From Privileges to Rights

Connects the changing fortunes of tradesmen in early New York to the emergence of a conception of subjective rights that accompanied the transition to a republican and liberal order in eighteenth-century America.

From Privileges to Rights
Work and Politics in Colonial New York City

Simon Middleton

2006 | 320 pages | Cloth $55.00
American History
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Table of Contents


1. "Earning a beaver:" tradesmen in New Amsterdam
2. "Like a child in their debt and consequently their slave:" the transition to English rule in New York City, 1664-91.
3. "Diverse necessaries and conveniences work found and provided:" trading in a craft economy, 1691-1730.
4. "The only obstruction at this present is our want of people:" the problem with labor, 1691-1730
5. "For so much as he doth reasonably deserve to have:" tradesmen and the English common law
6. "C'mon brave boys let us be brave for liberty and law:" artisans and politics in New York City, 1730-1763.

7. Conclusion


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


When I began the research for this book I had a fairly clear idea about where my project might fit within an established historiography. Three decades of social and labor history had provided a persuasive account of the transformation of colonial American artisans into waged workers during a contested transition to capitalism. Building on the work of European scholars, American historians traced the rise of a market society and the decline of customary practices, craft pride, and workshop traditions that were thought to have once forged a powerful social bond between masters, journeymen, and apprentices. This decline was accompanied by a worsening of artisanal working conditions and material fortunes that fostered novel forms of republican political protest and ultimately class struggle. It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of this view in labor and social history in the last four decades. However, there were also gaps in the literature and—lacking the late-medieval and early-modern research that underpinned the work of their European peers—the most noticeable gap in colonial American history was the surprising dearth of studies of urban skilled workers in the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries.

With this in mind I set out to examine the artisanal trades in early New York City, suspending my inquiries at 1760 so as to avoid the gravitational pull of the American Revolution that already held so many excellent studies in its orbit. After several, mostly unsuccessful, forays into the archives I began to appreciate why we knew so little about artisanal work in the earlier colonial period: court minutes and published sources frequently mentioned tradesmen who brought disputes before the magistrates, registered as freemen, paid taxes, or served in the militia; these registers and lists provided the raw data for several sociological analyses of the distribution of wealth, ethnic composition, and occupational structure of New York's skilled workforce. But these snapshots revealed a static picture at best, little concerning the ups and downs of daily trade, and still less of the social and political import of artisanal work in the early city. It was then that a chance discovery provided an opportunity to investigate in greater detail the activities of a larger and, I came to believe, more representative sample of city tradesmen. Following a reference to a set of uncatalogued papers, I discovered a substantial collection of miscellaneous legal documents comprising several thousand complaints filed to initiate civil suits in the city's Mayor's Court. The complaints provided a wealth of detail concerning prices, wages, and the exchanges that constituted the everyday concerns of tradesmen and their customers. As luck would have it, the records were particularly rich for the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries—the period about which so little was known and so much inferred.

The Mayor's Court Papers revealed that city artisans served a local market and that labor shortages made gainful employment generally easy to find. However, the complaints and related documents—bonds, promissory notes, bail agreements, and witness depositions—also disclosed that as early as the third quarter of the seventeenth century the fortunes of ordinary working men and women were intimately bound up with the Atlantic trade and the commercial development of the city's rural hinterland. Tradesmen divided their energies between skilled work and all manner of commercial enterprise, relying on credit to pursue whatever opportunity offered the best return. They participated in the export of furs, tobacco, and plantation supplies, and purchased imported cloth and household goods for resale in the city and its environs. They financed the ventures of others and bought, sold, and rented property; they farmed—raising crops and livestock for local and export markets—and provided food, drink, and lodging for others. In these and their other endeavors, tradesmen were far from independent. They relied on wives, family members, slaves and waged workers for labor and upon partners and patrons for credit, capital, and access to customers for their finished goods and services. Indeed, the closer one looked the more interdependent and impermanent artisans' fortunes appeared. Skilled practitioners working in all areas experienced success and failure and their commercial strategies seemed to be directed more towards the short-term opportunism of the economy of a bazaar, rather than the orderly pace of craft work usually associated with pre-industrial colonial towns. By the early eighteenth century the commercial logic of the city's trading economy encouraged artisans to undertake the reverse of what has previously been considered their usual working practice: rather than mastering one trade in a workshop dedicated to the production of bespoke products for local customers, artisans participated in whatever enterprises and markets promised profits with a minimum of risk.

