upon those who hold the scepter of Power and their bearers-of-arms. Veterans have served the other side in some capacity and know the illusion for what it is. While some veterans may still feel loyalty towards the scepter, even if not its bearer, others will calmly ignore it. Some few will stand in opposition as Issac Sears did when that force is used to suppress the liberties of themselves and those they love.


The Year of The Woman

Feudal obligation seems quite at odds with the character that was the American Colonies, yet it existed until the colonial yoke was thrown off. Up until 1938 there was a clause in the New York Constitution banning feudal tenures, written  in part  from the discord of the summer of 1766. This was not mild resentment expressed in the form of opinions written in local newspapers.

The City alarmed from the approach of Country levellers called the West Chester men. The Militia ordered to hold themselves in readiness. Letters Received from them in town declaring that if Mr. Courtlandt does not give them a grant forever of his Lands, they will march with their Body now collected and pull down his house in town…

Of course, the leaders of the movement would be eventually rounded up following a skirmish in Dutchess Country between the levellers and the 28th Regiment. Mr. Prendergast would escape but was eventually persuaded by his wife to turn himself in.

A governmental proclamation issued on April 30, 1766, offered a reward for the seizure of specifically named leaders of the farmers’ movement, including William Prendergast. By the end of June, 1766, the movement involved approximately 1,700 tenant farmers, armed with firearms. They were known as “levelers,” because they believed that their equitable claim to the land should be recognized and their leases converted into fee simple titles. On June 20th, the Governor’s Council sent the Twenty-Eighth Regiment to disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders.

There are those who would applaud a boot on the neck of the oppressed as long as the ones wearing the boots are waving the right flag. Things were not so different in 1766. William Livingston, who would become Governor of New Jersey, was one such person. Both he and his partners in law had a vested interest in ensuring the preeminence of titled landholders. It is unsurprising then that when it came time for justice, his partners would be on the side prosecuting William Prendergast.

Scott and Smith personally prosecuted William Prendergast, the leveller leader, who wanted to distribute property more evenly. Although Livingston was not directly connected to the proceedings, he sympathized with his relatives and friends who wanted to protect their vested interests.

It is the trial where the wife of Mr. Prendergast makes an appearance and shows those around her why she should not be underestimated. Charged with high treason, William Prendergast was forbidden legal counsel but the attorney general could not keep his wife, Mehitable, from being at the trial. Indeed it was she who acted as his defense.

The young Quaker lady exercised orderly logic and personal charm in the defense of her husband in the old Poughkeepsie Courthouse that day.

But William and Mehitable indeed had a very difficult task since the jury she was accused of influencing for her husband was “stacked”.

Not surprisingly, the jury found Mr. Prendergast guilty of high treason. The landholders were all quite pleased with their ability to put the matter to rest while keeping their own hands clean and their positions secure. It was not a shock to anyone when the judge handed down the sentence to be carried out on September 28th.

The prisoner be led back to the place whence he came, and from thence shall be drawn on a hurdle to the place for execution, and then shall be hanged by the neck, and then shall be cut down alive, and his entrails and privy members shall be cut from his body, and shall be burned in his sight, and his head shall be cut off, and his body shall be divided in four parts, and shall be disposed of at the king’s pleasure.

(Note for children who still study the Constitution in school: When the 8th Amendment says “…nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”, the Founders really were not thinking about whether a convicted criminal being served day-old bread was a cruel or unusual form of punishment.)

This might be where the story ends, except the title of this post is “The Year of The Woman” and Mehitable Prendergast is not even close to being done yet. Before the ink was even dry on her husband’s sentence, she was on horseback alone making a trip to the governor’s mansion, operating on no sleep – just grit and determination.

After completing the exhausting trip of some 80 miles, she immediately dismounted, begged and was given and audience with the governor.

No doubt using the same skill with which she tried to defend her husband before the jury, she pleaded her case before the governor. This time there was more success – she was able to get the governor to write out a reprieve until such time as the pardon request could get to London. Mehitable’s job was not yet done however. There was a serious risk that the tenant farmers would rise up once again as a result of her husband’s death sentence. The other possibility being that landholders would move to push up the execution.  So, she turned around and rode back at the best speed she could manage.

