Defending New York After the Revolution: The Governorship of John Jay

By Robb K. Haberman


A specter haunted the city and port of New York during the Quasi-War (1798-1800) and the years preceding it. With the young republics of France and the United States engaged in undeclared naval warfare, New Yorkers feared a seaborne strike would lay waste to their community and cripple its thriving maritime commerce. Although unrealized, these fears were certainly justified; despite attempts to construct an adequate system of defense, the city remained incapable of withstanding assault. Indeed, in March 1798, one official highlighted New York’s vulnerability, noting that its immense wealth and property “invite invasion” and that it would be helpless if set upon by a “single Twenty Gun privateer.”[1] Many residents recalled with bitterness the great fire of 1776, a conflagration that had destroyed a quarter of the city, and feared that New York would soon be revisited by a similar trauma.[2]

No one viewed the threat of a forthcoming French attack with more trepidation than Governor John Jay. Throughout his tenure in office from 1795 to 1801, he called for a comprehensive defense to protect New York City and its adjoining waterscape.

The question of what measures should be taken to properly defend New York was not a new issue; a similar problem had confronted Jay’s predecessor, George Clinton, in his final years as governor. It was a British threat, however, and not a French one, that menaced New York and the nation during Clinton’s governorship.[3] Faced with the prospect of an Anglo-American war in early 1794, both the state and federal governments sought to secure strategic locations along the eastern seaboard. Particular attention was given to New York City, with Clinton insisting that lawmakers rectify the “naked and exposed condition of our principal sea port” and even President Washington remarking on the difficulty of building fortifications there.[4] Congress responded by passing two key pieces of legislation, and Secretary of War Henry Knox appointed Charles Vincent, a former French military engineer, to draw up plans for protecting the waterways approaching New York City.[5] Vincent proposed an ambitious program of constructing fortified positions for both the inner and outer harbors; these sites included the Narrows separating Staten Island and Brooklyn and an earthworks star-shaped fort on Governor’s Island (later named Fort Jay in 1798).[6]

These projects were far from complete when Clinton’s term expired in June 1795. Yet most New Yorkers viewed this development as a minor concern. Popular interest in carrying out extensive and expensive military projects had diminished because the prospect of a British war reaching American shores had receded with the signing of the Jay Treaty some six months earlier. In contrast to the public’s curbed enthusiasm, newly-elected governor John Jay refused to allow the port’s defenses to remain in disrepair, even in peacetime. Recently returned from his mission in London to assume the role of New York’s chief executive, Jay perceived that revolutionary France posed an even greater danger to the United States than had monarchial Britain and he sensed that the political turmoil and warfare unleashed in Europe would envelop other Atlantic nations and therefore emphasized the necessity of military preparedness. “Imbecility invites insult and aggression,” he counseled the state legislature in his inaugural address, “and the experience of ages proves that they are the most secure against war who are the best prepared to meet it.”[7]


The governor was bound to be disappointed, however, as defensive efforts faltered in the years that followed. 1796 started on a promising note with the work now under direction of Joseph François Mangin, a former French military engineer who had succeeded Vincent. A new survey of defenses was undertaken and additional monies were allocated for fortifying three islands — Oyster, Bedlow (Bedloe), and Governors — situated in the inner harbor.

Since the state treasury could not bear construction costs, New York’s congressional delegation led by Edward Livingston requested assistance from the national government. To their dismay, the House of Representatives soundly defeated the measure, voting it down 64-14.[8]

Congress continued to debate the issue of coastal fortifications and passed two new laws in June 1797 and May 1798 allocating $365,000 for the defense of the nation’s ports and harbors.[9] Both the governor and the New York City Chamber of Commerce sent Ebenezer Stevens on a lobbying mission to Philadelphia for the purpose of procuring funds. A Revolutionary War veteran and militia artillery officer, Stevens also served as a state commissioner tasked with erecting fortifications and as a federal agent for the War Department. He was therefore uniquely qualified to travel southward and make the case for New York City. Yet despite his impressive credentials, Stevens could not convince officials that money should be explicitly earmarked for the defense of New York.

Stevens should not be faulted, however, for failing to secure adequate funds. This crisis arose because of a fundamental defect existing within the federal system of governance; namely, no clear policy had been established for assigning financing, and coordinating defensive duties between the agencies and authorities at the municipal, state, and national levels. Stevens recognized this issue as the root of the problem, commenting “it is to be apprehended that the reciprocal reliance on each other which exists on the part of the United States and of this State, arising from circumstances which it is unnecessary to mention, will be the means of preventing either from paying that Attention which is necessary to the defence of this important place”.[10] His gloomy assessment was borne out by years of continuous squabbling over issues of land ownership, administrative jurisdiction, and resource allocation. Two conditions set by Congress and President John Adams proved particularly contentious. These provisions stipulated that no defensive grants would be allocated until New York agreed to 1) honor debts owed to the United States that had accrued during the Revolutionary War and 2) relinquish to federal authorities the lands which held the fortifications. The situation had therefore reached an impasse since New York’s legislature was unwilling to comply with these demands.[11]

Jay urged cooperation among the governing entities, but he could offer little by way of resolution. Commenting on the disastrous consequences of inaction, the governor warned that “The Nation will have Reason to be dissatisfied if after so long an Interval of peace and Prosperity, war should find us in a defenceless State.” His fears of a French attack were stoked by a massive fire that struck the Wall Street area in early December 1796. An entire block of stores and houses was razed, raising ugly memories of the great fire that had occurred twenty years earlier. Nearly fifty buildings were harmed and the property damage alone was assessed at $70,000.[12]The governor along with other frightened residents suspected arson and that pro-French saboteurs set the blaze to foment Jacobin terror. Several months later, such suspicions were seemingly confirmed by a New York resident who told Jay that he had served aboard the French privateer La Vengeance. Described as “a violent Democrat and Gallican,” the man testified to learning of an alarming conspiracy while at sea: "he heard the Fires which afterwards happened in this City, spoken of as Fires that would certainly happen — and that the particular Houses and Stores were mentioned. The Destruction of our sea port Towns and Frigates is meditated — that a French Fleet is expected to co-operate with Incendiaries in that Design."[13]

The possibility of a French raid or invasion came to the forefront of public concern throughout 1797-1798 as New Yorkers learned of the cold reception that met American peace commissioners in Paris and the subsequent outrages of Foreign Minister Talleyrand.[14] The local populace criticized the mishandling of security matters and articulated their grievances through a flurry of resolutions, petitions, and memorials. When the New York Chamber of Commerce penned a memorial requesting heavy cannon for the city’s defense, Jay dutifully forwarded the document to James McHenry, the secretary of war, with a not so subtle reminder that “if it be desirable that the people should look up to the National Government for protection, it certainly is equally desirable that they should not be disappointed.”[15]

The citizenry also took direct action by organizing several associations with a collective design to pressure state and federal officials to commit more resources and energy to fortifying New York’s port and harbor. Committees representing New York’s seven wards, along with the committee from the Chamber of Commerce, and a delegation of Revolutionary War officers, assembled at City Hall in early June. Matthew Clarkson, a local militia commander, presided over the proceedings as those in attendance appointed Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Ebenezer Stevens to a newly formed Military Committee that would manage the city’s defensive arrangements.[16]

Clarkson and the Military Committee lacked formal authority, but this circumstance did not stop them from galvanizing both those in political office as well as the general populace to action. The Military Committee consulted with James McHenry when he traveled to New York City in mid-June for the purpose of surveying the harbor.[17] Later that month, the joint committees passed a resolution urging residents to assist with defensive efforts by registering for volunteer labor in their local wards. Those suffering from “bodily indisposition” had the option of contributing ten shillings as payment for “procuring persons to perform such parts of the duty as may require instruction and practice.”[18]

In addition to these initiatives, Clarkson urged the governor to schedule an early session of the state legislature so that lawmakers could take up the work of New York’s fortifications.[19] Recognizing that the political and diplomatic crises left him little choice but to employ his executive authority, Jay issued an official proclamation instructing the members of the state assembly and senate to convene for a special session in Albany on 9 August.[20] In an address delivered at the meeting, Jay again warned of an impending conflict with France and the need for additional funding to secure New York City.[21]

