The Man Behind the Curtain
Charles Rappleye, our speaker in December, got a warm welcome from Round Tablers who remembered his superb previous book, The Brown Brothers of Providence, which won our annual award in 2006. Now he was returning to discuss an even more fascinating book. Robert Morris, Financier of the American Revolution. Rappleye presented Morris as an unsung Founder, "one of the great men of his time," but forgotten by recent historians. The last biography was published in 1903. Yet Morris was central to the American victory. It was Morris who obtained the revenue and financing for Washington's army and the establishment of the American government. Many contemporaries opposed him, among them Washington's former aide, Joseph Reed, who became a prominent Pennsylvania politician. Reed called Morris a "pecuniary dictator." A modern leftist historian has accused him of making much of his fortune out of the Revolution, which was untrue. Also untrue is, Rappleye ironically noted, "another myth that still persists -- Robert Morris financed the Revolution out of his own pocket."
Morris was born illegitimate in Liverpool. After joining his merchant father in Maryland, he became an apprentice to a merchant in Philadelphia. The head of the firm soon made young Morris a full partner. He imported slaves and indentured servants, but his main trade was in flour. He had little interest in politics, but when the break with England came he opted for the American side and at the age of 40 became a revolutionist. He proved to be a savvy operator. His chief task was to find gunpowder and he was very successful. He built a network of secret traders from the Baltic to the Caribbean. He prospered later in the war when he left government to resurrect his trading operations and sent privateers to sea. He was a rich man when the war ended.
For the first years of the war, the radicals "held sway" over American finances. Then their paper money crashed and in 1781 Morris became Superintendent of Finance. He demanded--and got--sole power to hire and fire. The later loans from France went directly to Morris. Without his invisible hand, Washington's disgruntled regulars might never have gotten to Yorktown.
After the war Morris invested heavily in land, buying a staggering 6 million acres from New York to Georgia. But the French Revolution short circuited the flow of immigrants that were supposed to buy these fertile tracts and also disrupted Morris's trading empire. He went broke and was thrown in debtor's prison, where his friend George Washington visited him. Morris was released when imprisonment for debt was abolished and lived the rest of his life in obscurity, dying in 1806. "There was no parade for Robert Morris," Charles Rappleye concluded. But this gifted writer left Round Tablers with a new awareness of a great man's contribution to the nation we enjoy today.
Andrew Harris gave us his take on Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla A. Miller. The American Revolution has its heroines: Margaret Corbin, the original "Molly Pitcher;" Sybil Luddington, the "Female Paul Revere;" and Deborah Sampson, the first woman honorably discharged from the United States Army, having served 17 months under the name "Robert Shurtliff." Though these women have been memorialized in art and local legend, their contributions are considered noteworthy because they were exceptions: they played roles in the war's narrative that were otherwise filled by men. There is one Revolutionary heroine, however, who is remembered for a direct contribution that was entirely her own, and in many respects unexceptional--Betsy Ross.
Born Elizabeth Griscom in (most likely) what is now Camden, N.J. on January 1, 1752, Betsy trained from an early age to become an upholsterer, not the seamstress of popular myth. She later married one of her colleagues, John Ross, with whom she went into business in 1774. She is best remembered today for her contribution to the design of the first flag officially adopted by the Continental Congress after independence. At times maligned as a fake, Betsy remains one of the Revolution's most beloved figures. It is surprising that there has not been a single scholarly biography devoted to her until the publication of Miller's volume.
More of the book is devoted to Philadelphia and its artisan community than to Betsy Ross herself. But one chapter takes up the question of whether she actually designed the so-called "Betsy Ross Flag," the original Stars and Stripes. Although she is often credited with this feat in popular mythology, she never claimed to have designed the flag attributed to her. Rather, affidavits attested to by Betsy's children and grandchildren in the 19th century memorialize a family tradition that George Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross visited Betsy Ross in the spring of 1776 and consulted her about a new flag for the country. As the story goes, Washington suggested that they modify the Continental Army's Grand Union flag by replacing the Union Jack with thirteen six-pointed white stars on a blue field, but Betsy demonstrated that five-pointed stars were easier, quicker and therefore cheaper to mass produce. Impressed by Betsy's knowledge and skill, Washington and his companions purportedly commissioned her to develop such a prototype flag, which was later approved by Congress.
