by Johanna Porr Yaun
New York City, the American Revolution, and the Significance of the Number 45
After the end of the French and Indian War, there was tension over King George and Parliament’s plan to tax the Colonies to pay off the war debt. John Wilkes, editor of “The North Briton” newspaper and a member of Parliament, opposed the King in his publications. Wilkes’ most critical editorial was printed in 1763 in Issue # 45, a number highlighted to evoke memories of the Jacobite Uprising of 1745, commonly referred to as “The 45 Rebellion” or simply “45” in political culture. The King was personally offended and issued a warrant for Wilkes’ arrest. As a result, “Wilkes, Liberty, Number 45” lived on as a rallying call against unlawful imprisonment.
In New York City, the Sons of Liberty had a tradition of erecting “Liberty Poles” to voice opposition to British oppression. In 1766 they erected a pole in City Hall Park to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. British soldiers chopped it down, the Sons of Liberty put a second one up, and it was chopped down again. The third pole went up and remained unchallenged until a year later in May 1767 when British soldiers noticed the townspeople gathering at the Liberty Pole to celebrate the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act. They destroyed it once again. Undaunted, the Sons of Liberty erected the fourth pole, defiantly larger and wrapped in iron bands.
Soon after, the Quartering Act passed, requiring colonists to provide housing to British soldiers. The New York Provincial Assembly refused to support it, so they were prorogued, and the new Assembly approved public funds to be allocated for quartering troops.
In response to the Assembly’s reversal, an anonymous broadside began circulating in December of 1769 titled, “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York.” The British soldiers reacted by setting off explosives at the Liberty Pole and leaving the splintered wood on the steps of Abraham Montayne’s Tavern and Coffee House which was located on Broadway, just across from the City Hall Park.
On January 19, 1770, the tension erupted into violence when a leader of the Sons of Liberty, Isaac Sears, interfered while British soldiers were posting broadsides of their own at an outdoor market by the East River wharves. Sears captured the offending soldiers and began to march them to City Hall. Other soldiers in a nearby barracks sounded alarm and then pursued the men, but crowds gathered to protect Sears. The crowd overwhelmed the soldiers and the soldiers fired shots into the crowd. Several people were injured. The incident took place in a small patch of grass known as “Golden Hill,” which is today visible only as a slight incline towards the intersection of William and John Street in the Financial district.
The Governor of New York offered 100 pounds in cash to anyone willing to reveal the name of the person who wrote the anonymous broadside. After three weeks passed without a response, the Governor ordered all printers in the city to be arrested and jailed. This led to printer James Parker being identified as a person of interest in the case. Parker then revealed that the author of the broadside was a man named Alexander McDougall.
A Fifth Liberty Pole was raised on February 6, 1770 on a plot of land owned by Isaac Sears. The next day, McDougall was accused of seditious libel against the Crown and coincidentally, his arrest warrant was number 45. In playing on this numerical association, McDougall became known as “the Wilkes of the Colonies” and demonstrators kept up a constant watch.
Every day, supporters appeared at his jail cell to cheer 45 times. Food and drink was shared, including 45 shots of rum, 45 pounds of beef, etc. On the 45th day, the Sons of Liberty brought 45 virgins dressed in white to sing Psalm 45. Newspapers humorously debated if there were really 45 virgins in the whole city to make up such a gathering, and one commenter joked that it was not possible since they were all 45 years old.
Because no one wanted the unpopular task of prosecuting McDougall, his confinement and the theatrics of his supporters lasted for three months. McDougall was ultimately released because the sudden death of James Parker, the printer, left the prosecution without any witnesses in the case.
The clash between the Sons of Liberty and the British soldiers that led to McDougall’s imprisonment is referred to as The Battle of Golden Hill. It is often considered by scholars to mark the “first bloodshed” of the Revolution. The second violent clash, known as the Boston Massacre, occurred six weeks later March 5, 1770 and resulted in five deaths.
For a brief time, during the years leading up to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the number 45 was understood as a symbol the American spirit in favor free speech and in condemnation of unlawful use of arrest to silence an opposing voice.
For this and many other contributions that Alexander McDougall made to the Revolutionary War, MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village/Soho was named in his honor.
All over the former colonies the symbol of the liberty pole persisted for a generation or more. In Newburgh, the population remained in close association and loyalty to George Washington and John Adams during their Presidential administrations. There was even an strong effort to rename the whole Precinct as the “Village of Washington” but it never fully stuck. The revolutionary spirit lived on in other ways too. In the 1793, editor Lucius Carey took over the old printing press that had been set up at the Fishkill Supply Depot to print General Orders for distribution, he established Newburgh’s earliest newspaper called the Newburgh Packet, then in 1798 a second local publication was introduced. The Mirror was edited by Philip Van Horne. Van Horne, a transplant from New Jersey, wrote avidly against the Federalist party and when the Sedition Act of 1798 was passed by Congress, Van Horne was among those arrested for his politics. In response, recalling the traditions of revolutionaries in the pre-war period, his local supporters erected a liberty pole in Newburgh. Not too much is known about the circumstances, but locals viewed it as a sedition pole and called it such, appearing as a mob to tear it down.
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