Homesickness in the Continental Army

ThacherOver at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells the story of Dr. James Thacher at the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780.  As someone who has written a bit about homesickness, I was attracted to this part of Bell’s post (and Thacher’s diary):

As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition: 

Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.

As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.

Read the entire post here.  I am hoping to include Thacher’s account of the Revolutionary War in Springfield in my current project on New Jersey and the American Revolution.

“The American Revolution: A World War”

Aerial_view_of_National_Museum_of_American_History (1)

This is the title of the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  Learn more about it in Alice George‘s piece at Smithsonian.com.  Here is a taste:

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., invites Americans to recognize another world war—one that has been traditionally envisioned as a quaint and simple confrontation between a ragtag army of rebellious colonists and a king’s mighty military force of red-coated Brits. “The American Revolution: A World War” demonstrates with new scholarship how the 18th-century fight for independence fit into a larger, international conflict that involved Great Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Jamaica, Gibraltar and even India. “If it had not become that broader conflict, the outcome might very well have been different,” says David K. Allison, project director, curator of the show and co-author of a new forthcoming book on the subject. “As the war became bigger and involved other allies for American and other conflicts around the world, that led Britain to make the kind of strategic decisions it did, to ultimately grant the colonies independence and use their military resources elsewhere in the world.”

 

The roots of this war lay in the global Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. In that conflict, Britain was able to consolidate its strength, while France and Spain experienced significant losses. At the time of the American Revolution, other European powers were seeking to restrain Great Britain, the greatest world power and owner of the planet’s most threatening navy.

“We became a sideshow,” says Allison. Both France and Spain, to undermine British power, provided both arms and troops to the rambunctious rebels. The Dutch Republic, too, traded weapons and other goods to the American colonists. Ultimately, after struggling to retain its 13 feisty colonies, British leaders chose to abandon the battlefields of North America and turn their attention to their other colonial outposts, like India.

Read the rest here.

What Did the Founders Mean By “Bear Arms?”

Reenactment

Here is J.L. Bell at Boston 1775:

Last month Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post on the language of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Two new databases of English writing from the founding era confirm that “bear arms” is a military term. Non-military uses of “bear arms” are not just rare—they’re almost nonexistent.

A search of Brigham Young University’s new online Corpus of Founding Era American English, with more than 95,000 texts and 138 million words, yields 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms.” BYU’s Corpus of Early Modern English, with 40,000 texts and close to 1.3 billion words, shows 1,572 instances of the phrase. Subtracting about 350 duplicate matches, that leaves about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful don’t refer to war, soldiering or organized, armed action. These databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was military.

Lawyer Neal Goldfarb checked more variations of the phrase in the same databases and came to the same basic conclusion.

In the 2008 Heller case, as everyone involved in this discussion knows, the U.S. Supreme Court decided otherwise. Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia treated “bear ams” not as an idiom with a military meaning but as a general phrase about carrying weapons.

The data shows otherwise—hardly anyone in the eighteenth century used it as Scalia did. As with the Reynolds case I wrote about here, the court’s finding is simply at odds with historical facts. The Heller ruling overturned legal understandings that prevailed for most of the twentieth century and changed the law going forward, but such rulings can’t change the actual past.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Craig Bruce Smith

HonorCraig Bruce Smith is Assistant Professor of History at William Woods University.  This interview is based on his new book American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write American Honor?

CBS: There are a number of factors that led me to write American Honor, but I basically set out to author a book that I would like to read.

I was deeply interested in the American Revolution and ethical questions. While there have been countless works on the Revolution itself, I never encountered a title that explored the connections between ethics and the Revolution—so I set out to write my own. It seeks in many ways to revive the debate over questions of the Revolution’s causes and effects that has largely disappeared in recent historical literature.

It was also an attempt to rehabilitate the concepts of honor and virtue, which seem antiquated and elitist to a modern audience. But my research revealed that these concepts actually became quite democratic and were simply an eighteenth-century reflection of our present understanding of ethics.

Finally, a great deal of recent academic history has taken aim at demystifying or vilifying the Founders to the end that the ideals of the American Revolution are often dismissed as rhetoric. My goal was to invite the reader to take the Founders’ beliefs and words seriously and to see how their understandings of honor, virtue, and ethics were the foundation of the new nation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of American Honor?

CBS: American Honor is an ethical history of the Revolution, advancing that there was a transformation in American ethical thinking that led to and became intertwined with the Revolution itself. The ideals of honor, virtue, and ethics were a unifying element that became democratized through service to the nation and thus expanded to people of diverse races, classes, and genders.

JF: Why do we need to read American Honor?

CBS: One need only look at the news headlines to see that issues of ethics and honor still matter in virtually every aspect of society. American Honor presents how the Founders of various backgrounds united based on a collective ethical understanding of honor as service to the nation—something that is as relevant now as ever before.

