Historical Curiosities

Commentary on the perhaps hard-to-believe assertions

that weren’t fudged in Exquisite Folly



Occupy Wall Street.jpgEpigraph – Readers will have noted a startling similarity of the rhetoric of “A.B.C.’s” letter to that of Occupy Wall Street.  Though there are many ideological differences between the protesters of 1765 and those of a quarter-millenium later, they share a deep frustration with their respective oligarchic establishments and a great outrage against injustice. What is particularly curious is that the two movements were geographically located in exactly the same place! Zuccotti Park, the 2011-12 focal point of OWS, is on Broadway, half-way between Bowling Green and City Hall Park; the marches inspired by objections to the Stamp Act moved back and forth along that same avenue. The 99 percent rhetoric is also put into the mouth of Marinus Willett—though your author has no real idea how seriously he might have taken it.

The fictional mansion of Aaron Colegrove is located directly opposite what is now Zuccotti Park, and is imagined as one of ten elegant Georgian houses occupying its block, which now hosts a single 51-story office tower, 140 Broadway, completed in 1967, fronted by an unusually commodious sidewalk. 

Chapter 1Pianofortes were not new in 1765. However, thanks to rising general prosperity and the enhanced manufacturing capabilities of the early industrial revolution, they were zumpe-square-piano London 1767.JPGsuddenly much more affordable, and a great increase in innovation, production, and quality was recorded during the second half of the 18th Century. The “square pianoforte,” manufactured by Johannes Zumpe, a German who fled to London to escape the Seven Years’ War, was particularly popular. Though they offered a pleasing advance in sound quality over both harpsichords and clavichords, they still lacked the metal frame which, in the 19th Century, enabled strings to hold their pitch despite much heavier—louder—strikes. We imagine that Thomas Dordrecht, perceiving the musical value for money of the instruments, risked the last of his savings to import two of them to America.

The three blocks of Reade Street west of Broadway today have the same footprint they did in 1765. Then, however, it was the very furthest edge of town, far from the fashionable sections. The underlying land was owned by Trinity Church, based on a 1705 gift from Queen Anne. Trinity Church to this day owns some fourteen acres of Manhattan real estate.


Weekly Post-Boy2.pngInsofar as the radicals of 1765 had a slogan, it was “Liberty, Property, and No Stamps!” Taxation without representation was considered a violation of property rights, and those rights were regarded as essential in Lockean, enlightenment thinking. Their perfect ability to reconcile this slogan with chattel slavery is attributable, according to my understanding, not to a loophole in the principle, but to denial and evasion of enslaved people’s humanity. (If anyone finds this so unspeakably reprehensible that they cannot tolerate any precept of the founding generation, I’d be glad to point out some equivalent instances of denial and evasion of other people’s humanity that are prevalent among 21st Century Americans!)

No one should doubt their sincerity, at any rate.  Consider the following doggerel from the New York Weekly Post-Boy in September 1765, which is possibly a reprint of a Boston piece, as it references the August riots in Boston:


HE who for a Post, or base sordid Pelf,

His Country betrays, makes a Rope for himself;

Of this an Example before you we bring,

In these infamous Rogues, who in Effigy swing.

Huzza, my brave Boys! —every Man stand his ground,

With Liberty’s Praise let the Welkin resound;

Eternal Disgrace on their miscreants fall,

Who thro’ Pride or for Wealth would ruin us all.

Let us make wise Resolves, and to them let’s stand strong,

(Your Puffs and your Vapours do never last long)

To maintain our just rights every measure pursue,

To our King we’ll be loyal, to ourselves we’ll be true.

Those Blessings our Fathers obtain’d by their blood,

We are justly oblig’d as their Sons to make good;

All internal Taxes let us then nobly spurn,

These Effigies first—next the Stamp Paper burn.


Chorus: —Sing Tantarara, burn all, burn all!



