They were men on the run. They knew that if they were captured they’d be hung. But the dream of an independent American republic, articulated only the year before in the Declaration of Independence, was as strong as it was compelling.
In the wake of the declaration, the 13 American colonies were without a single government institution. When New York’s rebellious leaders gathered to draft the state’s first constitution, they gathered first in New York City. But the British presence there was strong; New York was becoming the Revolution’s major theater of war.
And so the delegates charged with creating a new state constitution fled to the north, up the verdant Hudson River Valley, first to White Plains, then west to Fishkill and finally, in February, 1777, north to the city of Kingston. There, the rebels began the hard work of drafting a new state constitution and by doing so, building a new country.
Their deliberations spanned vast historical and philosophical realms. But their footsteps took them from a courthouse to a tavern to private homes that were each within five minutes’ walk of the other. The streets they walked and some of the buildings they frequented are still easy to visit.
Two months after the rebels’ arrival in Kingston, on April 20, 1777, the New York State Constitution was ratified in what is now known as the Senate House, on Clinton Street. Three months later, on July 30, George Clinton was sworn in as the first governor of New York State in what is now the Ulster County Courthouse on Wall Street.
The state’s new governing body met for only a month that fall, establishing rules of governance and raising money for the militia. Members of the new government were keenly aware of the northward advance of British forces. On Oct. 6, the news spread that forts Clinton and Montgomery on the Hudson had fallen to the British. Ten days later, the British landed at Kingston; the new government fled further north to what has since become the state capital of Albany.
While the government survived, Kingston suffered a near-fatal blow. British forces under the command of General John Vaughan burned more than 254 homes, barns and public buildings. Vaughan later justified the deed by describing Kingston as “a Nursery for almost every Villain in the country.”
Most of the city’s residents, given ample warning of the attack, escaped with their lives. So too did the “villains” who took the state’s new democratic form of government north to Albany, where it survives to this day.