"Republics are not ungrateful": The American Revolution and Memory in New York City

By Jonah Estess

Image of Continental Currency. Image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

Image of Continental Currency. Image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

Four years before Abraham Lincoln was elected as president of a house divided, John McKesson Jr. (1807-1893) of Olcott, McKesson and Company (now the McKesson Corporation) petitioned Congress on a matter having to do with the very revolution that established the now troubled union. He had requested that Congress redeem continental currency paid to his great-uncle, John McKesson (1734-1798) — a practicing lawyer in New York City — likely for his services as secretary to the New York Provincial Congress, to the New York Committee of Safety, and to the New York State Convention on the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. McKesson Jr. expressed a belief that Congress remained indebted to his great-uncle for his service to the cause of American independence. But by virtue of blood relation, he requested that some repayment be paid to him. He estimated the debt at ten thousand dollars, a number far greater than the original fifteen-hundred dollars supposedly held by the elder McKesson due to accumulated interest. He anticipated Congress’s unwillingness to authorize such large payment. His alternative was that Congress issue a gold medal in commemoration of his great-uncle’s service to the cause of independence. But why send the petition in the first place, so long after the revolution had ended? “Republics are not ungrateful,” he wrote. [1]

The history of a place is made as much by events there as it is by the ways in which people weave memory into the historical record connected to that place. This post will examine how these two processes of making New York City history are apparent in John McKesson Jr.’s petition. It teases out the significance of the elder McKesson’s acceptance of continental currency in the face of almost certain financial loss and notes reasons for why petitions that refer to the revolution denotes memory’s place in New York City’s history. Furthermore, examining John McKesson’s revolutionary-era activities is one way of understanding what convinced people to accept continental currency in exchange for goods and services. Noting the cultural values embedded in the petition as well as John McKesson Jr.’s motivations for sending it to Congress enhances our understanding of the legacy of revolutionary-era and early national finance in New York City.

John McKesson, New York City, and the American Revolution

John McKesson was born on February 20, 1734 in Fagg’s Manor, Chester County, Pennsylvania. This small rural community was a heavily Scotch-Irish Presbyterian community — his father immigrated from Ireland. [2] Like many young men of his era, he graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University) and began practicing law just south of the college in New York City. There, he succeeded at establishing connections to some of the city's most prominent individuals including John Morin Scott (a lawyer and military officer), William Livingston (New Jersey Governor and signer of the federal constitution), and William Smith (suspected loyalist and Chief Justice of the Province of New York during the war). [3] McKesson and Scott would later serve together as part of the New York Provincial Congress and New York Council of Safety. These organizations formed to assist General George Washington to administer the Continental Army and protect patriots’ interests in New York State during the war. [4] Additionally, both Livingston and Smith led the Whig Presbyterians, a political faction that McKesson became a part of as early as 1769.

Petition to Congress of John McKesson Jr. Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Petition to Congress of John McKesson Jr. Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

True to his upbringing, McKesson was elected as Secretary of the Society of Dissenters on February 21, 1769. For a time, they convened at the home of David Phillips in New York’s north ward. [5] The Society was a Presbyterian organization. It formed out of revived interest in the colonies to secure the legal right for Presbyterian colonists to select their own Anglican bishop. [6] By 1769, groups such as the Society of Dissenters had, as one historian put it, engaged in a broader political movement against any and all English involvement in the colonists political, economic, and cultural life. [7] Unity among the several Anglican sects in the colonies was, in their view, necessary “for the preservation of their common and respective civil and religious Rights and Privileges, against all Oppressions and Encroachments by those of any Denomination whatsoever.” [8] By 1776, the Anglican Church in the colonies had become “a cause of the American Revolution.”[9] Continental currency was not issued until 1775, at least five years after the Society of Dissenters ceased to meet. Although McKesson received continental currency in exchange for his service between 1775 and 1781 — continental currency ceased to circulate after 1781 — and not for his secretarial work for the Society, he had longer served the wider revolutionary cause of resisting Parliament’s civil authority over colonists’ religious liberty. His involvement in the movement for religious liberties motivated his decision to participate in the Revolutionary War and later to accept America’s first unified form of money in exchange for his services.

