Alexander McDougall — A Son of Liberty from New York

1732–1786

Alexander McDougall was a prominent leader of the New York Sons of Liberty and served as a General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. McDougall is most famous for his role as a leader of the Patriot Cause in New York City.

Alexander McDougall, Major General, USA, American Revolutionary War

Alexander McDougall. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Alexander McDougall Quick Facts

  • Born — Alexander McDougall is believed to have been born in the summer of 1732 on the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland.
  • Parents — McDougall’s parents were Randald and Elizabeth McDougall.
  • Died — McDougall died on June 9, 1786, in New York City, at the age of 53.
  • Buried — He was interred in the family vault at First Presbyterian Church in New York City.
  • Famous For — McDougall is famous for writing a pamphlet called “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of New York.”
  • Nicknames — He was called “The First Martyr of the American Revolution” and the “Wilkes of America.”

Alexander McDougall, His Early Life and Career

Alexander McDougall was born on the island of Islay, Scotland, in 1732. His parents were Ranald and Elizabeth McDougall. In 1738, the family moved to the Province of New York with a group of Highland Scots and settled on Manhattan Island, where Ranald McDougall worked on a dairy farm.

Around the age of 14, Alexander McDougal went to work as a merchant seaman, working on several ships.

McDougall took part in the French and Indian War as commander of two privateers — the Barrington and the Tiger. Afterward, he settled in New York City and became one of its successful merchants.

His wife, Nancy, died in 1763, leaving him their sons, John Henry and Ronald Stephen, and their daughter, Elizabeth. The boys were sent to the Presbyterian School in Princeton, New Jersey, which eventually became Princeton University.

McDougall married Hannah Bostwick in 1767. By then, he was a successful merchant and owned a ship, The Schuyler, and a tavern.

McDougall and the American Revolution

During the American Revolution (1761–1775), Alexander McDougall played an important role as a leader of the Patriot Cause in New York City. He aligned himself with the Livingston Faction and opposed the DeLancey Faction.

Leader of the New York Sons of Liberty

McDougall opposed “No Taxation Without Representation.” Along with Isaac Sears and John Lamb, was a key leader of the New York Sons of Liberty that opposed the Stamp Act.

John Lamb Speaking to New York Sons of Liberty
This illustration depicts John Lamb speaking out against British taxation. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Opposition to the 1765 Quartering Act

Following the passage of the 1765 Quartering Act, the New York General Assembly refused to provide the funding necessary to house and supply British troops that were stationed in New York City.

In 1769, Governor Cadwallader Colden and the DeLancey Faction devised a scheme to provide the necessary funds. The scheme revolved around offering loans and using the interest from the loans to provide 1,800 pounds for the troops, and the bill was approved by the New York Assembly on December 15, 1769.

McDougall Publishes “To the Betrayed Inhabitants”

The next day, a pamphlet was printed called “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York.” It criticized the Assembly for providing money for the troops, and said doing so acknowledged the authority of Parliament to levy taxes on the colonies:

“Our granting money to the troops, is implicitly acknowledging the authority that enacted the revenue acts, and their being obligatory on us, as these acts were enacted for the express purpose of taking money out of our pockets without our consent; and to provide for the defending and support of government in America; which revenue we say by our grant of money, is not sufficient for the purpose aforesaid; therefore we supply the deficiency.”

The author of the pamphlet — who was anonymous — insisted the troops were not in New York  “to protect” the people but to “enslave” them. The troops responded with a handbill that attacked the Sons of Liberty and called them the “real enemies.” It also called their intentions as Patriots into question by saying they “depended on a piece of wood” as the source of their freedom. 

The Battle of Golden Hill — January 1780

When Isaac Sears and another member of the Sons of Liberty, Walter Quackenbos, apprehended some of the troops who were off-duty and posting the handbill around town, a riot broke out. The hostilities between the British troops and the Sons of Liberty lasted for two days. The Battle of Golden Hill (January 19–20, 1770) is often cited as the “first bloodshed of the American Revolution,” because it happened before the Boston Massacre (March 16, 1770).

Battle of Golden Hill, Painting, Lefferts
This painting depicts the Battle of Golden Hill. Image Source: New-York Historical Society Museum & Library.

