New Yorkers and Bostonians have a number of things to dispute—Yankees versus Red Sox, Manhattan versus New England clam chowder, good or bad memories of the Super Bowl in 2008 and 2012. We will avoid adding, “Where was the first blood of the American Revolution shed?” as another. Yes, we concede the Boston Massacre of March 1770 resulted in five lethal casualties, but we take a moment to remember an earlier bit of bloodshed on its 250th anniversary: New York’s Battle of Golden Hill.
The contretemps could also be called the Battle of the Liberty Poles. The poles, wooden symbols much like Boston’s Liberty Tree, had been used to celebrate the repeal of the hated Stamp Tax in 1766. While ostensibly raised in a spirit of consensus, it was lost on nobody that New York’s pole was erected by the Sons of Liberty, the active and militant agents who had opposed the Stamp Tax.
The presence of the British troops in the city in the years that followed became the real provocation for the bloodshed. Resentment against the quartered soldiers had several sources: New Yorkers were not only offended by their behavior and opposed the political dealing that forced them to pay for the military presence, they also objected to the troops’ competition in the labor force. Off-duty soldiers were permitted to take odd jobs in the city and did so at low wages.
It was in this context that the liberty poles became the focus of confrontation between the Liberty Boys and British troops. Soldiers cut down the first pole, a new one was erected, and the sequence, often punctuated by violence, repeated itself four times over.
Meanwhile, dissatisfaction was expressed in published circulars (librarians call these “broadsides”) distributed and posted on the streets. Rare surviving examples are shown here: “Brutus”—quite likely Alexander McDougall—demands to know how city inhabitants could employ off-duty soldiers, here only “to enslave us,” while local laborers are impoverished. The reply from the 16th Regiment of Foot begins with a piece of seventeenth-century verse lamenting the fate of the unappreciated soldier, but the poetry was followed by a pungent attack on the Sons of Liberty who defame the troops and act as though freedom depended upon “a piece of wood.”
This war of the broadsides led directly to the armed confrontation between civilian activists and redcoats. On Friday, January 19, 1770, Isaac Sears and Walter Quackenbush attempted to stop soldiers from posting their “God and a Soldier” handbill. As more soldiers appeared with drawn bayonets, they were ordered to their barracks by Mayor Whitehead Hicks. A crowd followed them until the troops met with reinforcements on Golden Hill, along present-day John Street. Here the surrounded regulars drew their weapons, and taunted, “Where are your Sons of Liberty, now?” There were no deaths in the ensuing chase and scuffle, but both sides sustained injuries. These included bayonet stabbings and attacks on a couple of uninvolved civilians.
Now hoping to give the Liberty Pole an official imprimatur, a committee led by Alexander McDougall, Isaac Sears, and John Lamb appealed to the city to erect a fifth pole on city ground. When their request was denied, Sears purchased a lot even closer to the barracks, and his comrades erected a pole forty-six feet long, embedded twelve feet deep and bound with iron bars and hoops, as depicted here in the next century by Charles MacKubin Lefferts. This one survived until the British occupied New York City in the fall of 1776.
This early bloodshed of the American Revolution came six weeks before the Boston Massacre. Its Manhattan site, once a high ground at William, John, Fulton, and Cliff Streets is not marked—a plaque disappeared about one hundred years ago—but one can see a commemorative liberty pole maintained in City Hall Park. John Lamb and Alexander McDougall went on to serve with important commands in the Continental Army; McDougal Street in Greenwich Village lost its final “L,” but is named for the latter. Walter Quackenbush, a baker descendant of early Dutch settlers, died in 1785. Isaac Sears served the patriot cause in various capacities and, improbably, died near Canton in 1786 as a merchant participant in the nascent China trade.
This bloody battle inspired by the printed word in the form of handbills and the mere symbolism of “a piece of wood,” speaks to us of the importance of expressions of freedom in the American Revolution and even now in our information age.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections