Finding New York’s Prince

By Christopher F. Minty

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In 1966, Milton M. Klein, a specialist in the history of colonial New York and early American law, commented on one of New York’s most important figures. “The history of New York,” Klein wrote, “would be a Hamlet without the prince.” But there was a problem: “no biography of this remarkable colonial politician has yet been written.” Nearly half a century later, James DeLancey, chief justice, lieutenant governor, and acting governor of New York, still does not have a biographer.[1]

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DeLancey has featured in studies since Klein’s essay, but nobody has undertaken a large-scale examination of his life. Most recently, Andrew Beaumont’s Colonial America and the Earl of Halifax mentioned DeLancey on various occasions. Yet, it did not offer much on his life prior to Halifax’s rise within the British imperial framework, from October 1748, as president of the Board of Trade.

But how has it come to this? How can James DeLancey, one of the most important figures within not only New York history but colonial American history, be without a definitive biography? Reasons for such an oversight could, perhaps, be source-based. Papers relating to the DeLancey family, including James, are few and far between. To be sure, there are papers at the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York. But given how much paper must have crossed DeLancey’s desk — he was a lawyer, after all — their collections are small.

Indeed, at New-York Historical, the James DeLancey papers, 1747–1759, contains only six items. Other family-related papers are not much better. The combined papers of James’s father and brother, Stephen and Oliver, fill three boxes. But much of the material does not relate to James’s time in New York.

Across the park, at the Museum of the City of New York, where research is no longer a priority, there are four boxes related to the DeLancey family. Aside from holding one of the earliest-known impressions of the seal of New York City, dated 1686, and some materials on to the colonial period, most of the collection relates to the nineteenth-century history of Westchester. James DeLancey, it seems, is a peripheral figure within manuscript collections on his family.

Whether DeLancey liked writing or not, unlike William Smith, Jr., posterity was not at the forefront of his mind. Indeed, the lack of extant correspondence from DeLancey is striking. After six years’ research on colonial New York, I recognize that a DeLancey-written letter is hard to come by. Of all the collections I have consulted, my most fruitful DeLancey-related research was in The Huntington Library, in the papers of John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun, where there are twenty-nine DeLancey documents. Yet most of the documents relate to DeLancey’s tenure as acting governor of New York, between 1753 and 1755 and 1758 and 1760, and the Seven Years’ War. The period of DeLancey’s exponential rise, between his return to New York from Britain, in 1725, to his appointment as chief justice “at the king’s pleasure,” rather than “during good behavior.”

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What, then, can we do to rescue New York’s prince? First, one can look to Jill Lepore’s biography of Jane Franklin (Mecom), Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, a book written about someone who did not leave behind a voluminous number of sources. Without a backlog of sources available on Franklin, Lepore commented on how history gets remembered — “what gets saved, what gets lost, what gets forgotten, and what the consequences are.” Like Franklin’s, DeLancey’s records have not been saved and, to some extent, he has been forgotten. He is usually depicted as a self-interested partisan, who sought to take advantage of the naivety of others for his own personal gain.

But is this the real James DeLancey? Unlikely. Most of the descriptions of DeLancey as self-interested came from Cadwallader Colden or Governor George Clinton — individuals who did not like him. After all, during the 1740s and early 1750s, DeLancey was arguably more powerful than Clinton and Colden, his minister. Both sought to change what they viewed as New York’s lop-sided political system, pulling it away from DeLancey and back towards themselves.

Historians have largely hewed to the Clinton/Colden interpretation of James DeLancey and his family, more generally. This view is too narrow. It does not take into account DeLancey’s relationship to other New Yorkers. Nor does it take into account his political thought. Indeed, such an interpretation implies that DeLancey had no ideas. Given that he was educated in Walpole’s Britain, surroundedby eighteenth-century Whiggism, at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple, an idealess DeLancey is unlikely.[2]

Above all, though, understanding DeLancey as the self-interested politician belies any understanding of DeLancey as the colonial New Yorker and his large-scale impact upon the city and its inhabitants. We know little about his personal life — who his friends were and how they engaged with and influenced him, what his marriage was like, how he engaged with his children. We do not know about how his was viewed within New Yorkers’ imaginations; that is, the ordinary New Yorker who spent their evenings in a tavern, talking about shipping or the contents of the latest newspaper. Their interpretation of James DeLancey must be recognized. For a man who spent the better part of a generation at the top of New York’s political world, the amount we know about how he interacted with people who weren’t politicians is frustrating.

Writing the biography of New York’s prince must cover some, if not all, of these points. But without DeLancey’s words, we must rely on words about him — words written by others that could be tinged with jealousy, even hatred, or complete and utter admiration. There are other records we could use — newspapers, his will, his property holdings — but the majority of the qualitative material will be in another person’s hand.

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Nevertheless, as Lepore showed, even with a paucity of materials it is possible to reinvent someone within the historical imagination. And for DeLancey, an individual whose career spanned nearly forty years, it would be a timely addition to the literature. Not only will a biography tell us more about one of New York’s seminal figures, but it will also tell us more about how the constitutional relationship between Britain and New York evolved throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. Further, most New Yorkers who rebelled against the crown were raised in James DeLancey’s New York. A biography could thus tell us about how his influence upon the city’s social and political culture affected the coming of the American Revolution. The story of James DeLancey, then, is the story of how colonial British America fell, and the United States of America rose up.

Christopher F. Minty holds a PhD from the University of Stirling, and is currently writing a book on the origins of the American Revolution in New York City. You can learn more about his work here.


[1] Milton M. Klein, “Politics and Personalities in Colonial New York,” New York History 47, no. 1 (January 1, 1966): 11–12.

[2] See, for instance, Roger J. Champagne, “Family Politics versus Constitutional Principles: The New York Assembly Elections of 1768 and 1769,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 20, no. 1 (January 1, 1963): 57–79; Bernard Friedman, “New York Assembly Elections of 1768 and 1769: The Disruption of Family Politics,” New York History 46 (1965): 3–24; Cynthia A. Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675–1790 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992); Milton M. Klein, The American Whig: William Livingston of New York, rev. ed., Outstanding Studies in Early American History (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993); Ruma Chopra, Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution, Jeffersonian America (Charlottesville, VA.: University of Virginia Press, 2011); Andrew D. M. Beaumont, Colonial America and the Earl of Halifax, 1748–1761, Oxford Historical Monographs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); for an alternate view of the DeLanceys, see Christopher F. Minty, “Mobilization and Voluntarism: The Political Origins of Loyalism in New York, C. 1768–1778” (Ph.D. diss., University of Stirling, 2014).