Furthermore, McKesson’s pre-war revolutionary politics took place within the context of widespread revolutionary activity in colonial cities such as New York. New York was one of five colonial cities that were particularly ripe for some form of revolutionary change by the late 1760s. Historian Benjamin Carp argues that political mobilization, a process that shaped “civic communities” in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Newport, and Charleston, fostered conditions that made war with Great Britain more than likely. [10] The coming-together of the Society of Dissenters required not just the joining of New York’s established Presbyterian leaders but also of individuals who could administer that organization’s mission by transcribing letters and receiving and transmitting information on behalf of the Society. As Carp writes, “Communities of faith also tapped… religious networks to… advocate their shared interests.” [11] But Britain’s capture of New York City and waterways connected to it made such business in the city impossible. There is little in the historical record that details McKesson’s role as Secretary of the Society of Dissenters. And though much here is conjecture, it is perhaps no coincidence that McKesson’s revolutionary beliefs were born in New York City, that the city fostered his commitment to America’s political independence from Great Britain, and that New York City is where he first acted on these beliefs. [12]

Image of two dollar "continental" currency. Image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

Image of two dollar "continental" currency. Image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.

Britain’s capture of New York City made it impossible for McKesson and his compatriots to continue assisting the war effort from there. “The Revolutionary War disrupted the cities’ economic functions and displaced the rebellious politicians who had been such a vital force over the previous decade.” [13] So too did it displace those who were responsible for the administrative aspects of war-making in New York City, McKesson among them. In mid-1776, he followed the New York Provincial Congress out of the city to White Plains. His job remained the same. He was responsible for recording the minutes of sessions and transmitting letters and documents to and from Congress to the necessary persons including General George Washington and John Hancock. He likely had few, if any opportunities to record his own thoughts on the conflict in official records or correspondence. As one historian described, “McKesson’s career was fixed: he was a ubiquitous, reliable, and almost anonymous revolutionary functionary.” [14]

Once the war concluded, McKesson returned to New York City where he never married, owned two slaves, and made several large purchases of confiscated property once owned by the prominent and loyalist Jauncey and Delancey families. [15] It is unknown to-date whether he personally set out to have his continental currency redeemed. If he had, Congress would not have redeemed it after 1790. Congress accepted Alexander Hamilton’s plan to establish public credit in exchange for moving the nation’s capital to a large plot of land on the Potomac River: Washington, DC. Hamilton stipulated that continental currency could not be redeemed because doing so would endanger the public credit. He framed his argument in terms of public creditors’ best interests, that excessive and thus unfavorable taxation would be required to pay back all such debts to them:

"It is, therefore, to be hoped, and even to be expected, that they will cheerfully concur in such modifications of their claims, on fair and equitable principles, as will facilitate to the Government an arrangement substantial,
durable, and satisfactory to the community." [16]

There seemed no way to help or hurt one’s claim once a compromise was reached. [17] Additionally, the extent to which he lost property or personal wealth is unclear. The value of continental currency fell drastically between 1775 and 1779. By 1781, continental currency had lost nearly all value and no longer was used to purchase goods and services. This occurred largely because the Continental Congress had issued over 240 million dollars (face value) of continental currency over the first four years of the war. Congress found that it could not maintain control of the exchange value of its money, which in hindsight made the continental dollar even weaker. Despite this, what is evident is that the war and valueless continental currency did not push him into destitution.

John McKesson Jr., New York City, and the American Revolutionary War

Much had changed in the ways Americans thought about the American Revolutionary War by the time McKesson Jr. sent his petition to Congress in 1856. A culture had emerged in early 1800s that celebrated and honored the “suffering soldier” of the Revolutionary War. This “suffering soldier” image symbolized the neglect and financial suffering endured by veterans who had bravely demonstrated their patriotism while fighting Great Britain. [18] As historian John Resch argues, an organized campaign to grant pensions to veterans of the Revolutionary war, which began in the early decades of the nineteenth century, convinced Congress to pass the Pension Act of 1818. [19] But rather than a movement meaning to compensate for every injustice inflicted on veterans in all states, I would suggest instead that what resembled a movement was actually not the sum of its parts; collective action on the part and on behalf of the revolutionary generation was born out of individuals’ attachment to their own histories and memories of America’s first monetary project. Entrepreneurial nineteenth-century New York City had not replaced McKesson Jr.’s strong attachment to his genealogy. He remembered the Revolutionary War in terms of his ancestor’s contributions to the cause of liberty and independence.

Furthermore, New York City in the 1850s was an emerging industrial city where men and women made fortunes, lost fortunes, and made them back. New York City merchants such as McKesson Jr. acquired significant wealth by the 1850s. Canals and railroads built between 1820 and 1860 led to the increased manufacture of goods sent westward and southward. New York City sat at the intersection of several such transportation projects including the Erie Canal — this connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes — and seven railway lines by 1850. [20] Like other companies and merchants in the drug trade, Olcott, McKesson and Company’s business success was due in part to these transportation innovations. [21] So, if New York City had emerged as a industrial powerhouse, one that made McKesson Jr. rich, why was compensation for his great-uncle’s service so important to him?