Honor was a major cause of the American Revolution, and omitting it prevents us from fully understanding the motives behind resistance against Britain and the founding of the United States.

Also, while there have been other excellent works on honor (such as those by Joanne Freeman, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and Caroline Cox), this is the first book to explore honor as a changing concept over an extended geographical and chronological period. It is built on primary research from over thirty different archives in the US and UK, which allows it to show an expansive understanding of how honor changed in early America.

Ultimately, the book presents the research and analysis in the form of a narrative that features collective biography (such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson) and storytelling to arrive at its conclusions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CBS: History was always my favorite subject, but it wasn’t until Ron Vallar’s AP US History class during my junior year at Holy Cross High School (in Queens, N.Y.) that I really became hooked. Vallar was so passionate in presenting history as a story rather than as a repetitive memorization of names and dates. He was the first person to show me what history could be—and without him I would not be an American historian today.

Vallar provided the spark, but starting college I still thought I would be a lawyer or a judge. It was the faculty at St. John’s University (also in Queens) that actually showed me I could make a career of history and David Hackett Fischer (my PhD advisor at Brandeis University) who ultimately helped me to achieve my goal.

Why become an American historian? The simple answer is out of love of the subject. The more complex one is that our past matters and the nation’s founding ideals continue to influence our present and future. The American Revolution and the Founding Era always resonated with me, and my goal has been to try to convey this same connection to students and readers.

JF: What is your next project?

CBS: My next project “The Greatest Man in the World: A Global History of George Washington,” follows different nations’ changing perceptions of Washington from his emergence during the French and Indian War through his death and into the modern day. Named the “Father of His Country,” Washington was indelibly associated with being an American figure. Traditionally, he has been interpreted solely as an American icon, but in actuality he developed into a symbol for humanity through a complicated path of personal, national, and international growth. Framing early America within a global history, this project is the first to examine Washington as a world figure, rather than one that was exclusively American.

JF: Thanks, Craig!

Gordon Wood Reviews Stephen Brumwell’s *Turncoat*

TurncoatYesterday we posted an Author’s Corner interview with Stephen Brumwell, author of Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty.

Over at The Weekly Standard, Gordon Wood reviews the book.  Here is a taste:

It was once common knowledge, the story of Benedict Arnold—that extraordinarily successful patriot general who abruptly turned against the American Revolution. Because he had been so trusted by George Washington, Arnold was regarded as the worst of traitors. Indeed, his very name became synonymous with treachery and treason. Not so anymore. Nowadays many young Americans have no idea who Arnold was, and even those who have vaguely heard of the name have little sense of what he did and why “Benedict Arnold” has been a byword for betrayal through much of our history.

This loss of memory comes in part from a changing view of the revolution. In the hands of present-day teachers and professors the revolution is no longer the glorious cause it once was. It is now mostly taught—when it is taught at all—as a tale of woe and oppression, redressing what many academics believe was an overemphasis on the patriotism of great white men. “Those marginalized by former histories,” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan Taylor in a recent introduction to current scholarship, “now assume centrality as our stories increasingly include Native peoples, the enslaved, women, the poor, Hispanics, and the French as key actors.” In his own narrative of the revolution, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, Taylor has painted a bleak picture of the event. Most of the patriots were not quite as patriotic as we used to think. The Southern planters, for example, engaged in the revolution principally to protect their property in enslaved Africans, but “implausibly blamed the persistence of slavery on the British.” Ordinary white men were even worse. In the West, where the fighting was especially vicious and bloody, they tended to run wild and slaughter Indians in pursuit of their “genocidal goals.” In the end, writes Taylor, it was a white man’s revolution whose success came at the expense of everyone else—blacks, Indians, and women.

No doubt this dark and sordid side of the revolution needs to be exposed. But unfortunately, this exposure has become so glaringly dominant nowadays that there is little room for the older, more patriotic story to be appreciated. Modern scholars haven’t gone so far as to describe Benedict Arnold as a hero for turning against this rather squalid and nasty revolution—after all, the side to which he defected was by their standards of judgment not appreciably different from the side he left—but since patriotism doesn’t have the appeal it used to have, Arnold’s treason seems not to matter as much anymore.

Yet of course it does matter, which is all the more reason to welcome another account of Arnold’s career, written, as many of the best and most readable histories of the revolution are written these days, by an independent scholar who is not caught up in the academic world’s obsessions with race and gender.

Read the entire piece here.

Whatever you think of Gordon Wood and his scholarship (I am a fan of his scholarship and writing style), it seems as if he cannot review a book these days without turning it into a diatribe on a field that appears to have left him behind.  This is a really good review, but it is odd that Wood has to frame it in this fashion.