Her fatigue must have been incredible and she must have longed for her own home and sleep. In less than three days she had ridden horseback and alone for 160 miles, obtained a pardon, and all this after the trial ordeal of 24 sleepless hours.

Six months later, news would arrive on a ship from London that a Royal pardon had been given. The Prendergasts would eventually head out into the frontier and settle in Tennessee for a while before eventually returning to New York.  It seems to me that Mehitable Prendergast is at least as important to United States history as Shirley Chisholm, the New York politician nominated by the National Women’s Political Caucus at the 1972 DNC Convention and who was the subject of the documentary Year Of The Woman.

“…Utterly null and void to all in purposes whatsoever.”

There is always a risk when taking any position opposite that of your Rulers. In 1766, “The System” was the British Parliament. Faced with obnoxious opposition to their Stamp Act, the deliberative body would take it upon themselves to correct the problem. In the same breath that they would repeal the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766, they would issue the Declaratory Act.

And be it further declared and enacted by the authority aforesaid, That all resolutions, votes, orders, and proceedings, in any of the said colonies or plantations, whereby the power and authority of the parliament of Great Britain, to make laws and statutes as aforesaid, is denied, or drawn into question, arc, and are hereby declared to be, utterly null and void to all in purposes whatsoever.

This is the intellectual elite’s version of patting themselves on their powdered wigs and saying “Neener, neener!” What they did was basically state that the American colonists were too stupid and incapable of higher thinking when they were being worked up into a frenzy by self-interested radical firebrands.

Whew! I’m sure glad that we’ve moved past that level of rhetoric.

The arrogance and complete disconnect from what was going on in the hinterlands that were the American colonies is really hard to grasp. Two hundred and fifty years removed it seems so obvious. They were losing control of the political situation and were oblivious – truly incapable of understanding the depth of colonial discontent.  Here are a Few Pages of the debates on the repeal and Declaratory Act originally assembled back in 1919. Its a fairly short read but the dialog between the MPs is illustrative.

Generally speaking, the colonials didn’t buy it for a minute. Evidently they remained too stupid and inflamed. In this Anonymous Letter, the author calls out the MP’s for their headlong rush to the gentle precipice.

SIR: The Declaratory Act, passed by the Parliament at the time they repealed the Stamp Act, was such a violation of the Constitution, such an assumption of new powers, so subversive of liberty, and so destructive of properly, that it deserves particular observation….The abuse of these powers, or the attempt of one branch of the Legislature to extend its peculiar powers so as to abridge those of the others, has been the foundation of many civil wars and struggles in Britain.

Whew! It’s also a good thing that we’ve moved beyond an arrogant ruling class who would abuse the powers of a branch of government.

They would not learn their lesson, even twelves years on when a Peace Delegation would be sent to the Continental Congress in 1778. I came across this Facebook Post in my readings earlier this week and thought that it dovetailed nicely with the anniversary of the Declaratory Act.

The House of Commons creates a peace commission to negotiate with the American patriots because of France’s recognition of the United States. This commission travels to Philadelphia and accedes to all demands except for independence. The Continental Congress rejects their offer.

It was almost an exact restatement of the Declaratory Act. Of course we will address your petty grievances little minions as long as you realize that the Rules Laid Down By Parliament and Assented to by His Majesty the King remain preeminent and inviolable. Your little colonial congresses and town halls mean nothing to us.

The newspapers of the colonies were the Internet of their day, where the radical firebrands could write letters anonymously and stir up the masses. Even the editors were a little slow on the uptake. This was, in part, due to the elation that most felt – they had triumphed over “The System” and the Stamp Act had been repealed. It was less obvious in March of 1766 that while TPTB were publicly being contrite, that they were also laying the groundwork for dealing with future dissent more harshly. The long, hot summer of 1766 had yet to start.


Cape Fear and Second, and Third chances

No, this post is not about the Martin Scorsese film re-make from the 1990’s.

On the 26th day of February in 1766, His Excellency, the Royal Governor William Tryon signed a proclamation letting slip the dogs of wars upon His Majesty’s subjects in the colony of North Carolina.