A Republic that had achieved independence and prosperity owed a debt of thanks to those who made it possible. His petition echoed changes in the way that Americans treated veterans of the Revolutionary War. It is important to note that McKesson Jr. was not born until 1807, twenty-four years after the Treaty of Paris formally ended the Revolutionary War. He therefore could not remember the war first-hand. But what differentiates knowledge of events before one’s own birth from memory of that past? McKesson Jr. makes several allusions to wartime finance in New York City, which may well have been common knowledge in the 1850s. First, he expressed concern that Congress may not honor his petition because of Britain’s effective counterfeiting operations in New York City during the war. “I have also been informed that the difficulty of detecting counterfeit from the genuine is the only obstacle to the redemption of the notes.” [22] By the mid-eighteenth century, New York City had emerged as a major commercial hub in part because of its direct access to the Hudson and East Rivers and the lucrative trading networks across the Atlantic and land speculation in the Northwest Territory. This made New York City the ideal base for a currency counterfeiting operation. Eric Newman described the British operation as “a new form of economic warfare.” [23] The aim was to print enough counterfeit continental currency to reduce the value of continental currency across the colonies to nearly nothing and thereby undermine public faith in the currency. The British in New York City devised a three-part plan to undermine Congress’s ability to effectively invent money to pay for the war. First, it produced fake continental currency and distributed it secretly outside of the city. Second, it urged loyalists to produce and distribute their own counterfeit dollars. Third, it distributed propaganda to deflect any suspicion about the rapidly increasing sum of circulating currency. [24] McKesson Jr. understood that he could not reasonably expect Congress to accept his great-uncle’s continental currency as genuine without some form of authentication.

Second, he recognized that fact that continental currency had lost almost of its value by 1781. New Yorkers during the war suffered greatly from the rapidly falling value of the very money with which they were paid and did business. As Howard Pashman suggests, New Yorkers’ hardships stemmed from both falling currency values and rising prices of staple goods such as flour. Some New York City residents, who fled the British-occupied city to Dutchess County, believed that the State should confiscate Loyalists’ property and redistribute it to patriots like themselves. They thought that this would stave off any further challenges posed by depreciated currency. [25] McKesson Jr. knew that Congress would not redeem continental currency if, despite the compounding interest on the face value of the dollars, the money was worthless.

Finally, McKesson Jr. was not unaware of the amount of time and cultural distance there was from the American Revolution. Hamilton’s concerns over whether Congress could restructure state debts and revive public credit greatly concerned rich, poor, and middling New Yorkers alike. But McKesson did not share Hamilton’s concerns.

That he [McKesson Jr.] notices with pride and pleasure that the Government of the United States is able to pay all its honest debts, which was not the case at the close of the Revolution and that said Government have
appropriated Ten Millions of Dollars to pay Texas ‘Red Dog’ and other debts of Texas." [26]

Increased federal revenues allowed Thomas Jefferson, for example, to establish conditions for “an agricultural empire of yeomanry” in the Louisiana territory. [27] Subsequent administrations also tapped into duties and taxation revenues to support land grabs in the southern, midwest, and western territories including Texas. [28] In a sense, McKesson Jr., a businessman with economic relationships spanning eastward across the Atlantic Ocean and westward into newer states and territories, had sense inherited a piece of the opportunity born out of America’s tendency to aggressively wield its financial resources from his place of business in New York City.

Nonetheless, he viewed his great-uncle's “services… as of some value as he risked everything in the Revolutionary struggle and received nothing [no compensation].” [29] Wartime finance, therefore, was to McKesson Jr. more than a series of events that fostered independence; acceptance and use of continental currency signified a risk worth taking, a burden worth pocketing. McKesson Jr. remembered his great-uncle’s services and sacrifices by granting meaning to the money that his great-uncle never redeemed.

McKesson Jr.’s petition reflects on a time when America’s uncertain financial future was evident in and around New York City. [30] Memory, the connective tissue that fuses past and present, bound him to his great-uncle’s own entanglement with revolutionary-era finance, even if only for the time it took to draft and send his petition. His petition (and others like it) provide a brief look at how descendants and members of the revolutionary generation, though distanced by change in American life, remain connected because of a sense of history born out of family and place.

Jonah Estess is a PhD student at American University. This post developed from his senior thesis, titled “Justice and Fairness in Exchange for Service and Sacrifice: Petitions to Congress and the Legacy of the Continental Dollar, 1775 - 1861.” Special thanks to Tom Balcerski, and Hunter Lorelli for reading earlier drafts.


