Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York

By Peter J. Galie | Go to book overview

1
Colonial Roots

FOUR FACTORS in colonial New York played a decisive role in shaping the first constitution of New York State in particular and the constitutional tradition of New York in general. These were: the existence of a prominent and politically active elite, many of whom were provincial gentry whose economic base consisted of large estates; the early development of a heterogeneous society with accompanying factional politics; the existence of a tradition of charters functioning as instruments of government; and a strong commitment to liberty protected by and rooted in the common law, Magna Carta, and various acts of parliament.

New York has been called "the most aristocratic of all of Britain's North American colonies." 1 The state's colonial history was dominated by great landowners and merchant families. Intermarriage, and marriage with outsiders such as James Duane, John Jay, and William Smith Jr. -- all of whom married Livingstons -- helped to ensure their interconnectedness and to infuse the families with extraordinary talent. The most influencial of these families, politically speaking, were the Livingstons, Van Cortlandts, Morrises, Philipses, and Van Rensselaers. Among the merchants the most prominent was James DeLancey. Their interconnectedness notwithstanding, New York's political elites were plagued with family and factional quarrels that frequently spilled over into the political arena.

The great baronial estates, roughly thirty in number, contained the largest tenant population in the North American colonies. 2 This extensive landlord-tenant system, though significant for the political and economic conflicts which occurred in seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury New York, was not the exact equivalent of its English or Dutch ancestors: it was more fluid, fairer, and less oppressive than traditionally portrayed. 3 Almost from the beginning, those controlling this land system were on the defensive for a number of reasons. Migrating New Englanders in the first half of the eighteenth century carried with them a strong tradition of private ownership. Conflicting border claims with other colonies, which put land titles in jeopardy, was a second factor. A third factor was the increasingly unfriendly posture of the imperial

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