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Alexander McDougall—Martyr to Free Speech


From Revolutionary Dissent, Chapter 5

On the evening of March 14, 1770, a prison guard opened the door of Alexander McDougall’s jail cell so that visitors could enter. There were forty-five visitors, to be exact, and all of them were women. They could not fit into the tiny cell at the same time, so most of them spilled into the hallway outside waiting their turn. For publicity sake—and all of this was for publicity sake—the forty-five women had been described to the public as virgins. McDougall had been jailed for criticizing the royal governor and the New York General Assembly, and his supporters aimed to draw attention to him as a martyr for the cause of liberty. If the virgins were not enough to accomplish that, the number forty-five tied McDougall symbolically to John Wilkes, a Member of Parliament who had gained renown for going to jail after criticizing the King in the forty-fifth issue of the newspaper he published.

For a man confined to a damp cell in the city jail, it was an experience that was more enjoyable than any prisoner had a right to expect. McDougall proved to be a welcoming host, aided by the treats that his visitors brought with them. According to the New York Journal, his female callers “were introduced by a Gentleman of Note, to the Illustrious Prisoner, who entertained them with Tea, Cakes, Chocolate and Conversation adapted to the Company.” Then the women proceeded to sing the Forty-Fifth Psalm, an edited version that extolled McDougall and participatory democracy…

McDougall, a successful merchant and later a general in George Washington’s Continental Army, was a firebrand with few equals in the colonies. He...was well enough known in his own time, his fame growing chiefly from a broadside that—paradoxically as it turned out—he had authored anonymously. His supporters in the Sons of Liberty created political theater that would consume the attention of the city for many months. Before it was over, McDougall would be brought to the floor of the New York Assembly itself, where the representatives whom he had criticized in his broadside would attempt to put him on trial, with themselves as jurors—and even threaten him with a form of torture from the Middle Ages.

Once again, a critic of government would clash with an oppressive legal system that punished dissent, in the process expanding the American vision of freedom of speech.


Below:  McDougall had so many visitors to his jail cell that he took out an ad in the New-York Journal, February 15, 1770, to set visiting times from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.