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“A Revolutionary Masquerade: The Chronicles of James Rivington”

By Kara Pierce

London, England 1760— James Rivington, a young journalist, gave up his dull job as a bookseller, boarded a ship, and sailed to a new country in order to begin a new life. [1] That same year he established a bookstore in Philadelphia, only to pick up and move to New York in 1761 where he would build his own printing press. [2] Though his life in England may have been ordinary, this journalist would soon become one of the most controversial printers of the American Revolution. Although he was not known as a literary man, his newspaper would eventually become the talk of the city from the average person on the street, to General George Washington himself. [3]

Printers and journalists played a key role during the revolutionary period in America. Printers not only published advertisements and announcements, but also discussed the important events and highly debated topics of the times. However, the American Revolution would create a political situation where printers could no longer publish all the events in an unbiased manner. James Rivington, for instance, used his newspaper, Rivington's New-Yorkgazetteer; orTheConnecticut, New-Jersey, Hudson's-River, and Quebecweeklyadvertiser, and presses to cater to the Loyalists and their beliefs. By leading the life of a true Loyalist and printing one of the most infamous Loyalist newspapers during the American Revolution, James Rivington was able to secretly live a separate life as a Patriot spy for General George Washington. However, Rivington’s life illustrates a much more significant picture than a simple story of espionage. James Rivington’s life is a representative, but unique, case of the crucial problem of allegiance during the politically unstable revolutionary period.

In order to fully understand how and why this English-born journalist would eventually join many others in the common act of espionage during the war for Independence, several key issues need to be examined. Rivington's New-Yorkgazetteer… began circulation in 1773. Rivington’s original publications were aimed at all readers regardless of their political tendencies. The goal of this newspaper was to present non-biased information to Loyalists and Whigs alike. [4] However, as the war loomed closer, Rivington’s paper gradually began to favor the Loyalists and their causes. To understand the life of James Rivington key issues such as the precedents of printing in the colonies (which would later raise questions about his paper); the development of the Rivington’s Gazette over time; the development of the strong disdain for Rivington and his vile paper; the actions brought against him; and most importantly, his duplicity must be examined.

The Precedent: The Zenger Trial and its Effect on Publishing

The Zenger Trial of 1735 is not directly related to the American Revolution, or for that matter, James Rivington. However, the ruling in this case and the opinion of the jury helps to set the scene and provide a context for the future tribulations of Rivington. The Zenger trial addresses the legality and the concepts of libel and sedition in the New York colony.

John Peter Zenger was charged with seditious libel for publishing comments in a newspaper that were critical and unfavorable about the governor of the colony, William Cosby. [5] Zenger’s attorney argued that Zenger could not be charged with libel because all of what he printed was the truth. However, under the existing libel law, the truth of a statement was no defense; in fact, the more truthful the statement, the greater the libel. [6] The jury, whose only role traditionally was to determine whether the comments were actually made, strayed from these traditional laws, and defied the explicit order of the judge. [7] The jury acquitted Zenger because they believed that the truthfulness of a statement should be a valid defense against a charge of libel. Whether the public agreed or disagreed with a persons view was immaterial. The key to this ruling, however, is that the jury agreed with Zenger and his published comments, while the judge ruled that he was indeed guilty of libel as current laws established. [8] The jury, along with Zenger did not like the way Governor Cosby had been running the colony of New York. In effect, the ruling of the Zenger trial was clearly a political ruling. Would the jury have agreed with Zenger if they had been admirers of Governor Cosby? Would they have been so quick to disregard the law if they had been offended by what Zenger published? The jury ruled that the validity of remarks was a defense for libel, but there is no way of determining what is true and what is not. The political party that is in power at the time the crime is committed limits this defense to libel. These are important questions and concepts to keep in mind as the case of James Rivington and his controversial newspaper is examined.