This time Jay’s call for legislative action did not fall on deaf ears. Within a matter of weeks, state lawmakers passed a bill that appropriated $150,000 for repairing and completing fortifications on Manhattan and the inner harbor islands.[22] The team that Jay assembled to oversee the work included experienced subordinates like Stevens, Clarkson, and Mangin, who would now report directly to Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton had been tapped by Jay to take charge of the various efforts then underway to put the City of New York on a wartime footing. Previous participation in the Military Committee served as a stepping-stone to his current post and enabled Hamilton to act as a more effective liaison between local leaders and the governor’s office. Hamilton’s status was further bolstered by his recent appointment as Inspector General of the United States Army, the second-highest ranking officer under General Washington.[23] It was certainly not lost on the governor that Hamilton’s promotion to Inspector General placed him in a unique position to support New York’s military endeavors.

The implementation of fortification plans submitted by Hamilton and his staff nonetheless stalled because the recent legislation did not address unresolved matters of monetary requests, transfers, and reimbursements. For instance, Stevens reported in late November 1798 that Mangin was awaiting payment for his engineering services and that many of the hired laborers and tradesmen also required compensation. The voices calling for wages became more shrill as the Yellow Fever epidemic devastated the local economy. No effective action was taken, however, and Stevens warned a year later that he “should not be surprized should they one & all commence a suit against me.”[24]

As Jay’s tenure in office drew to a close in 1800, the prospect of making significant progress towards the completion of fortifications grew ever more remote. Stevens and Clarkson, two of Jay’s most trusted and experienced colleagues, were so worn down by fatigue and frustration that they sought to step down from their duties. Moreover, with the ascendancy of the Democratic-Republicans and Jefferson’s election to the presidency, defensive initiatives were seen as part of a fading Federalist agenda. In truth, the specter of a French assault on New York City and the American seaboard had diminished considerably. The ongoing negotiations and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine in September ended hostilities between France and the United States. While the construction of harbor defenses never entirely ceased, state lawmakers now saw little advantage to be gained by advocating for defensive measures amid this shifting political climate.

Robb K. Haberman is Associate Editor of The Selected Papers of John Jay at Columbia University.


Note on Sources: Several citations listed below are John Jay documents that are located in The Papers of John Jay Image Database and can be viewed by entering the identity number in the search bar.

[1] Ebenezer Stevens to John Jay, 22 Mar. 1798, New-York Historical Society. John Jay Image Database 00871.

[2] For an account of the Great Fire, see Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution (New York: Walker & Co., 2002), 204-209.

[3] Although the Peace Treaty of 1783 formally ended the American War of Independence, unresolved issues including those of debt, boundaries, and trade brought the two countries to the brink of war a decade later. To prevent another conflict with Britain, President Washington sent John Jay to London in May 1794 to negotiate another treaty with the British government.

[4] George Clinton to the New York State Legislature, 7 Jan. 1794, in Charles Z. Lincoln, ed., State of New York. Messages from the Governor, vol. 2, 1777-1822 (Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1909), 333; Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr. to Henry Knox, 28 Mar. 1794, in Theodore J. Crackel et al., eds., Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, vol. 15, 1 January-30 April 1794(Charlottesville and London: Univ. of Virginia Press), 459.

[5] “An Act to provide for the Defense of certain Ports and Harbors in the United States,” and “An Act making Appropriations for the Support of the Military Establishment of the United States, for the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-Four” were passed by Congress in March 1794 thereby implementing the nation’s First System of Coastal Fortifications. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States, vol. 1, 1789-1799 (Boston: Little and Brown, 1845), 345-46, and 346-47.

[6] American State Papers: Military Affairs, vol. 1, March 3, 1789-March 3, 1819 (Washington D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), 77-81, 104-105.

[7] John Jay to the New York State Legislature, 6 Jan. 1795, in Charles Z. Lincoln, ed., State of New York. Messages from the Governor, vol. 2, 1777-1822(Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1909), 359.

