William Cosby

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This article is about the British governor of New York. For the comedian, see Bill Cosby.
Sir William Cosby
Wimbit-viceroyCosby.jpg
Sir William Cosby
24ºcolonial governor of Province of New York
In office
August 1732 – March 1736
Preceded by Rip Van Dam
Succeeded by George Clarke
6º Royal governor of New Jersey
In office
August 1732 – March 1736
Preceded by Lewis Morris, President of Council
Succeeded by John Anderson President of Council
Personal details
Born 1690
Stradbally Hall, Queen's County, Ireland
Died 10 March 1736
New York City
Spouse(s) Grace Montagu
Children William, Grace, Elizabeth, Grace, Henry
Profession Army Colonel, Governor

William Cosby (1690–1736) served as the British royal governor of New York from 1732 to 1736.

During his short term as governor, Cosby was portrayed as one of the most oppressive royal placeholders in British Colonial America. In 1735, Cosby accused publisher John Peter Zenger of sedition and libel for publishing unflattering reports about Cosby. In spite of Cosby's efforts, Zenger was acquitted of all charges and the case helped to establish the concept of freedom of the press.

Early life and military career[edit]

William Cosby was born in Stradbally Hall, Queen's County, Ireland, in 1690. His father, Alexander Cosby of Stradbally, stemmed from an aristocratic British family that settled in Ireland in 1590, by the first Alexander Cosby. His mother, Elizabeth L'Estrange, was Irish.

In 1709, 19-year-old William Cosby travelled to Italy and earned money by gambling in card games. The next year he enlisted in the British Army at Spain, under General Stanhope's command. In successive years, his military career progressed: cornet of the 5th Dragoon Guards (24 August 1705), captain of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, Harvey's Regiment of Horse (15 April 1711), colonel of the 18th Irish Regiment (24 December 1717).

In 1711, Cosby married Grace Montagu, a British lady with connections at Buckingham Palace, as sister of George Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax.[1] They had children: William (1713), Grace (1716), Elizabeth (1721), Grace (1723) and Henry (1719). All of them were born in Britain, mostly at Westminster, London. Both sons followed careers in the military afterward. A third son, Alexander, born 1717, is not recorded as a son of William in contemporary documents, but was a son of Grace.

Cosby had a home in Soho Square and one in St. Leonard's Hill (the old name for the town of Windsor).

Balearic Islands[edit]

In 1717, Cosby was promoted to Colonel of the Royal Regiment of Ireland. The next year, this regiment was transferred to Minorca, in the Balearic Islands. Cosby acted as governor of Minorca from 1718. His administration was unremarkable in most respects, but he ran into difficulties when he illegally seized a Portuguese ship and attempted to appropriate its valuable cargo of snuff for his own benefit.[2]

Governor of New York and New Jersey[edit]

Manhattan Island in 1731

When George II of Britain was crowned, he transferred New York's Royal Governor William Burnet to be the Royal Governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Burnet's successor, John Montgomerie, died soon after taking office. On 13 January 1732, George II appointed Cosby as "Captain General & Governor in Chief of the Provinces of New York, New Jersey and Territories depending thereon in America". The interim governor, who would serve until Cosby arrived in America, was Rip Van Dam.

Cosby arrived to New York City on 24 April 1732, bringing his wife, two of his daughters, and one of his sons. He assumed office on 7 August. At the time, New York had a mere 50,000 inhabitants, but its port activity was booming with docks and shipyards.

Cosby's Manor[edit]

King George II gave Cosby a land grant on 2 January 1734, of 22,000 acres located on the Mohawk River, in what became Herkimer County, New York, and named Cosby's Manor later (19 February 1736); the grant, sold in 1772 to Philip Schuyler and four other proprietors,[3] included the later sites of Utica and Schuyler, New York.

Cosby was promoted to Vice Admiral on 29 September 1735, and to Brigadier General on 30 November 1735, while serving as royal governor.

