More than a year before the Founding Fathers earned Great Britain’s wrath by offering up the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Rev. Johannes Schuneman and the people of Coxsackie had already created a little discontent of their own.
The Coxsackie Declaration, signed on May 17, 1775 by 225 residents in southern Albany County, was a precursor to the work done in Philadelphia a year later, and while it didn’t go as far as Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues did, it’s a fascinating piece of American history.
In reaction to the events in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April of 1775, which ignited the American Revolution, the Coxsackie Declaration informed King George and the British Parliament that military force wouldn’t be acceptable to New Yorkers. And Schuneman, a Dutch Reformed minister in Coxsackie and Catskill, was one of those quite happy to voice his displeasure.
“He was quite the firebrand, and we suspect that he was preaching revolution from the pulpit,” said Shelby Mattice, curator at the Bronck Museum in Coxsackie, which is hosting its “Association Day” at 12:30 p.m. today, commemorating the 240th anniversary of the document.
WHAT: Commemorating the Coxsackie Declaration of 1775
WHERE: The Bronck Museum, 90 County Route 42, Coxsackie
WHEN: 12:30-4 p.m. today
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 731-6490, www.gchistory.org
“People were quite alarmed by the news from Lexington and Concord, and this was probably the first time that you really got to know the political leanings of your neighbor with regard to the British. We like to think of Domine [minister] Schuneman going from farm to farm, getting people to sign this document.”
Part of collection
The original document still exists and is in the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art. Schuneman’s signature is the first on the list and is followed by 224 others. While Benjamin Franklin’s warning to his colleagues in Philadelphia — “We must hang together, gentlemen . . . else, we shall most assuredly hang separately,” indicated the seriousness of that action, the Coxsackie Declaration wasn’t quite as extreme.
“People were encouraged to sign it to express their discontent and annoyance with the way Britain was treating the colonies,” said Mattice.
“The First Continental Congress had come up with this idea, what they called a ‘plan of association,’ and then here in New York our provincial congress added to it and sent it out to various committees of safety in each county. The people here, and we suspect that Schuneman had a large part in it, then altered it and got more than 220 people to sign it.”
Few communities carried the idea as far as Coxsackie and actually produced a document. It was Worcester, Massachusetts, that came up with the very first “Declaration” in October of 1774, a year before Lexington and Concord, but most of the documents we know about today, such as the Coxsackie agreement, came after the Revolution had started.
In an email interview, historian Ray Raphael, author of “A People’s History of the American Revolution,” said the Coxsackie Declaration is a fascinating piece of American history.
“In denouncing British policy and affirming that local citizens will join with the Continental Congress and NY Provincial Congress in resistance efforts, it is similar to a handful of other documents that responded to Lexington and Concord,” said Raphael, a New York City native and retired educator who now lives in California.
“The Coxsackie Declaration is not a Declaration of Independence. It even addressed the hope for reconciliation. But it is indeed historically significant. It is also important because we have the actual document. Most of the other declarations we know of are reprints from newspapers.”
The Coxsackie Declaration was presented to the AIHA in 1923 — it was then called the Albany Institute and History and Art Society — by its president, John Clarke. It had been found in an old trunk in a home in Rensselaer County, and was quickly authenticated by State Historian Dr. Sullivan and State Archivist Dr. James Wyer.
“It was among some papers in this old trunk that had descended to a Mrs. Thomas Hamm, mounted on vellum, which is a very fine leather that was used for many historic documents back then, like the Magna Carta,” said Doug McCoombs, curator at the AIHA.
Kept in storage
“It’s very sturdy and strong, but the ink that was used, like most ink of the period, was sensitive to light and has faded. It’s still legible, but we keep it in storage, where it is safe and secure. It is generally not on exhibit.”
Mattice suspects that in its earlier days, the document probably spent some time at the Bronck House, home to one of the most prominent families in that area of the Hudson Valley. It was signed by two family members living there during the American Revolution, but the history of the Broncks in the Albany area goes back to 1663.
“Peter Bronck was a fur trader and tavern keeper who settled upriver from New York City at Albany in 1663,” said Mattice. “It’s his family that the Bronx is named after. Like many, his third occupation at the time was farming, and the family became very prosperous.”
Including the family homestead and the Vedder Research Library, there are 11 buildings on the grounds of the Bronck Museum, which is owned and operated by the Greene County Historical Society.
The site is on the National Register of Historic Places, and included in today’s special event will be a re-enactment of the Coxsackie Declaration.
“There may be two or three homes right in New York City or Long Island that are older, but we’re certainly the oldest home in the Hudson Valley and probably anywhere else in the state,” said Mattice.
“It’s a very special and unique place.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]
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