A Revolutionary Idealist
In April, one of our favorite speakers, Richard Buel, took Round Tablers on a guided tour of the Revolutionary world into which America plunged in 1776. Our escort was Joel Barlow, the Connecticut-born literary and political genius who was the first to see the American upheaval’s potential as literature. He is the subject of Dick Buel’s latest book, Joel Barlow: An American Citizen in a Revolutionary World. Barlow was a complicated man. His ambition was to be hailed as a great writer. But Dick frankly admitted that most of his epic poem, The Vision of Columbus, is unreadable today. Probably the only poem Barlow wrote that modern readers might enjoy is something he tossed off while embroiled in the French Revolution, The Hasty Pudding, a mock heroic tribute to one of America’s favorite dishes. Far more interesting were Barlow’s political ventures and adventures. He went to France in 1788, hoping to sell large chunks of the American continent to wealthy Frenchmen. His real estate company went bankrupt and the French Revolution exploded all around him, changing his life forever. He became a friend and confidant of Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson ( U.S. ambassador at the time), the Marquis de Lafayette and numerous others who thought this was another phase of the passion for liberty, equality and brotherhood ignited by the Declaration of Independence. Barlow rushed to England and began writing reckless essays urging a similar revolt. For a little while he rode high in a circle of English radicals but French massacres of anyone suspected or disliked by the revolutionaries in Paris soon triggered a conservative British reaction followed by declarations of war. In France, out of this chaos rose the opposite of liberty, the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte. With remarkable skill, Barlow rode the political waves, relying on the fame won by his epic poem and not a little business acumen. He never wearied of fighting oppression. As American consul in Algiers, he freed numerous Americans captured by Moslem pirates. By the time Jefferson became president, Barlow and his wife were living in a mansion in Washington, D.C., Kalorama, and he was a confidant of both the president and his secretary of state, James Madison. When Madison became president, he sent Barlow to Paris as his ambassador, hoping to win a treaty from the French that might help him avoid war with Britain. Napoleon stalled and stalled and a desperate Barlow pursued him deep into Russia, where the envoy was swept into the nightmare of Bonaparte’s frantic retreat/flight from Moscow. An exhausted Barlow died of pneumonia in a small Polish village. Dick Buel summed him up as a man who is still relevant to our own turbulent times. Along with realists, we need visionaries like Barlow, who committed his life to enlarging the dimensions of liberty.
A Philadelphia Story With an Unhappy Ending
On March 7, the Weekly Standard magazine published a chilling report by Ryan L. Cole on what has happened to the attempt to restore the Philadelphia mansion in which George Washington and John Adams launched the American presidency. The splendid house, near the corner of Sixth and Market Streets, was offered to Washington by the merchant king, Robert Morris. After 1800, when the government migrated to the new federal city, Washington DC, the house passed through various hands and was demolished in 1832.
nonexistent until construction for the new Liberty Bell Pavilion turned up evidence that the rear of the house abutted the entrance to the pavilion. In that section of the house lived the slaves that President Washington had brought from Mount Vernon. Suddenly there was something called the “Avenging the Ancestors Coalition”, led by an attorney named Michael Coard. Next, Congressman Chaka Fattah pushed through Congress legislation mandating the National Park Service to create a plan to interpret the president’s site and its inhabitants. That, Mr. Cole reports, “was when all hell broke loose.”
Years of controversy followed, as black Philadelphians demanded a focus on slavery and others urged the importance of the house in the history of the presidency. Those who want more details can find them on the website of the Independence Park Association. The Park Service opened the site in December 2010. Instead of a full reproduction of the house, the finished product is, in Mr. Cole’s words: “a mishmash that partially reconstructs pieces of the walls, complete with unframed windows.” The result “looks more like a piece of abstract art than a house.”
Inside this framework are video presentations about slavery during the founding of the nation and on the lives of Washington’s slaves There is almost no mention of the presidency. Washington is treated as a “law breaking bondsman” because Pennsylvania required that any slave who resided in Philadelphia for longer than six months had to be freed. Washington tried to rotate his slaves on a six months basis but two of them ran away and the resultant publicity prompted him to hire white indentured servants for the last years of his second term. “The subtle but essential point that Washington was a man of his time, wrestling with the hypocrisy of slavery is nowhere to be seen,” Mr. Cole writes. He concluded that the outcome “squanders a rare opportunity to chronicle the creation of the executive branch and the lives of a host of figures central to the beginnings of the United States of America.
George Washington For Sale
Proof that Washington’s reputation will survive the Philadelphia embarrassment is the excitement over the sale of a wealth of artifacts belonging to or related to the nation’s premier founder. The treasure trove emanates from a seemingly unlikely place, the tiny town of Ephrata, Washington. It includes family papers going back to1662, some of the surveying instruments George used as a youth, and chunks of his coffin. They are owned by a Washington family that is descended from the great man’s favorite brother, John Augustine Washington, whom he usually called “Jack” in the many letters he wrote to him. The collection includes the Bushrod Washington Papers, a treasure trove unto themselves. Bushrod, Jack’s son, was a Supreme Court justice and the man who inherited Mount Vernon after Martha Washington’s death in 1802. John Reznikoff, a Westport Conn. dealer in historical documents, predicts the collection will “go for six figures.” It is heartening to think that this branch of the Washington family kept all these treasures intact, as they moved over the decades from Virginia to the far West.
The Dames Give Tom Fleming Another Prize
We’re not talking about ordinary dames. These are descendants of America’s first comers, known as The Colonial Dames of America. They have ancestors who lived in British America from 1607-1775, and who held public office or served in the military, or won prominence in some other way in the 13 colonies. The organization held their annual meeting at the University Club and awarded Tom their 2011 prize for “Exceptional Literary Merit” for his book, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. Tom was their guest of honor and gave a talk, telling how and why he wrote the book. Round Tablers will be pleased to learn that these distinguished ladies agree with their literary judgment. The NYARRT gave Tom their annual prize for the book last year.
