Monthly Archives: August 2016

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.