The Paper: Rivington’s Gazette and its Changing Purpose

Rivington's New-York gazetteer; or The Connecticut, New-Jersey, Hudson's-River, and Quebecweeklyadvertiser was the first paper created by James Rivington when he left his bookstore in Philadelphia and came to New York. From his small press at the foot of Wall Street, he created a neutral paper that was widely read by many. [9] So many citizens were attracted to Mr. Rivington’s newspaper based on its claim of neutrality and non-biased expressions. [10] In fact, on May 5, 1774, Rivington published the first issue of Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer with the heading that read “Open and Uninfluenced”. [11]

As the years passed and the war drew closer, Rivington slowly began to change the tone of his paper. Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Patriot newspaper The Massachusetts Spy, who originally stated that, “Rivington, for some time, conducted his Gazetteer with such moderation and impartiality as did him honor” began to perceive a new found partiality. [12] But, it was not Rivington alone who began to express his Loyalist beliefs. As the beginning of the Revolution drew near, the political climate in New York had drastically changed. At this time, citizens began to take their political positions as either Loyalists or Patriots. However, average citizens could get away with quietly abstaining from the political realm, and not declaring which side they favored. Rivington, being a printer, could not just ignore the political turmoil developing around him. He could not continue to publish his previously unbiased newspaper. It was clear to more people than Thomas, that Rivington had chosen to favor the Loyalist cause as his paper began being released under the new title, The Loyal Gazette,and after receiving a sanction from King George III, he ultimately changed the title of the paper to The Royal Gazette. He made it no secret that he was loyal to the king; on every front page one could read his title as “Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty”. [13] However, it is not surprising that Rivington chose to be Loyal, since survival in the now British occupied city would not be an easy task. So, with his newly declared political views, he began to print his controversial paper.

The material that Rivington began to print in his now Loyalist paper was no longer the simple advertisements and editorials that he originally printed in his “unbiased” gazetteer. For instance, in the edition of the Gazetteer released on August 11, 1774, there were several unflattering remarks printed about the Patriot journal printer John Holt and his publication, The New-York Journal:

“…when it is obvious to the meanest capacity, that a News-paper is wholly employed in prosecuting party designs, tending to inflame the minds of the people against government, and by means thereof to introduce anarchy and confusion; the printer of such a paper, justly renders himself abhorrent to all good men, and may well be considered a pest to society.” [14]

Rivington even printed that Holt’s paper was, “…a receptacle for every inflammatory piece that is published throughout the continent.” [15]

The next day, Rivington received a rather cordial letter from Holt himself. Holt implored, as a fellow printer, that Rivington disclose the name of the author of the remarks. [16] Holt also expressed his disapproval of Rivington’s actions, “…Mean while I would just hint to you—that I do not think your publishing such an abusive Piece of Scurrility against me, is justified either by the Nature of the Printing Business, or any Part of my Conduct towards you—on the Contrary, I have refused to publish several Things merely because they contained Reflections upon you, tho’ much less exceptionable than these…” [17] However, Holt may have made himself out to look far more innocent than he actually was. Holt was the printer of one of the most popular, widely read patriot newspapers. So it is with no surprise that these two men would take to their presses to insult one another. Ashbel Green recalled from his youth that these two men would incessantly hurl insults at one another and make statements in their respective papers against the other, whether the statements were true or not. [18] But, the scope of individuals Rivington infuriated was not limited to fellow printers.

Major-General Charles Lee could only describe Rivington’s paper using one word, “insulting.” [19] Lee was never personally attacked in Rivington’s paper; however, being a leader in the patriot cause, Lee had a problem with Rivington’s overall message and ideals. Lee proposes in a letter written to Benjamin Rush, “…that the miscreant Rivington is suffer’d to heap insult upon insult on the Congress with impunity.” [20] Lee even stresses that Rivington, “…has now advertis’d tea to be sold—for God’s sake…” [21] After the Boston Tea Party, for Patriots, selling, consuming, or purchasing tea was out of the question for member of the Patriot cause. But, Rivington was already a clearly established Loyalist. Lee’s statement indicates that he had no concern for Rivington’s Loyalist beliefs or political freedom.