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Brumwell

TurncoatStephen Brumwell is a freelance writer and independent historian based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  This interview is based on his new book Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty (Yale University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Turncoat?

SB: I wrote Turncoat after becoming fascinated by the central enigma of Benedict Arnold’s remarkable life. Why would an officer famed for his bravery in the American Revolutionary cause, who was clearly obsessed with his reputation as a man of honor, behave in a way that would be widely interpreted as utterly dishonourable? I was sceptical about the usual explanations – greed, or resentment at his shabby treatment by Congress – and wanted to re-examine all the available evidence to see if I could find a more convincing explanation for his behaviour.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Turncoat?

SB: By reassessing Arnold’s military career, Turncoat seeks to explain how he gradually came to believe that his country’s interests would be best served by ending the damaging civil war between Britain and her American colonies. Faced with a dysfunctional, ineffective Congress that seemed uncaring about the men who were actually fighting for American liberty, and hounded by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Arnold concluded that the cause in which he’d made his illustrious name had lost its way, and that he could better devote his talents to restoring Crown rule, and peace to the fractured British Empire.

JF: Why do we need to read Turncoat?

SB: With its dramatic twists and turns, the treason of Benedict Arnold is deservedly one of the best known stories of the American Revolutionary War. By uncovering archival sources not previously used by scholars, Turncoat offers a fresh and challenging interpretation of a tale that still resonates today. For example, this new evidence not only supports the contention that Arnold’s primary motivation in changing sides was ideological, but also removes any lingering doubt that his wife, Peggy Shippen, was actively involved in his treasonable correspondence with the British.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian (or how did you get an interest in the study of the past)?

SB: Growing up in an area of southern England full of castles, which I explored at weekends with my parents and brothers, I’ve loved history for as long as I can remember. When I finally went to university, and was given an opportunity to undertake postgraduate research, I decided to focus on the French and Indian War (a conflict in which I’d long been interested), seeking to contest existing stereotypes of the British redcoats who fought it.

JF: What is your next project?

I’m still finalising my next book project, although I have several ideas, involving both non-fiction and fiction. In either case, I’m keen to draw upon my interest in the past, although it’s possible that I’ll stray outside my specialist field of British-American military affairs in the second half of the eighteenth century, and tackle something different. Whatever the subject and approach, my objective will be to present a compelling narrative with an authentic backdrop.

JF: Thanks, Stephen!

When Nathanael Greene’s Family Played Cards

cards-18c_1

In 1774 the Continental Congress told Americans to avoid card playing:

We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reminds us that not all Americans followed Congress’s orders.

Here is a taste:

On 29 January 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to his brother Christopher from the Continental camp on Prospect Hill about a family crisis—his wife’s friends had played cards in front of their stepmother.

The general wrote: “I am extream sorry that Mr [John] Gooch and Nancy Varnum affronted Mother at my House with Cards. Surely Mrs [Catherine] Greene could not be present. She must have known better. It was insult that I would not have sufferd the best friend I had in the World to have offerd to her.”

Read the rest here.

Stockton University Removes a Bust of Richard Stockton

Richard-Stockton-2

I have been doing a lot of reading about Richard Stockton lately.  He was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, he was married to Annis Boudinot Stockton, one of the great female American poets of the eighteenth-century.  He was a member of the Continental Congress and he signed the Declaration of Independence.  He almost became the revolutionary-era governor of New Jersey, but he lost that honor to William Livingston in a very close election.  In the Revolutionary War, Stockton was captured by the British and imprisoned in New York.  He died in 1781 at Morven, his Princeton home.

Stockton also owned slaves.

Here is a taste of Suzanne Marino and Claire Lowe’s piece at The Press of Atlantic City:

GALLOWAY (NJ) — The bust of Richard Stockton has been removed from Stockton University’s campus library in an attempt to address a longtime controversy surrounding the college’s slave-owning namesake, college officials said Thursday.

Although recent protests have erupted around the country over other controversial statues, Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman said that controversy about the college’s namesake has been going on for several years.

“If you look in our 40th (anniversary), you’ll see that the discussion began to take place then,” he said, adding even during the university’s founding it was controversial. “It never was placed in context and I think that’s the most important thing about this.”

The bust of Stockton was on display at the Richard E. Bjork Library. It was taken down Wednesday. Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, also owned slaves.

Stockton Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Lori Vermeulen sent a letter to the campus community Thursday to inform them of the decision to remove the statue.

Vermeulen said the mission of Stockton University — “to develop engaged and effective citizens with a commitment to lifelong learning and the capacity to adapt to change in a multicultural, interdependent world” — affords the university the responsibility to provide an opportunity for students to learn about the facts surrounding Richard Stockton’s place in American history as well as in Stockton’s history.

