The birth of the United States, from the Declaration of Independence (1776) to the Constitution (1787) we live under today, wasn’t what many would call a smooth transition. Following the Declaration at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation was submitted to the states for ratification on this day in 1777, though it would take four years for them to do so, with Maryland being the last in 1781 as border disputes with Virginia continued. The Articles of Confederation was the first written constitution for the United States. However, the states making up the newly formed United States weren’t so united under the Articles. Under this, states remained sovereign with the central government and Congress dealing with disputes, make treaties and align with other nations, coin money (though this would remain an issue), and create and maintain armed forces. This decentralized form of governing had holes, as it lacked the ability to collect taxes and eventually lead to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
What is lost in all of this? In May of 1775, New York State essentially issued its own Declaration of Independence with the signing and passing of the NYS General Association Document.
In 1775, shortly after the confrontation between the Massachusetts militia and British forces at Lexington and Concord, the elected leaders of the Colony of New York decided that it was important to gather for the purpose of drafting a document that would formally “associate” themselves in unified opposition to the recent British actions and policies. The First Provincial Congress was, therefore, convened and the document, known as the “General Association for . . . the Rights and Liberties of America”, was signed by the 100 elected members on May 26, 1775. The document was, essentially, the first document of the first representative government of New York and it effectively declared that New York was no longer a colony of the British crown. It firmly placed New York in the Revolution, it strengthened the political bond between the colonies, and it helped secure a unified colonial statement of independence, paving the way for the Declaration of Independence, which was signed little more than a year later.
The General Association document was held, along with the other historical records of New York’s colonial period, in the office of New York’s Secretary of State until 1889 when they were moved into the State Library, which was housed in the opulent new State Capitol building. The last time we know the document was accessed was in 1868 when it was transcribed and reprinted in a large volume entitled, The Calendar of Historical Manuscripts Relating to the War of the Revolution. On March 29, 1911 a devastating fire broke out in the Capitol building destroying the library along with 450,000 books and 270,000 manuscripts, including almost all of the papers of New York’s revolutionary provincial government. Since the document was not among the inventory of manuscripts that survived the fire, it was logically assumed that the original May 26, 1775 General Association document was lost in that fire.
Fortunately, the General Association document did, in fact, survive. When, or how, it was removed from the Capitol building is not known. It may have been removed before, or even after, the fire as several reports describe priceless manuscript remnants of the Library being “swept up”, among the mass of charred remains, and discarded along with the tons of debris in the aftermath of the fire. What we do know is that the document somehow found its way into the private antique market, which is how it apparently came into the possession of an antique dealer and collector, named Fryer, who lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mr. Fryer’s son, George G. Fryer, came to Syracuse in 1889 to work as an engineer with the Solvay Process Company. George was also an avid collector and, along with the collection he inherited from his father, he amassed an impressive array of historic stamps, coins, manuscripts, and artifacts. In 1927, George donated a sizable portion of his collection to OHA, a collection that included the General Association document.
Though several OHA personnel over the years were aware of the document’s existence, it was OHA’s Curator of History, Dennis Connors, who finally brought it to the attention of the New York State Archives in 2007. During a cataloguing project of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts in the OHA’s collection, it was, once again, “discovered”. Dennis worked with the State Archives personnel to authenticate the document and bring it the attention that it deserves. It has been on display in an exhibit on the 2nd floor of the OHA Museum until it was recently loaned to the exhibit in the Hall of Governors, where it has garnered international attention.