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Long IslandHistory

On the verge of war

In a 19th-Century engraving, British troops retreat while

In a 19th-Century engraving, British troops retreat while exchanging gunfire with Americans at Concord, Mass., on April 19, 1775. Credit: The Granger Collection

On a cool fall day in New York, Oct. 28, 1765, representatives of nine of the 13 colonies held an urgent session at Town Hall to rage against the Stamp Act, newly imposed by Great Britain.

As the clock ticked away the hours, the debate gathered steam and the noise in the hall became a tumult. Up stood the brilliant 41-year-old merchant from Charleston, S.C., Christopher Gadsden, to plead for a common front against Parliament and King George III:

There ought to be no New England men, no New Yorker ... but all of us Americans!

Thirteen disparate colonies were taking small steps toward nationhood. For more than a century, Americans had been left pretty much free to develop their political, economic and social institutions as they pleased, with little interference from abroad. So when the British Parliament attempted to bring the colonies in line with other British institutions, rebellion was a natural outcome. Liberty was at stake.

In 1760, George III, age 22, ascended the British throne. Three years later, Britain’s seven-year war with France ended, leaving the country financially drained. Much of its debt had been incurred on North American soil in clearing Canada, Florida and all the land east of the Mississippi of Frenchmen and Spaniards. Britain now saw the growing wealth of the American colonies as a source of income. And it was felt only proper that Americans should contribute to their own defense.

In 1765 the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the first direct tax levied on the American colonies. It went into effect Nov. 1.

The act required that all newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, commercial bills, advertisements, school diplomas, liquor licenses and other papers issued in the colonies bear a stamp, the revenue from which was to be used to pay for the defense of the American colonies. It was immediately denounced throughout the colonies. Merchants boycotted British goods; stamps were confiscated and destroyed. Alexander Flick, New York State historian in 1920-39, wrote:

It was a doleful day. Bells tolled the death of American liberty. Shops were closed; flags hung at half-mast; mourning costumes were donned by the people; newspapers printed a skull in the place where the stamp should have been; and protesting pamphlets appeared.

Since the colonists were not represented in Parliament, the cry of “No taxation without representation!’’ went up.

Faced with a loss of trade, and knowing that it could not be enforced, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766.

The colonies erupted in joyful celebration. To honor the king’s birthday, the New York General Assembly, the colony’s legislature, paid 1,000 pounds sterling to have a gilded equestrian statue of George III made in England, shipped to New York and erected on a 15-foot-high marble pedestal at Bowling Green.

At that point the colonists did not want to be separated from the mother country. They felt strongly, however, that they should have all the rights that their English cousins had. Events of the next decade, however, caused the seed of revolution to germinate, take root, grow and blossom.

In 1767, Parliament tried again, passing the Townshend Acts, designed to collect revenue from the colonies by imposing customs duties on their imports of glass, lead, paints, paper and tea. Protests followed, and the Massachusetts Assembly was dissolved by the British for sending a circular letter to the other colonies urging solidarity. British troops, sent to enforce the laws, came up against a populace ready to fight.

The Americans had their supporters in England, especially among the Whig opposition in Parliament. Chief among them was the Dublin-born Edmund Burke, who rose in the legislature to add his brilliant voice to the pro-American, anti-Townshend forces. Burke said:

The people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen ... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles. The temper and character which prevail in our colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates.

Most of the acts were repealed three years later. But the tea tax was retained, heightening the tension between British troops and angry colonists. On the evening of March 5, 1770, the so-called Boston Massacre took place. British troops, taunted by rock and snowball-throwing agitators, fired into the crowd: Three men were killed and two others later died of their wounds.

This is often said to be the first blood spilled in the Revolution. But New York City makes a prior claim. Almost three weeks earlier, on Jan. 5, antitax agitators clashed with British soldiers at a little rise on John Street known as Golden Hill, and one American was killed.

Three years later, in 1773, the tax on tea was still causing problems. At the Boston Tea Party, as it became known in the history books, colonists led by Samuel Adams and Paul Revere disguised themselves as Indians, boarded three ships in Boston Harbor loaded with 342 chests of tea and threw the cargo overboard. “The dye is now cast,’’ the king wrote to Lord North, the prime minister. “The Colonies must either submit or triumph.’’

In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed five new laws -- Americans called them in derision the “Intolerable Acts’’ -- limiting the freedoms of the colonists, especially in Massachusetts. Expressions of solidarity with the beleagured New Englanders came from across the colonies, including Long Island.

In a memorable meeting in Huntington held June 21, 1774, the town fathers joined the Patriot cause in support of “our brethren in Boston,’’ passing what has become known as the Huntington Declaration of Rights. The document declared:

That every freeman’s property is absolutely his own, and no man has a right to take it from him without his consent ... that therefore all taxes and duties imposed on His Majesties subjects in the American colonies by the authority of Parliament are wholly unconstitutional and a plain violation of the most essential rights of British subjects.

But Long Island was divided in its feelings about the mother country. In predominately Dutch Kings County, residents seemed to regard the conflict as an English problem, preferring to ignore the oncoming revolution. In many parts of Queens, commercial ties with England were strong, as were ties with the Anglican Church, and towns like Hempstead, Jamaica and Oyster Bay made public their support for the king. Residents of the northern part of Hempstead, on the other hand, strongly supported the Patriot cause. But Patriot sentiment was strongest in Suffolk County. In fact, the war, when it came, was in many ways a civil war -- between Loyalist and Patriot Americans -- in addition to being a revolution.

There would be no turning back. On April 18, 1775, the British commander at Boston, Gen. Thomas Gage, sent 700 elite grenadiers and light infantry troops to Concord, 16 miles away, to capture military supplies in order to prevent armed rebellion. While on the way the next morning, the British troops came upon a group of militiamen in Lexington, shots were exchanged, and eight Americans were killed. Then later that day at Concord, more shots were fired, and dozens more men were killed or wounded on each side. The king’s troops fell back to Boston, where 10,000 British troops were massed.

This is how the war began. It would not end for eight years, the longest war in the nation’s history until the Vietnam War. Decades after Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson would look upon the Battle Monument just erected there and write:

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

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