Life, Liberty & the Hudson Valley

The fireworks and cookouts we enjoy on the Fourth of July celebrate the Declaration of Independence. This year, also light a sparkler to honor the courageous signers of the “Coxsackie Declaration of Independence,” drafted 245 years ago, in May of 1775.

A full year before the Continental Congress approved its stirring (and treasonous) manifesto of freedom in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, 275 landowners in Coxsackie (then part of Albany County, now in Greene) signed their own document asserting opposition to the “arbitrary and oppressive acts of the British Parliament.” Their words may lack the patriotic fervor of Thomas Jefferson’s, but they equal it in boldness.

While the Declaration of Independence has been venerated from the get-go, the Coxsackie Declaration languished in obscurity for nearly 150 years, until the faded parchment was discovered in an attic and donated to the Albany Institute of History & Art in 1923.

What Does It Say?

Persuaded that the Salvation of the Rights and Liberties of America, depends, under God, on the firm union of its Inhabitants, in a vigorous prosecution of the Measures necessary for its Safety, and convinced of the Necessity of preventing the Anarchy and confusion which attend the Dissolution of the Powers of Government:

THAT the Freeholders and Inhabitants of Coxsackie District, in the County of Albany, being greatly alarmed at the avowed Design of the Ministry to raise a Revenue in America, are shocked by the bloody Scene acting in the Massachusetts Bay; Do in the most solemn manner, resolve never to become Slaves; and do also associate under the Ties of Religion, Honor and Love of our Country to adopt and endeavor to carry into Execution whatever Measures may be rendered by our Continental Congress, or resolved upon by our Provincial Convention for the purpose of preserving our Constitution and apposing [sic] the Execution of several arbitrary and oppressive Acts of the British Parliament, until a reconciliation between Great Britain and America or constitutional principles (which we most ardently desire) can be obtained; and that we will, in all Things, follow the advice of our general Committee, respecting the purpose aforesaid, the preservation of Peace and good Order, and the Safety of Individuals and private property.

Dated at Coxsackie the Seventeenth of May in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand seven hundred and seventy five. 

The Stirrings of Discontent

American protests against Parliamentary taxation started when the Stamp Act passed in 1765, more than a decade before the landowners of Coxsackie made their statement.

Following the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the “Intolerable Acts” were passed to punish Boston, but had the opposite of the intended effect, bringing the colonies together. The first Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1774, and published lists of grievances and pleas to resolve differences peacefully, but also began to coordinate to defend the colonies against the tyranny of the British government. 

Early in 1775, the House of Lords rejected William Pitt’s proposal to recognize colonial self-government, and Massachusetts was declared to be in rebellion. At the same time, Lord North’s Conciliatory Resolution promised not to tax any colony that contributed to the British view of the common defense and support for civil government (except for minor funding necessary for the regulation of commerce).

Americans saw that as a further attempt to divide the colonies, which brings us to “the bloody scene,” the first true battle of the Revolutionary War.

On April 18, 1775, the Redcoats marched out of Boston to capture the patriot arm and ammunition depot in Concord. Paul Revere and other riders warned that the British were coming. A skirmish on Lexington Green between local minutemen and 700 British troops left eight Americans dead. Continuing to Concord, the British were met with more and more patriot minutemen and militiamen. Forced to retreat to Boston, the Redcoats faced deadly American sniper fire on the way.

A Stepping Stone to Independence

Just one month later, on May 17, 1775, the residents of Coxsackie signed their document, which was more of a protest of discontent than a declaration of independence, says Seth Kaller, a historic document dealer and a leading expert on the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

“The signers of the Coxsackie Declaration were still not ready for independence. Until the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in early 1776, only about a third of Americans wanted to break free from England. What these Hudson Valley residents were ready for was firm resistance, and Congress listened,” explains Kaller

On July 31, 1775, the Continental Congress approved a message drafted by Thomas Jefferson rejecting Lord North’s offer: “A proposition to give our money, accompanied with large fleets and armies, seems addressed to our fears, rather than to our freedom…. can the world be deceived into an opinion that we are unreasonable, or can it hesitate to believe with us, that nothing but our own exertions may defeat the ministerial sentence of death or abject submission.”

“The Coxsackie Declaration is one of the very rare surviving documents that shows the colonies’ inexorable movement towards independence,” Kaller says.

So why not light an extra sparkler for the landowners of Coxsackie this Fourth of July, in honor of their courage to speak up to power?

Coxsackie Declaration (Credit: Albany Institute of History & Art Library)