Although Major-General Lee spoke of Rivington being a fearless printer who would print without regard, Rivington would eventually pay for his partisan publications. In a broadside released to the public on November 16,1774, a letter from ten citizens of Baltimore, Maryland, that was sent to Rivington on November 5, 1774, stated that although they had been encouragers of Rivington’s Gazetteer, they no longer wanted to receive the Gazetteer. [22] They expressed their sincere unhappiness about reading that his paper now contained political comments regarding the unfortunate dispute between England and the Colonies. [23] In the same broadside, a second letter was published from thirty-one more citizens of Baltimore, Maryland. The citizens who wrote the second letter reacted more harshly towards Rivington himself stating that, “Scarce a paragraph in your papers, but betrays the most notorious partiality, and evinces that the printer is a tool.” [24] Rivington was losing patron after patron and ending subscriptions that had been established since the first issue was published. At first, it began as only losing money and patrons, but Rivington would soon lose far more than he could possibly conceive when he began publishing his Loyalist views.

The Growing Disdain: Effigies and Parodies

As word of Rivington’s work spread, he continued to gain enemies. He lost the respect he had originally gained as a fellow publisher from men like Isaiah Thomas, but the attention he gained would quickly monopolize all of Rivington’s time and attention. Satires, effigies, and mockeries of Rivington began to appear in the writings from popular poets to addresses to the Continental Congress.

Most likely at the request of the Sons of Liberty, a popular poet of the American Revolution, Phillip Morin Freneau, created a mock speech that was to be made by James Rivington at his “execution.” [25] Freneau created such passages to convince other Tories that Loyalism was the wrong path to take and that this infamous printer wished he had seen the error of his ways sooner:

The more I think the more I stand appal’d

At the dread guilt in which my soul’s entrall’d

My neighbours wrongs now stare me in the face,

And bring to view the terrors of that place,

Where conscience tells me I am doom’d to dwell,

With Pluto the prime minister of Hell,

That tree on which my body hang’d will be,

Which they once call’d by name of Liberty,

A growing monument will there remain,

Of my past, present, and my future shame. [26]

The Sons of Liberty also had an effigy of Rivington hanging by his neck from a tree created to be posted along with this poem (see Figure 1). This false execution on April 13, 1775, was eventually hung around many towns. [27] A separate passage of the poem indicates that the effigy was created as a means for the Sons of Liberty to warn other Loyalists that if they continued to cause trouble for the Patriots they, too, would end up hanging like their dear printer Rivington.

Rivington’s response to this action was not surprising. It was not characteristic of Rivington to take a mockery like this seriously. He took this effigy as a compliment—he must be someone of great importance for the Sons of Liberty to go through all that trouble to fake his death. In fact, on April 20, 1775, Rivington reprinted this effigy in his newspaper for all his readers to see. [28]

Rivington would soon be sorry for taking this publication so lightly. But, why should not Rivington have been able to print his beliefs and his reactions to this effigy without fear of retaliation? The Zenger trial of 1735 made it perfectly clear that people were allowed to express their own feelings and beliefs both verbally and in writing. [29] Rivington should not have been an exception to this presumption. As an established Loyalist, Rivington had no choice but to publish the Loyalist thoughts of the time. He could no longer be politically neutral in his publications in order to satisfy all readers. Why then were people allowed to disregard the precedents of the Zenger trial? The answer is simple: people, like the Sons of Liberty, did not agree with Rivington’s views. In the Zenger trial, the jury was sympathetic to Zenger and his beliefs; apparently, this ruling was only pertinent when the people agreed with the “libel.”

John Peter Zenger had warning that his references to Governor Cosby were not going to be taken lightly; he was put on trial, a non-violent way of telling him that he will soon be put to justice. Rivington, unlike Zenger, was not given such a warning. He had already been the victim of verbal abuse, but he and his property would soon fall victim to physical abuse.

The Violence: Punished at Last

Shortly after Rivington happily published his effigy in the Gazette, the attacks on himself and his property began. Though not the only perpetrator, Isaac Sears would be the ring-leader in the several attacks mounted against Rivington. In the previously mentioned letter to Benjamin Rush, Charles Lee suggests that someone should do something about this “miscreant.” [30] Although he continued to project his nonchalant Loyalist façade as the attacks began to worsen, Rivington eventually began to breakdown and acknowledge the danger he was in.

