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Heathcote, Caleblocked

(06 March 1666–01 March 1721)
  • Eugene R. Sheridan

Heathcote, Caleb (06 March 1666–01 March 1721), merchant, manor lord, and Anglican activist, was born in Derbyshire, England, the son of Gilbert Heathcote, a trader in hides and iron who served as mayor of Chesterfield, England, and Anne Dickens. While living in England Heathcote became a merchant specializing in trade with New York, where he settled in 1692 after the woman to whom he was betrothed fell in love with his brother Samuel and married him instead.

Heathcote rapidly assumed a position of commanding influence in New York society. He set himself up in New York City as a merchant and as a factor for London traders, establishing a far-flung trading network that encompassed the East and West Indies as well as the mother country. Success in commerce enabled him to branch out as a military contractor for New York’s four independent companies of British regulars. While maintaining a house in the provincial capital and continuing his involvement in mercantile life, a quest for gentility led Heathcote in 1696 to move to Westchester County. In that year he used his influence with Governor Benjamin Fletcher to have part of the country chartered as the borough town of Westchester. From then until his death he served as the borough’s mayor, and within its limits he established an extensive estate, replete with various mills and worked by more than a hundred slaves, indentured servants, and tenant farmers. Heathcote’s estate became the Manor of Scarsdale in 1702, the beneficiary of the last manorial grant issued by English authority in colonial America. Heathcote’s growing economic success and social prestige led to his marriage in 1699 to Martha Smith, the daughter of William Smith, chief justice of the New York Supreme Court. The couple had six children, four daughters and two sons.

Heathcote’s economic and social ascent in New York was facilitated by a succession of responsible appointive positions he received from English officials. In 1692, soon after his arrival in the province, Governor Fletcher had appointed him to a seat on the New York Council, an influential post in which he served until his death, except for the period 1698–1702. For those years his appointment was suspended by Richard Coote, earl of Bellomont, who opposed the anti-Leislerian (more Tory-oriented) party with which Heathcote was then aligned. At about the same time Fletcher also made Heathcote colonel of the Westchester County militia, as well as presiding judge of the county’s court of sessions, court of common pleas, and prerogative court. At various times between 1695 and 1703 Heathcote also served as New York’s collector and receiver general of revenues, and from 1711 to 1713 Governor Robert Hunter appointed him to three successive terms as mayor of New York City. Apparently through the influence of his powerful English Whig brother Gilbert, the imperial administration in 1715 capped Heathcote’s career of public service by appointing him surveyor general of customs for the northern department and vice admiralty judge for New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Owing to an identical vice admiralty appointment bestowed by Governor Hunter on another political ally in New York, Heathcote never exercised the latter office.

In the recurrent conflict between imperial authority and local autonomy that was at the heart of colonial political life Heathcote was a staunch advocate of the primacy of imperial interests. Imbued with the mercantilist principle that colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country, Heathcote sought in vain at various times after 1700 to win English approval for an imaginative plan to produce naval stores and build light frigates in New York using the labor of local militiamen and English regulars stationed in the colony. Concerned by the danger posed to the English colonies by the French policy of encirclement, Heathcote, who believed that the survival of these provinces required their inhabitants to “believe themselves as they really are to be but one family,” proposed in 1715 the convocation of a congress of all colonial governors to coordinate an intercolonial response to the French threat. Heathcote also was apprehensive that the growing quest for power of colonial assemblies was undermining royal authority in America. The following year he suggested to the imperial administration that Parliament should provide an independent revenue for royal officials in the colonies, to free them from their “slavish dependence … on the uncertain Humours of assemblys,” advice not taken until 1767. Vexed by the widespread evasion of the navigation acts in Connecticut and Rhode Island, he called on imperial officials in 1719 to curtail sharply the charter privileges of those colonies.

Heathcote’s support for effective imperial authority in America led him to espouse the cause of Anglican expansion in the colonies. He viewed the religious heterogeneity he had encountered on his arrival in New York as symptomatic of a “rude and heathenish country.” Expansion of the Anglican church was necessary, he believed, to strengthen English control over the colonies and rescue Dissenters from serious religious errors. Heathcote realized, however, that in such a pluralistic society the conversion of Dissenters depended on the persuasive powers of Anglican clergy and laymen rather than on the coercive powers of the English state and its agents in America. Accordingly, he strongly supported Anglican proselytizing efforts in New York. At first Heathcote acted in his own right and then, after 1704, as an active member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), the London-based Anglican missionary organization. Under his patronage Anglicans established four churches as well as a day school and a Sunday school in Westchester, and with the support of his imposing presence the SPG established the first Anglican congregation in Puritan Connecticut. Heathcote also insisted that the SPG focus on the Christianization of black and Indian slaves, a policy he courageously supported even after it came under heavy criticism in the wake of a serious slave revolt in New York City in 1712.

After Heathcote’s sudden death in New York of a stroke, he was mourned in the Philadelphia Weekly Mercury as a “gentleman of rare qualities, excellent temper and virtuous life and conversation.”

Bibliography

Heathcote’s surviving papers are in the records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, in London, and in Edmund B. O’Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, vols. 3 and 4 (15 vols., 1856–1887). The standard biography remains Dixon Ryan Fox’s delightful Caleb Heathcote, Gentleman Colonist: The Story of a Career in the Province of New York, 1692–1721 (1926).