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Stephen DeLancey

Stephen DeLancey

The American merchant Stephen DeLancey (1663-1741) founded an elite New York family and was an important colonial politician and entrepreneur.

During the first half of the 18th century, when family connections meant everything in the commercial and political life of the American colonies and in New York particularly, Stephen DeLancey moved in the highest echelons of both spheres. He was born in Caen, France, offspring of a notable Huguenot family that was forced out of France in 1685 with other Huguenots by the Edict of Nantes. Shortly after his arrival in New York, DeLancey married into the well-to-do Van Cortlandt family, thus taking a place in the colony's aristocratic structure. By 1702 DeLancey was described as one of the "most distinguished" and active members of the New York legislative assembly. He remained so for more than a quarter century.

His given name in French, étienne, long since dropped by DeLancey, was introduced anew in 1725 as a derisive reference to his French birth by New York's royal governor William Burnet. For political reasons Burnet was trying to remove DeLancey from the Assembly on the spurious grounds that, being foreign-born, he was ineligible to sit in that body. DeLancey not only survived this assault but also apparently improved his political position as a result. He epitomized the kind of "placeman" (elite representative of a key family) that dominated colonial American politics.

DeLancey also typified the enterprising and freewheeling trader who moved so successfully across the colonial landscape. He was, at various times, a commercial agent for several European merchant houses, a supplier of English troops quartered in different parts of the New World during successive colonial wars, merchant to English interests in Canada and to settlements in the New York wilderness, and moneylender to sundry enterprises sponsored by New York's colonial government. He was a shrewd, well-connected dealer at a time of wide-open economic opportunities. His efforts anchored the DeLancey fortune for future generations of the family.

Stephen's son, James DeLancey, born in New York in 1703, studied law in London and then returned to practice in his hometown. Becoming a judge of the New York State Supreme Court in 1731, he was its chief justice until his death in 1760. James and his son (also named James) took their place among New York's colonial elite. That they remained loyal to England during the American Revolution curtailed, but did not entirely end, the political and economic power the family wielded for nearly a century.

Further Reading

While much has been written about later DeLanceys, there is almost nothing about the founder of the dynasty. The best secondary source for Stephen DeLancey's activities is Lawrence H. Leder, Robert Livingston, 1654-1728, and the Politics of Colonial New York (1961). See also Stanley Nider Katz, Newcastle's New York: Anglo-American Politics, 1732-1753 (1968). □

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