Rivington would actually make the already dangerous situation worse when he published a letter in his Gazette signed as “A Merchant of New York.” [31] This was an especially dangerous move, being that the letter was directed at Mr. Isaac Sears, one of the leaders of the Sons of Liberty. On August 18, 1774, Rivington published this antagonistic letter:

He would appear as a leading man amongst us, without perceiving that he is enlisted under a party as a tool of the lowest order; a political cracker, sent abroad to alarm and terrify, sure to do mischief to the cause he means to support, and generally finishing his career in an explosion that often bespatters his friends. [32]

Sears was completely and utterly insulted by this letter and refused to let this opportunity pass without responding. Sear states that he, “…was therefore greatly surprised at the illiberal and Unprovoked abuse...” [33] Although Sears was surprised by this publication he would use this opportunity to warn Rivington that he was being closely followed by the Sons of Liberty. Sears warns, “…You cannot hope such treatment will pass unnoticed..I shall be glad to Know without dilay my abuser, the merchant of new york or shall Consider you the Author and do my self justice.” [34]

Rivington must have taken pleasure in the fact that he infuriated Sears because he did not delay in publishing this letter that was meant to be private. But, being a cordial man, Rivington acknowledged the letter and continued the correspondences letting Sears know that he would not disclose the name of “The Merchant of New York.” Rivington, having been a publisher for many years believed that, “…it is not necessary that I should now be told what belongs to the liberty of the press…” [35] He also makes Sears aware that he is conscious of his rights and refuses to let the political chaos deprive him of those rights stating, “…Conscious of having done nothing but what is warranted by my profession, I make no hesitation in refusing to deliver up any author…and I am ready to defend the freedom of the press, whenever attacked in my person.” [36]

The correspondences then became more aggressive as Sears began to throw the insults back at Rivington; at the same time, he also states that he is against riots and discord, even though he has no problem telling Rivington what he thinks of him:

As to myself, I believe you to be either an ignorant impudent pretender to what you do not understand, or a base Servile Tool, ready to do the dirty work of any Knave who will purchase you…therefore almost below resentments as such I shall Know and Esteem you. [37]

Rivington published this response in his Gazetteer followed by a mocking response that may have been the final straw for Isaac Sears. In this letter, Rivington refers to Sears as “Sire” and jokes about the previous letter sent by Sears. Rivington continued to provoke Sears by responding, “With respect to your offer of friendship and esteem in the close of your letter, in consequence of a fancied similarity which you have discovered in our dispositions, I must beg leave to decline them.” [38]

These letters are evidence of the coming atrocities that would be committed by

the Sons of Liberties towards Rivington. It is proof that the Zenger ruling can only truly be enforced in a stable political climate, where there are an equal number of supporters and opponents. Rivington had every right to publish the letter of “A Merchant of New York.” [39] However, it would not be long before Mr. Isaac Sears would do just as he threatened, and more.

The violence of the American Revolution had begun in April of 1775, with major battles at Lexington and Concord. A month after the violence of the war broke out the attacks on Rivington began. By this time, he was allowing such insulting and offensive matters in his Gazette that the Sons of Liberty could no longer control their anger. [40] On May 10, 1775, the Sons of Liberty gathered and mobbed Rivington’s home and press. [41] As they “Breathed destruction to all the friends of Order who they called Tories,” they attempted to mob Myles Cooper’s property as well. [42] Cooper and Rivington fled to a nearby harbor. Though they were attacked by sailors on the way to the harbor, they were able to safely board the British man-of-war Kingfisher. [43] Though his press was mobbed, it was still able to function with the help of his assistants, and his paper was still able to be printed and circulated. [44]

While on board the Kingfisher, Rivington took time to reflect on what had just occurred and wrote a letter to the Continental Congress. [45] Even though he was beginning to question his safety, he still had to project his Loyalism to his readers and followers. By writing this petition to Congress, he would be acknowledging that he was in the wrong and seeking protection. In order to prevent this from happening, he wrote the petition in the second person, never using the word “I.” By utilizing this tactic, his readers would never find out that the petition was in fact written by him, which protected his political image as a Loyalist.

