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“We Are All Equally Free”: New York City Workingmen Demand A Voice in the Revolutionary Struggle

The struggle against Great Britain in the years leading up to the War for Independence promoted an expansion of popular participation in politics. Popular pamphlets,urban demonstrations, and voluntary associations such as the Sons of Liberty gave voice to the sentiments of ordinary men and women. In May 1770 an anonymous author named “Brutus”—believed to be the New York City merchant and Son of Liberty Alexander McDougall—addressed his fellow citizens and urged them to reject the claims of leading merchants or “Mercantile Dons,” as he labeled them, to decide unilaterally issues of great political and economic concern. Two years earlier, some merchants had organized boycotts against certain products imported from Great Britain (a strategy known as nonimportation) to resist British taxation measures aimed at the rebellious Americans. And these merchants regarded the decision to resume trade as their decision alone to make. But Brutus disagreed, and responded with this single-sheet broadside.

To the FREE and LOYAL INHABITANTS of the City and Colony of NEW-YORK

Friends, fellow Citizens, fellow Countrymen, and fellow Freeman,

NOTHING can be more flagrantly wrong than the Assertion of some of our mercantile Dons, that the Mechanics have no Right to give their Sentiments about the Importation of British Commodities. For who, I would ask, is the Member of Community, that is absolutely independent of the rest? Or what particular Class among us, has an exclusive Right to decide a Question of general Concern? When the Non-Importation Agreement took Place, what End was it designed to answer? Not surely the private Emolument of Merchants, but the universal Weal of the Continent. It was to redeem from Perdition, from total Perdition, that Stock of English Liberty, to which every Subject, whatever may be his Rank, is equally intitled. Amidst all the Disparity of Fortune and Honours, there is one Lot as common to all Englishmen, as Death. It is, that we are all equally free. Sufficient is it therefore, to hew the matchless Absurdity of the exclusive Claim, of which a few interested Merchants have lately attempted, in a most assuming Manner, to avail themselves, in determining on the Question, whether the Non-Importation Agreement shall be rescinded, to observe, that it was not solemnly entered into for the Good of the Merchants alone, but for the Salvation of the Liberties of us all. Of this the trading Interest of this City were convinced, when, after forming themselves into a Society for executing that Agreement, they not only requested a similar Association of the Mechanics, but by frequent Meetings, conspired with them in Support of the important Company. When the parties engaged in it, none doubted the Necessity of so salutary a Measure: Every Man saw, that between an Importation of Goods, which stern Virtue ought ever to despise as a Means to encourage luxury, and the Sacrifice of our inestimable Rights as Englishmen, there was no Medium. This View of the Subject begat and brought to Perfection, the important Resolution, which has inspired the Enemies of our Liberty on the other Side of the Atlantic, with Fear and Astonishment. We have seen the salutary Effect of this ever memorable Compact, in the Resolution to repeal all the odious Duties, but that on Tea; and this remains unrepealed for no other Reason than that a tyrannical Ministry will not stoop to it unasked; and the East India Company scorn to request it of that tyrannical Ministry. Has not our Mother Country, by solemn Act of Legislation, declared that she has a Right to impose internal Taxes on us? And is not such an imposition incompatible with our Liberty? But this Law is a meer dead Letter, unless it be carried into Exercise by some future Act. For this Purpose was the Law devised, imposing a Duty upon Tea, Paper, Glass, Painters Colours, &c. the very Articles which our Egyptian Task-Masters thought were most essential to us, as being not hitherto the Produce of this Country. And shall we nor, for our own Sakes, shew that we can live without them? What are all the Riches, the Luxuries, and even the Conveniences of Life, compared with that Liberty wherewith God and Nature have set us free, with that inestimable Jewel which is the Basis of all other Enjoyments? They are Dross, vile contemptible Dross, unworthy the Notice of Men. Rouse then my fellow Citizen, fellow Countrymen, and fellow Freemen, of all Ranks, from the Man of Wealth, to the Man whose only Portion is Liberty: Suffer not a few interested, parricidical and treacherous Inhabitants, to gratify their Avarice at the Expence of our common Interests. Spurn at the assuming Upstart, who dares to assert, that in a Question of such universal Concern, none but the Merchants have a Right to decide. For shame! will you, can you believe that you are their Beasts of Burthen, that you must toil and sweat, that they may be filled? I know that there are many Merchants whose patriotic Hearts abhor the accursed Thought; but still of that Profession, there are some base and vile enough to estimate their private Gain above the public Weal. These are the Miscreants who dare to affirm, with an Assurance that merits public Chastisement, that the Mechanics, or in other Words, the Majority of the Community, are not to be consulted on a Point of universal, of dreadful Concern. But who has made those Wretches as Gods among us? Curse on the vile, the arrogant Usurpation. In fine, let the patriotic Merchants, the respectable Body of Mechanics, and the virtuous of all other Ranks, conspire; let them, I say, conspire, as it were with an Oath, to brand with public Infamy, and public Punishment, the Miscreants who, while the odious Power of Taxation by parliamentary Authority, is in one single Instance exercised, even dare to speak in Favour of the least Infraction of the Non-Importation Agreement, and who like accursed Villains,—would owe their Greatness to their Country’s Ruin.

O! ye Betrayers of the glorious Cause, remember the Boston Importer, Rogers, I say, remember him and tremble.


Source: Brutus, To the free and loyal inhabitants of the city and colony of New-York... (New York, 1774) Broadside