The removal of the bust is temporary, and will return with an exhibit that is being developed that will show a more historical perspective and one that will allow meaningful dialog about Richard Stockton as a controversial figure, Vermeulen explained.

Read the rest here.

I like the idea of contextualizing the Stockton statue.  At the same time, I am starting to think that National Review writer Victor Davis Hanson may have a few good points in this piece.  Indeed, cleansing the past can be “dangerous business.”

An Unusual Damage Claim Sheds Some Light on the Battle of Connecticut Farms

plaque

This summer, when I am not writing about the court evangelicals, I have been working on a book on the American Revolution.  On a good day I get in about five hours of research, and I am fortunate to have a couple of former students helping me.

One of my research assistants, Abigail, is transcribing damage claim reports from the Revolution.  These virtually untapped sources (at least for New Jersey, where I am working right now) tell us a lot about the kinds of goods ordinary people owned at the time of the Revolution.  They also give us a glimpse of the damage and destruction caused by both the Continental and British armies as they rolled through local communities.

Nearly all of the damage claims in New Jersey were filed by individual property owners, but every now and then we find a break in this pattern.  Today, as I was reading through the material Abigail transcribed, I found a note calling my attention to a claim from the Presbyterian “parish” at Connecticut Farms.  Here it is (with Abigail’s not to me embedded):

Damage Claim No. 22 (NJ0407) made at Connecticut Farms on May 28, 1789, for damage done on June 7, 1780. [Dr. Fea, this claim is for the Connecticut Farms parish (including a meeting house, parsonage house, barn, and chair and school houses) and not a person/family—very different from the other claims so far.]

§ “Inventory and Apprisal of the Property of the Parish of Connecticut Farms Burnt, taken and destroyed by the British Army or their Adherents on the 7th of June 1780”

· Items: 1 large well finished meeting house burnt (1500 L), 1 bell (65 L), 1 large Bible (1 L, 10 S), 1 velvet cushion for the pulpit (2 L), parsonage house 40 by 24 (250 L), 1 barn 24 by 24 (30 L), chair house (10 L), school house (15 L), sundry sacramental vessels, de—[?], 1 large silver cup (6 L), 2 large black tin cups (10 L), 2 large pewter platters (1 L, 4 S), 1 basin (3 S), 1 fine diaper table cloth (16 S), and cloth used at buryings (3 L), for a total of 1885 pounds, 3 shillings.

June 7, 1780 was the date of the Battle of Connecticut Farms.  The British planned for one final attack on Washington’s troops in the North.  Lieutenant General Wilhelm von Knyphausen received a report that Washington’s army in Morristown had been reduced, through illness and desertions, to about 3500 men. Spies had informed him that mutinies were occurring in the ranks and morale was at an all-time low.  Knyphausen thought that the time was right to attack Morristown, capture Washington’s army, and perhaps bring an end to the war.

With approximately 6000 men from three different divisions under his command, Knyphausen’s army crossed Staten Island by boat on June 6, 1780 and landed at Elizabeth-Town Point. The following morning the British forces were met by Continental troops from New Jersey under the command of Colonel Elias Dayton whose troops slowed the British advance, but they were eventually forced to retreat to Connecticut Farms later in the morning.  By 8am, Knyphausen troops and the New Jersey Brigade under the command of William Maxwell clashed in Connecticut Farms.  With superior numbers, the British forced Maxwell to retreat to Springfield.  Knyphausen’s troops moved into Connecticut Farms, set part of the town on fire, and eventually halted his attack as the sun set.  At some time during the day George Washington arrived from Morristown and employed his personal guard in an attempt to stop the British advance.

The destruction of the parish property sheds light on one of the great mysteries of the battle. During the battle, Hannah Caldwell, the wife of the Elizabeth-Town Presbyterian clergyman James Caldwell, was shot to death by a British soldier as she stood in the window of the Presbyterian parsonage. News of Hannah’s death spread quickly.  New jersey Governor William Livingston received the news in a letter from brigadier-general Nathaniel Heard.  Greene informed Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth in Springfield that Hannah had been shot in a “barbarous manner.”