Two days after the attack made on Rivington’s home and office, the Committee-Chamber of New York released a notice to the public about Rivington. On May 12, 1775, people around the city read that, “Whereas the Friends of Liberty in the different confederated Colonies on this Continent have taken great and just Offense at the several Publications from Mr. Rivington’s Press; and his Person and Property are thereby much endangered…And the Citizens are requested by this, Committee to abstain from all violences to his Person and Property…” [46] Rivington responded to the committee’s request. He signed an agreement with the Committee, composed a statement regarding it, and hung it around town for everyone to see:

Having already signed the Association, recommended by the General Committee of New-York, voluntarily and freely;---for the further Satisfaction of the respectable Public, I hereby declare, That it is my unalterable Resolution rigidly to conform myself to the said Association; and I humbly intreat the Pardon of those whom I have offended by any ill judged Publications. [47]

Isaac Sears, not satisfied with this attempt at apology, took his revenge a step further. On November 23, 1775, Sears accomplished what he had set out to do when he first wrote to Rivington. [48] Eyewitness Thomas Jones claimed that no notice was taken of the large number of people gathered in front of his press because it was in a public location. [49] Jones watched as Isaac Sears, Alexander McDougal, Peter R. Livingston, John Smith, Joshua Hett Smith, and other principal leaders of the New York mobility entered Rivington’s press, demolished his printing apparatus, destroyed parts of his types, and carried off the remainder of his types. [50] On that fateful day, approximately two hundred men entered Rivington’s house and burned it to the ground. [51] All the types that were stolen by the Sons of Liberty were later melted down and used to make bullets. [52] Rivington, realizing that his life was truly in danger, packed up and took his family back to England, out of the reach of the Sons of Liberty.

The Espionage: Rivington Returns

In 1777, Rivington returned to New York to begin printing and circulating his Gazetteer. [53] However, the Gazetteer would no longer carry the “Loyal” title of the paper he published before he fled to England. He now published his paper with the authority of the King of England. He had been granted a Royal commission as printer to the King and received a payment of one hundred pounds per year. [54]

The question of when exactly Rivington was propositioned and agreed to become a spy is not clear. This is a question that historians still do not have an universally accepted answer to, but it is highly debated given the other factual evidence that is available. Although knowing Rivington’s past is critical to understanding why he became a spy, it is also key to examine his life as a spy. Historians may not know when he became a spy, but they certainly do know how he was able to live a life as a Patriot spy.

George Washington Parke Custis, step-grandson of General George Washington, proposes, in his memoirs, that if anyone was to be suspected of espionage, Rivington would be the last man suspected, “…and had suspicion arose, the king’s printer would probably have been the last man suspected, for during the whole of his connection with the secret service his Royal Gazette literally piled abuse of every sort upon the American general an the cause of America.” [55] Although Rivington would be the last man suspected of being a spy, he had the perfect means if he were to spy on the British for General Washington. For when he returned from England in 1777 and rebuilt his press, he added a coffee shop to his printing complex. [56] This shop quickly became a popular meeting place for high-ranking officers of the British military. The secrets he heard in his coffee shop would eventually be passed on to George Washington, whom he was very well acquainted with.

It was not terribly secret that Rivington was corresponding with Washington. In a letter from William Hooper to James Iredell, Hooper clearly tells Iredell that, “…Rivington has been very useful to Gen. Washington by furnishing him with intelligence.” [57] But Washington had a very interesting relationship with James Rivington, other than being the general whom he reported to. The most interesting example of their relationship is reflected in a letter sent from Washington to George Clinton on June 14, 1783, explaining the outrages that have been committed in West Chester County. [58] This would seem like an average letter, except for the fact that a final paragraph that was intended to mock Rivington was crossed off:

Perhaps the amusement contained in them will be encreased by so conspicuous a proof the returning politeness of one of your subjects who has been a man of no small notoriety during the whole Rebellion, and who has been so remarkably distinguished for his regard to veracity, that his humble protestation of attachment can not at this time be disputed. [59]

Reading this letter, we can surmise that Washington did not trust the reader of this letter to keep his thoughts about Rivington to himself. Rivington was a very useful individual to Washington, and he could not risk this information getting passed on. Rivington may have been one of Washington’s most precious resources during the conflict; however, he was not Washington’s only spy. This network was complex and well organized.