Reading the Mayor's Court Papers, it seemed increasingly likely that the view of a general and fundamental shift from independent, amenable, and reasonably rewarded craft work to dependent, alienated, and penurious wage work which had long figured so prominently in studies of early industrialization and class formation had mischaracterized the experience of earlier skilled workers and overestimated the transformative effects of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Moreover, if the uncertainties of the market—the rise and fall of individual fortunes, subcontracting, wage work, and cyclical debt dependency—were already common in New York in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, then their long-supposed intrusion a generation or two later could not adequately account for the form taken by republican and class protests. Protests that contrasted the harsh and unyielding temper of a "new" market society with a more affable era of craft work: a lost world of customary mores and workshop practices that was memorialized in countless speeches, banners, and songs, but for which there was little or no evidence in the sources. Rather than continuing to take late eighteenth-century tradesmen at their word, giving credence to their representations of a collective past, my task became the recovery of the world of New York City artisans that preceded the association between skilled work, independence, and virtue that informed the small producer, republican tradition in era of the American Revolution and subsequently.

The investigation of this earlier urban scene required that I broaden my focus beyond artisans' commercial activities to consider the relationship between the practice and perception of skilled work, artisanal status, and community rights in New Amsterdam and early New York City. As a wealth of historical and anthropological studies have shown, work has ever been more than a material and technical pursuit bounded by considerations of location and resource. The organization of productive capacities and employment of skills is also a social process that requires the justification of authority and interests in terms of norms and expectations that change over time; norms and expectations that are only fully intelligible when set within the wider context of contemporary political and legal discourses. Moreover, the universality and mundanity of work affords it a particular significance in the determination of social and cultural meanings for ordinary men and women: the daily repetition of simple tasks and replaying of social roles relieves individual doubts and uncertainties regarding the arbitrary assignment of political and cultural meanings by making such meanings appear routine, normal, and even "natural." Above all, the function of work as the source of basic material provision in some cases and of comfort and considerable wealth in others grants it a defining role as the human activity in which aspirations confront possibilities and, once tempered in light of perceived limitations, quickly harden into realities.


My study of the linkage between skilled work and political culture in New Amsterdam and early New York has benefited from the continuing renaissance in New Netherland history and New World Dutch studies. Scholars have demonstrated that towns such as Beverwijck (later Albany) and New Amsterdam were more than fur-trading outposts of the West India Company's far flung commercial empire. Communities in early New Netherland sustained diverse economic activities and settler groups who were keen to replicate their orderly Old World origins.

Beginning in the late 1640s a merchant pressure-group in New Amsterdam conducted a successful campaign in the name of ancient Dutch freedoms for a municipal government that could manage local trade in the residential or "burger" interest. The justification for this campaign drew upon the Dutch tradition of autonomous urban government and protectionism that aimed to provide for community needs through civic, charitable, and commercial institutions—for example, local courts of justice, orphanages, and weigh houses—and the distribution of municipal privileges and liberties including occupational protections and monopolies to nurture local trade. In large Dutch cities such as Amsterdam, Leiden, and Utrecht occupational privileges and liberties were overseen by guilds, themselves regulated by the city government, which monitored standards of workmanship and training, pricing and membership, and assisted members during sickness or old age. In smaller towns, where there were too few practitioners to require guilds and elaborate regulations, citizenship and trade privileges were nevertheless deeply imbricated in popular conceptions of social and moral order and exerted a symbolic significance far beyond the commercial advantage they afforded holders: privileges and liberties constituted and regulated local relations of production and ensured community well-being; they provided for an individual's public identity (as citizen and craft practitioner), and for the absorption of newcomers and exclusion of dissidents from the municipal space. By indicating the limits of authoritarian government, privileges and liberties also served as guarantees of individual and community freedoms. Attacks on local privileges, whether real or imagined, were frequently construed as a threat to fundamental liberties and the common good. These privileges, liberties, and freedoms were frequently referred to as rights, but only in the sense that their holders exercised them with or by right. The social and political implications of this objective conception of rights (and what distinguished it from the modern subjective form) provided for the distinctiveness of colonial New York's and arguably much of early modern Euro-American political culture. This requires an explanatory note before we proceed further.

