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Men Of The Revolution — 6. Thomas Jones
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
To read Thomas Jones’s acerb History of New York during the Revolutionary War is to behold the outward man of the portrait—prim, carping, easily outraged, a nob who looks as though he had sniffed something odious. When he began writing this record in 1783, Judge Jones was prepared to particularize his hates. He was less concerned by then with issues than with people, and he divided his cast of characters into two simple categories: good and bad. Considering the authorship, it is not surprising that the book brims with bile or that rebel sympathizers are represented (to use a few of his phrases) as enemies to monarchy, haters of episcopacy, libellous dissenters, a seditious and rebellious multitude, or simply rabble. Yet Jones was impartial: he had spleen to spare for a legion of bunglers on the other side.
What could one expect, he asked, from a general like Sir Henry Clinton, who was “possessed of so little resolution, such indecision, and such rank timidity” that he was “laughed at by the rebels, despised by the British, and cursed by the loyalists"? Or from Howe, “lolling in the arms of his mistress, and sporting his cash at the faro bank"? As for the British command as a whole, “a fatality, a kind of absurdity, or rather stupidity” had characterized every action they took during the war.
From the time Thomas Jones was born in 1731, he had known the social position and affluence of the fortunate early comer: his grandfather Jones acquired six thousand acres around South Oyster Bay from the Indians, built Long Island’s first brick house at Fort Neck, and was granted the highly lucrative monopoly of whaling and other fisheries off Long Island by the Crown. On the old man’s tombstone was an inscription he had written himself, ending with these hopeful lines:
Thomas’ mother’s people arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1632 and prospered; his father became speaker of the New York assembly and a justice of the supreme court; and after graduating from Yale in 1750 the son followed him into the law in a manner that smacked of nepotism to Liberty Boys. He married a daughter of James de Lancey, chief justice and lieutenant governor of the province, and in 1773 succeeded his aging father on the bench.
The society to whose orderly maintenance he directed his efforts counted itself civilized—a term implying tranquillity and an absence of savagery. But civilization is a fragile condition: let one element of a community get out of hand and the entire structure may be threatened, as by the furtive onset of a plague. The tradesman encountered on the street last week, all subservience and smiles, wears the face of hate today, and one walks faster, avoiding his eyes and the possibility of contamination. Suddenly the world is all haves and have-nots, each acutely conscious of the other’s personal balance sheet. Fear is the handmaiden of daily life, and people listen for the sound in the night that means the barbarian is at the gate … as the judge and members of his family could testify.
In June, 1776, while the rebel army occupied New York, the provincial assembly had the judge arrested for failing to answer a summons that required him to prove why he “should be considered a friend of the American cause.” He was released on parole, but the warning was clear: something of the sort would occur again. On August 11, with the British threatening to invade Long Island or New York momentarily, Jones was taken into custody and sent for safekeeping to Connecticut, without being charged. Then he was released on parole again. For three anxious years he remained at Fort Neck, theoretically within the protective sphere of the British army but in fact in the no man’s land that existed just outside occupied Manhattan. Then it happened: like a gang of latter-day storm troopers a party of militiamen from Fairfield, Connecticut, broke into his home, disregarded his parole, and abducted him in front of family and guests. After ransacking the house, they took him off to Newfield (now Bridgeport), where he was held for the rest of the winter. It seems they wanted someone of suitable rank to exchange for the militia general Gold Selleck Silliman, a Yale classmate and friend, who had been captured by loyalists.
The terror had struck close to home before then, in 1777. Jones’s niece Elizabeth Floyd was visiting the daughter of the loyalist Oliver de Lancey at his house on upper Manhattan when they heard voices on the grounds and called from a window, “Who is there?” Instantly the house was broken into by rebel soldiers, who struck the women with muskets and began setting the place on fire. As the ladies ran off in their nightdresses Miss Floyd barely escaped being incinerated when a man threw a burning window curtain over her; Miss de Lancey managed to snatch up her brother’s baby from the nursery, and the refugees spent the night in a nearby swamp. Mrs. de Lancey, who was too feeble to run away, hid in a stone dog kennel, from which sanctuary she watched the night raiders burn down her home.