New York City's chief agitator for the Revolution
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington all played essential roles in the American Revolution. The successful resistance to British authority required political theorists, diplomats and generals of the first order. Every revolution, however, also needs leaders capable of organizing resistance on the streets and in the taverns – leaders willing to be first in line for the hangman’s noose if their cause failed. Boston produced such leaders in Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, while in New York, Isaac Sears emerged as the city’s chief agitator. Isaac served on nearly every New York committee protesting British actions from 1765 to 1776, but he was not a diplomat or a politician. He had made his fortune on the open seas as a privateer, and in the struggle with Great Britain he often became involved in physical resistance to British authority. His bellicose actions earned him the dubious distinction of being placed on British Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves’s list of “the most active Leaders and Abettors of the Rebellion.”
Isaac Sears was born in 1730 in Harwich, Massachusetts on Cape Cod to Joshua and Mary Thacher Sears. Joshua moved his family to Norwalk, Connecticut while Isaac was a small boy. Upon reaching the age of sixteen, Isaac was apprenticed to a New England ship captain, and proved to be a very talented mariner. He soon rose to the rank of an officer, and during his early twenties he commanded small sloops and became increasingly involved in the growing trade with the port of New York City. Isaac flourished in this commercial world, and his early voyages took him as far north as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and as far south as the West Indies. Despite his Congregationalist beginnings in New England, Isaac soon became an Anglican and married Sarah Drake at Trinity Church in New York City. His father-in-law, Jasper Drake, owned one of New York’s taverns on Water Street.
When hostilities began in 1754 during the French and Indian War, the Atlantic soon erupted into open conflict between France and Great Britain. The war provided the opportunity for privateers to amass substantial fortunes, and Isaac Sears counted himself among the dauntless young men who engaged in this dangerous profession. In time of war, private citizens could legally outfit vessels for the purpose of capturing enemy ships as prizes. It provided the best way for a colonial society to attack foreign shipping, and even foreign naval vessels. Officially, privateers were an accepted part of naval warfare; unofficially, many Europeans saw privateering as little more than legalized piracy. The practice appeared unseemly to respectable officers of European navies in the eighteenth century, but such an air of illegitimacy did not stop Isaac Sears from taking to the seas in search of profit.
As a privateer, Isaac proved very successful. He first commanded the Decoy, a small vessel of six guns, and then the sloop Catherine before taking command of the fourteen-gun Belle Isle in 1759. It was as the commander of the Belle Isle that Isaac attacked a larger French vessel of twenty-four guns. His initial assault proved effective, but as his crew prepared to board the French ship, “an unlucky Shot from her dismounted the Bell-Isle’s Wheal.” The shot proved costly, forcing Isaac to break off the attack. While making repairs, “a violent Gale. . . forced him to sea.” Isaac earned fame for himself by publishing an account of the attack in the New York Gazette. In 1761, he was shipwrecked on Sable Island, but managed to save himself and his crew. By the end of the war, Isaac had become one of the most celebrated of the American privateers, and had accumulated a fortune of £2,500.
After the war, Isaac continued to advance in the mercantile world by using his newly won fortune to invest in ships engaged in the West Indies, Madeira, and American coastal trades. Becoming a member of the New York Chamber of Commerce, Isaac successfully made the often difficult adjustment from ship’s Captain to merchant. The postwar economy, however, proved less favorable to the New York merchants than the prewar and wartime economies. Parliament’s Revenue Act of 1764, Currency Act of 1764, and the Revenue Acts of 1766 and 1767 imposed severe restrictions on the New York economy, causing disruption in Isaac Sears’s business. Forced to abandon his commercial ties with Madeira, Isaac joined the Sons of Liberty in 1765 to protest Parliamentary oppression.
