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My Research

In 1774, the departing provincial governor, William Tryon, described New York City as a “flourishing Metropolis, the residence of many of my valuable friends and a body of Loyal Subjects and Good Citizens who have Zealously Contributed to the Ease, tranquillity and honour of my Administration.”[1] My dissertation examines these urban citizen networks, so essential to the process of governance in eighteenth-century New York. I argue that in order to understand the city, we need to explore the civic, spatial and personal identities that bound the self-governing community. Despite the city’s prominence in the Atlantic world, these connections have been surprisingly little studied. A significant feature of my work is to apply questions that have been posed in British contexts to these colonial networks; that is to say, questions about the social construction of authority, the composition of ‘the state’ and the development of the public sphere. Focusing on the period between 1731 (when a new charter confirmed the governing role of the corporation), and 1776 (when municipal government dissolved as many residents abandoned the soon-to-be occupied city), I explore New York City through a close analysis of city records and a prosopographical study of some 500 municipal officeholders, many of whom are identified for the first time. These city officers were liminal figures: political subjects drawn from the middling sort, who were deeply engaged with overlapping social networks in the city and with the agencies that exercised political authority. My subjects include the aldermen who were elected to seats on the common council, but also a wide range of junior officials including tax assessors and collectors, constables, trade inspectors and others. My research has revealed that a large proportion of city residents were frequently involved in a variety of local governing processes and that basic social institutions such as neighbourhoods, families and households formed the framework of a civic landscape in the city. The structure and scope of the municipal corporation – its membership criteria, institutions and offices, and its boundaries and particular areas of jurisdiction - established an accessible and widely-used forum for the routine participation of ordinary city residents in public life and the regulation of community affairs. This project therefore contributes to ongoing debates about early modern political identities, processes of participation, representation and citizenship and the political significance of place and the public in the eighteenth century. Historians have documented the emergence of the colonial city of New York, tracing its development from a primitive seventeenth-century trading post to an established eighteenth-century seaport and commercial hub in the Atlantic world. Scholars have described the city’s physical landscape, formal political structures, and particular social characteristics, but the civic dimension of the city- the routine life of the community and corporation -has received little attention. Political historians such as Patricia Bonomi and Alan Tully have considered provincial political networks and the activities of elite leaders, but have portrayed municipal affairs as an unexceptional administrative substrata of provincial governance.[2] Social historians have focused on the size, dispersal and ethno-religious character of the local and regional population in a series of “bottom-up” studies concerned, in the main, with class identities and radical politics in the decades leading up to the American Revolution.[3] But this characterization of Revolutionary radicalism is based on a limited exploration of the political participation of ordinary city residents in the decades before the crisis. As Richard Buel has noted, “ Because we have failed to clarify the manner in which mid-eighteenth-century Americans viewed the people’s role in the polity, it has been difficult to interpret the institutional and intellectual changes throughout the Revolutionary period.”[4]

Inspired by English historians’ investigation of the “social depths of politics,” my study investigates notions of corporate citizenship and expressions of civic identity that structured political discourse and agency in the eighteenth-century city.[5] Chapters of the dissertation discuss the urban activities and networks generated by municipal officeholding, neighbourhood petitioning, familial traditions and household conventions. By focusing on these patterns during the era immediately preceding the Revolution, my study suggests that the activities of the 1770’s did not represent a radical break with the past, and that traditions of civic identity and participation were deeply influential in shaping the city’s response to the imperial crisis.

[1] Herbert L.Osgood, ed., Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675 –1776, 8 vols, (New York, 1905). Vol. 8: 21.

[2] Patricia Bonomi, A Factious People Politics and Society in Colonial New York (New York, 1971). Alan Tully, Forming American Politics: Ideas, Interests and Institutions in Colonial New York and Pennsylvania (Baltimore, 1994).

[3] Among others: Gary Nash, The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness and the Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass, 1979). Bruce Wilkenfeld, The Social and Economic Structure of the City of New York, 1695 –1796 (New York, 1975). Most recently: Benjamin Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2007) 12-13.

[4] Richard Buel, Jr., “Democracy and the American Revolution: A Frame of Reference,” William and Mary Quarterly 21 (1964) 176.

[5] Patrick Collinson, Republica Anglorum: Or, History With the Politics Put Back (Cambridge, 1990) 15. Mark Goldie, “The Unacknowledged Republic: Officeholding in Early Modern England,” in T. Harris, ed., The Politics of the Excluded, 1500-1850 (Basingstoke, 2001); Phil Withington, “Public Discourse, Corporate Citizenship and State Formation in Early Modern England,” American Historical Review (October 2007) 1016 –1038, and The Politics of Commonwealth: Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2005).

Main Supervisor:

Prof Mark Knights


Dr Simon Middleton

University of Sheffield