Did you know that some Brooklynites fought for both sides during the American Revolution? When revolutionary rhetoric adopted an anti-slavery tone, Kings County residents renounced the “Glorious Cause” and sided the British in hopes of preserving their forced labor system. This week New-York Historical’s Bernard and Irene Schwartz Fellow Chris Minty is our guest blogger. In his post, Dr. Minty explores the lives and motivations of Brooklynites during the American Revolution. To learn more about the War of Independence, be sure to check out our special installation Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione, opening May 29!
Unlike cosmopolitan Manhattan, Brooklyn was an inward-looking community of mostly Dutch settlers.
Plan of the City of New York in North America, 1770. Bernard Ratzer; added names: William Faden, Thomas Kitchin. black ink on paper, backed with paper backed with cloth. (library call# 2N X1.5.28 (map 9211.2))
Across from the lower tip of Manhattan Island, Kings County was filled with small rural hamlets that retained their 17th-century Dutch heritage. By the mid-1770s, the 3,623 inhabitants of six townships were mostly fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of colonists who had settled there in the mid-17th century. For a majority of inhabitants, interactions with Manhattanites, across the river, were a rare occurrence. Most were Dutch speakers, followers of the Dutch Reformed Church, and, more often than not, had married within their community, relying on its strong networks to make a living. Despite living under English and, after 1707, British rule, the colonists of Kings County retained their Dutch identity.
The introspective cultural outlook of the inhabitants was complemented by its economic system. The inhabitants of Kings County were reliant upon slave labor throughout the 18th century. Although Kings’ population grew less rapidly than all of the other counties in New York, increasing by less than one per cent between 1698 and 1771, the number of slaves increased by 886 per cent during the same period. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, one-third of Kings County inhabitants were slaves and about sixty per cent of the county’s white families owned at least one slave. Slaves were among the most valuable economic commodities owned by the inhabitants. When John Lefferts died in 1776, for instance, his seven slaves were estimated to be worth £296 sterling. They were the most valuable items inventoried.
At time of the American Revolution, most Brooklynites owned at least one slave. Slave ad from New York Journal or General Advertiser, June 23, 1768, page 6, “Negroes, to be sold by Thomas Durham…” New-York Historical Society Library.
Perhaps because of the residents’ resistance to cultural adaptation and their reliance upon unfree labor, agitation in Brooklyn during the American Revolution was neither as fervent nor as extensive as it was in New York City. The inhabitants of Kings largely acquiesced to patriot demands early in the war. With their tacit agreement, the patriots mobilized the inhabitants to prepare for war, soon extending military commissions to the local inhabitants.
In the Revolutionary War, militia units became an effective means to articulate American sovereignty, establishing another bulwark against the perceived threat of the British. More importantly, colonists’ military service created a veneer of consensus, togetherness, and righteousness between inhabitants in a developing revolutionary movement. In other words, by serving in the militia, it appeared that colonists supported what they were fighting for.
In mid-May 1775, Henry Williams and Jeremiah Remsen were elected by Brooklyn inhabitants to sit in New York’s extra-institutional Provincial Congress. As delegates, these individuals had many duties. But, the most important was establishing American, rather than British, governance.
By March 1776, the Provincial Congress had received its quota of men requested by the Continental Congress and looked to recruit in Kings County. Brooklynites duly obliged, mustering nine militia companies and issuing commissions to its townships’ citizens. Military commissions were sought-after in 18th-century America. Service brought prestige and grandeur and it brought militiamen into vibrant, all-male groups where they could develop and articulate their identity. Further, service in the militia made them appear as “citizen-soldiers.” They were ordinary men, bravely serving to protect the public good. A number of individuals in Kings County received military commissions.
More importantly, or perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a majority of these individuals would later go on to sign a loyalist subscription list or take the oath of allegiance. Thirty-eight Kings County inhabitants were extended commissions in March 1776. Of these men, twenty-eight, or seventy-four per cent, later signed a loyalist document. Similarly, the six men that the Provincial Congress appointed to the county’s Committee of Safety would all later sign a loyalist document. There is, moreover, supporting data for the rank-and-file in two of the militia units. The Kings County “Troop of Horse” was commanded by thirty-two-year-old Lambert Suydam and contained nine other commissioned officers, including a trumpeter, and fifteen privates. Of the company’s twenty-five men, nineteen signed a loyalist document. In the “Brooklyn Troop of Horse,” there were nineteen men; nine signed a loyalist document. They did this voluntarily. They did not have to sign a list or take the oath.
Yet, throughout early and mid-1776, Kings County became increasingly important to the patriots’ war effort and its inhabitants played an important role in patriot plans. As revolutionary general Charles Lee noted to George Washington, because it was opposite New York City, to control Kings County would give the patriots a distinct advantage over their British opponents. Kings County was, Lee alleged, “a more capital point than ever.” Lee also realized that if the patriots controlled Brooklyn Heights, they would be able to deprive British forces of much-needed resources. “[S]hou’d the enemy take possession of N. York,” wrote Lee, “when Long Islan[d] is in our hands—They will find it almost impossible to subsist.”
Brooklynites’ loyalties were, perhaps, strongest to each other. They were committed to upholding the Dutch way of life, including its slave labor system. Run-away slave ad, New York Mercury, Monday, May 21, 1764: “Run-away, on the 22d of April last, from Samuel Cock…a Negro Man, by Name, Harry…: New-York Historical Society Library
Unlike in New York City, a majority of the inward-looking Dutch New Yorkers, including those future loyalists, supported the patriot war effort in the early stages of the Revolutionary War. To determine what reasoning led these men to temporarily reject British control and choose (lukewarm) patriotism is difficult. However, it is probable that they associated their allegiance to maintaining social and political balance with the hope of preserving their way of life. For most of the 18th century, they had not interacted with the political affairs of the colony, instead focusing on their own lives. This was the approach they adopted up to and beyond August 1776. After the British came, these Dutch colonists supported—or, at least, didn’t protest—their occupation. Instead, they retained their focus on not upsetting the socio-political balance in the colony. Most Brookynites owned at least one slave. These Dutch New Yorkers did not want to see a descent into civil war between the county’s inhabitants. Indeed, it could call into question the nature of their entire labor system. Ensuring a degree of political ambiguity or flexibility was critical to their maintaining the status quo. They supported the Americans. They supported the British. But, they were truly loyal to neither. Their loyalties were, perhaps, strongest to each other—to their friends, family members, and neighbors—and they were committed to upholding the Dutch way of life, including its slave labor system.
 For John Lefferts’s inventory, see Estate inventory of John Lefferts, 2 March 1778, Lefferts family papers, ARC.145, box OS1, Brooklyn Historical Society.
 Charles Lee to George Washington, 5/6 February 1776, in Philander D. Chase, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, VA.: University of Virginia Press, 1985), III, 250–251; Same to Same, 19 February 1776, in ibid., III, 339–341.