Nearly 283 years ago, a wealthy landowner and a county clerk squared off on the village green at Saint Paul’s Church in an election that drew one of the largest gatherings for a political event in colonial America, and paved the way for religious freedom in this country due to the involvement of a group of strong-headed Quakers.
It was Monday, October 29, 1733, and the colony of New York was embroiled in a volatile political battle between the high-handed Royal Governor William Cosby and a group of prominent gentlemen headed by former Chief Justice and wealthy landowner Lewis Morris. Morris was running in a special election for Westchester’s countywide seat in the colonial assembly. His opponent was the Governor’s preferred candidate, County Clerk William Forester.
The colonial electorate was small enough—usually only adult white males who owned sufficient property—that eligible voters could gather at a central location and vote publicly. Located at the crossroads of several thoroughfares, the Saint Paul’s green was a major intersection of Westchester County. This election, conducted in the heated political climate of the day, drew the unprecedented turnout of more than 420 people. Supporters of both men came from across Westchester (which then included the Bronx) on horse and on foot, a fanfare of trumpets and violins announced their arrivals.
The better-organized Morris party commanded the numerical superiority, but their core support included many Quakers, easily identified by their plain dress. Since this was an important test of strength, the sheriff conducting the election, Nicholas Cooper, planned to use whatever means necessary to help the governor’s candidate win the canvass. He implemented an occasionally used technique of requiring voters to swear on the Bible that they met the property qualification for suffrage, fully aware that Quaker religious belief prohibited such a procedure. As a result, Cooper was able, through the thin veil of legitimacy, to order 38 Quakers disenfranchised for the actual vote. That chicanery helped Forester, but Morris still won the count, rather easily: 231 to 151.
For perhaps the first time in American history, a lengthy account of the election was published in a newspaper. The political theatre that was the election of 1733 appeared in the inaugural issue of the New York Weekly Journal, an opposition paper created by the Morris party as part of their campaign to tackle Governor Cosby. It included coverage of this disenfranchisement of the Quakers. With the article as documentation of the discrimination and blatant violation of freedom of conscience, Quaker supporters petitioned the colonial authorities for redress. In 1734 the New York legislature granted the Quakers the right to affirm (rather than swear) an oath when necessary for participation in the political life of the colony. This legislation was a milestone in the development of religious freedom in early America.
Today, Saint Paul’s Church is a historic site recognized by the U.S. National Park Service and is located in what is currently known as the city of Mount Vernon, N.Y. The area was originally established as the village of Eastchester in the mid 1660s. The church on these grounds was constructed between 1763 and 1787, and was used as a Revolutionary War hospital. There is also a cemetery with burial stones dating back to 1704 and the remnant of the village green that was the site of the election of 1733. Through preserving these important aspects in history, Saint Paul’s Church helps to tell the story of the development of colonial society and the road to the American Revolution. Visitors are able to tour both the church and the cemetery.
In February 2015, an exhibition opened at Saint Paul’s Church called “Intrigue on the Village Green: The Election of 1733 at Saint Paul’s Church.” The exhibition incorporates historic documents, prints, artifacts, photographs, artwork, sound, model, and text to tell the story of this great election. One of the central topics covered in the display is the dramatic refusal by 38 Quakers to take a required biblical oath attesting to the property qualification.
A matter of religious conviction and personal integrity, this refusal had deep roots in Quaker history dating back to England in the 1600s. In the 1690s, Quakers in England had achieved the right to affirm, rather than be required to swear, when necessary on public occasions. But that exception did not necessarily transfer to the colonies. At the election of October 29, 1733, the insistence that the Quakers take the biblical oath was largely political. The exhibition will be on display for another year, through January 2017.