In his active resistance to the British, Isaac quickly demonstrated his penchant for organizing aggressive action. After British troops cut down a liberty pole on August 10, 1766, Isaac and other New Yorkers tried to restore the pole the following evening. Soldiers quickly arrived on the scene, and Isaac was wounded in the subsequent altercation. In 1767, Isaac joined with other merchants in a nonimportation agreement, but this did not stop the former privateer from once again tangling with Redcoats. When British troops cut down another liberty pole in March 1767, Isaac arrested one of the soldiers and dragged him to the mayor’s office. This action earned him the attention of British authorities, and he became one of the most watched revolutionaries in New York.
During the nonimportation movement of 1767-1770, the New York Sons of Liberty proved especially vigilant in policing possible offenders. In 1769, Isaac came under some criticism for pressuring Andrew Marschalk during the elections for the Provincial Assembly. Although Isaac denied the charges, he allegedly threatened that if Marschalk voted against the mercantile interest, the Chamber of Commerce would refuse to employ him as a flour inspector. As late as 1770, after the nonimportation agreements had collapsed in other colonies, Isaac “publicly declared [that] if any Merchant, or group of Merchants presumed to break through the non importation agreement . . . the goods imported should be burnt as soon as landed.”
In December 1773, Isaac joined the committee of correspondence formed in response to the Tea Act, and he proved instrumental in preventing the landing of tea in New York in 1774. In May 1774 he joined the Committee of Fifty-One to help coordinate New York’s response to the Boston Port Act, and a year later openly advocated armed rebellion against the British. The British arrested Isaac on April 20, 1775 for his inflammatory remarks, but New York patriots rescued him from prison and carried Isaac triumphally through the streets of the city. Immediately following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Isaac seized a British ship bound for Boston, and unloaded its 600 muskets. He then led 360 militiamen to confiscate the keys to the customs house, thereby closing the port.
Isaac hoped for a commission from the Continental Congress in the American Navy, and was disappointed when Congress passed him over. Instead, he organized volunteer militia in Connecticut in October 1775, which he commanded successfully against Loyalists in New York in late 1775 and 1776. General Charles Lee appointed Isaac an assistant adjutant general with the rank of lieutenant colonel, but after the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Isaac’s commission was not renewed. Still wanting to play a part in the Revolution, Isaac outfitted a fleet of American privateers in 1777. These ships used French ports (at first illegally) to harass British ships in their own waters. A source of immense annoyance to the British ministry, American privateers helped turn British opinion further against an already unpopular war. In the later years of the Revolution, Isaac moved to Boston, and became an important merchant in provisioning the army.
After the Revolution, Isaac’s taste for adventure remained strong. He moved back to Manhattan as a hero, paying £500 to take up residence at 1 Broadway, the palatial house used during the occupation by British General Henry Clinton. During the 1780s, he became intimately involved in the effort to open American trade with China. Unfortunately, he contracted a fever and died at sea while en route to China in October 1786. Isaac Sears was buried on an island in Canton Harbor.
Primary Source Documents: Isaac Sears
Isaac Sears’s account of his attack against a larger French vessel: (Taken from Weyman’s New York Gazette for October 8, 1759). Some of the nautical phrases contained in the selection below may be unfamiliar today, but an eighteenth century audience would have easily recognized the terms. The “tiller” was a bar or lever fitted to a ship’s rudder used for turning a vessel. “Grappling” consisted of ropes with iron hooks. The “main shrouds” were ropes stretching from the side of a ship to the main mast to offset strain on the mast from its sails. A “bowsprit” was a large pole extended from the bow, or front of the vessel, to which sails were attached. The “flying jib boom” was a further extension of the bowsprit to which sails could be added using “spritsail yards.”
