American National Biography
Abraham Yates, Jr.(August 1724 - 30 June 1796), public servant and political writer, was born in Albany the son of Christoffel Yates, a blacksmith and Catelyntje Winne. He grew up in a multicultural community where his mother and grandmother represented the Flemish and French ancestry roots of New Netherland.
Initially apprenticed as a cobbler, by the 1750s Yates had climbed out of the working class to clerk in the Albany law office of Peter Silvester. There he read for the bar and discovered doctrines of the "Rights of Man" as espoused by the radical writers of the English Enlightenment. In 1746 he had married Anna De Ridder, the daughter of a landed Saratoga farmer. They had four children and the marriage provided him with access to several regional networks. The couple settled in Albany, where Yates eventually prospered, supported by what became an extensive legal practice, management of the De Ridder lands, and some importing.
With the agency of Robert Livingston, Jr., Yates was appointed sheriff of Albany County in 1754. This royal office brought him into contact with New England titleholders squatting on Livingston and Van Rensselaer manors, as well as with those who faced imprisonment for nonpayment of debts and other civil offenses. His tenure as sheriff during the French and Indian War (1754-59) was marked by firsthand experience with the place of civil rights in the face of British military imperatives, as he became a local advocate in direct opposition to British commanders and provincial leaders such as William Shirley and William Johnson. Those experiences caused him to question the inequity of access to wealth in America, and more fundamentally, the place of American colonists in the imperial scheme of things. They also shaped his personal life, as he was captured and imprisoned by angry New Englanders, assailed by British officers, censured by provincial officials, and mourned the deaths of several of his children.
Entering local politics, Yates drew on popular support to be elected annually to the Albany common council from 1753 to 1773. This accession of a blacksmith's son to the council was unprecedented as Albany's aldermen mostly had represented the city's commercial elite. A lawyer among merchants, Yates was called on to provide legal services for the City Corporation. In so doing, he showed himself to be a proponent of liberty and opportunity over property and privilege, and thus he alienated much of the community's traditional political establishment. His bid for the provincial assembly in 1761 was thwarted by both landed and court interests who had identified Yates as a dangerous leveler. Embittered by defeat, Yates turned away from conventional politics and began to articulate his reservations about the provincial establishment. He soon had an opportunity to stand for American rights in opposition to the Stamp Act and then the Intolerable Acts. During that time he began to build a local action network that included several nephews and other ambitious but not well-born young men.
Ousted from the Albany council following a staged election dispute in 1773, Yates resurfaced in 1775 as the first chairman of the Albany Committee of Correspondence, Safety, and Protection. Beginning in 1775, he was elected to represent Albany in each of the four New York provincial congresses. Commuting between Albany and New York City, Yates attended the congress as it fled before the British in 1776, served as its temporary president, and chaired the committee that produced the first New York state constitution. Despite disabling illness during the winter of 1776-77, Yates participated in the drafting of the constitution and led a mostly unsuccessful floor campaign to have some of the egalitarian features of earlier drafts restored to the final document that was adopted and proclaimed by the New York State Convention in April 1777.
Firmly established as a revolutionary stalwart in New York State, Yates became closely identified with the insurgent politics of new governor George Clinton and spearheaded Clinton's program in the state legislature. He continued to shape the political revolution as a member of the transitional Council of Safety (1777-78), state senator and member of the Council of Appointment (1777-90), Albany city recorder (1778-79), state loan officer (1779-83), and then as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1787-88).
During the 1780s Yates became increasingly troubled by what he suspected was a conscious effort to subvert the fruits of the Revolution to the ambitions of a privileged few in order to establish a more powerful central government. Now in his sixties, Yates began to express in writing his opposition to the emerging forces of nationalism. In 1786 he published a polemical monograph entitled Political Papers Addressed to the Advocates of a Congressional Revenue in the State of New York. He also wrote a series of essays in opposition to a stronger central government under the pseudonyms "Cato," "Sydney," and "A Rough Hewer." These newspaper articles Published over a period from 1783-92, these newspaper articles were perhaps the most widely read expositions of the antifederalist point of view. During that time Yates resurrected and revised his earlier histories of Albany, Rensselaerswyck, and colonial New York, underscoring and intensifying his claims of a historical conspiracy to deprive ordinary people of their essential human rights. These histories served as background for a major polemical tract that Yates wrote in 1789 on the movement for the United States Constitution With the adoption of the Bill of Rights, Yates ended his writing efforts, and those essays remained unpublished.
In 1790 Yates was appointed mayor of Albany and he served in that position until his death. His final years were marked by the emergence of his native city as a major American entrepot and as the capital of New York State. He died in Albany.
Throughout his career, Yates maintained his faith in the worth and virtue of the common man and also his distrust of aristocracy and special interests. Although Yates did not live to see the democratic triumph in the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800, he had been one of its grass roots architects since the 1750s.
The core of Yates's personal papers and essays are in the New York Public Library. Because he was primarily an officeholder, government and legislative records represent an important supplemental resource. Copies of all extant materials relating to the life of Abraham Yates, Jr. are archived at the Colonial Albany Social History Project in Albany, New York. See Stefan Bielinski, Abraham Yates, Jr. and the New Political Order in Revolutionary New York (1975); Theophilus Parsons, Jr., "The Old Convictions versus the New Realities: New York Antifederalist Leaders and the Radical Whig Tradition" (Ph.D., diss., Columbia University, 1974); Carol M. Spiegelberg, "Abraham Yates: An Eighteenth Century Public Servant" (M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1960); and Staughton Lynd, "Abraham Yates's History of the Movement for the United States Constitution," William and Mary Quarterly 20:2 (1963).
first posted: 2000