The Beginning of the End
Stefan Bielinski

Early in the morning of June fourth, a crack of gunfire pierced the mid-night air. Although abruptly awakened, most city people were only annoyed at the "boys" and "negroes" who actually had fired the muskets.Their indiscretions could be excused to youthful exuberance or the venting of frustration over a deteriorated economic climate that now had begun to marginalize many more of the community's mainline people. At the same time, they might well have been more concerned over the festivities of the night before at the "Cheapside" tavern of Richard Cartwright where a number of people had gathered to celebrate the birthday of the king of England. Prominently present at the party was local merchant John Duncan; young Tory Benjamin Hilton; Stephen De Lancey, the city and county clerk; postmaster John Monier; States M. Dyckman - a young adventurer; and the city's thirty-three-year-old mayor, Abraham C. Cuyler - who was escorted to the tavern on the arms of Charles Folliot and Thomas Barrett, fellow members of St. Peters Anglican Church and practitioners of the noble trades of the carpenter and cooper.

The event did not escape the notice of the city's Whigs who at that moment were in the process of identifying the enemies of American liberties in their midst and who were in no mood to tolerate such activities. Although he personally knew every one of the revelers, the next morning Committee of Correspondence chairman John Barclay issued a public statement denouncing the "indecent meeting" as a "daring insult" by a group of "unfriendly people." Quickly, the Albany committee acted on a petition from the city's so-called "respectable inhabitants" and ordered the six ringleaders to be confined and to be deported to Hartford, Connecticut. For the people of colonial Albany, this was the beginning of the end!*

That incident went down as one of the most radical acts in the history of the Albany community. It was the first time in more than a hundred years that a group of citizens was jailed for any reason. It also was the first recorded manifestation that the community most outsiders perceived as an impenetrable monolith itself was seriously divided. But all observers certainly would agree that a royal birthday banquet in the charged days just before the Declaration of Independence would seem to have been entirely inappropriate. After all, Albany was an inland city anchored by largely non English roots and a place where most of its people would feel no inherent attachment to a British king. Recent British policies and restrictions were contrary to the interests and ambitions of most Americans living in colonial communities like Albany. And above all, Albany people could be characterized as self-interested.

Independent Albanians were well-known for standing for their rights and interests. Early on, Albany took steps to protect itself by joining the crusade for American liberties - beginning with the signing of a constitution for the Albany Sons of Liberty in 1766. Now ten years later, many of Albany's principal personages such as Philip Schuyler, Abraham Ten Broeck, and Abraham Yates, Jr. already were unmistakably identified with what was on the verge of becoming a revolutionary cause. Why then would Cuyler and some of the city's other leading residents choose to make a public statement that was sure to foul the air of blooming Americanism? Who were those assembled at Cartwright's "King's Arms" tavern? Were they really seeking to deliver themselves up to the neighbors and kinsmen who were about to become revolutionaries? Had their positions in the community become so compromised in the eighteen months since the closing of the port of Boston that they would actually provoke their own downfall? And were the revolutionaries only waiting for a tangible excuse to banish their erstwhile neighbors and kinsmen now Tories from Albany forever? Were these objects of revolutionary zeal merely British adherents or were they also the targets of reactionary vengeance on the part of an insular society, many of whose traditional leaders and rank-and-file people alike were feeling themselves losing ground to those who were able and willing to move closer to the British?

Such questions regarding motivation are among the most difficult to answer. The difficulty becomes acutely apparent when the historian actually looks into a community society and attempts to engage the past from the bottom-up and from the inside-out. Thousands of people lived through the so-called Revolutionary era in American communities like Albany. Their activities generated historical materials that would fill a number of archives if they were gathered together. Unfortunately, such comprehensive community repositories exist only in the imaginations of the most optimistic and determined historians. In fact, almost all of the most quoted philosophical pronouncements on the revolutionary state of mind are the legacies of our more famous revolutionary forefathers. For the most part, they are famous because they were wealthy and because steps were taken to preserve their properties and papers. At the same time, these exceptional and mostly self-made Americans made up a very small part of the overall community mosaic. On the other hand, the rhetoric of liberty and declarations of revolutionary sentiments are conspicuously absent from the documentary legacies of the lives of more ordinary people who were the other 98% of colonial society.

However, recognizing that people did "vote with their feet," the historian might approach understanding how they felt and what they believed by following what they did. Great insights into their actions can be gleaned from the records of local government, the courts, churches and other social groups, business records, and from a range of other documents created to serve some other economic end. But those resources are fragmentary and widely scattered. The Other Revolutionaries seeks to understand the feelings and perspectives of the more ordinary and typical members of the Albany community and is guided by that strategic approach.

The chapters that follow will demonstrate how the rank-and-file people of a particular early American community became an integral part of a continental revolutionary movement; how they met a range of challenges during an uncertain and critical period; and how the struggle impacted on those who would not or could not join with them. In the process, their stories will help articulate and explain the three American Revolutions (the war, the replacement of an imperial with an American agenda, and the birth of an American economy) as they transformed an early American city on the threshold of the modern era.


Draft of an introductory chapter from "The Other Revolutionaries".

*JPC 2:284-88; CC 431-39.

For Albany's legacy of self-determination, see Stefan Bielinski, Government by the People: The Story of the Dongan Charter and the Birth of Participatory Democracy in the City of Albany (Albany, 1986). In early 1766, 94 Albany men signed a document repudiating the Stamp Act and setting forth the beliefs of the Albany "Sons of Liberty." See also, Beverly McAnear, "The Albany Stamp Act Riots," William and Mary Quarterly (1947), 86-98.

This work's approach to understanding historical motivation and community dynamics was inspired by the work of the "New Social Historians" over the past thirty years. Particularly instructive were Gary B. Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 1979), for drawing me to early American urban history and for lighting my way to an explanation of its (the colonial city's) logical conclusion; Billy G. Smith, Philadelphia's Laboring People, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, NY, 1980), for taking me beyond community elites; Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World (New York, 1976), for its grace and literary coherence; Alfred F. Young, "George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution," William and Mary Quarterly (October 1981), as a reminder never to give-up on finding literary sources; Darrett and Anita Rutman, A Place in Time: Middlesex County, Virginia, 1650-1750 (New York, 1984), which drew me to the potentials of ethnography and prosopography as approaches to community history; and some years earlier, James A. Henretta, "Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America," William and Mary Quarterly (January 1978), for its mentalité.

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