History of New York City (1784–1854)

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The history of New York City (1784–1854) started with the establishment of the city as the capital of the new United States under the Congress of the Confederation from January 11, 1785 to Autumn 1788, and then under the United States Constitution from its ratification in 1789 until moving to Philadelphia in 1790. The city grew as an economic center with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825; the growth of its railroads would complete its dominance. Tammany Hall began to grow in influence with the support of many of the immigrant Irish, culminating in the election of the first Tammany mayor, Fernando Wood, in 1854.

Capital City[edit]

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the resulting withdrawal of British troops from the city in that year, led to the Congress of the Confederation moving to Federal Hall on Wall Street in 1785. The first government of the United States, operating under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union since its ratification in 1781, was soon found inadequate for the needs of the new nation. However, certain successes were achieved while in New York, including the passage of the Northwest Ordinance, which laid the framework for the addition of new states into the Union.

A call for revision to the Articles was led by New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, and the Annapolis Convention was convened with representatives from the states to discuss the necessary changes. Lacking representation from all of the states, the Convention made no suggestions for changing the Articles but instead drafted a report that led to the creation of a Constitutional Convention the following year to create an entirely new governing document.

Federal City[edit]

The city's and state's status within the new union under the United States Constitution written in 1787 was under question when the Governor George Clinton proved reluctant to submit state power to a strong national government, and was opposed to ratification. Some New York City businessmen proposed New York City secession as an alternative to join the union separately, but Alexander Hamilton and others argued persuasively in the Federalist Papers published in city newspapers for state ratification, which after much dispute finally passed in 1788. George Washington was inaugurated as the first President on the balcony of Federal Hall in 1789, and the United States Bill of Rights drafted in the city. The Supreme Court of the United States sat for the first time in New York. After 1790, Congress left for Philadelphia.

Economic development and immigration[edit]

An 1807 version of the Commissioner's Grid plan for Manhattan, a few years before it was adopted in 1811.

In 1792, a group of merchants made the "Buttonwood Agreement" and began meeting under a buttonwood tree on Wall Street, beginning the New York Stock Exchange, while a yellow fever epidemic that summer sent New Yorkers fleeing (north) to nearby healthful Greenwich Village.

In 1797, Hamilton's great rival, Aaron Burr, became head of Tammany Hall and turned it increasingly toward politics to support him in the 1800 presidential election.

In 1807, Robert Fulton initiated a steamboat line from New York City to Albany.

New York remained a cosmopolitan enclave within America. The new French consul gave a report in 1810 that remains perfectly familiar:

"its inhabitants, who are for the most part foreigners and made up of every nation except Americans so to speak, have in general no mind for anything but business. New York might be described as a permanent fair in which two-thirds of the population is always being replaced; where huge business deals are being made, almost always with fictitious capital, and where luxury has reached alarming heights... It is in the countryside and in the inland towns that one must look for the American population of New York State." (quoted by Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World, 1984 p 406).

The French consul's "fictitious capital" betokens the world of credit, on which New Yorkers' confidence has been based. The Commissioners' Plan of 1811 imposed a surveyed grid upon all of Manhattan's varied terrain, in a far-reaching though perhaps topographically insensitive vision.

On September 3, 1821 the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane caused a storm surge of 13 ft in one hour, leading to widespread flooding south of Canal Street, but few deaths were reported. The hurricane is estimated to have been a Category 3 event and to have made landfall at Jamaica Bay, making it the only hurricane in recorded history to directly strike what is now New York City.

In 1824, a riot occurred in Greenwich Village between Irish Anglicans and Catholics, after a parade by members of the Orange Order. This was a precursor of the Orange Riots of the 1870s.

On October 26, 1825 the Erie Canal was completed, forming a continuous water route from the western Great Lakes to the Atlantic and north to Lake Champlain; it helped the city grow further by increasing river traffic upstate and to the Midwest.

The establishment of regular steam ferries, starting with Robert Fulton's Fulton Ferry in 1814, spurred the growth of Brooklyn, which was established as a city in 1834.

Immigrants provided a ready resource for those opposing abolition of slavery. These were often led by gangsters from the Bowery and Five Points. On July 7, 1834, a series of riots started, terminating in the destruction of St. Phillip's Negro Church on Center Street and generally terrorizing the Five Points area. For a time, the riots abated, resuming in the 1850s and persisting through the Civil War.[1]

In 1831, as the city continued to expand, the University of the City of New York, now New York University, was founded at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. By 1835, Manhattan was in the throes of the first of its building booms, unfazed by the summer of cholera in 1832.