When we think today of Tar and Feathers, the iconic intimidation method of the Sons of Liberty, the image of tar that comes to mind is the hot asphalt spread on roadways, which would surely cause serious burns if applied directly to the skin. A recent article by J.L. Bell on the myths of Tar ’n Feathers asserts, to the contrary, that “in the eighteenth century ‘tar’ meant pine tar, used for several purposes in building and maintaining ships,” which “doesn’t have to be very hot to be sticky.” That article also implies that your present author was in error to suggest that James Colegrove, for example, might have feared T&F, because “the first example of such an assault in pre-Revolutionary America took place in the port of Norfolk, Virginia, in March 1766.” Call it dramatic license!


Chapter 2 – The chaos in shipping depicted in the fall of 1765 was a prominent fact up and down the American coast. The proposed tactic against the tax, a general boycott of British commerce, was universally anticipated, as were its ruinous consequences. The various ruses employed to evade legal and  bureaucratic peccadilloes, both before and after the implementation of the tax, are historical, but the results were as painful as predicted on both sides of the pond, and did spur the ultimate revocation.

The “public gardens,” Ranelagh and Vauxhall, were recent innovations in London that were instantly imitated in New York City, on much smaller scales. They were privately-owned institutions, open to the public for an admission fee, that provided many of the amenities that tax-supported public parks provide today. Both were opened in New York in 1765 (just before Thomas Dordrecht returned from abroad). Neither survived the American Revolution, and no trace of them can be seen today.

The spinning jenny, a multi-spool spinning frame, was invented in 1764 by James Hargreaves in Lancashire. The device reduced the amount of labor required to produce yarn, as one worker could manage eight or more spools at once. It followed the several 1738 improvements to the loom made by John Kay, which allowed one weaver to double his or her output. That invention—commonly called the fly-shuttle—resulted in a shortage of feedstock, and triggered the start of the Industrial Revolution. Hargreaves kept his machine secret for some time, but produced a number for his own growing business. The price of yarn fell, angering the large spinning community in Blackburn, who broke into his house and smashed his machines, forcing him to flee to Nottingham in 1768.

In June 1765, the nine-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been in London with his father and sister for fourteen months, having entertained the king in October 1764. In June 1765, both of the “young prodigies” performed daily at the Swan and Harp Tavern in Cornhill, the charge being a mere two shillings and sixpence. One writer called this “Leopold’s last, desperate effort to extract guineas from the English public,” prior to the trio’s return home. Another likened this part of the tour to a travelling circus, comparing the Mozarts to a family of acrobats. The Mozarts left London on 24 July 1765. It is therefore completely plausible that Thomas Dordrecht, staying with his uncle in the music business during his last month in Europe, could have been exposed to the boy Mozart.

Chapter 3“Heart of Oak” is the official march of the Royal Navy. The words were penned in 1760 by the actor-impresario David Garrick to celebrate Britain’s many victories in the Seven Years’ War. Oakum is a preparation of tarred fibre used in shipbuilding for caulking the joints of timbers in wooden vessels. Oakum was recycled from old tarry ropes, which were painstakingly unraveled. The grubby task was a common sailors’ chore—and a penal occupation in prisons and workhouses. The name of the (fictional) tavern, Hearts of Oakum, is thus a satirical jab at the militarist and imperialist Navy—satiric names for drinking establishments being an old New York tradition.

Just as New York City emulated London’s gardens, it had its own Macaroni Club, founded in 1764, which was despised by radicals for its oblivious readiness to encourage huge bets on horse races at a time when most residents were feeling deeply pinched. (The “macaroni” was both a type of men’s wig, and the 18th Century equivalent of today’s “metrosexual.” Its origin does in fact derive from Italian pasta.)

Men’s discussion clubs were very popular in American cities at the time. The “Encyclopedia Club,” to which John Glasby belonged, however, is fictional, based on the enlightenment’s explicit aim to pursue omnivorous knowledge, and perhaps specifically inspired by the publication of Diderot’s (French) encyclopedia in 1755. 

Chapter 4 – The Battle of Sainte-Foy took place just west of the city of Québec (the area is now incorporated within the city), on April 28, 1760.  Though it was a very bloody, hard-fought affair, it’s relatively unknown—perhaps because the French won it.  After the fall of the city of Québec in September 1759, the French had rallied in the spring and marched northeast from Montréal to retake it. Despite their success at Sainte-Foy, they were unable to force a surrender, and were later finally overcome back at Montréal in September 1760, the last of the war’s engagements on the North American continent.