A rather lengthy letter describing the battle and Hannah’s death was published in the June 13, 1780 edition of the Pennsylvania Packet.  The unidentified author of the article believed that Hannah’s death was an attempt to punish James Caldwell, “an object worthy of the enemy’s keenest resentment,” for his patriotic activity and zeal.  The article implies that clergyman had a target on his back, but had always “evaded every attempt to injure him.”  Earlier in the day, the author claimed, a woman on the street in Connecticut Farms was approached by a British soldier who put a bayonet to her breast and threatened to kill her because she was the wife of James Caldwell.  The woman was spared when a young officer who knew her told the soldier that she was not Hannah Caldwell. Eventually, however, they did find the real Hannah. The author of the Pennsylvania Packet story described a British soldier coming to the window of the room of the Connecticut Farms parsonage where Hannah, her maid, and some of her smaller children were seated, and shooting Hannah in the lungs. Immediately following the shooting, a British officer and two Hessians dug a hole, placed the body inside it, and set the house on fire.  All of James Caldwell’s personal effects and papers were lost in the fire. Later an American officer managed to pull Hannah’s body from the grave and bring it to a “small house in the neighborhood.”  There was also a rumor circulating that the soldier who shot Hannah was later seen bragging about the killing.

Seal_of_Union_County,_New_Jersey

The seal of Union County, New Jersey represents the “murder” of Hannah Caldwell

There is more to this story, and I hope to tell it soon.  But this damage claim is going to help me flesh out the impact of the American Revolution on religious life in this New Jersey town.  Not only was the church and the outbuildings burned, but the British troops desecrated several of the church’s sacred and sacramental objects. This was not an unusual practice, but such detailed damage claims, at least for New Jersey, are rather rare.

George Washington Returns William Howe’s Dog

GW DOG

“George Washington and His Mother” in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, 1865. (Wikipedia Commons)

Apparently George Washington loved dogs.  He even returned one to his British counterpart after the Battle of Germantown.  Here is a letter Washington  wrote to General William Howe three days after the battle.  (The letter was actually written by Alexander Hamilton).

[Perkiomen, Pa.] Octr 6. 1777

General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.

HT: Nate McAlister

 

The Author’s Corner with Virginia DeJohn Anderson

VDA Book CoverVirginia DeJohn Anderson is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This interview is based on her new book, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write   The Martyr and the Traitor? 

VDA: I first encountered the story of Moses Dunbar years ago when I wrote an undergraduate paper about loyalists in Connecticut during the Revolution.  I was intrigued by the fact that he was the only loyalist convicted of treason by a Connecticut civil court and hanged. Dunbar was mentioned in passing in a number of secondary sources, but there were few details about his unusual case.  This left me with several unanswered questions.  Who was Moses Dunbar and what led him to remain loyal to Britain?  Did it have anything to do with his decision to leave the Congregational Church and become an Anglican?  What were the circumstances leading to his arrest and trial? Why was he the only one executed for treason?   

I put the project aside for quite a long time while I finished graduate school and wrote two books about seventeenth-century colonial America.  In coming back to it, I realized that there wasn’t enough material on Dunbar alone to warrant a book, but if I combined his story with that of Nathan Hale, the famous patriot hanged by the British as a captured spy, I could construct a richer narrative about how colonists chose sides in the Revolution and address questions about why we remember some historical figures and forget others.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Martyr and the Traitor

VDA: The book argues that neither patriots nor loyalists were destined to choose the sides they did in the Revolution, but rather reached those decisions as much in response to highly localized experiences as to the larger issues raised by the imperial crisis with Britain.  The stories of Hale and Dunbar reveal that no side in the Revolution held a monopoly on principle, and remembering only the “winners” of the War for Independence distorts our understanding of the event and its impact on ordinary lives.

JF: Why do we need to read The Martyr and the Traitor? 

VDA: The vast majority of biographical studies of Revolutionary figures focus on the Founding Fathers.  Many of these works are valuable, but they nevertheless tend to satisfy a popular desire for a “heroic” version of history instead of challenging Americans’ understanding of their past.  By offering equally sympathetic portraits of a patriot and a loyalist, who both started out as ordinary Connecticut farm boys, my book invites readers to imagine a far more complicated story.  It shows how the choice of allegiance in the contest with Britain was embedded in the context of everyday life, as pre-existing social relationships based on family, friendship, and community became politicized.  The book emphasizes historical contingency, noting that Hale and Dunbar both died when there was every indication that Britain would win the war.  Had that happened, we might remember Dunbar as the martyr and Hale as the traitor. 

The intense polarization that characterizes our contemporary political scene had its counterpart in the Revolutionary era, particularly when the outbreak of war in 1775 eliminated the possibility of anyone taking a neutral position.  For many Americans, Nathan Hale represents the epitome of a Revolutionary patriot, but as Moses Dunbar discovered, many of the self-styled patriots in his own community tried to beat those who disagreed with them into submission—not the kind of behavior typically attributed to the Revolution’s advocates.  Even in a relatively homogeneous place like Connecticut, the Revolution was a civil as well as imperial conflict, and the rifts it opened up would take time to heal. 

