A New Ethan Allen
Willard Sterne Randall riveted our June meeting with a talk on his new book, Ethan Allen, His Life And Times. It was a wonderful combination of a personal story, the story of a state (Vermont) and the history of the nation. As an (almost) native of the Green Mountain State, Will had many humorous and insightful remarks about Vermont’s customs and habits, focused, of course, around its most famous citizen. He took us on a wonderful tour of Ethan Allen’s life (enlivened further by numerous illustrations from his book, which his computer flashed on a screen). We heard the forgotten story of the battle for Vermont’s real estate, fought between the Green Mountain Boys led by Allen and New Yorkers led by “Swivel Eyes” James Duane, an aptly nicknamed real estate lawyer and future mayor of New York City, who led the Empire State’s assault on the Allen camp’s claims to their land. From there we moved swiftly to the epic moment in Ethan Allen’s life, the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Will told us with not a few more humorous asides what Ethan really said, and what he later claimed to have said, when he confronted the British commander of the fort. From there the story grew somber, as Allen became the reckless leader of a premature invasion of Canada, which led to his capture in Montreal, and 34 months of horrendous imprisonment, with a death sentence for treason dangling above his head as he was shipped to England and back to America, ending up in one of New York’s many vile prisons. His health never entirely recovered from this beastly ordeal. But he emerged as an authentic hero, welcomed by fellow Americans, including George Washington. Thereafter, Allen returned to Vermont and worked with the Governor, “One-Eyed” Tom Chittenden, to acquire some 250,000 acres of prime real estate. Ethan also pretended to negotiate with the British about remaining in the British empire, which was a shrewd ruse to keep British troops out of Vermont for the rest of the war. Meanwhile he found time to write a 500 page book attacking organized religion in the name of reason, stirring a huge uproar among New England’s clergy and believers. Will frankly described the book as unreadable, but the story of the uproar was very entertaining. The evening’s only regret was the discovery that a publishing glitch prevented the Round Table from offering copies of the book. But we can guarantee that there was a rush to the bookstores and/or Amazon when it became available in the ensuing summer.
A New Home for the Round Table
While we had no serious complaints about the Roger Smith Hotel as a place to meet, not a few members confided to the chairman and members of the board that they had wistful memories of the Williams Club. In June one of our most distinguished members, historian Jack Buchanan, informed Tom Fleming that he had just lunched (deliciously) at the Coffee House Club and learned from several of its leaders that they were looking for organizations such as The Round Table to improve their bottom line.
Tom once belonged to the Coffee House, and knew many of its members. In something close to a flash, Chairman Dave Jacobs, Treasurer Jon Carriel and Tom were invited to lunch by the CH’s top people and found everything to their liking, and then some.
The CH is now in its 96th year. It was founded by rebels from the Knickerbocker Club, who decided that that organization had grown stuffy and arrogant. Their Constitution consisted of one terse sentence: NO OFFICERS, NO CHARGE ACCOUNTS, NO LIVERIES, NO TIPS, NO SET SPEECHES. NO RULES. The club has long attracted people from the arts and publishing world. It remains to this day a luncheon club, with occasional dinner meetings only on Wednesdays—hence their interest in The Round Table as regular Tuesday evening visitors. Its walls are decorated with New Yorker cartoons and other interesting illustrations. There is a comfortable lounge where we can enjoy cocktails before adjourning to the dining room for a good three course dinner. Chairman Jacobs and his cohorts have signed us up for a season at this charming place. The Coffee House is now operating at 20 W. 44th Street, on the sixth floor of the beautiful old building and library of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. We think you’ll like it as much as our advance scouts did, and look forward to seeing you on October 4th.
How John Adams Would Have Conquered Canada
A fascinating glimpse of John Adams in his retirement years has emerged from a $15 million collection of rare documents amassed by the late newspaper publisher, James Copley. In 1812, as the Americans floundered into the first of several disastrous attempts to conquer Canada, John wrote a letter to his old friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, describing how he would have done it if he were still president.
