New York Sons of Liberty Leader Alexander McDougall Makes An Impassioned Plea for Unity Among the Colonies in Opposition to the Tax on Tea and the Townshend Acts

The future Continental Army general writes in June 1770, shortly after being released from jail for anti-British activities, presaging the drawing of lines between loyalist and patriot just a few years later

This extremely important manuscript, signed as the early Patriots sometimes did with a Greek pseudonym, is a significant pre-Revolutionary War discovery; We are only aware of one other that might have reached the market and that was decades ago

McDougall takes the Boston merchants, among them John Hancock, Samuel Adams...

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New York Sons of Liberty Leader Alexander McDougall Makes An Impassioned Plea for Unity Among the Colonies in Opposition to the Tax on Tea and the Townshend Acts

The future Continental Army general writes in June 1770, shortly after being released from jail for anti-British activities, presaging the drawing of lines between loyalist and patriot just a few years later

This extremely important manuscript, signed as the early Patriots sometimes did with a Greek pseudonym, is a significant pre-Revolutionary War discovery; We are only aware of one other that might have reached the market and that was decades ago

McDougall takes the Boston merchants, among them John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, to task for allowing the violation of the non-importation agreements

“This conduct of theirs has entirely frustrated the noble, virtuous and honest effort made by Philadelphia and New York; but for their duplicity of conduct, the duty on Tea would also have been repealed last session.”

Acquired from the descendants of a prominent colonial New York merchant family; offered for sale here for the first time

Our gratitude to the scholars at the New-York Historical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Library of Congress for their assistance in researching this historic document

In November 1767, The Townshend Acts, named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, took effect in America. Colonists, who had only recently suffered under the Stamp Act, now had to pay duties on glass, paper, lead, paint, and tea imported from Britain. Merchants began to consider organizing a non-importation movement, hoping a decrease in the sale of British goods will force their British counterparts to advocate for repeal.

After vowing to suspend trade with non-participating colonies, Boston merchants persuaded traders in New York, Philadelphia, and other ports to join the boycott. This launched the careers of Patriots who would play prominent roles, beginning with this movement, then the Tea Party and following that the Revolutionary War itself.

But not everyone subscribed to the non-importation movement. Some colonists agreed to them in principle yet continued to purchase, import, or sell British goods. In August 1769, trade violators were exposed on the front page of the Boston Chronicle. News of the violations had a devastating effect on the boycott, as did importing merchants who scoffed at Patriots.

The Boston non-importation agreement was set to expire on January 1, 1770. Many merchants wanted out; they had warehouses full of British goods to sell and they were eager to resume their trade. Nonetheless, hoping to demonstrate their “zeal in the cause” — despite the violators in their midst — Bostonians wrote to Massachusetts’ colonial agent in London assuring him that they are as determined as ever to force Parliament’s hand.

In New York, the seeds of the Revolution were being planted. As Chris Minty, who as a Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, became an expert in this period, writes, “From the DeLanceys’ election in early 1769 until the meeting of the First Continental Congress in the autumn of 1774, two political groups emerged in New York City. One group, led by the DeLanceys, was populated by a significant number of men who would go on to become Loyalists. On the other side of the political fence, led by noted Sons of Liberty John Lamb, Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougall, a majority of their supporters became Patriots. McDougall, a French and Indian War time privateer, was in 1769 a merchant and landowner without the cultural pedigree of the Delanceys. The polarisation of New York society began in earnest upon the DeLanceys’ victory in the Assembly elections, but the process was expedited later that year when they issued £2,000 to quarter British troops. They even went so far as to imprison McDougall for anti-British activities, specifically for publishing, what they alleged was a seditious libel.”

Difficulties in the city and colony were increased by the Quartering Act, which required the colonists to provide housing and support to the British troops. The Province of New York assembly had refused to pass appropriations for their housing in 1767 and 1768, and had been prorogued (discontinued). Then, the new assembly of 1769 approved money for the quartering of British troops. On December 16, 1769, McDougall wrote and printed an anonymous broadside, To the Betrayed Inhabitants, which criticized the assembly’s vote and led to the Battle of Golden Hill – a clash between British soldiers and the Sons of Liberty that occurred on January 19, 1770 in New York City. Along with the Boston Massacre and the Gaspée Affair, the event was one of the early violent incidents in what would become the American Revolution.

McDougall was arrested in February 1770, but refused to post bail, so he was jailed. He spent a total of about five months in prison and was released. In an effort to paint him as a political martyr, the Sons of Liberty called him, “the Wilkes of America,” after John Wilkes, a British politician who was imprisoned for defying the authority of the government. This was symbolized by the group and was incorporated into the protests. Minty writes, “Many touched upon the Wilkite symbolism of the ‘forty-five.’ For instance, on March 15, 1770, it was reported that forty-five virgins sung a slightly amended second half of the Forty-Fifth Psalm ‘to the Illustrious Prisoner.’ In the song, the women characterized McDougall as a martyr for liberty. Other colonies recognized what was happening in New York. They, too, supported McDougall’s plight.” McDougall became recognized as the street leader of the Sons of Liberty, and organized continued protests.