George Ross, a signer of the Declaration of Independence was an uncle of John Ross, Betsy's late husband and business partner. But there is no documentary evidence that the meeting ever took place, and quite a bit to suggest that it did not. Miller concludes that "many people helped form the national emblem we recognize today. The flag, like the Revolution it represents, was "the work of many hands."
Mr. Harris recommended the book to anyone interested in the Betsy Ross legend or the Philadelphia artisan community in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Jon Carriel reported on Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove, a professor of history at Stanford University. Rakove's subject is the intellectual growth of the individuals who comprised the leadership of the revolutionary generation. The book is a series of character studies, particularly fascinating as they carry each man through long periods of time, detailing the evolution of his ideas, emotions, attitudes and activities. The writing is so coherent that the reader feels caught in the sweep of ongoing time, and never jostled back and forth from one moment to the next.
The first part of the book comprises the last colonial years and the agonized decisions for separation; the second, the war years, during which those who had the leisure to do so urgently pondered the continuing rationale for their battles; and finally, the early national period, when the issue became the definition of the successfully independent country.
Rakove sees American revolutionaries as a bewilderingly diverse group, and he discerns only a few common threads among them. He never quite states a theme, unless it's the following: In the early 1770s, he writes, "the men who soon occupied critical positions in the struggle for independence were preoccupied with private affairs and hopeful that the troubles that had roiled the empire in the 1760s would soon be forgotten. To catch them at those moments when they individually realized that would not be the case is to understand that the Revolution made them as much as they made the Revolution."
After the Declaration, Rakove devotes a chapter to the many American leaders who indeed suffered mightily as a result of the blatant hypocrisy of endorsing liberty on the one hand while condoning chattel slavery on the other. An overview follows of the early efforts of "The First [state] Constitution Makers" A main issue facing these men was apparently manhood suffrage for all free white males."The Diplomats" treats Franklin, Adams and Jay's separate and continued struggles to balance idealism and realpolitik during the extended peace negotiations in Paris.
The three concluding chapters form a section called "Legacies," which includes a description of Jefferson's philosophical and cultural "optimism"; Madison's concentration on fundamental political principles and realities; and Hamilton's relentless nationalism. Jon said he was not sure he understood why the author bills his tome "a new history of the invention of America." Perhaps "a new perspective" on the invention of America might have been more appropriate -- and quite an achievement in itself. Jon concluded that Revolutionaries is a valuable addition to the literature that deals thoughtfully with the question, "What were they thinking?"
Tom Fleming: Playwright and Agitator
On December 8, the audience at the Boston Playwright's Theater was mesmerized by a reading of Tom Fleming's play, "Fall of a Hero." The drama is a vivid account of Dr. Joseph Warren's desperate search for peace in the two months after the fighting on April 19, 1775. The handsome young physician was determined not to yield an iota of the justice of the American cause. But he remained hopeful that some sort of accommodation could be reached with the British in Boston – and London. Alas, instead of negotiators, George III sent three major generals to settle matters -- Messrs Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne. Meanwhile Warren is being pushed to negotiate by his close friend and fellow doctor, Benjamin Church. an arrogant intellectual who looks down on the "common herd." Around them swirl 17,000 restless militiamen, the impromptu army that gathered after the bloodshed at Lexington. Colonels Israel Putnam and William Prescott press Warren to build a fort on Bunker's Hill---
The readers were professional actors, carefully chosen by the theater's artistic director, Kate Snodgrass. Afterward, in response to calls for the author, Tom urged the audience to find a way to create a history theater in Boston to dramatize the city's storied past. Boston Radio, the city's NPR station, thought this was such a good idea, they interviewed Tom about it for a half hour.
