Dispossessing Loyalists and Redistributing Property in Revolutionary New York
The American Revolution was a civil war. It may have given rise to a republic in which the foundation for government legitimacy is a democratic citizenry offering its voluntary consent to law. But that was the hard-won outcome of a violent conflict during which loyalty to the Revolutionary cause was often coerced at bayonet point. Revolutionary governments likewise met non-allegiance with punitive measures. The lingering effects of coercive state policies enacted in the 1770s and early 1780s muddled the transition to consensual government. Nothing makes this clearer than the widespread seizure of property owned by known loyalists.
In New York, the loyalist “problem” occupied state officials into the nineteenth century. The Library recently digitized a manuscript List of loyalists against whom judgments were given under the Confiscation Act, which documents judgments made against loyalists between 1780 and 1783. It includes the name of the loyalist, their occupation, town or county of residence, date of indictment, and date of judgment when signed. Curiously, though, crossed out on the first page is a note that this manuscript list was actually created in 1802, twenty years after the judgments were made. Recent research into the collection suggests that 1802 date is actually correct. Why was New York State dealing with seizures of loyalist property two decades after the Revolution ended?
During the American Revolution, many states passed laws allowing them to seize the property of known loyalists. So-called “confiscation laws” effectively criminalized dissent against the American Revolution. The seizure and sale of loyalist property also raised revenue for the state by redistributing property from Loyalists to the rest of the community. Many new states’ established their legitimacy in the eyes of their constituents by depriving certain people of their right to property.
New York built one of the most robust property confiscation regimes. In fact, New Yorkers started seizing loyalist property even before the state ratified its Constitution. In March of 1777, the Provincial Convention—a provisional government—created in counties under Patriot control “Committees of Sequestration,” which seized property abandoned by Loyalists, auctioned it off, and sent those funds to the state treasurer.
New York’s most aggressive confiscation law was passed in October of 1779, entitled “An Act for the Forfeiture and Sale of the Estates of Persons who have adhered to the Enemies of this State, and for declaring the Sovereignty of the People of this State, in respect to all Property within the same,” though it is commonly called the Forfeiture Act (New York Laws, 3rd session, Ch. 25). It included a list of New Yorkers who remained loyal to Great Britain and provided that these “offenders” had forfeited their right to property and were banished from the state. It also empowered the state to seize and sell their forfeited property.
The law allowed for further indictments, though these later “offenders” were not subject to banishment. To carry out the 1779 law, three “Commissioners of Forfeiture” were appointed in each of New York’s four districts—the southern district encompassed New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, and Westchester counties; the middle district included Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster counties; the western district was made up of Albany and Tryon (renamed Montgomery, in 1784) counties; and the eastern district, which covered Charlotte (renamed Washington) County, as well as Gloucester and Cumberland counties, though the latter two were part of Vermont, which had seceded from New York in 1777. Given the dates (1780-1783) of the confiscations described in this list, and that it contains judgments against New Yorkers from many counties, it likely document judgments made under this 1779 act. We know with certainty that a number of the people on this list had their property confiscated by Commissioners of Forfeiture.
What happened in 1802?
In 1802, the State Legislature passed “An Act to facilitate the discovery and sale of the estates of attainted persons” (New York Laws, 25th session, ch. 82). The act provided that any New Yorker to “discover and disclose” and provide evidence to the Surveyor-General of an attainted estate—property forfeited and seized effectively for treason—that had not been sold, would receive 25% of the value when it was sold. If the land was vacant, the person could opt to receive one quarter of the land in lieu of cash. The act also laid out rules by which the state would determine the value of forfeited estates on which people lived, and procedures by which occupants could purchase them from the state.
The execution of the 1802 law was under the auspices of the Surveyor General, which provides further evidence that the judgments documented in this list stem from the 1779 Forfeiture Act. The Commissioners of Forfeiture were charged with carrying out the 1779 Act. But in 1788, the state abolished the office of Commissioner of Forfeitures, transferring their power over forfeited property to the Surveyor-General. Since this list very likely resulted from the 1802 law, then the judgments described were those overseen by the surveyor general, and those judgments were inherited from the Commission of Forfeitures, which was created by the 1779 Forfeiture Act.
The Significance of Confiscation
Alexander Hamilton made his legal career by representing former loyalists in lawsuits where they tried to reclaim seized property. Many of the loyalists Hamilton represented were quite wealthy, and Hamilton believed these men, and their capital, would prove critical for building the United States. He wanted them to reintegrate into American society. Resolving disputes over property confiscation was a critical first step in accomplishing that goal, and enabling the broader transition from violent revolution into routine civil government.
Hamilton won in New York. Most other states also successfully reintegrated loyalists. The United States Constitution even includes a clause prohibiting bills of attainder, the broad category of laws under which confiscation acts fell. It took away from democratic state legislature this coercive and punitive power to enforce political conformity.
At some level, Americans successfully reintegrated the loyalists and completed the transition out of civil war. Compared with many other Revolutions, Americans stuck the landing. Yet, the fact remains that in 1802, New Yorkers still had not entirely dealt with the fallout of confiscation. This simple list, then, testifies to the long-lasting significance of property confiscation, social upheaval in revolutionary America, and the very real difficulty New Yorkers had in “ending” their Revolution.
On property confiscation in New York, see Howard Pashman, “The People's Property Law: A Step Toward Building a New Legal Order in Revolutionary New York,” Law and History Review Vol. 31, no. 3 (August 2013): 587-626. On loyalist reintegration and the Bill of Attainder clause of the Constitution, see Brett Palfreyman, “The Loyalists and the Federal Constitution The Origins of the Bill of Attainder Clause,” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 35, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 451-473. On loyalists and the Revolution in New York more generally, see Ruma Chopra, Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City During the Revolution (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); Philip Ranlet, The New York Loyalists (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986); Edward Countryman, A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981); Alexander Clarence Flick, Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1901).
About the Early American Manuscripts Project
With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present online for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.