Salary disputes[edit]

The salaries of British colonial governors were always a contentious issue in eighteenth-century British America. When Cosby arrived in New York, he demanded that the acting governor, Van Dam, turn over half the salary he had received during his term to Cosby. Van Dam replied that he would not do so unless Cosby turned over half of the (presumably much larger) fees he had reaped from the office while in England. Cosby responded by taking Van Dam to court. Moreover, he insisted that the court proceed through equity jurisdiction, thus obviating the need for a jury. Equity proceedings were extremely unpopular in colonial America, especially if the equity courts were constituted without the colonial legislature's consent; colonists saw them as a form of tyranny. Chief Justice Lewis Morris, aware of public opinion, dismissed Cosby's case on legal grounds on 9 April 1733. Cosby retaliated by removing Morris from office. He also dismissed Van Dam from the Provincial Council and named loyalist James DeLancey the new Chief Justice. Afterwards, Morris justified his decision in the New York Weekly Journal, an opposition newspaper. This episode was significant both because it was the precursor to the Zenger trial (discussed below) and because it augmented Cosby's reputation for arbitrary, tyrannical rule.[2][4]:206–207, 212–213

Meanwhile, Cosby secured an adequate salary for himself by refusing to call for new elections to the New York Assembly. The grateful assemblymen willingly voted him five years of support.[2]

Court Party vs. Country Party[edit]

As a direct consequence of the removal of Lewis Morris, two political forces were consolidated:

  • The court party or Tory faction. Its partisans included Adolphe Philipse, son of Frederick Philipse I of Philipse Manor, and Philip Van Cortlandt, son of Stephanus Van Cortlandt who was a father-in-law of Frederick Philipse I. This faction was led by the new chief justice, James DeLancey.
  • The country party, or Morrisites. Its partisans included Lewis Morris, Rip Van Dam, James Alexander, William Smith (a lawyer disbarred by Cosby from the government), and others.

While these two parties did not comprise the whole of colonial New York's political spectrum, the conflict between them became one of the central axes of New York political life. Both parties were dominated by wealthy, land-owning clans, but the court party was more cosmopolitan than the country party, which focused on provincial economic development.[4]:203–205

In 1735-36, Morris visited London to plead his case directly to the Crown. He failed either to secure Cosby's dismissal as governor or to secure his own reappointment as chief justice.[5] Nevertheless, Morris was ultimately appointed governor of New Jersey. In New York, the Septennial Act of 1743 ensured that assembly elections would henceforth be held at regular intervals, no less than once every seven years.[4]:209–210

Hopewell encroaching[edit]

As Royal Governor, Cosby illegally seized lands owned by colonists in Hopewell, New Jersey, awarding them to his Royalist allies, Dr. Daniel Coxe and his son. Cosby pushed out the settlers, forcing them to repurchase their properties, and then, as supreme judicial official of the colony, rejected the popular pleas led by Lewis Morris.

Before leaving for North Carolina, the former settlers retaliated. Armed with tar and feathers, they attacked the new householders and many government functionaries. Cosby's subsequent official proclamation stated that "...he or they may be brought to condign Punishment... (so) I do hereby promise to Pay to the Discovered the Sum of Thirty Pounds Proclamation Money...(as reward)" (1735).

Native American relations[edit]

Ensconced in his own world of increasing self-wealth and political repression, Cosby neglected his duties in frontier affairs. Military expeditions were easily defeated by Chickasaws, Catawbas and Cherokees. Also, the Iroquois tribes benefited from Cosby's dereliction, reorganising their Six Nations confederation as a powerful military threat.[6]

Lifelong rewards struggle[edit]

During Cosby's term in office, he granted "extraordinary salaries", either lifelong or for a stated term of years, to government officers or fellow Royalists as rewards for loyal service. His authority to do so was limited by the general assembly. Those salaries were often cancelled as a result of the festering rivalry between the court and country parties.

