This year marks 350 years since Governor Richard Nicoll appointed New York’s first mayor, Thomas Willett, in 1665. Much has changed since the office’s earliest days, including the expansion of the mayor’s powers. New York mayors are now known far and wide while a comparatively small number of the 109 overall are familiar to the average New Yorker. Among this less recognizable cohort is David Mathews, the city’s mayor from 1776 to 1783. It may seem inscrutable how a man who served in such an important period is so little known yet he achieved little during his tenure and frankly, he’s something of a notorious figure. All that said, his story is certainly intriguing.
Mathews was born in New York around 1739, graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1754, and became a lawyer. In 1770, he is listed as a founder of a legal debating society called the Moot Club, the membership of which suggests he was a familiar face with New York’s colonial elites: William Livingston, James Duane, Gouverneur Morris, Stephen De Lancey, John Jay, Egbert Benson, and Robert R. Livingston.
Six years later, New York governor William Tryon then appointed him mayor in February 1776, but before his first six months were up, Mathews was embroiled in the fallout of supposed plot to overthrow the rebel army and, purportedly, to assassinate George Washington. When rumors reached a tipping point, American soldiers arrested “severel Tories”, including Mathews at his Flatbush estate, on June 22, 1776.
Indeed, Mathews was a loyalist but just what role he played in the conspiracy is still somewhat ill-defined. William Tryon, a ringleader, had fled the city for the safety of the British ship Duchess of Gordon and, during a visit from the mayor, enlisted Mathews to deliver funds to Tryon’s co-conspirators. Whether Mathews understood the ultimate purpose of the money is not entirely clear. Regardless, he was deemed a “principal Agent”, subject to an investigation by a New York Provincial Congress committee that included fellow Moot Club members John Jay and Gouverneur Morris.
Less than a week on from Mathews’ arrest, the Americans hanged Thomas Hickey, a member of Washington’s Life Guard and whose name is most closely associated with the conspiracy. Solomon Nash, an American soldier from Massachusetts, references the event in his journal: “Cleard frome work at 11 o’clock all the army Except those on duty paraded out at Genrl. Starling [sic] Brigade to see a man hung which belong to Genl Washington’s Life Guarde for turning a Torie to Ende his hours.”
Mathews’ made off a bit better. In early July, the Americans sent Mathews to Litchfield, Connecticut, on house arrest but he absconded, making his way back to New York by early December, 1776. Though his role as mayor was largely diminished under martial law, he remained in New York City assisting the head of the police, Andrew Elliot, with the operations of the police court, while gravely injuring himself as he “did service” during a fire in August 1778.
The latter has the whiff of heroism but it belies the questionable reputation of Mathews that has emerged. This is expected from his foes on the American side but even his compatriots seemed skeptical of his character. Both William Smith (yet another Moot Club member) and Thomas Jones, both prominent New York loyalists, provide interesting reflections of his conduct. Jones described Mathews as “a person low in estimation as a lawyer, profligate, abandoned, and dissipated, indigent, extravagant, and voluptuous as himself.” Meanwhile, Smith, recorded in his diary the opinion of another loyalist, Peter Dubois, who offered a scathing portrait of the mayor’s corrupt opportunism. Among a host of Mathews’ sins, Smith wrote that he “sends out Parties to the Country to plunder & he has a Share of it,” even alleging that he had clearly lied about magnanimously sending stolen goods on the Poor House. Smith then contemplated that “If these Charges are true this Man must dread the restoration of the Peace of his Country & the Re Establishment of order.”
By the waning years of the war, as that restoration grew closer, the sun had surely set on Mathews’ tenure as mayor. On October 22, 1779, the New York Legislature passed the New York Act of Attainder, or Confiscation Act, confiscating property and banishing 59 loyalists, including Mathews. Under its provisions, he was summarily declared guilty and, if discovered in New York, would “suffer death as in cases of felony, without benefit of clergy.” He would never get his comeuppance since. Not surprisingly, three years later Mathews moved to Nova Scotia where he lived out the remainder of his life until his death in 1800.