McDougall Arrested

McDougall was eventually accused of being the author of the pamphlet and was arrested on February 8. He refused to post bond and remained in jail for about 23 weeks before being released. For this, he is sometimes referred to as the “First Martyr of the American Revolution” (see Perspectives below).

He was also referred to as the “Wilkes of America,” a reference to John Wilkes, a British politician imprisoned for publishing articles criticizing the government.

By the second half of April, McDougall’s case went to the New York Supreme Court, where his bond was set at 1,000 pounds. This time, he paid his bail and was released. The case was eventually dismissed when his accuser died.

However, the DeLancey Faction continued to persecute McDougall and had him arrested for a second time. He spent another 16 weeks in jail, but it only made him more popular in the city. He was released in March 1771 when John Murray, Lord Dunmore, became Governor of New York.

John Murray, Earl of Dunmore
John Murray, Lord Dunmore. Image Source: Wikipedia.

McDougall Leads the New York Tea Party

After the passage of the 1773 Tea Act, ships carrying British East India Company tea from Great Britain sailed for the colonies. In October, McDougall and the Sons of Liberty held a meeting and agreed the tea headed to New York would be rejected and sent back to Britain.

While two ships — the Nancy and the London — sailed to New York, the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) took place, which was followed by similar events in other port cities.

Boston Tea Party, Engraving
This illustration depicts the Boston Tea Party. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

After the ships arrived in New York, the captain of the Nancy agreed to leave, but the London remained. McDougall organized a group that dressed like Native American Indians, boarded the London, and dumped the tea into the East Harbor in April 1774. After the tea was dumped into the harbor, the tea chests — 18 of them — were publicly burned in the streets.

The New York Committee of Fifty-One

Following the passage of the Boston Port Act, McDougall was involved with the New York Committee of Correspondence which organized support for the city of Boston. On May 23, 1774, the New York Committee of Fifty-One sent a letter to the Boston Committee of Correspondence that suggested:

“…a congress of deputies from the colonies in general is of the utmost moment; that it ought to be assembled without delay, and some unanimous resolution formed in this fatal emergency, not only respecting your deplorable circumstances, but for the security of our common rights. Such being our sentiments, it -must be premature to pronounce any judgment on the expedient which you have suggested. We beg, however, that you will do us the justice to believe that we shall continue to act with a firm and becoming regard to American freedom, and to co-operate with our sister colonies in every measure which shall be thought salutary and conducive to the public good.”

This congress was, of course, the First Continental Congress, which was agreed upon by the colonies to be held in Philadelphia in September 1774.

The Meeting in the Fields (July 6, 1774)

On July 6, 1774, McDougall presided over the famous “Meeting in the Fields,” where the citizens of New York elected delegates to represent them at the First Continental Congress and a set of resolutions in protest of the Intolerable Acts were agreed upon (see Perspectives below).

McDougall in the American Revolutionary War

McDougall rose to the rank of Major General in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). He was more successful as a politician than a military leader. Because of his political skills, his fellow officers sent him to Congress to lobby on their behalf. McDougall suffered from illness many times during the war, which kept him from participating in major battles like Trenton, Princeton, and Yorktown, where British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered.

McDougall in Command of the 1st New York Regiment

After the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress ordered New York to raise 3,000 men for the Continental Army. New York raised four regiments, and McDougal was a Colonel and commander of the 1st New York Regiment. 

Later in 1775, McDougall’s regiment was sent to Fort Ticonderoga to participate in the Canada Campaign. While two of McDougall’s sons went with the regiment, he stayed in New York City to work on raising money and more troops for the war effort. 

Defenses of New York

Following the American defeat at the Battle of Quebec (December 31, 1776) and the British evacuation of Boston (March 17, 1776), General Washington and Congress were certain the British would attempt to capture New York City. McDougall was one of the men tasked with helping General Charles Lee in preparing the city for a siege while Washington and the Continental Army traveled from Boston to New York.

General Charles Lee, Illustration
General Charles Lee. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

McDougall at the Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776)

By August, Washington’s army was in place and British forces landed on Staten Island. On August 27, the British crossed over to Long Island and attacked. It was the first battle that took place after the Declaration of Independence, and the British forced the Americans to retreat to Brooklyn Heights. 