. . an unlucky Shot from [the French] dismounted the Bell-Isle’s [ship’s] Wheal, which lay’d her Decks open. They [the French] soon got a Tiller in the Cabbin, and at 7 clapp’d her aboard, when the first Lieutenant hook’d the Grappling in her Main Shrouds, and in this Condition they laid Side and Side three Hours; and altho’ they frequently were upon the Ship’s Gunnel, yet as often beat therefrom by Means of their Lances and Bayonets, till about Ten o’Clock the Grappling gave way, and the Sloop shear’d off, having nine Men kill’d outright, and twenty-two wounded . . . with 7 Shot between Wind and Water, their Spritsail Yard and Flying Jibb Boom gone, scarce a Shroud to support the Mast, two nine-pound Shot inn the Bowsprit, and both Sails and Rigging shot to Pieces, . . . [Sears] tho’t it best to lay by and repair, intending to be at her again in the Afternoon, but a violent Gale . . . forced him to Sea
1767 Petition of the New York merchants to Parliament, signed by Isaac Sears, protesting the Revenue Acts of 1764 and 1767: (Taken from John Almond, ed., A Collection of Papers Relative to the Dispute Between Great Britain and America, 1764-1775, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971), 163-167).
This petition set forth, ‘That the commerce of the North American colonies is so severely clogged and restricted by the statutes of the 4th and 6th [years] of his present Majesty’s reign, as to afford a melancholy presage of its destruction, the fatal effects of which, though first felt there, must be finally transferred to Great Britain, and center with her merchants and manufacturers: that an evil so extensive, could not fail of alarming the petitioners, whose situation exposes them to the first impression of this calamity; whence they think it their duty to implore the house . . . for effectual redress . . .
. . . experience has evinced, that the commercial regulations then enacted, instead of remedying, have increased the heavy burthen [burden] under which it already laboured. Hence, upon due consideration, nothing can be more manifest, than that the ability of those colonies to purchase the manufacturers of Great Britain, immediately depends upon, and is inseparably connected with the progress of their commerce; and that ability, by removing the necessity of home manufacturers, would leave them at liberty to pursue agriculture, in which their interest consists. The petitioners, therefore, pray the house to take the above into consideration, and grant such relief therein as shall be thought consistent with good policy, and the mutual interests of Great Britain and her colonies.
Letter of Alexander Colden to Anthony Todd, July 11, 1770, citing Isaac Sears as the major agitator against the importation of tea into New York City. (Taken from E.B. O’Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of . . . New York, (Albany, 1857), VIII, 219-220).
. . the principal Gentlemen and Merchants have been at great pains to show the unreasonableness of abiding by the nonimportation agreement . . . and how much it would redound to the honour of this Province immediately to shew their gratitude for this favour by ordering all kind of goods from home on which there was no duty to be paid in America . . . the night before the mail by the Halifax Packet was to be closed a number of Merchants met at a Tavern and then agreed at all events to send their orders by the Packet to send them goods as usual, except Tea. The Faction being informed of this Resolution published an inflammatory anonymous advertisement the next morning, desiring all the Inhabitants to meet that day at 12 o’clock at the Citty Hall, where the Faction & their Cabal met accordingly; amongst the number of the principal of them was one Isaac Sears . . . Isaac Sears publicly declared if any Merchant, or number of Merchants presumed to break through the non importation agreement till the several Provinces had agreed to do the same, he would loose his life in the attempt, or the goods imported should be burnt as soon as landed, and strenuously advised that every measure in the power of that Faction should be attempted to frustrate the resolutions taken or to be took by the Gentlemen and Merchants for bringing about an Importation.
Broadside from the Library of Congress, regarding Isaac Sears’ appointment.
New-York, Committee-Chamber, 5th June, 1775-
RESOLVED, That Mr. Isaac Sears, be nominated by this Committee for the approbation of the freeholders and freemen, of this city and county, to represent them in Provincial Congress, in the room of Mr. George Folliott, who declines serving:–And that Mr. William Bedlow, and Mr. John Woodward, be also nominated as members of this Committee, instead of the said Mr. George Folliott, and of Mr. Samuel Jones, who has never attended.
By order of the Committee,
HENRY REMSEN, Dep. Chairman
Letter of Isaac Sears to Roger Sherman, Eliphalet Dyer, and Silas Deane November 28 1775, on his activities against Tories, his continuing efforts against the sale of British tea and his request for a command in the United States Navy. Taken from G.H. Hollister, The History of Connecticut, (Hartford, 1857), 241n).