Washington had many spies, including Rivington, Culper, and Culper Jr. [60] In order for this network to be successful, the General needed methods to be able to communicate with his spies. Many safeguards were created to protect any letters from being able to be read if intercepted. One of the most interesting techniques used by Washington and his spies was the utilization of “invisible” or “white” ink. In a letter to Benjamin Tallmadge on July 25, 1779, Washington describes this unique technology:

Sir: All the white Ink I now have (indeed all that there is any prospect of getting soon) is sent in Phila No. I. by Colo. Webb. the liquid in No. 2 is the Counterpart which renders the other visible by wetting the paper with a fine brush after the first has been used and is dry. [61]

Washington also requests that Tallmadge make no reference that this material came from him, being that others were also employing this technique, such as Governor Tryon. [62] This ink made it unlikely that any interceptor would be able to read the secret material; however, Washington must have been quite paranoid about interception, as he created a much more complex safeguard that would prevent anyone who intercepted these documents from reading them.

A series of codes was created in order to disguise the letters, places, dates, people, and other words that General Washington’s secret material contained (see Figure 2). [63] For instance, if George Washington was writing a letter to Rivington, it would be addressed to 726 and would be signed 711. Anyone who was supposed to read these letters would obviously know the code, outsiders would remain clueless. However, the main means of correspondence between Rivington and Washington was through books.

Rivington, being a bookseller, had access to a large sum of books and was able to utilize this resource in order to pass information on to General Washington. According to Benson J. Lossing, he would write his messages on thin pieces of paper and bind them within the cover of a book that he would then sell to the other spies of Washington. [64] These spies would then deliver the messages to Washington himself without any knowledge of the message it contained. It is these measures of communication and secrecy that allowed General Washington to exploit his resources without being suspected or caught.

The Historical Debate: When and Why

Due to all of this evidence and more, there is little debate between historians as to whether or not James Rivington was a spy for General George Washington. The debates come into play when trying to figure out when he became a spy and why he became a spy; as he had been such a model Loyalist.

Catherine Snell Crary, a historian who has published on the life of Rivington, proposes that Rivington did not pledge his allegiance to the Patriots until 1780. [65] General Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis states that Rivington became a “turncoat” around 1776. [66] Philip Ranlet, a historian of Loyalism in New York, suggests that Rivington joined the patriot spy network in 1778 with use of a significant piece of evidence. [67] On October 24, 1778, Gouverneur Morris informed the Continental Congress that he had:

…received application from a person in the city of New York, to know whether, in the opinion of the delegates of that State, he may, with safety to his person and property, continue in that city upon the evacuation thereof by the British troops. [68]