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

VDA: I grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town founded in 1634.  When I was about twelve years old, I became fascinated by the colonial-era houses in town and wondered who had originally lived in them and what those residents’ lives had been like.  At the University of Connecticut, my undergraduate institution, I was fortunate to learn from a number of wonderful historians—Richard Brown, Harry Marks, William Hoglund, Emiliana Noether, among others—who helped to transform my rather naïve interest in the past into a more sophisticated understanding.  In the years since then, I have focused my research on ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary events—in my first two books, the establishment of English colonies in America, and now the Revolution.  I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, but I’ve grown to believe that as a scholar I have a duty to bear witness on behalf of people in the past who might otherwise remain silent and invisible. 

JF: What is your next project?

VDA: I’m not quite sure yet, but since I began The Martyr and the Traitor I have grown more interested in the possibility of a movie based on Moses Dunbar’s story. There are very few good films about the Revolution, so I may next try my hand at a screenplay.   

JF: Thanks, Virginia!

“The Coalition That Made American Independence Possible”

Brothers in ArmsEducation and Culture: A Critical Review is running my review of Larrie Ferreiro’s Brothers in Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It.

Education and Culture is John Wilson’s new venture.  For over two decades Wilson edited Books and Culture.

Here is a taste of my review:

The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement was the impetus for an interesting Twitter exchange between Joyce Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Chair of Early American History at Harvard University, and Ted Cruz, the junior US Senator from Texas. Chaplin was not happy about Trump’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement and used the 140 characters allotted to her on Twitter to express her dissatisfaction. On June 1, 2017, she wrote, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Cruz, appalled by the suggestion that the “international community” created the United States, fired back: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Later in the day, the Texas Senator continued on the offensive: “Lefty academics @ my alma mater think USA was “created by int’s community. No—USA created by force, the blood of patriots & We the People.” As might be expected, most academic historians rushed to defend Chaplin, while conservative websites viewed the exchange as another battle in their war against so-called liberal élites.

We should not make too much of this short Twitter exchange. Both Chaplin and Cruz used the social media platform to marshal historical evidence in support of their own political preferences. But the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up, and the reaction to it, does tell us a lot about how Americans understand and misunderstand, use and abuse, the past. Chaplin’s attempt to connect the Treaty of Paris to the Paris Climate Agreement was a stretch. On the other hand, her insistence that the United States was not forged in a vacuum is a point worth making. Cruz’s tweets reflect an older version of the American Revolution that serves the cause of American exceptionalism. Scholars sometimes describe this historiography of exceptionalism as “Whig history.” Cruz’s understanding of the nation’s founding—one that celebrates the “blood of the patriots” and “We the People”—ignores the fact that the colonies were part of a larger transatlantic world that influenced the course and success of their Revolution. Cruz’s brand of Whig history offers a usable past perfectly suited for today’s “America First” foreign policy and the Trump administration’s skepticism regarding globalization. It is also wrong.

Read the entire review here.

Why Did Nova Scotia Stay Loyal?

Nova ScotiaAlexandra Montgomery, a Ph.D candidate at Penn and an award-winning historian, asks this question here.

A taste:

As an American born kid growing up in Halifax, the question of why that chunk of land stayed British while the rest of the colonies to the south declared independence was something of a puzzle. I became even more confused when I learned that most of the people who lived there at the outbreak of the Revolution were New Englanders, a group of people who my trips to Boston and Connecticut to visit family had convinced me had been waiting to rebel practically since the Mayflower made landfall. As I got older and started to study the history of North America more seriously, my understandings grew much more nuanced. But I discovered that many historians puzzled over the same problem I had. It turned out that there were many theories for Nova Scotia’s loyalty: a supposed culture of neutrality, a lack of connections to the rest of the continent, a heavy British military presence, and Anglo Nova Scotia’s markedly different relationship to the imperial center have all been cited as possible explanations. Yet, in my own work I’ve become more and more interested in a slightly different question. What kinds of alternate futures did people imagine for the region? What did people—British, French, and Indigenous—think and hope was possible?

Read more.

HT: Boston 1775

Richard Bernstein Weighs-In on the Chaplin-Cruz Dust-Up

BernsteinLast night while scanning Facebook I ran across Richard Bernstein’s take on this whole Joyce Chaplin-Ted Cruz debate. He was gracious enough to let me share it here.

Bernstein is a historian who teaches law at New York Law School.  He is the author of several books, including The Founding Fathers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015); The Founding Fathers Reconsidered (Oxford, 2009); and Thomas Jefferson (Oxford, 2003).

Not familiar yet with the Chaplin-Cruz dust-up?  Get up to speed here and here.

There is a dust-up on Twitter between Harvard’s Joyce Chaplin and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) about the consequences of President 45’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. Prof. Chaplin argued that the US was created by the international community as a result of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and Cruz fired back an angry and bitter retort insisting that the United States was entirely self-created by the following equation: “Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.”

Well, Prof. Chaplin is a bit off, but Senator Cruz is way off. Here’s one historian’s take on the matter, rooted in various books that I’ve written and in the research supporting them:

The United States was self-created on either 2 July (the adoption of the independence resolution) or 4 July (the adoption and promulgation of the Declaration of Independence) 1776. Its first form of government (omitted by Cruz from his equation) was the Articles of Confederation, framed in 1777 and ratified in 1781. Of the three resolutions introduced by Richard Henry Lee (VA) in the Second Continental Congress in June 1776, one pertained to declaring independence; a second pertained to framing articles of confederation; and a third pertained to securing foreign alliances, showing the importance that the founding guys placed on the international dimension of the struggle.

* The treaty between the US and France in 1778 was the first by which a foreign power recognized the United States; other treaties with other nations confirmed American independence in the eyes of those nations making the treaties.

* The Treaty of Paris of 1783 is the instrument by which Britain officially recognized American independence, though one could argue that, by entering into full negotiations with American diplomats, Britain recognized American independence earlier than 1783. The step of opening negotiations was the first step in a process culminating in the treaty, and thus in full recognition.

The creation of the United States is a process with domestic and international dimensions, as set forth above. It ended with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and its effectuation on 4 March 1789. On receiving news of the Constitution’s ratification, Benjamin Rush (a signer of the Declaration) said, “‘Tis done. We have become a nation.” One could argue that the United States first took shape as a confederation of states in 1776 and then reformulated itself into a federal republic, an independent nation, by 1789. Note, however, that the Constitution does not include the word “nation” — in fact, during the Convention, the delegates were so leery of that word that they specifically excised it from the document.

Apparently, Ted Cruz is an idiot. He seems not to realize that a formal treaty between Britain and the United States, under which Britain recognized American independence and nationhood, was an essential part of the creation of the United States. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay did not make that mistake, nor did they miss the importance of the treaty they were appointed by Congress to negotiate. It is sad that a graduate with honors of the Harvard Law School is so stupid as to miss that essential point about the origins of the United States. Cruz insists on the Battle of Yorktown (1781), but he misses that the treaty negotiations were the direct consequence of the UH-French victory over Britain at Yorktown.

Indeed, regarding the use of the word “nation,” Abraham Lincoln was the critical figure in establishing the legitimacy and importance of defining the United States as a nation. His predecessor in that argument, of course, was Alexander Hamilton, who in THE FEDERALIST No. 85 wrote, “A nation without a national government is to my mind an awful spectacle.”

In sum, the creation of the United States as an independent nation was a long, arduous process, one with both domestic (national) and international elements – one that can’t be contained in a tweet.

Joyce Chaplin vs. Ted Cruz

Perhaps you have seen the Twitter battle taking place between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Joyce Chaplin.   Cruz ran for POTUS In 20016.  Chaplin is an early American historian and chair of Harvard’s American Studies program

Chaplin’s claim that the United States was formed by an international community through the Treaty of Paris (1783) is true.  Having said that, to connect the Treaty of Paris with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement seems to be a bit of a reach. I hope Chaplin will write a longer piece on this.  I am less interested in the connections between Paris 1783 and Paris 2017 and more interested in Chaplin’s understanding of the relationship between the past and the present on matters like this.

Cruz, of course, can’t stay away.  His tweets reveal his simplistic understanding of the American Revolution.  As Cruz proved during his presidential campaign, he is incapable of nuance, especially when history does not conform to his view of American exceptionalism.

I wonder what Cruz would say about me if he ever found out that I tell my students that the Americans would not have won the Revolutionary War without the help of France, Spain, and other European powers.

Here are the tweets:

Thomas Jefferson on the Run

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Check out Michael Kranish‘s piece at The Washington Post on the time Thomas Jefferson fled Monticello to avoid being captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Kranish is the author of Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War.

Here is a taste:

Jefferson’s flight made him a mockery. He was called a coward and worse. His political enemies began an investigation into his conduct and he faced the possibility of censure for leaving the state without leadership while looking out for his own interests. One legislator wrote that Jefferson’s flight left Virginia “in a most distressed condition from sea to the mountains.” Jefferson would later explain that he knew he was no military man; he was a planter and scientist and intellectual, not a warrior; it was best, he reasoned, to have a seasoned general take over. He knew his limitations. But he was tormented by the criticism.

“I had been suspected & suspended in the eyes of the world without the least hint then or afterwards made public which might restrain them from supposing that I stood arraigned for treasons of the heart and not merely weakness of the head,” Jefferson wrote. “I felt that these injuries … had inflicted a wound on my spirit which will only be cured by the all-healing grave.”

Jefferson rebutted his critics the way he knew best, with his writing. He was in the midst of composing chapters for his only full-length book, “Notes on the State of the Virginia,” which featured rhapsodic descriptions of the state’s natural beauty. He delivered his defense of his actions in a chapter about the Navy, which consisted of one paragraph. His point was that the state in effect didn’t have one and that it wasn’t his fault. Since the British invaded, he wrote, “I believe we are left with a single armed boat only.”

Read the rest here.

History is Good for Business

MorristownMorristown National Historical Park in New Jersey, the place where George Washington and the Continental Army spent part of the winter of 1777 and most of the winter of 1779-1780, makes a lot of money for Morristown and the surrounding Morris County region.

In 2016, 252,500 visitors came to the park.  They spent $15 million dollars in the region.

American history does not just help us become better citizens, but it is also good for the economy.

Read more here.

 

Nathaniel Philbrick Wins the 2017 George Washington Book Prize

PhilbrickHere is a taste of the press release from Washington College, one of the sponsors of the award.

Author Nathaniel Philbrick has won the coveted George Washington Prize, including an award of $50,000, for his book, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking). One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious literary awards and now in its 12th year, the George Washington Prize honors its namesake by recognizing the year’s best new books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that engage a broad public audience. Conferred by George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and Washington College, the award will be presented to Philbrick on May 25 at a black-tie gala at Mount Vernon.

“To have Valiant Ambition recognized in this way means a tremendous amount to me, especially given the extraordinary quality of the books produced by the other six finalists,” said Philbrick. “My heartfelt thanks to the jurors involved in the selection process and to the George Washington Prize’s sponsoring institutions.”

Valiant Ambition is a surprising account of the middle years of the American Revolution and the tragic relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold. Philbrick creates a complex, controversial, and dramatic portrait of a people in crisis and of the war that gave birth to a nation. He focuses on loyalty and personal integrity as he explores the relationship between Washington and Arnold—an impulsive but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes at the hands of self-serving politicians fatally destroy his faith in the legitimacy of the rebellion. As a country wary of tyrants suddenly must figure out how it should be led, Washington’s unmatched ability to rise above the petty politics of his time enables him to win the war that really matters.

“Philbrick brings both careful craftsmanship and propulsive energy to his storytelling—a hallmark of all his widely read and acclaimed books,” says Adam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. “Moreover, Valiant Ambition is also an impressive feat of research: it offers dramatic episodes that have been largely forgotten, such as a naval battle fought by Arnold on Lake Champlain in 1776, which Philbrick turns into a heart-racing adventure story.”   

Established in 2005, the George Washington Prize has honored a dozen leading writers on the Revolutionary era including, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the hit musical Hamilton. For this year’s prize, a distinguished jury comprised of notable historians David Preston, Kathleen DuVal, and Nick Bunker, selected the finalists from a field of nearly 60 books.

Mount Vernon’s event on May 25 will also honor the six finalists for the 2017 prize:

T.H. Breen, George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (Simon and Schuster)

Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf“Most Blessed of the Patriarchs”: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination (Liveright Publishing)

Jane Kamensky, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (W.W. Norton)

Michael J. KlarmanThe Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution (Oxford University Press)

Mark Edward Lender and Garry Wheeler StoneFatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press)

Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (W.W. Norton)

 

The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

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This week the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is getting all the press, but J.L. Bell reminds us that there is another museum of the American Revolution that recently opened at Yorktown.  Bell paid a visit to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown and tells us what he saw in a recent post at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste:

Though this museum is at the site of a particular event—the Yorktown siege of 1781—it covers the entire Revolutionary conflict, starting with the imperial situation of the 1750s and running to the expansion of the U.S. of A. in the 1790s. The galleries have the themes of “The British Empire and America”; “The Changing Relationship—Britain and North America”; “Revolution,” meaning the war; “The New Nation”; and “The American People.”

The museum also uses a lot of interactive technology. I didn’t watch the introductory film, “Liberty Fever,” but I was impressed by many of the smaller video displays. One standout was the museum’s Liberty Tree, a metal sculpture draped with “20 electronic lanterns that display liberty messages from all over the world.” Visitors in person and online can type out short remarks (no more than 108 characters) about what liberty means to them, and those appear on the lanterns.

Beside the museum building there’s a feature I remember from Yorktown decades back, a recreation of the Continental Army camp during the siege of 1781. Alongside that is an eighteenth-century farm raising vegetables and herbs; it includes a tobacco barn, representing colonial Virginia’s main crop, but apparently no tobacco fields.

The American Revolution Museum is allied with the Jamestown Settlement, a recreation of the first lasting British settlement in North America—not to be confused with the actual site of that settlement, which is a different attraction. And of course they’re all within a moderate drive of Colonial Williamsburg. As I said, well worth a visit.

Read the entire post here.