The British viewed New York City and the Hudson River Valley as key strategic locations. After evacuating the patriot stronghold of Boston in March of 1776, the British concentrated on New York as a base of operations. In July of 1776, shortly after the signing of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, a huge British fleet of nearly 500 ships and 35,000 men--the largest single armed force in America until the Civil War--appeared off New York. Under the command of General William Howe, the vastly larger British forces began pushing back the smaller and less-organized American Army under the command of George Washington almost immediately. By August, Washington had withdrawn from Long Island, pulling back to Manhattan. In September of that same year, Washington and his generals, convinced of the weakness of their position in New York City, debated whether they should burn the city upon retreat, or simply leave it to the British. Under instructions from the Continental Congress to not torch the city, Washington withdrew into New Jersey, where he successfully harassed the British and their mercenary soldiers. Washington's withdrawal from Manhattan, however, had other, non-military consequences.
After the Declaration of Independence was signed, the 13 American colonies found themselves adrift without any governmental institutions. To remedy this situation in New York, New York patriots chose delegates to a Provincial Congress, which first met in New York City, the old colonial capitol. As the British drew their noose around Manhattan, the New York Congress decided to move north up to White Plains, where in July, John Jay was named chairman of a committee to draw up a State constitution. Calling itself the "Convention of the Representatives of the State of New York," the group was forced to move farther north to safety when Washington's army fully abandoned New York City. Stopping in Fishkill, New York, the delegates decided that the town's lodging's were inadequate--and too close to British forces--and moved even farther up the Hudson River Valley to Kingston in February of 1777.
The delegates found Kingston to their liking. A "government on the run" for many months, the city welcomed the delegates, opening several public buildings for the Convention's use. For two months, the delegates met in the Ulster County Courthouse, working deliberately on a State constitution. On April 22, 1777, the bells of Kingston's churches announced approval of the State's first constitution. Largely the work of chairman John Jay, the new constitution provided for the election of a Governor, a Lieutenant Governor, and members of a Senate and Assembly. In June of 1777, the State held its first elections, and George Clinton, a well-known brigadier general of the militia was sworn in in Kingston as the State's first Governor on July 30.
The Supreme Court and the Legislature stayed in Kingston until October, when Kingston found itself a small player in much larger military events. Once again forced to flee, the new government hastily adjourned at word that a British force was slowly moving north, plundering the Hudson Valley.
Unfortunately, Howe changed his plans after Burgoyne left for Canada. Trying to force Washington's army out into the open, the bulk of the British army marched on Philadelphia, leaving only a small force in New York City under the command of Brigadier General Henry Clinton. Howe would not be able to provide any support to Burgoyne's invasion, but instead vaguely instructed Clinton to "act offensively" and "if you can, make any diversion in favor of General Burgoyne's approaching Albany."
Burgoyne, however, needed far more help than Clinton could provide, for British plans vastly underestimated the difficulty of the terrain in Canada, as well as the ability of the Americans to gather dispersed armies together. Burgoyne captured Fort Ticonderoga on July 5, 1777, but when the army began chopping its way south through the thick forests, Burgoyne's progress slowed considerably. Troops throughout New England and New York, sensing blood, gathered around Saratoga, picking at Burgoyne's army throughout September and October.
Simultaneously, Burgoyne's position in northern New York was deteriorating rapidly. With reinforcements from all over New England and New York, an American army under the command of General Horatio Gates--led brilliantly on the field by General Benedict Arnold--managed to surround Burgoyne's army. On October 17, just a day after Vaughan's troops torched Kingston, British General Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to Gates at the Battle of Saratoga, easily one of the American army's greatest victories during the American Revolution.
Kingston, however, paid a large price for its role in the American Revolution. With many of Kingston's Dutch buildings made of stone, numerous buildings were simply gutted and not completely destroyed by the fire, but reconstruction was slow and painful. As the years passed Kingston slowly rebuilt, and by the beginning of the 19th century was once again the largest, most dominant town in the Hudson River Valley area. It would not relinquish its dominance until the 1850s, when the Hudson River once again played a major role in the area's development.