I have to inform you of an Expedition which I, with about 100 Volunteers from this and the other Towns Westward in this Government, set out upon for New York &c, which was to disarm Tories, and to deprive that Traitor to his Country James Rivington of the means of circulating p[o]ison in print, the latter of which we happily effected by taking away his Types, and which may be a great means of put[t]ing an end to the Tory Faction there, for his press hath been as it were the very life and Soul of it – and I believe it wou’d not otherwise have been done, as there are not Spirited and Leading men enough in N. York to undertake such a Business, or it wou’d have been done long ago . . .
I am sorry to tell you that the Teaholders in N. York have in general began to make Sale of their Tea. I have not yet sold one pound of mine, nor shall I do it till the Congress grants Liberty for the Sale of it – but shall think hard of it, especially as I have spent so much money in the common Cause, if the Interest of E3,000 in that Article should be sunk to me and my Son in Law, which will be the Case, if I can’t obtain leave from the Congress to dispose of it, therefore beg you’ll favor me with laying my Case before the Congress, and with your Influence in backing the same.
I have heard that the Command of the Ships fit[t]ing out at Phila. is to be given to Captain Hopkins, which I am much surprised at, for I judged that, that department was for me, which I had reason to expect from the hints given me by many of the Members of the Congress, but it is too often the case, when a Man has done the most he gets the least reward. It is not for the Lucre of gain that I want the Command of a Squadron in the American Navy, but it is because I know myself capable of the Station, and because I think I can do my Country more Service in that department than in any other – the Congress’s not thinking proper to fix that Honor upon me, will by no means make me inactive in the Cause we are all engaged in, but cou’d wish nothing had been said about my being appointed to the Command, for it has spread thro’ the Country, that whenever a Navy were fit[t]ed out by Congress, I should have the Chief Command, but that not being the Case may tend to reflect dishonor on me.
I am with Esteem, Gentlemen, Your most Hble Servt.,
Letter of Isaac Sears to General Washington, May 2, 1776, from Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol 4, pages 186-187.
SIR: Your Excellency will please excuse my writing to you on a subject that it is most probable you will have taken up before this comes to hand; but as it is the business of the Provincial Congress at New-York to first see that the resolves of the Continental Congress are carried into execution, I must suppose your Excellency would not interfere with them, unless you should see an absolute necessity for it; and it is a duty I owe to my country to use my utmost endeavours to preserve and keep inviolate the laws of the Continental Congress.
I must now acquaint your Excellency that, before I left New-York, I heard many of the tea holders say they would have a dollar the pound for their tea; (if it should get to that, would it stop there?) and since I have been here, information has been given me that some of the tea holders have be begun to sell their tea at eight shillings, which has Induced the tea holders in this Colony to refuse selling their tea till they see what New-York intends to do. I think it would be a very dangerous consequence to sell the tea higher than the Congress has limited it; for it would lay a foundation for violating every law the Continental Congress has made, and may hereafter make, whenever it suits the mercenary merchant to line his pocket with cash; and it is scandalous to the highest degree for the merchant to sell the tea higher than the limited price; for the Continental Congress has limited it to one shilling and six-pence per pound higher than the tea holders asked for it last fall, which pays them a very large interest; and as to my part, I am entirely satisfied with the price; although I have as much tea by me as would advance my estate largely, were the tea holders to violate the resolves of the Congress; for I make not the least doubt but they would soon get twenty shillings a pound for it. I had thirty-nine chests in this Government; and since I returned from New-York have opened the sale by the small quantity, at six shillings, New-York currency, and sold about ten chests; but shall now stop till I see the event of what will be done in New-York respecting that article, as, if there is not a stop put to the use of it, the tea that I sell at the limited price may be sold by others at twenty shillings per pound.
I am, your Excellency’ s most obedient, and very humble servant,
For Further Reading:
Richard Ketchum, Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution came to New York (2002).
Barnet Schecter, The Battle of New York (2002).
Robert Christen, King Sears: Politician and Patriot in a Decade of Revolution (1968).