The Great Fire of 1835, as seen from Williamsburgh.

Late on December 16, 1835 the Great Fire of New York broke out. The temperature was below zero (F), and gale force winds were blowing. Firemen, some called from as far away as Philadelphia, were at first helpless to battle the wind driven fire due to icing lines and pumps. The fire leveled most of the city below Canal Street. Some merchandise was carried to churches that were thought fireproof, but several of these burned anyway. Eventually the fire was controlled by blowing up buildings in the fire's path.

Many of the merchants who lost their stores thought they would be covered by insurance, but the tremendous losses, and, in many cases, the destruction of the insurance company headquarters in the financial district, bankrupted the insurance firms and much of the loss was not covered.

The fires of the period, and the increased need for water for industry, led to the construction of the Croton Aqueduct water system between 1837 and 1842. The aqueduct brought fresh water from the Croton Dam in northern Westchester County over the High Bridge to the Receiving Reservoir between 79th Street and 86th Street and Sixth and Seventh Avenues. From the Receiving Reservoir water flowed into the Distributing Reservoir, better known as the Croton Reservoir. The Aqueduct opened on October 14, 1842, with great celebration. President John Tyler, former presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren, and New York State Governor William H. Seward were among those in attendance.

The city's rapid development was again interrupted by the Panic of 1837. But the city recovered and by mid-century established itself as the financial and mercantile capital of the western hemisphere.

The Hudson River Railroad (which would grow into the New York Central) opened October 3, 1851; it extended Mohawk and Hudson Railroad, first railroad built in the state, south to New York City.

Rise of the immigrant city[edit]

New York City and the East River, 1848.

The city and its nearby suburbs grew rapidly for several reasons. The natural harbor at the base of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the New Jersey ports at Newark and Elizabeth provided almost unlimited capacity for trading ships and protection from storms. Not until 1985 did New York lose its place as the busiest port in the world.

Other cities, like Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, had good natural harbors, but New York's advantage over other cities of the Eastern Seaboard was that the Hudson River and the Erie Canal formed the only water-level route through the Appalachian Mountains.

The city's strong entrepreneurial spirit discouraged family connections that would have stifled innovation and economic ambition.[dubious ] The city's cosmopolitan attitude and tolerance of many different cultures encouraged many different types of immigrant groups to settle in the city. Starting in the late 1840s, the city saw increased Irish immigration with the Great Irish Famine and German immigration with the Revolutions of 1848. People who came within the new wave from Ireland were wretched poor people without any knowledge of their new world; once arrived on the docks, unscrupulous Landlords got them to rent squalid tenements which were once upon a time rich houses for middle-class New Yorkers. They crowded into poky dirty rooms, and the slums of the city became to be known for the high rate of disease-dying people. Prostitution and violence rose all over Manhattan; crime gave birth to the myth of street gangs in New York, and the Nativist movement was going to grow in violence and power. On the other side, German immigrants were skilled laborers and craftsmen, who settled in a new neighborhood named "Kleindeutschland" (Little Germany) and opened many shops where they worked as artisans.

Raw unregulated capitalism created large middle, upper-middle and upper classes, but its need for manpower encouraged immigration into the city on an unprecedented scale, with mixed results. The famed melting pot was brought into being, from which multitudes have since arisen in the successful pursuit of "the American Dream". But countless others failed to rise, or entire generations were forced to plough themselves under for their children or grandchildren to rise.[dubious ] In the mid-to-late 19th century these antipodes could be found in the contrast between rich stretches of lower Broadway, Washington Square, Gramercy Park and Lafayette Street (wealth that would later take up more extravagant residence on Fifth Avenue) and the almost unbelievably squalid enclave of Five Points (abject poverty later to occupy the Lower East Side).

Tammany Hall's influence increased with its courting of the immigrant Irish vote, leading to the election of the first Tammany mayor, Fernando Wood, in 1854, and a trend of consolidation was beginning in the region with the three-year-old City of Williamsburgh joining Brooklyn in 1855, establishing it as America's third largest city.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Published in the 18th century[edit]

  • David Franks (1786). New York Directory. New York: Printed by Shepard Kollock.  (reprint of 1886)

Published in the 19th century[edit]



Published in the 20th century[edit]

Published in the 21st century[edit]


  1. ^ "Abolition Riots 1834–1836". New York Times July 29, 1877. Brooklyn Eagle October 11, 1885. Retrieved July 10, 2014.