At Long Island, McDougal, who had been promoted to Brigadier General (August 9), was kept in reserve and did not see action. After the battle, McDougal played an important role in coordinating the miraculous escape of the Continental Army from Long Island to Manhattan Island. McDougall called each of the army’s units down to the shore where they boarded boats helmed by John Glover and the Marblehead Men. From there, the units were ferried to safety, under the cover of darkness and thick fog. McDougall, along with Washington, was one of the last Americans to leave Long Island.

Soon after, William Smallwood and his Maryland troops were added to McDougall’s command. For the next two months, the British, led by General William Howe, took control of New York City and pushed Washington north to White Plains. McDougall and his men moved with the division of the army under the command of General Lee.

McDougall at the Battle of White Plains (October 28, 1776)

At the Battle of White Plains (October 28, 1776), McDougall and his men fought British forces, including Hessian mercenaries, at Chatterton’s Hill and successfully held their ground. Eventually, militia forces along the right of the American Line were routed, which forced McDougall to order his men to retreat.

After White Plains, Washington divided the army, and Lee and his command were left in New York to defend the Hudson Highlands. Meanwhile, Washington retreated through New Jersey. After capturing Fort Washington and Fort Lee, British forces, led by General Charles Cornwallis, followed Washington into New Jersey.

McDougall with General Charles Lee

With Cornwallis at his heels, Washington wrote to Lee several times and asked him to join him in Pennsylvania. Lee was critical of Washington and moved slowly to join him (see Washington’s Retreat Through New Jersey). In December, Lee was at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and took lodging at an inn, nearly two miles from where his army was camped. On December 13, a contingent of British Dragoons, including Banastre Tarleton, ambushed Lee and took him prisoner (see Bloody Ban Captures the Treacherous Charles Lee at Basking Ridge).

General John Sullivan inherited the command from Lee and proceeded to march to join Washington. Along the way, McDougall became sick and was forced to stay behind in Haverstraw. Sullivan eventually joined Washington in Pennsylvania, which gave Washington enough men to plan the sneak attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. While Washington and the Continental Army claimed miraculous victories at Trenton (December 26, 1776) and Princeton (January 3, 1777), McDougall was bedridden.

Peekskill Raid (March 23, 1777)

When McDougall regained his health, Washington sent him to the Hudson Highlands to oversee military stores. British forces attacked in March and burned buildings and supplies. However, American reinforcements arrived and they were able to push the British back to their boats. The incident likely led to McDougal being replaced by Major General Israel Putnam. However, McDougal remained at the Hudson Highlands and helped build Fort Montgomery and Fort Clinton.

Israel Putnam, General
Israel Putnam. Image Source: Library of Congress.

McDougall at the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777)

Afterward, Washington ordered McDougall and his brigade to meet him in Pennsylvania, and he joined him at Pennypacker’s Mill on September 27. On October 4, Washington attacked the British at Germantown. McDougall’s brigade was at the front of General Nathanael Green’s wing. McDougall and General John Peter Muhlenberg marched their men through thick fog into Germantown where they attacked British forces. McDougall and Muhlenberg were forced to fall back, and then McDougall covered Greene’s retreat.

After the Battle of Germantown, McDougall participated in investigations into the conduct of General Anthony Wayne, General John Sullivan, and General Adam Stephen. Wayne and Sullivan were acquitted, but Stephen was removed from command.

On October 20, 1777, Congress promoted McDougall to Major General, at Washington’s recommendation and he commanded the brigades led by James Varnum and Jedediah Huntington.

McDougall at the Battle of Red Bank (October 27, 1777)

A week later, McDougall’s division fought at the Battle of Red Bank (October 27, 1777) and failed to keep the British from capturing Fort Mercer. Soon after, McDougall fell ill again and was bedridden in Morristown, New Jersey.

Defending West Point

In 1778, Washington sent him back to the Hudson Highlands, where he was in charge of investigating General Putnam for the loss of Forts Clinton and Montgomery. Putnam remained in the army, but McDougall replaced him temporarily as commander in the Hudson Highlands.

In July, General Horatio Gates took command and McDougall led his men to Connecticut to follow the movements of British troops. In late November, McDougall returned to the Highlands and regained the command.

McDougall worked to improve the defenses of the region and focused on protecting West Point. McDougall added fortifications and artillery and stretched a chain across the Hudson River to keep British ships from sailing past. McDougall remained in command of West Point for the majority of the rest of the war.