The fictional story of Captain William Colegrove’s demise derives from a friend’s tale of a prominent military ancestor who was wounded in the buttocks, and how the rest of his family struggled for generations to deny the supposedly undignified bodily insult had ever occurred, much to my friend’s amusement. The ancestor in question survived. It would require great medical neglect and incompetence, I imagine, for such a wound to be mortal; however, if it occurred just before a major battle ... such failures are hardly inconceivable.

The presence of women in the shipping office surprises but does not shock Thomas Dordrecht—particularly as the women in question were the wives of the principals. Just as the increasing division of labor slowly vitiated the constraints of chattel slaves, so the requirements of urban mercantile enterprises tended to break down the hoary agrarian distinctions of “men’s work and women’s work.” Though women’s individual property rights were horrendously neglected by modern standards, they were not entirely disdained in all cases, providing some motivation for wives and widows to participate strongly in commercial endeavors.


Const Courant.pngChapter 5Thomas Dordrecht attends a (fictional) meeting of the radicals’ committee on September 20, 1765, in which selections are read aloud from the “first issue” of the Constitutional Courant, which was also the last issue (although that might not have been the plan at the time). The quotations, attributed to the historical Isaac Sears and John Lamb, reading the pseudonymous “Philo Patriae” and “Philoeutherus,” are virtually verbatim—interspersed, of course, with Dordrecht’s instant assessment. The paper itself was half the size of the period’s regular newspapers—probably because it had no advertising. It was a single sheet, roughly 11” by 17”, with three long columns of extremely small print on both sides—absolutely a torture to read! The quotations of poems, posters, and handbills cited throughout Exquisite Folly, are similarly genuine.


The colonial attitude, circa 1765, toward “the best of kings” requires some explanation in light of subsequent events. George III’s popularity was strong in America from his 1760 accession right up to 1774-75.  His predecessor, George II, was remembered with enormous fondness. The popularity of monarchs, generally, ran in inverse proportion to their meddlesomeness and their distance. The Hanoverians were much more highly esteemed in their remote territories than in Britain itself. All problems were invariably blamed solely on the royal councilors, who were assumed to be incompetent if not plain evil. In fact, George III had little sympathy for the American position, and solidly supported the Stamp Act. But it was not until the Intolerable Acts of 1774 that the general American public turned against him. The Declaration of Independence then made a point of accusing the king, rather than the Parliament, of all America’s grievances—emphasizing the totality of the political break.


Kings_college_1770.gifKing’s College (now Columbia University) was established by a royal charter in 1754, having a connection to the established (that is, tax-supported) Anglican Church, much to the infuriation of the “dissenting” Protestant sects—especially the Presbyterians, who fomented a “pamphlet war” against it that raged for several years. The clergy of the Dutch Reformed denomination, New York’s largest religious plurality, were suborned into acquiescence by promises that their religious rights would remain sacrosanct. King’s remained officially Anglican until the British occupied the city in 1776, after which all its activities were halted. In 1784, immediately after the evacuation, the school renamed itself and reopened with a secularized constitution. (I can’t resist observing a slight problem with this sketch:  it’s titled “in 1770,” yet the costume is clearly mid-19th Century!)


The concept of “freemanship,” or “freedom of the city,” goes back to medieval times (with antecedents in ancient Rome). Originally it was an honor bestowed by a municipality—which in turn possessed certain royally-granted “freedoms”—that ensured a man was not to be claimed in serfdom. Later, it ensured the right to vote in local elections and a right to engage in business (which was not otherwise assured). The notion was imported into colonial New York City, where it became the purchasable demonstration of a certain level of economic wherewithal, then deemed a necessary property consideration for voting. New York did possess the most open franchise of the late colonial era—which would not say much for it in terms of modern understanding. The concept has since entirely disappeared from the United States, though honorary “keys to the city” are occasionally given here.  Britain and Commonwealth countries still employ it as a traditional honor, as do some continental nations.