The Zenger case[edit]

The New York Weekly Journal was an opposition newspaper, pro-colonist and anti-Royal, economically supported by the Morrisites. It was founded in 1733 by John Peter Zenger, a recent German immigrant. Its mordant editorials were mainly written by socially notorious people, Morrisites, like James Alexander, who published anonymously.

Its most controversial editorials were about:

  • Morris' deposition
  • Cosby's attempt of rigging the 1734 elections
  • Post-electoral satiric ballads, where Royalist partisans were "petty fogging knaves" and the Popular partisans would "make the scoundrel rascals fly."
  • Cosby's stealing collected taxes
  • Cosby's appropriation of Indian lands
  • Official permission to French ships docking in New York's harbor

In November 1734, Governor Cosby ordered his men to burn up four of its editions—7, 47, 48, 49—down at the pillory. Those allegedly contained seditious material. On 17 November, Zenger was arrested for seditious libel against Cosby. His arrest did not close the Journal, however; his wife, Anna, continued printing the newspaper.

Zenger's trial

Working through Chief Justice DeLancey, Governor Cosby disbarred the local defenders of Zenger, urging the jury to punish him. But the Morrisites hired Andrew Hamilton, a celebrated lawyer from Philadelphia, as Zenger's attorney. Hamilton argued that the newspaper couldn't be punished unless what it had printed was falsely seditious. The principle he proclaimed still stands in modern United States law: libel only exists when falsehoods are perpetrated; the truth can never be libelous. Zenger was acquitted by the jury in 18 August 1735. James DeLancey declined to reverse that decision. Although the Zenger case did not entirely put an end to prosecutions for seditious libel, it set a precedent for freedom of the press.[4]:206

Death[edit]

Cosby died of tuberculosis on 10 March 1736, between 1 and 2 pm, in the Governor's House at Ft. George, today's Battery Park, New York City.

First, he was buried in a vault at Ft. George's chapel (1736). But in 1788, his remains were moved to an unmarked grave at St. Paul Church's cemetery, New York, together with the remains of the Earl of Bellomont, who served as New York governor between 1698 and 1701.

George Clarke, the sitting lieutenant governor, assumed Cosby's office. He was a moderate loyalist of the Court Party, a former representative in the Provincial Council. He frustrated Van Dam's aspirations again, starting another political scandal. Nonetheless, Clarke received Royal confirmation officially.

William Cosby is of no known relation to the 20th century comedian of the same name.

Legacy[edit]

Eighteenth-century observers believed that Governor William Cosby was motivated by two goals: defending British interests and building his private fortune.[7] Royal governors in British North America were seldom popular, but to some colonists, Cosby became a symbol of just how oppressive a royal governor could be. Cosby's political opponent Lewis Morris characterised Cosby's governorship as a reign of "a God damn ye," underlining Cosby's indifference to the wishes and welfare of those he governed.[4]:202

Although Cosby's governorship was not a rewarding period for colonial New York, the struggles of the 1730s ultimately helped define the roles of the royal governor, the assembly, and the courts in provincial politics. They also fostered the development of the colony's first political parties. Historian Michael Kammen characterises Cosby's era as a period of "political awakening and modernization" in New York politics. Once the structural problems were addressed, politicians could turn their attention to the substantive issues and engage a larger portion of the population in political activity.[4]:215

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Patrick Cracroft-Brennan, Manchester, Earl of (E, 1625/6) in Cracroft's Peerage. Accessed 5 December 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Robert E. Cray, "William Cosby," in American National Biography.
  3. ^ Bradstreet archive
  4. ^ a b c d e f Michael Kammen, Colonial New York: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, 1975
  5. ^ Eugene R. Sheridan, "Lewis Morris," American National Biography.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ [2]

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Lord Londonderry
Governor of the Leeward Islands (acting)
1729
Succeeded by
William Mathew, Jr.
Preceded by
Rip Van Dam
Governor of the Province of New York
1732–1736
Succeeded by
George Clarke (acting)
Preceded by
Lewis Morris (acting)
Governor of the Province of New Jersey
1732–1736
Succeeded by
John Anderson (acting)