The Colonial Citizen of New York City

The Colonial Citizen of New York City

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Excerpt from The Colonial Citizen of New York City: A Comparative Study of Certain Aspects of Citizenship Practice in Fourteenth Century England and Colonial New York City

Perhaps the most fundamental institution in the Royal Colony of New York was the citizen himself. Indeed, the importance of the freedom, i. e., the status of citizen, must not be underestimated, if an adequate appreciation is to be gained of industrial and social conditions during the colonial period. The citizen - or freeman, as he was designated throughout the colonial period - considered his citizenship a more highly prized right than does the average citizen of the present day. And there were reasons why he should so regard it; the title freeman was not an empty one. Not only did it possess for him a profound political significance, but it was the condition of his economic independence. Unless one were a freeman he did not possess the right of suffrage, nor was he eligible to election to public office. Furthermore, non-freemen were not permitted to practice trades or carry on any business whatsoever.

As in the case of other colonial institutions, this one can be best understood with reference to its historical antecedents. An examination of the sources reveals the fact that the status and privileges of the New York citizen were established and defined by legislation and practice of an early date. The freeman of colonial New York can be described and oriented only in terms of his medieval English ancestry. Early London citizenship practice is more completely revealed in the records of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries than in those of later date. The practices that had grown up before the fourteenth century were summed up, reviewed, and redefined in the city records of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and were then given a more or less permanent codification.

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