With a new mayoral race on the horizon in New York City we think its time that you Know Your Mayors! Become familiar with other men who’ve held the job, from the ultra-powerful to the political puppets, the most effective to the most useless leaders in New York City history.
This longtime feature of this website is being rebooted with new articles and newly researched and refreshed earlier entries in this series. Check back each week for a new installment.
The First Post-War Mayor
New York officially had 44 men prior to James Duane filling the seat of city mayor in 1784. So why do I consider Duane New York City’s official first mayor?
Although America declared its independence from England in 1776, England did not declare its independence from New York City until 1783, when they were driven out at the end of the Revolutionary War.
British appointed mayor David Mathews governed Manhattan throughout the entire war until he and other Loyalists fled to Canada in the conflict’s waning days. Which is probably a good thing since he was implicated in a specific attempt to kidnap and murder the commander of the Continental Army George Washington.
Duane is the first American New York mayor, the first to lead the city newly broken from its colonial shackles.
However, it should be noted that he is not New York’s first elected mayor. Like the many mayors of the Colonial era before him — and the many men who would hold this office well into the 19th century — James Duane was appointed to the job.
James Duane, born in New York in 1733, was destined for great things, a respected attorney and statesman who would become what we might call a minor Founding Father.
Orphaned as a teen, young Duane became the charge of Robert Livingston, a prominent lawyer in a socially important New York family. Naturally he pursued a career in law as well, his natural skills bolstered by his social privilege.
In 1759 Duane married Robert’s daughter Mary Livingston and would grow up alongside Robert Jr. who would go on to draft the Declaration of Independence. Through tenacity, family wealth and de facto family influence through the Livingstons, Duane became New York state attorney general at age 34.
Duane was also part of New York’s delegation to the First Congressional Congress in 1774, alongside John Jay and another Livingston, Philip, who would eventually sign the Declaration of Independence. (Duane, alas, was serving in New York’s Provincial Congress in the summer of 1776 or else he too would have John Hancock’d the founding document.)
Duane had originally agreed with general notions of appeasement with the British, not favoring a separation from England.
In fact author Edward P. Alexander calls him a ‘moderate rebel‘. “Duane strove with common sense and moderation to cling to the golden mean which would protect gentlemen of his station from both British taxation and domestic social upheaval.”
In other words he was for the cause of American liberty but not all that rabblerousing.
Regardless, he would be a member of Second Continental Congress all the way through the end of the war and on behalf of New York would even be a signer of the Articles of Confederation, precursor to the Constitution.
During the British occupation of New York, Duane lived at Livingston Manor, a vast estate which today includes modern-day Livingston, New York.
Its Loyalists freshly evacuated, the city needed a new leader.
In 1784 Duane was appointed Mayor of New York by a slate of state officials called the Council of Appointment, led by Governor George Clinton.
This council didn’t just select the city’s mayors; it selected every office in the state. It would be decades before mayors were actually elected into office by the people.
Duane moved his family to a family estate right outside the city — a farm that would become Gramercy Park thirty years after his death.
According to A Godchild of Washington by Katherine Schuyler Baxter (written in 1897):
“In a letter of James Duane to his wife, after the Revolution, he alludes to this farm and the beautiful grounds with the fish pond and fountains. The house having been occupied by British officers during the War the letter says ‘you will find the cellars in most excellent condition and the wine bins in good repair, the house has suffered but little.’“
The new mayor oversaw a massive shift in Manhattan’s well-being; while the evacuation of the British and their sympathizers left a serious economic vacuum, the city also took its first steps win defining its urban character.
For Duane’s entire tenure, New York would be the new country’s seat of federal government — first as home of the Confederation Congress, then as the location of the new government under the U.S. Constitution.
In fact Duane’s legacy as mayor would be largely overshadowed as the foundations of the United States were built around him.
City Hall would become Federal Hall in these years and the overcrowded government building — over 75 years old already by the time Duane took office — was hastily enlarged in 1788 to accommodate these extra politicians.
Meanwhile in the spring of that year, Duane intervened in one chilling incident involving grave robbers and medical students at New York Hospital, an incident today known as the Doctor’s Riot.
An angry mob, enraged that the local cemetery had been pillaged for cadavers, stormed the hospital and, eventually, Columbia College. Several officials, including Duane, urged restraint. When the mob attacked the officials — injuring John Jay in the process — Duane took action.
According to Gotham by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, “Duane summoned a troop of militia to disperse the crowd and was met with another shower of missiles. Baron von Steuben, also struck in the head and bleeding profusely, shouted, ‘Fire, Duane! Fire!’ Duane, or perhaps [Governor] Clinton, gave the order. The first volley killed three rioters outright and wounded many others. Before a second could be fired, the crowd had scattered.“
While Duane threw himself into the job — he was praised by his critics for his charity and “good judgement” — his power was limited. Governor Clinton and his Common Council (an early version of City Council) controlled his salary and could veto his decisions on a whim.
In 1785 he was also a founding member of the New-York Manumission Society, an abolition organization headed by John Jay that eventually included Alexander Hamilton and Governor Clinton.
This despite the fact that Duane would own at least one enslaved person after this date:
“His 1790 census record, in New York City, shows his family consisting of 2 Free White Males aged 16 and older, 2 FWM under 16, 6 Free White Females, and 1 slave.” [wiki]
(Most of the members were slaveholders including Jay and Clinton. In 1799, Jay, as governor of New York, would sign the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery into law.)
By the end of administration in 1789, Duane was governing over a city of 25,000 citizens. After the wounds of war, New York was at last recovering.
After Duane’s five one-year terms, the mayor’s seat went to another attorney with even greater ties to the Revolutionary War — Richard Varick.
Duane’s next appointment was more prestigious — one of the nation’s first federal judges on US Circuit Court in New York, nominated for the position by President George Washington himself. (It helped to rub elbows with the new president in the cramped quarters of Federal Hall.)
Duane died on February 1, 1797, on an inherited land grant in upstate New York that he had developed into a township and where he spent his final years. Its name, appropriately, is Duanesburg.
Most New Yorkers are familiar with James Duane today — not for his accomplishments but for the street named after him. Duane Street runs through lower Manhattan today just a couple blocks north of today’s City Hall.
The drug store Duane Reade takes its name from Duane Street.
This article is based on an original post from December 2007.