[8] House of Representatives, Fourth Congress, 13 May 1796, The Debates and Proceedings of the United States, vol. 5 December 7, 1795-June 1, 1796(Washington D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1855), 1373.

[9] “An Act to provide for the further Defence of the Ports and Harbors of the United States,” and “An Act supplementary to the Act providing for the further Defence of the Ports and Harbors of the United States,” The Public Statutes at Large of the United States, vol. 1, 1789-1799 (Boston: Little and Brown, 1845), 521-22, 554-55.

[10] Ebenezer Stevens to John Jay, 22 Mar. 1798, New-York Historical Society. John Jay Image Database 00871.

[11] After much wavering, the New York legislature agreed to an arrangement permitting state governments to credit the amounts they spent on defensive measures against the debt owed to the United States. State lawmakers also finally ceded the inner-harbor islands, except Oyster Island, to the federal government. A long-standing dispute over ownership rights delayed the transfer and the island did not become federal property until June 1808. “An Act to cede to the United States the Jurisdiction of certain Islands situate in and about the Harbour of New-York,” and “An Act complying with the Act of Congress respecting Balances reported against certain States by the Commissioners appointed to settle the Accounts between the United States and the several States,” Laws of the State of New-York, Passed a the Twenty-Third Session of the Legislature, Begun and Held at the City of Albany, the Twenty-Eighth Day of January, 1800(Albany: Loring Andrews, 1800), 7, 114-17.

[12] The fire that struck New York City was one of a series of suspect fires that occurred in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Savannah, and other major port cities in late 1796. Argus, Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser (New York), 10 Dec. 1796.

[13] John Jay to Timothy Pickering, 8 June 1797, draft, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. John Jay Image Database 09497.

[14] In an episode that became known as the XYZ Affair, President Adams appointed Elbridge Gerry, John Marshall, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney in mid-1797 to negotiate with France. Upon their arrival in Paris in early October, the American commissioners experienced a lengthy delay and were informed that talks could not commence until they paid a loan to the French Directory and a personal bribe to Talleyrand. The release of the commissioners’ dispatches caused an uproar in the United States and led the two nations to engage in the Quasi-War.

[15] The memorial is found in “Papers relative to the Defence of the City of New York 1798,” copy, New-York Historical Society. John Jay Image Database 00899; John Jay to James McHenry, 7 May 1798, letterbook copy, New York State Library, John Jay Image Database 03153.

[16] Greenleaf’s New York Journal, 13 June 1798.

[17] James McHenry to John Jay, 6 June 1798, copy, New-York Historical Society. John Jay Image Database 00873; New-York Gazette, 13 June 1798.

[18] Commercial Advertiser (New York) and New-York Gazette, both 20 June 1798.

[19] Matthew Clarkson to John Jay, 10 June 1798, copy, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library. John Jay Image Database 11465.

[20] A Proclamation Summoning a Session of the State Legislature, [2 July 1798], letterbook copy, New York State Library, John Jay Image Database03283.

[21] John Jay Address to the New York State Legislature, [9 Aug. 1798], draft signed, American Antiquarian Society, John Jay Image Database 02615. Charles Z. Lincoln, ed., State of New York. Messages from the Governor, vol. 2, 1777-1822 (Albany: J. B. Lyon, 1909), 420-24.

[22] “An Act for the further Defence of this State, and for other Purposes,” Laws of the State of New-York, Passed a the Twenty-Second Session of the Legislature, Begun and Held at the City of Albany, the Ninth Day of August, 1798(Albany: Loring Andrews & Co., 1798), 547-49.

[23] For Hamilton’s appointment as Inspector General and subsequent service during the Quasi-War, see Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802(New York and London: Free Press and Collier Macmillan, 1975), 230-38, 243-55.

[24] Ebenzer Stevens to Alexander Hamilton, 29 Nov. 1798 and 21 Oct, 1799, in Harold C. Syrett, et. al, ed. Papers of Alexander Hamilton vols. 22 and 23, July 1798-March 1799 and April 1799-October 1799 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975 and 1976), 266-67 and 544.