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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *