The "freedom of the city" concept began in Europe many centuries ago.
27 January 1854, New York Times, pg. 3:
In the presence of a small company assembled, Alderman BLUNT, Chairman of the Committee, presented Capt. CREIGHTON with the Freedom of the City in a gold box,...
The box presented was a massive gold one, of about three and a half inches in length, two and a half in breadth at the centre, and an inch and a quarter in height. It was richly ornamented with chaste work. Inside the cover of the box was engraved the following words:
"Presented to Capt. ROBERT CREIGHTON, by the Common Council of the City of New-York, with the freedom of the City, for his noble conduct in rescuing the lives of the passengers and crew of the steamship San Francisco, which was shipwrecked in the Gulf Stream, whilst bound from New-York to San Francisco, California, January 1854."
28 April 1893, New York Times, pg. 8:
THE FREEDOM OF THE CITY.
How, When, and Upon Whom it Has Been
Bestowed Since 1675.
To the Editor of The New-York Times:
In to-day's issue of your paper I notice a statement that the freedom of the City of New-York has been presented to only three perswons the present century. In view of the interest that has been aroused in regard to the present occasion, I trust that you will permit me to correct this statement.
The freedom of New-York was first bestowed in 1675, and under the Dongan and Montgomery charters power was given to the Mayor, Recorder, and Aldermen to make free citizens under their common seal. Only free men could exercise or use "any art, trade mystery, or manual occupation" within the limits of the city. It also became the custom to bestow complimentary freedoms on personages of greater or less importance.
In the Colonial period freedoms of this sort were voted in great number. After the Revolution the honor was rarely bestowed, and then only upon persons of distinction.
In 1784 we find that the Marquis de Lafayette, Gov. Clinton, John Jay, Ge. Washington, and Baron Steuben were thus honored.
In 1812 the freedom of the city was granted to Robert Fulton, in recognition of his services, "particularly to the interests and accommodation of this city by his invention and impprovements in steamboat navigation." In the course of the war of 1812, Commodore Decatur, Capt. Hull, Commodore Bainbridge, Capt. Lawrence, Commodore Perry, Commodore McDonough, and several Generals were, in turn, made freemen, as a recognition of their respective victories over the British forces on land and sea. After 1816 only complimentary freedoms were voted, in consequence of the privileges of an ordinary freeman having been greatly limited by the Legislature.
In 1819 the freedom of the city was given to Gen. Andrew Jackson, and from that time to th present it has been bestowed upon the following persons: 1824, George Washington de Lafayette, (son of the Marquis 1829, Martin Can Buren; 1832, Commodore Paterson; 1847, Gens. Scott and Taylor; 1848, Commodore Perry; 1848, Frederick Jerome; 1850, Capt. Cook; 1854, Capts. Creighton and Low, (these last four freedoms were bestowed in recognition of services to humanity by rescue of shipwrecked persons 1861, Major Anderson, (of Fort Sumter fame 1862, Thurlow Weed, (this resolution was objected to by Mayor Opdyke as illegal, but was passed over his veto 1863, Admiral Farragut; 1866, President Johnson.
As you mention in your editorial, the complimentary addresses were usually inclosed in gold boxes, and in many cases the freeman's oath, as provided by law, was administered to the person honored.
I cannot find that "Sire Lambton Lorraine" ever received the freedom of New-York.
My information is derived from the eighteenth volume of the publication, final series, of the New-York Historical Society, in which are published all the papers relating to the freedom of New-York, as well as to the Burgher rights of Dutch times.
CORTLANDT F. BISHOP.
NEW-YORK, April 19, 1893.
26 February 1902, New York Times, pg. 8:
THE FREEDOM OF THE CITY.
(...)(Long list - ed.)
I do not think that any one has received this distinction since 1866 until now.
New York, Feb. 26, 1902.
24 November 1929, New York Times, pg. SM19:
"THE FREEDOM OF THE CITY"
It Has Not Been Granted Officially in New
York Since 1926, When War Veterans Got It
DESPITE the fact that the freedom of the city has not been officially granted since 1926 and that meanwhile the phrase has been studiously avoided in all New York City official documents of welcome, the public is under the impression that the honor is granted to every distinguished visitor whom the Mayor's Committee greets on the Macom and accompanies up Broadway to City Hall.
The scroll of welcome has been taking the place of that conferring the freedom of the city, formerly the highest honor it was in the city's power to confer upon visitors.
Early in the history of New York a grant of the freedom of the city has a meaning of its own. Brought over by the early settlers from the Old World, where it was economic in origin, the custom so designated may be traced there as far back as the Roman custom of making a man a "civis" or citizen. At that time the city or town was the governmental unit, the widely separated parts of the Roman Empire being held together by common interests and customs rather than by a strong centralized government, and each of these cities had the right to select its own citizens. Though the possession of citizenship implied a share in the government, its chief advantage was the permission it carried with it to engage in trade within the city limits.
In the Middle Ages the custom persisted, the visitor being made a "burgher" or "burgess." The practice of presenting the key to the city probably dates from this time and meant that a visitor receiving it had the privilege of passing through the gate into the city without paying the usual toll. This later custom, of course, was not brought over to New York City, although in the past symbolical keys have been presented.