In their early modern and objective form rights were powers granted for a purpose, broadly speaking the promotion of moral and political order and the common good. Objective rights conveyed the idea that an individual may do something because it was right or, as in the case of early New York, because it accorded with divine and natural law or metropolitan and subsequently local custom. The first thing to note is the close affinity between the objective conception of rights—a term I will use interchangeably with privileges and liberties—and considerations of status or rank. For, as Richard Dagger has argued, to say within this schema that one was a burger or a baker was also to say that one held rights—for example to residential and legal preferment or to the product of one's labor—which accorded with one's place and function in society. In this sense, rights served as the means by which individuals contributed to an orderly moral and social life which was held as the end of just and legitimate government in accordance with the injunction of divine and natural law.

The function of early modern objective rights as the means to the divinely ordained end of orderly moral and social life meant that they were always accompanied by obligations which required holders to employ their powers in the service of the common good. As we shall see, it was in these terms that New Amsterdam's bakers were granted protective privileges for their trade in return for meeting their duty to bake bread at a regulated weight and price. In this respect objective rights afforded individuals a justifiable (or rightful) claim to acts that they were under an obligation to perform. Equally importantly, however, they also afforded holders a concomitant right to what others were obliged to render unto them. Thus city bakers invoked their obligation to provide bread for the burghers when justifying demands for regulations that ensured they received their just deserts and prohibited unregistered itinerants from baking and selling bread and cakes in the town.

These political and commercial reciprocities bore noteworthy social consequences. For inasmuch as obligations and duties bearing upon rights and privileges specified an individual's public behaviour—whether a baker, a burgher, or a burgomaster—they also sustained assumptions concerning the normativity of a prescriptive social hierarchy in which individuals arrayed in their various ranks served different and unequal functions. In so doing the objective form of rights met particularistic and conservative ends by making hierarchical social arrangements both intelligible and justifiable. It is in this sense that objective rights were distinct from the modern notion of subjective rights which rose to prominence with the late eighteenth-century revolutions. In the objective form the idea of right implied a claim, usually considered part of an individual's property, to act in accordance with a known and accepted standard of behaviour which held others in its thrall. In the subjective form the themes of property and propriety were united in a self-justifying claim which recognizes that an individual has a right to act in a certain way; a claim in which the concept of rights has become synonymous with the conception of what is right. With the development of this subjective conception, rights are perceived as a primary feature of humanity and provide for the radical claims concerning equality and liberty of the sort advanced during and after the era of the American Revolution. However, and herein lies this study's key claim, before the modern conception of subjective rights could gain purchase in the everyday world of ordinary men and women, the idea that individuals were fundamentally alike and entitled to possess universal and equal rights had to supplant the view that differences in rank, culture, and nationality were rooted in immemorial and "natural" differences. This is the incremental transformation that we shall be examining from the perspective of the practice and status of artisanal work in colonial New York City.

In the first part of the book we consider the creation of a batavianized civic community based on objective rights and privileges on the southern-most tip of Manhattan Island and the implications for the status and fortunes of resident artisans. Chapter one investigates how, beginning in the late 1640s, tradesmen settled in increasing numbers and pursued all manner of opportunities and especially the fur trade in addition to their skilled occupations. In doing so they established a commitment to commercial ambition and diversity that characterized artisanal trade for the remainder of the colonial period. However, when tradesmen came before the city they did so not only as homo economicus—or individuals involved in manufacturing, the provision of services, and petty dealing. They also appeared as freeborn subjects and resident burghers who claimed commercial and legal privileges, and as practitioners of occupations deemed essential for the provision of the common good. It was this bundle of identifications that provided for the status of tradesmen in local society and differentiated them from the strangers, women, slaves, and indentured servants who occupied different, and mostly subordinate, positions within the municipal scheme. Although trade skill was an important part of an individual's civic identity, it was not the only component. The urban Dutch republican tradition upon which New Amsterdammers drew also emphasized the obligation of residents to undertake militia duty and defend their communities, to conduct their commerce according to the formalities of the Roman-Dutch law, and to defer to the judgement of burgomasters drawn from a local elite who possessed the necessary virtues to qualify for a position in the municipal government.