In May 1770, Americans learned that Parliament has repealed the Townshend duties (except the duty on tea). This helped ease opposition to non-importation.

The non-importation agreement was an early experiment in cooperation between the disparate colonies.

In the late Spring / early Summer of 1770, heated letters were exchanged between the merchants in Boston and a committee of the pro-nonimportation merchants in New York. New Yorkers accused their counterparts, among them Hancock, of violating or allowing to be violated the non-importation accord and demanding a response. New Yorkers did not at the start publish their letters. Boston sometimes did. McDougall played a prominent role. These letters were signed often by multiple signers, anonymously or via a meaningful Greek pseudonym.

Manuscript letter signed “Cleomenes”, almost certainly in the hand of Alexander McDougall, two large pages, no date, but late Spring / early Summer 1770, likely June, to the Merchants in Boston.

“The Merchants in Boston are called upon candidly to inform their neighbours by what fatality it happened that no advice was by them transmitted to their agent, correspondents or masters of ships in London that the trade at Boston had renewed their non-importation in October last. The masters of the ships belonging to Boston declared publicly on the change and at the New England Coffee House during the Months of January, February, March, and April last that the Boston agreement expired the 1 January 1770 and that no advice had been received from thence of its being renewed nor were any orders received to countermand the shipping of their goods. Neither had the said masters of ships any positive orders from the owners in Boston not to lade or take on board any goods disallowed of by their former agreement; And therefore were determined to take on freight all goods that were offered them and actually did as appears from the bills of entries letters from the different Colony agents, the speeches in Parliament and other authentic advices and confirmed by the arrival of about [twenty ships] at boston during the last four or five months. [Nineteen of said ships] having on board quantities of goods that were not allowed by their agreement and among other articles were glass, tea, and others that paid the duty. As there was time sufficient for their countermands to reach London between October (when they renewed their agreement) and the month of January (when the shipping of spring goods in London commences).

“They are requested immediately to inform the public the real cause of their failing to perform what they had engaged and what was in their power to do. The reasons that hitherto have been alleged by them in justification of the trade at Boston are the most futile and evasive that were ever offered the common sense of mankind. I think they are that many of the orders were given or wrote in a loose manner and that some of the masters of ships had exceeded their orders, but surely these reasons instead of clearing the trade at Boston from censure do prove them highly culpable. Why did they write their orders in a loose manner? And why did they not send positive countermands except the duty on Tea was also repealed? No doubt the merchants at Boston are capable to write orders with proper restrictions as well as the merchants in Philadelphia or New York – yet they themselves say many of our orders were given in a loose manner and this in justification of their conduct. Surely the world must impeach either heads or hearts.

“The other reason given by them is that some of their masters of their ships had exceeded their orders’. The public will be glad to know what orders they had. Was it that they should take on board no goods whatsoever but such as were allowed of by their agreement? which was the orders given by the owners in New York and Philadelphia; or was it to get as much freight as possible and to refuse no goods whatever be it [Tea, glass, paper or colours]. The latter is most probably because it can be proved beyond a possibility a doubt, that the masters of the Boston ships in general did solicit freight of all goods without exception with as much earnestness and zeal during all the year 1769 and also during the last Winter and Spring, as if no non-importation agreement in being in Boston and for the last 18 months have never refused to take in goods, for those that were styled importers.

“What duplicity of conduct is here here! Many of the owners of ships declare they do esteem the importers of goods enemies to their country, they brand them as such, publish their names in the public prints, help to form cavalcades and processions in order to intimidate them, and yet to their eternal shame be it spoken permit captains to solicity in London the freight of such importers goods and thereby give a sanction to the measure they pretend to abhor and detest. This conduct of theirs has entirely frustrated the noble, virtuous and honest effort made by Philadelphia and New York; but for their duplicity of conduct, the duty on Tea would also have been repealed last session.

“They are inconvenienced of this but in order that the other colonies should not be attentive to such a gross defection from their boasted principles, they meet, make lofty pretensions to patriotism, and high sounding resolves of their firmness. But from the former actions I am fearful it will prove to be vox et pratera nihil.

When the trade at Boston have truly answered for their conduct of what is alledged here, the publish will be able to condemn of acquit them and then they shall again be called upon by, Cleomenes.”

This document, newly discovered by us and apparently unpublished, is of the highest importance in showing the attitude of Patriots in New York on the key question of nonimportation. It comes from the collection of Henry Remsen, colonial merchant and later member of the Provisional Congress with McDougall, and fellow participant in the New York Committee of Correspondence.

In June-July 1770, the New York merchants began meeting to discuss the future of nonimportation in this environment, with the Delancey’s aligned against the McDougall faction. The non-importation movement quickly collapsed. By October 1770, non-importation was dead—but not for long. McDougall’s men had been outnumbered, but the table was set for the era of the Boston Tea Party, when the old divisions in New York would re-surface.

McDougall went on to serve as a Major General in Washington’s Continental Army, and as a delegate to the Continental Congress. After the war, he was the president of the first bank in the state of New York and served a term in the New York State Senate.

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