[1] Petition of John McKesson for the redemption of Continental money. SEN 34A-H21, Committee on Revolutionary Claims, Col. William Linn to Carter, Page. Petitions and Memorials, Resolutions of State Legislatures, and Related Documents Which Were Referred to the Committee on Revolutionary Claims during the 34th Congress. Committee Papers, 1832-1897. Record Group 46: Records of the U.S. Senate, 1789-2015. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

[2] J. Smith Futhey and Gilbert Cope, History of Chester County, Pennsylvania with Genealogical and Biographical Sketches (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 251, accessed online 15 August 2018, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo.31924010354342;view=1up;seq=355; James McLachlan, Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 78, accessed online 15 August 2018, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x1c6f.

[3] McLachlan, Princetonians, 1748-1768, 78.

[4] Joshua Canale, “New York Committee and Council of Safety,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, accessed online 15 August 2018, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/new-york-committee-and-council-of-safety/.

[5] William Harrison Taylor, Unity in Christ and Country: American Presbyterians in the Revolutionary Era, 1758-1801 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2017), 51.

[6] James B. Bell, A War of Religion: Dissenters, Anglicans, and the American Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 81.

[7] Ibid., 91.

[8] Minutes of the Society of Dissenters, 17 February 1769, as published in Herbert L. Osgood, “The Society of Dissenters founded at New York in 1769,” The American Historical Review 6, no. 3 (April 1901): 499.

[9] Bell, A War of Religion: Dissenters, Anglicans, and the American Revolution, 4.

[10] Benjamin Carp, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 5.

[11] Ibid., 8

[12] For a useful definition of mobilization, see ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] McLachlan, Princetonians, 1748-1768: A Biographical Dictionary, 78.

[15] Ibid., 78-79.

[16] Alexander Hamilton, “Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit, [9 January 1790],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-06-02-0076-0002-0001. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 6, December 1789?–?August 1790, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962, pp. 65–110.]

[17] Hamilton issued a second report regarding petitions submitted by citizens to Congress during his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury. In it, he wrote that, “The infinite multitude of cases, in which claims of this nature might, with equal or nearly equal degrees of equity, be supported; the impossibility, from the extraordinary circumstances of the times when those claims originated, of doing general justice, the inextricable confusion, and incalculable expense, of an attempt to redress all the grievances and hardships of that kind, which unavoidably took place, afford considerations of the most powerful nature for leaving every question of depreciation, where the rules and principles of settlement at the Treasury have left it.” Put simply, there was nothing that could be done; see “Report on Several Petitions Seeking Indemnification for Various Sums of Paper Money Received During the Late War, [17 November 1792],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-13-02-0047. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 13, November 1792?–?February 1793, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967, pp. 153–155.]

[18] John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 84-85.

[19] Ibid., 4-5.

[20] For railway lines, see Dinsmore, Curran. Dinsmore & Company's new and complete map of the railway system of the United States and Canada; compiled from official sources, under the direction of the editor of the "American Railway Guide," [New York, 1850] Map, accessed online 15 April 2018, https://www.loc.gov/item/98688311/. See also “The Canal Era” and “Full Steam Ahead,” in Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 429-451, 649-673.

[21] McKesson & Robbins, The Road to Market: 125 Years of Distribution Service (n. p., 1958), 21, as cited in Patrick G. Porter and Harold C. Livesay, “The Ante-Bellum Drug Trade: Troth & Company of Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 94, no. 3 (July 1970): 351n17, accessed online 15 August 2018, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20090447.

[22] Petition of John McKesson for the redemption of Continental money.

[23] Petition of John McKesson for the redemption of Continental money.

[24] Eric P. Newman, “The Successful British Counterfeiting of American Paper Money During the American Revolution,” British Numismatic Journal (1958): 174, accessed online 15 August 2018, http://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital%20BNJ/pdfs/1958_BNJ_29_18.pdf. For recent work on the dangers of counterfeit money in the eighteenth-century British world, see Katherine Smoak, “"The Weight of Necessity: Counterfeit Coins in the British Atlantic World, circa 1760–1800," William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 3 (July 2017): 467-502.

[25] Newman, “The Successful British Counterfeiting of American Paper Money During the American Revolution,” 174.

[26] Howard Pashman, Building a Revolutionary State: The Legal Transformation of New York, 1776-1783 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018), 88, 89.

[27] Petition of John McKesson for the redemption of Continental money.

[28] “Table 1: Federal Revenue, 1789-1836,” in Gautham Rao, National Duties: Custom Houses and the Making of the American State (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), 2-3; see also Rao, National Duties, 119.

[29] Max Edling, A Hercules in the Cradle: War, Money, and the American State, 1783-1867 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 9.

[30] It should be noted that the wording in the petition suggests that a clerk or lawyer drafted it on McKesson Jr.’s behalf. Even so, McKesson Jr. authorized the petition to be sent and more than all likelihood agreed with the contents of the petition. Whether McKesson Jr. dictated parts of the petition is unknown.