By His Excellency William Tryon Esquire

Whereas a few days since a great number of Armed persons did tumultuously Assemble themselves together both at Wilmington and Brunswick to the Disturbances of the peace and good government of this Province, and in violation of the Laws of their Country by which they have subjected themselves to the severest penalties incurred by the several Laws to prevent Riotous and Seditious meetings—I have therefore thought proper By and with the advice and consent of His Majestys Council to issue this Proclamation strictly charging and commanding all officers both civil and Military to exert their Authority in suppressing all such illegal proceedings, as they shall answer the Contrary at their Peril.

Given under my hand and the Great Seal &c at Brunswick 26th day of February 1766 &c

Cracking down on subjects who disturb the peace and hinder good governance – what reasonable person could possibly be against that?
Armed persons! Tumultuous assemblage! Goodness, gracious! What could have instigated such an outrage? On a sliver of land between the west bank of the Cape Fear River and Orton Pond, in the middle of unincorporated nowhere-land, stands a little plaque which might give the gentle reader a bit of insight.
On the 10th of February 1766, this building, known as Tryon’s Palace, was surrounded by one hundred and fifty armed men of the Cape Fear, led by George Moore of Orton and Cornelius Harnett, who resisted for the first time on this continent the authority of their Sovereign Lord the King, by demanding from Gov. Tryon the person of Capt. Lobb, H.M.S. Viper, and the surrender of the odious emblems of the British Parliament’s Stamp Act committed to his care which had been brought to Brunswick by Capt. Phipps in H.M.S. Diligence. Subsequently, on the 21st day of February 1766, at 10 A.M. a body of five hundred Cape Fear men, in arms, under Cornelius Harnett and Col. James Moore, surrounded this house and demanded the surrender of H.M. Comptroller, Mr. Pennington, and required of him an oath that he would never issue any stamped paper in this Province of North Carolina.
On this day, Mr. Harnett and Col. Moore would be standing on the side of personal liberty little knowing that in a few short years they would be co-opted into the pay of the Royal Governor against pioneers in the western part of the colony who would be standing up for their freedom in the War of Regulation. For his efforts against the pioneers, the King’s coffers would kick out “thirty pieces of silver” (inflation-adjusted to 100 pounds Sterling, of course).

This house taking into consideration the account of Mr. Cornelius Harnett in the late expedition against the insurgents and fully convinced of the great service rendered his country by his zeal and activity therein.

“Resolved, That he be allowed one hundred pounds to defray the extraordinary expend he was at in that service.

The good Colonel would go on to command an artillery regiment at the Battle of Almance that would become the turning point in the War of Regulation. Fate occasionally grant’s a person a second, or even third chance. Such would be the case for both Colonel Moore and Mr. Harnett during the War for Independence. Both would find themselves fighting on the side for liberty once again.

The same could not be said for Royal Governor Tryon. Following his decree, Capt. Lobb’s would strike out against the local community with the power of the Sovereign behind him – using Royal Marines to destroy the community’s privately held artillery pieces (not unlike these.)

Three days later boats from both Viper and Diligence combined in a nighttime amphibious operation to secretly infiltrate Fort Johnston that overlooked the harbor and to spike all of the colonial cannon found ther. With the ship’s guns run out of their ports the next morning, Lobb and Phipps released the three merchant vessels thereby diffusing further unrest in the colony.

Governor Tryon is alternately described in history books as either an honest, thoughtful, and efficient manager of his King’s subjects or as a thoroughly ruthless oppressor wielding his King’s power. The Governor would eventually leave North Carolina and find himself as a wartime Governor in the colony of New York. It is unsurprising that New York would ultimately be the last bastion of Tory support in the American colonies. Even Mayor Matthews would find himself following in the long lines of footsteps of other New York City mayors, being completely beholden to power and the maintenance of the status quo. The Governor, with the Mayor’s help, would eventually undertake an audacious operation against General Washington.

Those warnings aside, Tryon continued to successfully recruit from the lower classes, as well as at least one member from the elite, none other than David Matthews (c.1739-1800), the mayor of New York City. Unfortunately for Matthews, the Committee of Safety was on to him and on June 21, as the plotters designs were becoming known, it sought and received approval from Washington for his immediate arrest.