The Treason of Benedict Arnold

In June 1780, British forces led by General Wilhelm von Knyphausen carried out raids in New Jersey, Soon after, General Henry Clinton returned to New York City, having successfully won the Siege of Charleston. In response, McDougall was sent to help General Robert Howe keep the British from advancing north. 

Once the threat subsided in New Jersey, McDougall was sent to Philadelphia to request financial support from Congress, which was unsuccessful. While he was in Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold was placed in command of West Point. By then, Arnold had already been conspiring with the British to turn the fort over to them.

When McDougall returned to the Highlands, it was around the same time that Major John André was captured by the New York Militia. The event exposed Arnold’s Treason and led to André’s execution as a spy (see Alexander Hamilton’s Account of the John André Spy Affair).

John Andre, Illustration
Major John André was executed for spying, in connection with the Treason of Benedict Arnold. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

McDougall took command of West Point after Arnold’s defection and then turned it over to General Arthur St. Clair.

Elected to the Continental Congress

Soon after, New York elected McDougall as a representative to Congress. He returned to Philadelphia but only served for a little more than a month. The other members of Congress did not like that he campaigned for support of the army, so he was offered the post of Ministry of Marine, which he accepted.

Feud with William Heath

By the end of May 1781, McDougall was in the Highlands once again, where he became embroiled in a feud with General William Heath, who was in command of the Highlands. Heath accused McDougall of insubordination, which eventually led Washington to remove McDougall from his command at West Point, even though he was acquitted of most of the charges and reprimanded.

Because of poor health, he was not at Yorktown when Cornwallis surrendered. By this time, McDougall’s finances were suffering and his reputation was damaged. Not only did he have his dispute with General Heath, but he also had issues with General William Alexander and General Henry Knox.

Henry Knox, Secretary of War, Portrait
Henry Knox. Image Source: MFA Boston.

By August 1782, the fighting between American and British forces was drawing to an end. Many officers in the Continental Army had grievances with Congress over their lack of pay and treatment, so they formed a commission and sent it to Philadephia. The commissioners were McDougall, Colonel John Brooks of Massachusetts, and Colonel Matthias Ogden of New Jersey.

The Newburgh Conspiracy

In March 1783, while McDougall was in Philadelphia, Congress received a letter from Washington, informing them that a conspiracy was underway to undermine their authority. Congress relented and offered terms of payment that were acceptable. However, the so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy” was ended by Washington, who appealed to his officers, leaving many of them in tears. According to Major Samuel Shaw, “There was something so natural, so unaffected in this appeal as rendered it superior to the most studied oratory. It forced its way to the heart, and you might see sensibility moisten every eye.”

Society of the Cincinnati

Soon after, in May, McDougall helped found the Society of the Cincinnati with Henry Knox and served as the first president of the New York Chapter.

British Forces Evacuate New York City

In November 1783, McDougall joined Washington in marching into New York City after British forces led by General Guy Carleton finally left.

Later Years and Death

McDougall was elected to the state senate and returned to the Continental Congress. He died on June 8, 1786, at his home in New York. He was 53 years old.

Interesting Facts About Alexander McDougall

  • Alexander McDougall was born at Portintruin, just outside of Port Ellen, on the Isle of Islay.
  • The family emigrated to America with a group of around 470 Highland Scots, led by  Captain Lachlan Campbell.
  • He had a reputation for being rough and vulgar and was referred to as “Captain McDougall.”
  • He oversaw the construction of the fort at West Point.
  • As Secretary of the Marine Department, McDougall appointed John Paul Jones as the head of the first United States Navy.
  • He was the first president of the Bank of New York, which eventually became the first company registered on the New York Stock Exchange. McDougall was nominated for the position by Alexander Hamilton.
  • As a member of the New York Senate, McDougall gained a reputation as an advocate for the “Separation of Church and State.”
  • After he died, George Washington remembered McDougall as a “pillar of the revolution.”

Alexander McDougall — Historical Perspectives

The following are anecdotes about Alexander McDougall that provide additional insight into important events he was involved with during the American Revolution.

Alexander McDougall, Martyr of the Common Man

This account of Alexander McDougall’s imprisonment during the controversy over the Quartering Act is adapted from History of New York City (1884) by historian Benson J. Lossing.