Morris also told the Congress that this man could provide useful intelligence and to grant his request. Congress acquiesced to this request, and Rivington became a spy for General Washington. Crary’s analysis of Rivington’s life and the date of his changing allegiance is too late to be accurate without significant documentation, which she does not provide. Most of the evidence, such as his desire to project the greatest Loyalist attitudes, the attacks upon him, his return to New York, his Royal commission, and his apologies to the public, all occurred before this date. There would be no need for him to seek protection from the Patriots at this time, whereas by October 17, 1777, after the defeat of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, the presence of the British military was beginning to decline in New York. Rivington would undoubtedly need protection from Patriot mobs as he continued to lose the safety he had been privy to when the British occupied the city. She insists that Rivington was still Loyal to the British crown in 1778 because of a letter written to Richard Cumberland that contains clear loyalist sentiments. [69] However, she refutes her own argument in a later section of her essay. She says, “Whatever the time of Rivington’s about face, he played his Tory part to the end.” [70] This statement clearly refutes her Cumberland evidence—who is to say that this letter was not simply a cover up? Crary also tries to corroborate this date with the use of the recollections of Allan McLane who discusses an account of Rivington’s duality. [71] However, she does not provide any evidence that proves this is the first occasion in which he spied for Washington. It is likely that Crary’s date represents the time when people began to suspect that Rivington was a spy. Her essay even supports this assumption. Crary, on several occasions, discusses that materials accusing Rivington of espionage began being printed around the 1780s. [72] For instance, Crary states that the Salem Gazette printed that it was an “undoubted fact” that Rivington was a spy on December 25, 1783. [73] Whereas Crary’s date is too late to be accurate, Custis’s date is far too early to be accurate. His proposition that Rivington became a Patriot spy in 1776 is absurd. Rivington could not have possibly become a Patriot spy at this time because he was not even in the country. By January of 1776, Rivington was already on his way back to England and did not return to New York until 1777. There is no evidence documenting anyone communicating with Rivington in England from the colonies, so this type of arrangement could not have been made at this time.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact day or year that Rivington became a spy, the reasons behind his change of allegiance are more clear. Ranlet proposes a reasonable theory as to why Rivington chose to become a spy. Ranlet believes that Rivington was disgusted with the blundering British generals, but he could not express his aversion to the generals due to censorship. [74] If he could not express himself with writing, he would express himself by becoming a spy. This is certainly a possibility being that he was commissioned by the King; therefore, he would not be able to speak poorly of the British army. Speaking unfavorably about the British would have also been an ill advised decision, since he most likely would have been brought up on charges of libel by Governor Tryon. Although most governors never accused citizens of seditious libel, since in most political climates the accused would end up being acquitted by the jury, Rivington would not be able to easily win a case of libel against him. If the jury was composed of Tories, he would have been found guilty. If the jury was made up of Patriots, even though he was insulting the British army and not the Patriot army, he would have been found guilty.

Crary’s theories behind Rivington’s decision to become a Patriot spy also seem to be misleading. Crary states that Rivington was experiencing financial difficulties by 1779, and so he took the job so he could make enough money to take care of his eight children. [75] This theory can be refuted by the testimony of Custis. Custis states that any spy for his grandfather “was a dog cheap bargain.” [76] Although this could mean that no matter what it cost to employ Rivington he was worth it. However, for all the risks Rivington would have to take in order to spy for Washington, it would be illogical for him to risk so much for the sole purpose of money. It is also generally accepted that due to the poor payment for spying, there were no spies that worked just for the sole purpose of monetary compensation.

Although Ranlet’s proposal is certainly possible, the most obvious and the most probable reason is that of protection. As in his letter sent to Congress by Gouverneur Morris, it is clear that Rivington was seeking protection from the Patriot mobs after the British presence was diminishing in the city. This letter, which is the most convincing piece of evidence we have, does not ask for monetary compensation or any other luxuries. The letter simply requests protections, and it requests it more than once. This protection would also benefit him once the war was over; he would be able to remain in his residence without worry of attack.

James Rivington remained in New York until July 4, 1802, when he died at the age of 78.[77] Although Rivington’s story is not as well known as those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams, it is a story that exhibits several important aspects of the Revolution. Rivington’s story illustrates the importance of the press, the ideals that regulated the press, the politicization of the colonies during the Revolution, the civil war within the Revoution, and the necessity to preserve one’s life. James Rivington may not have been the most important character of the Revolution, but he will always be remembered as the man who saved his own life and the lives of his family by living simultaneously as a Tory and a spy.

[1]Stan Klos, Virtual American Biographies: James Rivington, 15 October 2005, (7 November 2005).

[2]George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, ed. Benson J. Lossing, (New York, 1860).

[3]John Weeks Moore, Moore’s Historical, Biographical, and Miscellaneous Gatherings, in the Form of Disconnected Notes Relative to Printers, Printing, Publishing, and Editing of Books, Newspapers, Magazines… (Concord, New Hampshire: 1886), 204.

[4]Claude Halstead Van Tyne, The Loyalists in the American Revolution, (New York: 1902) 12-13.