In the late 1650s and early 1660s the town's prosperity rested on the deference of middling burghers to civic leaders who rationalized their administration by the claim that it provided for the common good. Chapter two examines how following the conquest in 1664 the defence of this civic order figured in the protracted transition to English rule. Under-resourced and faced with the government of a dispersed and alien population, the English were initially content to maintain the city as an administrative and protected commercial center. The fact that the continuity of municipal privileges and Dutch legal practice was taken by many to indicate the nondespotic character of English rule was a fortunate (if unintended) consequence of English flexibility and ensured a painless transfer of imperial authority. Trouble flared, however, in the 1670s and 80s when the pace of English reforms quickened and the exploitation of local trade and residents by the governors and their merchant cronies was perceived to sacrifice the common good in the interests of a narrow clique. City tradesmen increasingly feared that their local rights and privileges were imperilled by a conspiratorial and arbitrary ruling elite. When these fears became entwined with anti-popery sentiment whipped up by a cadre of Calvinist zealots responding to local and international threats to the Reformed Protestant religion, tradesmen took to the streets as armed militiamen to defend the city and inhabitants from popery and slavery.

The militiamen's revolt—which was only later identified with its zealous German leader, Jacob Leisler—signalled the beginning of the end of the batavian civic order. In the ensuing four decades amendments in the practice of city government and the law undermined these earlier commitments and provided for changes in the status and perception of local tradesmen. The second half of the book considers these changes and begins with a chapter examining the artisanal trading economy. The decline of the fur business drew city artisans away from dealings with upriver Indian traders and concentrated their commerce in urban credit networks spawned by the burgeoning imports of European goods and the export colonial products. Labor shortages encouraged the shift to slave labor and the opportunities presented by commercial expansion discouraged the city from limiting access to its markets, prompting the decline of freemanship and apprenticeship restrictions. The introduction of the common law erased all vestige of earlier legal practice. As the tolerance of the Mayor's Court for claims concerning idiosyncratic privileges and duties diminished assertions concerning rights to property in labor were also obscured by complex and costly common law pleadings. In the process, claims and practices that had once been the subject of local political and legal debate were increasingly viewed as archaic traditions with a consequent reduction in their purchase on the public's attention.

The direction and ultimate outcome of this sequence of discursive shifts was hidden from those experiencing the incremental changes. However, the diminishing significance of claims for particularistic rights and liberties associated with artisanal work undermined assumptions concerning their place within the broader prescriptive social hierarchy. This muddling, if not yet levelling, of public perceptions of social status had important consequences for the role of artisans in city politics. The establishment of a provincial assembly in the aftermath of Leisler's Rebellion sapped the authority and influence of the municipal government and drew city artisans into English-style election contests in which politicians alternated between competing for gubernatorial patronage and challenging the royal prerogative power in the name of "popular rights." The potential for instability in partisan politics was limited by the internal coherence and shared values of the provincial oligarchy and the initial disinterest of the predominantly non-English voting population. However, in the 1730s the competition for spoils amongst the provincial elite broke beyond previous constraints, prompting a constitutional crisis that marked a watershed in the city's political history. Against the backdrop of a severe economic recession political leaders imported the radical republican ideas of the English "country" opposition. Thereafter, provincial politicians championed consent as the foundation of legitimate government and appealed to the equality of interests that united all property-owning men. It was in this context, that the figure of the craft-proud and virtuous artisan, familiar from the late eighteenth-century urban scene, first appeared in New York City politics.

The story told here is of the contribution of early New York artisans and the perception of the work they did to the process of political innovation and conceptual change that produced an artisanal subject who came to play a prominent role in radical republican politics. The book's central proposition is that the demise of the idea that city tradesmen occupied a particular and privileged place undermined long-held assumptions concerning the natural inequality of man and in so doing provided for the expression of novel conceptions of the social and political status of city tradesmen that figured in the development of a rights-based politics in eighteenth-century America. Or, put more simply, before New York City tradesmen could take on the role of free men possessed of equal rights, they first had to jettison an earlier, late-medieval political culture that secured their status and rights on the basis of their privileged place within a prescriptive local hierarchy. Before we can understand how New York artisans shed their privileged civic status, we must first investigate how they came to possess it in New Amsterdam. And so we begin with Henry Hudson and his fractious crew, as they edged their way down the Atlantic seaboard late in the summer of 1609.