In the summer of 1995, your author (among a large cohort of Americans) had the pleasure of witnessing the formal investiture of an English friend as a Freeman of the City of London. The ceremony occurred in modern rooms attached to the ancient Guildhall. My friend had acquired this right as a member of a guild with the improbable name of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. A judge in a wig and full robes required him to swear that he would disclose any plots he overheard against her sacred majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Then there was an enormous comedy of everbody taking pictures of everbody else, followed by lunch in a grand old pub on Leadenhall Street.


Chapter 9 – Peter Colegrove’s remarks about effusive funerals being “contrary to the temper of the times,” may be perplexing to modern readers. In the late colonial period, funerals had become enormously elaborate—and hugely expensive—affairs. Reforming preachers railed against such extravagance and Massachusetts even passed a law against it.  An ostentatious funeral for Artemis Colegrove would indeed have garnered criticism, though Peter’s trepidation regarding physical interference is clearly a matter of both panic and deliberate exaggeration.


Chapter 10 – The dramatic public events surrounding the November first official implementation of the Stamp Tax are based on the sketchy historical record, with details inferred by your present author. Much of the record is based not on journalistic “reporting,” but on private letters, some written years after the fact.  Nonetheless, historians are confident of certain events:

·       There was a meeting of some two hundred “principal merchants” late in the afternoon of October 31st, at which the radicals’ nonimportation boycott proposal was endorsed.

·       A similar meeting of retailers and artisans was held simultaneously and also approved a boycott.

·       Governor Colden and the small military force domiciled in Fort George did reorient the fort’s cannons from the harbor, to face Bowling Green.

·       One parade began downtown just at dusk, and toted an effigy of Colden past the Merchants’ Coffee House and the City Hall (where there was a tense confrontation with the mayor), and down to the Fort. The governor’s private garage was broken into and his carriage stolen.

INPS-Plate 31.png·       This parade then joined a much larger gathering on the Common—that is, today’s City Hall Park—around 8:00 PM.  The figure of two thousand persons is historical; however, just as such counts can be easily exaggerated or minimized today, this assertion is all we have by way of evidence.  The parade proceeded down Broadway by torch and candlelight. People did attempt to gain admittance to the Fort; entry was denied; some tried to storm it, but the radicals defused that attempt by starting a controlled bonfire that included the governor’s carriage and sleighs in addition to the satiric effigies.

·       Later in the evening, contrary to the intention of the leading radicals, a mob broke away to attack the mansion of Major Thomas James and succeeded in virtually demolishing it. They later attacked some houses of ill-repute as well.

o   Ironically, Major Thomas James, hated for his earlier public threats, was the very officer who, despite great provocation from both sides, did not fire on the huge assembly of protestors in Bowling Green.

o   Required, some months later, to justify his inaction to Parliament, James averred that he might have killed nine hundred of the populace that night. He was restrained, he said, by his certain belief that the militias of New York and New Jersey would have stormed the fort the following day and massacred all within.

o   Noted historians Edmund S. & Helen M. Morgan, in their book The Stamp Act Crisis, assert that “it was only the coolness of the officers within that prevented the American Revolution from beginning on November 1, 1765 [emphasis added].”

·       The events of the following days—delineated to our “recovering” hero by Cooper and Mapes—closely follow the record. The continuing issue was the radicals’ demand that the city should take possession of the stamps. Had Colden not finally surrendered on November 5th—when the traditionally rowdy Guy Fawkes celebrations might have touched off even more extensive rioting—the fort might well have been stormed amid a horrendous bloodbath.

Chapter 11 – The celebration of “Guy Fawkes Day,” still a tradition in Britain, was also a tradition in the British colonies. In addition to being a feast of “misrule” and social class role-reversal, in the 18th Century it had a decidedly anti-Catholic aspect. Catholics in America, less prevalent then than Muslims are today, were the butt of a great propaganda of alleged threats against the Protestant majority. The still-shaky claim of the Hanoverian dynasty to the British throne was justified as a defense against the alleged nefarious design of the papacy to forcibly reclaim the whole of Christendom. (Most overt expressions of religious prejudice were cleaned up in a trice during the Revolutionary War, when the infant United States desperately needed the aid of Catholic France.)