Targeting the head of a military operation is a legitimate wartime stratagem, especially in a civil war which the War for Independence truly was. Even when unsuccessful, such an operation can throw the opposition’s high command into chaos. The plot against General Eisenhower illustrates how in modern times even the risk of such an operation can tie up resources and interrupt timetables. While the German Commando Otto Skorzeny never admitted to directing such an action against the general, the effects of the mere rumors were enough.

Franklin’s Testimony Before the House of Commons concerning the Stamp Act – February 13, 1766

On March 22, 1765, the Stamp Act was passed without debate. This legislative act was not unique. Indeed, the colonies had suffered for decades under various pieces of inked parchment which favored the interests of mercantilists in the Isles at the expense of colonials. The Hat Act of 1732, the Molasses Act of 1733, the Iron Act of 1750, the Navigation Acts of 1763, etc.

In the name of all that was “fair”, the revenues collected by the levy would remain in the North American colonies to pay for the King’s troops who were there merely to preserve the security of his loyal subjects. Even the collectors of the tax would be by the hands of the colonials themselves. These tax collectors would, of course, have a royal appointment as stamp agents. Given the magnanimity of the King in these terms it was surprising, to those in the halls of power in London, that there had been such a fuss of late in “sail past country”. It is therefore fortunate that Dr. Franklin happened to be available to provide some perspective. I do hope that someone treated him to a bottle of Cheval Blanc afterwards!

Thus is was that Dr. Franklin found himself under examination by the House of Commons that March day.

Q. Are not the colonies, from their circumstances, very able to pay the stamp duty?

— In my opinion, there is not gold and silver enough in the colonies to pay the stamp duty for one year.

Q. Don’t you know that the money arising from the stamps was all to be laid out in America?

— I know it is appropriated by the act to the American service; but it will be spent in the conquered colonies, where the soldiers are, not in the colonies that pay it.

For clarification, the “conquered colonies” would be those areas lost by France and brought into the Empire following the Seven Years War.

Q. Do not you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty, if it was moderated?

— No, never, unless compelled by force of arms.

No mincing words there.

Q. And have they not still the same respect for parliament?

— No; it is greatly lessened.

Q. To what cause is that owing?

— To a concurrence of causes; the restraints lately laid on their trade, by which the bringing of foreign gold and silver into the colonies was prevented; the prohibition of making paper money among themselves; and then demand a new and heavy tax by stamps; taking away at the same, trials by juries, and refusing to receive and hear their humble petitions.

Q. Don’t you think they would submit to the Stamp Act, if it was modified, the obnoxious parts taken out, and the duty reduced to some particulars, of small moment?

— No; they will never submit to it.

Repeat the same question asked previously, but reword it slightly. I guess that legalese is the same going back to Sumerian times. Dr. Franklin performed a great service for the colonies with his testimony. The robed and wigged authority figures were just in no particular mood to listen. Go through the motions. Investigate. This too shall pass.

It was business in London as usual.



Sestercentennial. Two hundred and fifty year anniversary. This same period can also be expressed as quarter-millennial. A length of time that spans roughly ten familial generations. It also happens to be about twice as long as the generally recognized period of Imperial Rome (at least the Western Empire.) Five hundred years encompassing the period from when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon until the assassination of Valentinian III. By the time Flavius wrote his Epitoma Rei Militaris, Imperial Rome was well past her peak and his call to a return to ‘first principles’ fell upon ears the were generations removed from Peak Glory.

The American Revolution is currently going through its sestercentennial now as well. What, you say! Everyone knows the Revolution started with the Boston Massacre, or the Tea Party, or on Lexington Green. Who cares, right? The Revolution was about a bunch of greedy old white slavers trying to avoid the King’s rightful taxation, and who decided to revolt at the drop of a hat.

Well, not so much. School curriculums and internet encyclopedias make for lazy thinking. Spoon fed pablum and push button insipidity. Easy answers are seductive. Questioning is good, but avoid those who provide pat answers like the plague, or at least recognize that you are being manipulated. As the KOG said to Edward R. Murrow “The trouble with you is that you want easy answers, but you don’t know the proper questions,”

Embrace the warts and ride the chaos. Check your presentistic views and prejudices at the dust cover (virtual or otherwise.) With a more thorough understanding of the past, the “proper questions” become clear and the simplistic answers become glaringly obvious when offered in response.