"What about a history theater for New York?" Broadside's editors asked with not a little indignation.
"Your question is definitely to the point," Tom said. "They have a very successful history theater in Chicago. They recently performed a play about Benedict Arnold that was rated one of the ten best of the year."
Is anyone listening on or off Broadway? Are we going to let Beantown and the Windy City upstage us?
Did You Know?
Supposedly conservative Boston was one of the first cities in America to encourage women to work outside the home. Many women widowed by the French and Indian War supported their families by working in the sewing trades. By 1770, over 70 shop-owning women were making comfortable livings. They were called "She-Merchants."
Trashing the Revolution to Deflate the Tea Party Movement of 2010
Last June Broadside deplored the History Channel's massacre of the Revolution's narrative in its series, "America, The Story of Us." Broadside now even more mournfully reports that the New Yorker, ordinarily a magazine that is restrained--or at least subtle--in its politics, and careful about its facts, has gone in a similar direction. Apparently the editors decided that the Tea Party activists who had not a little to do with the sweeping Republican victory in the November elections could be dismissed by portraying the protestors who started the American Revolution as a bunch of brutal lowbrows.
The perpetrator of this stunt is a writer named Caleb Crain, who says he is daring to ask "new questions about the American Revolution that conventions of political sentimentality usually render unspeakable: Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?"
Selectively quoting from a half dozen recent books about the early years of the Revolution, Mr. Crain blandly dismisses Samuel Adams's assertion that Parliament had no right to tax Americans because they were not represented in it. He simply notes that Adams's use of the word "unconstitutional" was new to the political discourse of his time. He skips the Boston Massacre and focuses on acts of violence against loyalists such as Thomas Hutchinson. He describes the Tea Party as one more excess by the dimwits that John Hancock and Sam Adams manipulated like so many puppets.
Then comes a total bypass of the most crucial result of the 1773 tea party. "Britain overreacted," Crain offhandedly writes, "closing the port of Boston, restricting town meetings in Massachusetts and giving the king the power to appoint the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature." The arrogance -- and stupidity -- of this decision to strip Massachusetts of basic political rights is breathtaking. But Crain prefers to focus on more acts of violence against loyalists that broke out in various places. In a quotation that reveals his purpose, Crain tells us how "wealthy Gouveneur Morris" of New York described the mounting anger of the average man and woman. "These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. The mob begin to think and reason."
It is almost laughable to cite Morris, one of the great snobs of the era, as the man to pass judgment on the growing revolutionary fervor.
Not a word about how reasonable cautious men such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin concluded around this time that Britain's indifference to Massachusetts's charter was forcing them to act and speak as revolutionaries.
Instead Crain cites a historian who pompously intones: "No evidence survives showing the king or his ministers contemplated a complex plan to destroy American rights." One is forced to ask: who needed a complex plan? On June 18, 1775, we have documentary proof that the British were going to launch an all out assault on the Americans that would snuff out the Revolution in its cradle. But spies leaked the plan to Joseph Warren and his military advisors, Colonels Putnam and Prescott. They seized the initiative and built a fort on Breed's Hill. We all know what happened there on June 17, 1775.
A Salute to a New Jersey History Hunter
Arthur Miller is a lover of American history with a special emphasis on the Garden State. He has a good reason for this focus. He had a family tradition that an ancestor fought in the Revolution. He did some documentary research and turned up Stephen Bedford, who was a member of New Jersey's revolutionary militia, and manned the "Old Sow", the cannon on the heights above Hobart Gap near Springfield that sounded the alarm that turned out the militia for the famous 1780 battle. Pleased but not content, Art wondered what happened to the Old Sow. He began asking questions and the answers led him to Morristown National Historical Park. NPS rangers guided him to a store house where the forgotten gun sat in all its historic glory. A week or so later, Miller, his son and a squad of Stephen Bedford's seventh generation grandchildren visited the gun. It was a thrill none of them will ever forget.