The Secret Sex Lives of the Founding Fathers
In late April, the internet magazine, Salon, excitedly announced that Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler and other cultural cynosures, has published a book entitled: One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Loves Changed the Course of American History. The opus was written with David Eisenbach, a professor of American Political History at Columbia University. Salon was so impressed, they interviewed our newest historian. Among Larry’s more dubious assertions is the announcement that Ben Franklin’s womanizing ways helped him win favor with the French and gain that country’s military support during the Revolutionary War! If anyone believes this idiocy, we’ve got a bridge we want to sell him or her that will give the owner the right to charge money to people travelling to Brooklyn.
Next, Flynt confesses he was “amazed” to discover that Thomas Jefferson had six children by his mulatto slave, Sally Hemings. This bit of pseudo-news, which has been disproved or severely doubted in several recent books, has been making historical waves since 1998, which leaves our freshman author only 13 years behind the curve. Next comes an assertion that Dolley Madison and her two Quaker sisters “turned the White House into a brothel.” Here Larry mindlessly repeats slanders flung at the Madisons by the expiring Federalists in their desperate attempt to stay alive as a political party.
Need we say more about this expedition into the past by one of the nation’s founding pornographers?
That’s what the New York Post calls another bit of news about George Washington. Back in 1757, when George was a colonel in command of the Virginia militia, fighting the French and Indians, he jotted down his recipe “to make small beer.” The manuscript eventually came to rest in the archives of the New York Public Library, which has asked the Coney Island Brewing Company to whip up a few dozen quarts of George’s brew to fuel their May 23 centennial celebration. The new batch will be called “Fortitude’s Founding Father Brew.”
This awful title is vivid proof that the library should stick to what it does best: cataloguing books and manuscripts.
George scribbled the formula in a notebook he kept on the frontier, which included all sorts of miscellaneous info, such as the names of his wagon horses: Nelly, Jolly, Ball, Jack, Rock, Woodfin, Prince, Buck, Diamond and Crab.
According to Brewed in America, a history of the nation’s beers, George’s taste for lager persisted through the Revolution. On the day that the British evacuated New York, the commander in chief reportedly stopped in the Bull Head’s Tavern, on the street that became the Bowery, and downed a draft to celebrate.
Lest the wine lovers among our readers recoil from this emphasis on the plebian side of the Great Man’s taste buds, we hasten to assure them that at his dinner table George stuck to his favorite wine: Madeira.
Religion and the Founders
By interesting coincidence, on May 5, the day President Obama proclaimed a National Day of Prayer, the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia published a fascinating essay on religion and the founders. The New York Times also ran a profile of David Barton, a Texas populist who has been touring the country and lecturing politicians on his conviction that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and most of its current woes flow from a refusal by today’s politicians to recognize that fact. Barton wants to see all sorts of religious activities such as prayer in public schools, presumably Christian in content, mandated by the government.
The ARC essay takes a very different approach to this important question. Written by Professor Wilfrid McClay of the University of Tennessee, it begins by asking a question. At a time when organized religion is atrophying in Europe, why do Americans continue to have a vibrant diverse and tolerant religious life?
Professor McClay’s answer is the founders’ refusal to impose any political form or requirement on religion. The First Amendment banned such a possibility. But the founders saw nothing wrong with supporting religion in various ways. The separation of church and state did NOT mean the total separation of religion from public life. Soon after passing the First Amendment, Congress passed a resolution calling for a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving. President Washington promptly issued a proclamation to this effect. At various times, all of the founders made statements affirming the importance of religion in sustaining public morality.
Professor McClay quotes extensively from the French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in the 1830s. He was amazed by the way the “spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion” coexisted and reinforced one another in American society. He concluded that liberty and religion were NOT antagonists – something that was a prevailing fact in Europe.
Professor McClay closes his essay with a quotation from George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he cautioned Americans never to imagine that “national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”
The essay is one of a series being published on the ARC’s website. You can visit the website at: americanrevolutioncenter.org.
Our First National Monument
How many can name this piece of historic sculpture – and its location? We’re ready to bet they are few and far between. It was voted by Congress 235 years ago to honor our first national hero, and reposes on the outside wall of St. Paul’s Chapel. The honoree is General Richard Montgomery, who died leading an assault on British-held Quebec on Jan 1,1776. Congress voted to spend three hundred pounds to commemorate his sacrifice. We were still dealing in British currency in those early days. The dollar had yet to be invented. It is the only one of 13 other monuments voted by the Continental Congress that materialized. The man who deserves the credit is Benjamin Franklin. He took the order with him to France when he became one of three “commissioners” assigned to negotiate a treaty of alliance. In Paris, Ben hired Jean Jacques Caffieri to create a sculpture suitable to place on a wall, either in Independence Hall or in a church. The artist was soon complaining mightily about the low fee. Franklin nevertheless liked “the elegant simplicity of the design” and shipped the result to Philadelphia, paying the cost of the packing and transportation across the Atlantic. The ship captain decided to outwit the Royal Navy’s blockade and deposited it in Edentown, North Carolina. There it sat for years while the war churned on and on. Not until 1788 was it unpacked and sent to New York, where the old Congress was precariously residing, in its final days. On the advice of Pierre L’Enfant, who was redesigning City Hall as a new home for the Congress created by the Constitution, the city’s Board of Alderman gave it to St. Paul’s. It is currently being cleaned and repaired under the supervision of Trinity Church, which owns the chapel. The memorial will soon be visible in its original beauty.