In December 1769, a handbill signed “A Son of Liberty” was posted throughout the city calling a meeting of “the betrayed inhabitants” in the Fields. It denounced the money scheme and the assembly and pointed to the coalition as an omen of danger to the State. The call was heeded, and the next day a large concourse of citizens assembled around the Liberty Pole, where they were harangued by John Lamb, one of the most ardent patriots of New York. By unanimous vote, the proceedings of the assembly were disapproved.

A committee presented the proceedings of the meeting to the assembly and were courteously received. Another handbill from the same hand, signed “Legion,” appeared the next day, in which the action of the assembly was denounced as “base and inglorious,” and charged that body with a betrayal of their trust. 

This second attack was pronounced a libel by the assembly, only the stanch patriot Philip Schuyler voting No. They offered a reward for the discovery of the writer. The printer of the handbills, menaced with punishment, told them it was Alexander McDougall, a seaman, who was afterward a conspicuous officer in the Continental Army. He was arrested, and refusing to plead or give bail, was imprisoned many weeks before he was brought to trial. Regarded as a martyr to the cause of liberty, his prison was to trial. Regarded as a martyr to the cause of liberty, his prison was the scene of daily public receptions. Some of the most reputable of the citizens sympathizing with him frequently visited him. Being a sailor, he was regarded as the true type of “imprisoned commerce.” 

On the anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, his health was drunk with honors at a banquet, and the meeting in procession visited him in his prison. Ladies of distinction daily thronged there. Popular songs were written, and sung under his prison bars, and emblematic swords were worn. His words when ordered to prison were, “I rejoice that I am the first to suffer for liberty since the commencement of our glorious struggle.” 

He was finally released on bail, and the matter was wisely dropped by the prosecutors. McDougall was a true type of what is generally known as the “common people” — the great mass of citizens who carry on the chief industries of a country — its agriculture, commerce, manufactures, and arts — and create its wealth.

Alexander McDougall, the Leader of the Patriot Faction and the “Great Meeting in the Fields”

This account of Alexander McDougall and the 1774 Great Meeting in the Fields is adapted from History of New York State (1900) by William Reed Prentice.

On May 16, 1774, a meeting of citizens was called to decide on some plan of concerted action. This meeting appointed the Committee of Fifty-One to correspond with the other colonies to secure united action among them.

The Committee of 51 appointed a subcommittee of four men:

  1. Alexander McDougall
  2. Isaac Low
  3. James Duane
  4. John Jay

This committee recommended a general congress of deputies from all the colonies and wrote to Boston asking the patriots there to name the time and place for the congress. This action was too slow for the Sons of Liberty, and they issued a call for a general meeting in The Fields on July 6.

This gathering was a momentous one in the history of the country; an immense concourse responded to the call. They were addressed by a stripling whom few knew, but of whom the whole country was, later, to hear much. This was Alexander Hamilton, who was only 17 years old and a student at King’s College.

His speech, an earnest of his future career, fired the hearts of the people. They passed resolutions condemning the Boston Port Bill and took measures to raise funds for the benefit of the people of Boston, who were suffering.

They approved the action of the Committee of 51 but insisted that the Non-Intercourse Agreement should be enforced until all duties were removed.

The plan for a general congress having been agreed upon, the Committee of Fifty-One made its nominations: Philip Livingston, John Alsop, Isaac Low, James Duane, and John Jay.

Again appeared the three parties, and the election of this delegation was a test of their strength. The delegates nominated represented the sober, conservative element of New York. The leader of this party was John Jay, a Huguenot, destined thereafter to be distinguished as the first chief justice of our State and of the United States. The leader of the radical wing was Alexander McDougall.

These two parties sought the same end but by different means. The radicals approved of a delegation to Congress but tried to substitute men of their own party in its membership, while the efforts of the Loyalists were turned in the direction of an attempt to defeat the election. 

The delegates were, however, elected by a majority and were soon on their way to Philadelphia, where the congress was to meet. When they took their departure they were escorted to the water’s edge by a large delegation of citizens who bade them “Godspeed.”

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Alexander McDougall — A Son of Liberty from New York
  • Date 1732–1786
  • Author
  • Keywords Alexander McDougall, Sons of Liberty, First Martyr of the American Revolution, Wilkes of America, Quartering Act, Battle of the Liberty Poles, Battle of Golden Hill, New York Committee of 51, Meeting in the Fields, Battle of Long Island, Battle of White Plains, Battle of Germantown, Newburgh Conspiracy
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 13, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 3, 2024

Taxonomies