[5]Kermit L. Hall, Paul Finkelman, James W. Ely Jr, American Legal History, (New York: 2005) 75-77.

[6]Ibid, 75.

[7]Ibid, 75.

[8]Ibid, 76.

[9]Custis, Recollections, 293.

[10]Catherine Snell Crary, The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era (New York: 1973) 328.

[11]Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, #55 (May 5, 1774).

[12]Catherine Snell Crary, “The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Jan., 1959), 61-72.

[13]The Royal Gazette, #147 (December 13, 1777).

[14]Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, #69 (August 11, 1774).


[16]Broadside, John Holt, Letter to Mr. Rivington, 12 Aug. 1774.


[18]Ashbel Green, The Life of Ashbel Green, ed. Joseph H. Jones (New York, 1849) 44.

[19]New York, New York Historical Society, Lee Papers, (New York, 1872) 143-144.

[20]Ibid, 144.


[22]Broadside, “To the Public,” New York: November 16, 1774.



[25]Broadside, Phillip Morin Freneau, “The Last Words, Dying Speech, and Confession of J---s R-----g—n, P---t-r…” (New York: 1775).



[28]Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, #105 (April 20, 1775).

[29]Hall, American Legal History, 75-77.

[30] New York Historical Society, Lee Papers, 143-144.

[31]Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, #70 (August 18, 1774).


[33]Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, #72 (September 2, 1774).




[37]Rivington’s New York Gazetteer, #73 (September 8, 1774).


[39]It is a common belief that the letter written by “A Merchant of New York” was actually written by Rivington himself and he used the name New York Merchant as a pseudonym.

[40]Morton Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and In New York, (New York: 1939) 5.


[42]Philip Ranlet, The New York Loyalists, (Knoxville: 1986) 59. Myles Cooper was the current president of King’s College.


[44]Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies, 5.

[45]Peter Force, American Archives: Consisting of A Collection of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs, Vol. 2 Fourth Series (Washington: 1833) 836.

[46]Broadside, Henry Remsen, Committee of Correspondence (New York: 1775).

[47]Broadside, James Rivington, To the Public (New York: 1775).

[48]Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies, 5.

[49]Thomas Jones, Eyewitness Accounts of the American Revolution: History of New York during the Revolutionary War, (New York: 1968) 66.



[52]Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies, 6.



[55]Custis, Recollections, 295.

[56]Crary, The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington, 68.

[57]Griffith J. McRee, Lifeand correspondence of JamesIredell: one of the associatejustices of the SupremeCourt of the UnitedStates, (New York: 1949) 84. James Iredell was a lawyer in North Carolina, who eventually became a Supreme Court Justice. William Hooper was also a lawyer in North Carolina who was appointed as a Federal judge, but only served one year due to illness.

[58]George Washington, The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources, 1745-1799, (Washington: 1931) Vol. 27, 9.


[60]The name Samuel Culper was a code name used to identify one of General George Washington’s spies, Benjamin Tallmadge. Culper Jr. was the code name used to identify another figure in his network of spies, Robert Townsend.

[61]Washington., The writings of George Washington, 483.

[62]Ibid. William Tryon was the Governor of New York State during this time period.

[63]Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies, 218.

[64]Custis, Recollections, 297n.

[65]Crary. The Price of Loyalty, 328.

[66]Custis, Recollections, 294.

[67]Ranlet, The New York Loyalists, 85.

[68]Gouverneur Morris, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 12, (Washington: 1904-1937) 1061. Gouverneur Morris was a representative of Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention, and later became a leading member in the Continental Congress. He also coordinated a majority of Washington’s military defense strategies.

[69]Crary. The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington, 70.

[70]Ibid, 71.

[71]Ibid, 69. Allan McLane was a Captain in General George Washington’s Continental Army. He was also a key attribute to Washington’s victory at Yorktown.

[72]Crary. The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington, 65.


[74]Ranlet. The New York Loyalists, 85.

[75]Crary, The Tory and the Spy: The Double Life of James Rivington, 68, 71.

[76]Custis, Recollections, 299.

[77]Pennypacker, General Washington’s Spies,7.

Last Updated: 12/19/17