Chapter 12 – There was in fact a terrific storm, that caused major flooding about the littoral, immediately after Sir Henry Moore’s landing on November 13th. (The man was really lucky not to have arrived three days later!) 

The confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers, an area of water still known as Hell Gate, was infinitely more problematic to navigate in the 18th Century than it is today—which is not to suggest that it’s to be taken lightly today! The natural topographical hazards, above and below the water line, were then far more constraining. As the tides were pulling just as much water then as now through a tighter funnel, the currents were even fiercer. Though repeated efforts were made to dredge the area, the basic problem was solid rock, and it was not until 1885, when the Army Corps of Engineers tunneled into it and detonated the largest controlled explosion yet known, that some of the rocky outcrops disappeared and the relatively open configuration we know today took shape. The success of that fascinating effort, coupled with the later creation of the “Harlem Ship Channel,” and the “Ambrose Channel” in Lower New York Bay, greatly enhanced New York City’s capability as a port.

Chapter 15 – The three main political factions of mid-18th Century New York City, plus their numerically insignificant opponents, the Court Party, are carefully parsed in Joseph S. Tiedemann’s Reluctant Revolutionaries. The following is your author’s highly simplified summarization:

·       The “DeLancey faction” were imperialists and mercantilists. (Today, we might call them “crony capitalists.”) Their wealth was based in shipping and manufacturing enterprises.

·       The “Livingston faction” were legalists and traditionalists. Their wealth was based in landed property, primarily in the Hudson valley.

·       The middle classes in the city, the “Liberty Boys,” were the libertarians of the day, although notions of a pure free market economy had yet to be articulated, resulting in a good deal of self-contradiction. Such wealth as they possessed derived from small business, the professions, and their work as artisans—then known as “mechanics.”


·       The “Court faction,” which basically consisted only in the handful of royal appointees and the military officers, supported the Stamp Act, because they identified more closely with England’s problems than New York’s.

·       The DeLancey faction opposed the Stamp Act as counter-productive.

·       The Livingston faction opposed the Stamp Act as counter-productive and illegal.

·       The Liberty Boys opposed the Stamp Act as counter-productive, illegal, and an immoral affront.


The series of actions taken by New York radicals in late November and December, 1765—with the exception of references to the fictional Colegroves, of course—are pretty much historical, as related from our hero’s perspective.


Dordrecht obliquely refers to the settlement of “a notorious case that had aggravated [the lawyers] for three long years.” This was the convoluted criminal affair of Cunningham v. Forsey (related in Thomas Truxes’ excellent Defying Empire), in which the former, a wealthy New York merchant, had attacked the latter in public at Noon in the full view of many witnesses, stabbing him with his sword. Convicted of assault, he fled to England. Prosecuted again in civil court, a New York jury demanded he pay Forsey £1,500 damages. Governor Colden arbitrarily overturned this decision, and the Crown later supported him—throwing the New York legal profession into an uproar that happened to end with a reversal in December 1765, just a few weeks after the humiliated Colden was replaced by Sir Henry Moore.


The building housing the Anglican congregation of Trinity Church in 1765 was the first of three built on the same spot (Broadway and Wall Street). The colonial church, a modest structure built in 1698, still boasted a steeple which, being the highest spot in the city, served as a landmark for returning seamen. It burned down in the great fire of 1776.


Did New York ships really sneak out past the Navy in December 1765?  Yes, and they tried every other ruse they could come up with to avoid Stamp duties. All the East Coast shippers were “in the same boat” (pardon the pun), and between the tax collectors and the fiery radicals, it wasn’t just their own objections to the tax that forced the issue. Whether John Glasby’s idea of blaming the supercargo would actually have convinced a dubious and nevous ship captain—much less a bureaucratic enforcer—it does suggest the level of desperation involved.






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