Privilege and Prerogative: New York's Provincial Elite, 1710-1776
From 1710 to 1776, New York's ruling elite was in a constant struggle for political autonomy with the imperial British government. As discontent grew, this powerful group seized control of the revolutionary movement from the lower classes, where unrest had been the strongest. It is this growing political sophistication on the part of the provincial elite that American historian Mary Lou Lustig details in Privilege and Prerogative.
As Lustig describes them, the elite were not a unified segment of society as they began to challenge the authority of the royal governors. Efforts to control the assembly by two leading families of the province, the Livingstons and the DeLanceys, had added to the unrest in New York. When either faction took control of the assembly, it took its position as a base from which to whittle away the excessive powers granted to the royal governors. The assembly also took on the role of the British House of Commons by protecting the people's traditional rights, privileges, freedoms, and liberties. When Parliament challenged these rights after 1763, the elite responded quickly and dramatically.
More than principle was involved in the objections of the elite to parliamentary restrictions. They were also motivated by what they perceived as a threat to their continued domination of New York politics and society. After 1763, they sought to protect their interests. By 1774, they realized their continued allegiance to Britain would be costly. Determined to protect the status quo, many members of the elite joined lower-class radicals to oppose British rule.
The elite also faced a more significant and immediate threat from the province's lower and middle classes, who, they believed, held a distinctly subordinate role in politics. Through the press, the elite politicized the masses to gain their support at the polls or in the streets.
Much of the elite propaganda stressed that all authority for government came from the people. The people responded by demanding greater political participation, an unforeseen side effect of the elite's century-long defiance of the British. In the end, it was the discontented lower classes who moved New York and its elite to independence, taking matters into their own hands with the formation of radical groups such as the Sons of Liberty. The Sons remained in control of the resistance until 1774 when the elite usurped the leadership of the independence movement from them.
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