1774 Two Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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During the summer of 1774 colonists throughout America reacted with rage and disgust to the Intolerable Acts recently passed by Parliament. In mid-May word had arrived of the first of these, the Boston Port Act, which shut down waterborne commerce into and out of Boston until that city paid reparations for the Boston Tea Party. The British government had expected Boston’s defiance to crumble as the other colonies abandoned it. Instead June 1, the day the act went into effect, was observed as a day of mourning, fasting, and prayer up and down the coast. Communities sent supplies to help feed their Boston brethren; delegates were chosen for the Continental Congress, set to meet in September; and public assemblies passed resolutions by the bushel.

Perhaps the most important of these assemblies, in light of future events, was New York City’s Meeting in the Fields, held on July 6. The resolutions adopted there—protesting the Port Act, affirming colonial solidarity, supporting nonimportation from Britain, and the like—did not differ greatly from those passed at many other places. The meeting’s significance lay in the identity of the speaker who stirred the crowd to action, a nineteen-year-old student at King’s College (now Columbia University) named Alexander Hamilton.

According to tradition, on the morning of the meeting, Hamilton was strolling on a street near the college when he fell into conversation with a passer-by. Impressed with the young man’s forceful arguments, the neighbor urged him to speak that afternoon. When the meeting convened, at what is now City Hall Park, Hamilton lingered on the outskirts. As the debate heated up, he impulsively mounted the platform, ignoring shouted jests about his youth, and, after a hesitant beginning, held the audience spellbound with his fiery oratory in favor of liberty. Thus did the teenaged Hamilton—a Tory until a few months before—inaugurate his career as a Revolutionary propagandist and establish a still-flourishing Columbia tradition of disrespect for authority.

While this account shows, at the least, signs of embroidery—the sole source is an old man’s recollection, as published in an 1840 biography written by Hamilton’s son—the record is clear that Hamilton quickly plunged into the thick of New York’s Revolutionary politics. He went on to write a number of highly effective tracts, serve with distinction in the Continental Army, lead the fight for a strong central government, and put the new nation’s economy on a firm footing. He also set a less laudable precedent by becoming America’s first career politician.

Later in July, in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, a respected lawyer and legislator, wrote his first major statement on relations between the colonies and the mother country. Although only recently involved in the patriot cause, Jefferson was much less of a new-comer to the field than Hamilton, having spent five years methodically researching the legal and historical precedents. A meeting was scheduled for August in Williamsburg to frame instructions for Virginia’s Continental Congress delegates. In preparation Jefferson drew up a set of proposed resolutions that called King George III “no more than the chief officer of the people, appointed by the laws, and…subject to their superintendence.” In fact, Jefferson asserted, “his Majesty has no right to land a single armed man on our shores.” Moreover, “the British Parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.”

Jefferson missed the meeting because of illness but sent copies of the resolutions to his colleagues. Although his inflammatory sentiments proved too extreme for his fellow Virginians to endorse, they were published and widely circulated under the title A Summary View of the Rights of British America . From then on events developed at such a pace that less than two years later Jefferson’s radical views of 1774 would be conventional wisdom, and his pamphlet, with its respectful addresses to the king as “Sire” and earnest plea for reconciliation, would even start sounding a bit reactionary.