Adams faulted President Thomas Jefferson for not declaring war against Great Britain in 1806, when the British began impressing American seamen from merchant ships. Then John would have fortified the frontier along the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic coast and increased the size of the U.S. Navy. But he would not “have said a word about Canada,” he continued. “I would not have invaded it untiI I had a decided supremacy of naval power on the lakes…nor till I had an army of 35 or so thousand men.” Then he “would have made short work of Canada and incorporated it into the Union.”
Compared to the way the Americans blundered in 1812, those confident words may make some people wish “Honest John” (as he called himself) had stayed around and done the job his way.
The Polly Cooper Legend Goes Viral
Who was Polly Cooper? Shame on you if you don’t know. It proves among other things, that you haven’t been spending enough time with the Oneida Indians lately. The Oneidas, owner of a lucrative casino in upstate New York, recently donated a 19 ½ foot statue of Polly, George Washington and Chief Skenendoah to the Smithsonian Institution. The Oneidas were among the few Indians who fought for the Americans – and fought well – in the American Revolution. Washington issued offi- cers’ commissions to several of their warriors. Not content with this historical achievement, the tribe has been pushing Polly Cooper as a heroine who journeyed to Valley Forge with some 50 or so Oneida warriors, carrying several hundred bushels of corn. Arriving just in time, Polly taught the Americans how to cook the corn before eating it, thus saving the ignorant white men from starvation.
We asked Tom Fleming, whose book on Valley Forge won several prizes, if there was any truth to this. Tom shook his head sadly. “By the time the Oneidas got there in the spring of 1778, Washington had the supply problem mostly solved, thanks to appointing General Nathanael Greene commissary general. Also, the idea that Americans in 1778 still didn’t know you had to cook corn before eating is wildly fanciful. The Americans had been living on the continent for 150 years. They certainly knew that if you ate uncooked corn, it would break your teeth. I’m afraid Polly Cooper is fiction.”
Let’s Make Washington’s Real Birthday Official
The mention of General Washington prompted Tom to tell us of a letter he recently received from Congressman Frank R. Wolf of Virginia. He has introduced a bill to reestablish Washington’s birthday as an official federal holiday on February 22, no matter whether it falls on a Monday or a Friday or whatever. “I believe we need to restore the observance of Washington’s Birthday to honor his legacy and focus attention on his life of service and duty to his country,” the Congressman wrote. Mr. Wolf wants to repeal the Uniform Monday Holiday act, which he considers one of the worst mistakes Congress made in the 1970s.
The Congressman asked Tom to tell Round Tablers about this proposal and urge them to write to their congresspersons, urging them to support Wolf’s proposal. Get thee to your emails, all of you.
The Whistle Blowers of 1777
Whistleblowers in 1777? You must be kidding. But Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblowers Center, has got the facts. The first WBs were sailors serving under Commodore Esek Hopkins, commander of the U.S. Navy. In the winter of 1777, they wrote a letter to the Continental Congress to accuse Hopkins of torturing captured British sailors. He “treated prisoners in the most inhuman and barbarous manner,” the whistleblowers wrote. A Marine captain named John Grannis traveled to Philadelphia to present the petition to Congress. The lawmakers voted to suspend Hopkins from his post.
Hopkins responded with livid fury. His brother was a former governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Two of the whistleblowers were arrested and jailed. Congress reacted by passing America’s first whistle-blowing law. They proclaimed it a “duty of all persons in the service of the United States” to report misconduct of higher officers and officials. It then authorized payment of the legal fees for the two arrested men.
The whistleblowers won their case in court and Congress voted $1,148 to pay their lawyer. It directed “Sam. Adams” to make sure they got the money. Mr. Kohn says this story gives contemporary Americans a powerful lesson in the need to support and protect whistleblowers, no matter how formidable their adversaries are. The ARRT congratulates him for revealing yet another way the Revolution’s story is relevant today.
The Grange is Open for Business
On Saturday, Oct. 18, Alexander Hamilton’s historic house, The Grange, opened after a five year $14.5 million move and restoration. For the first time in a century, a house which had been squeezed into a space far too small while people squabbled over race, honor and national history will have the (original) site it deserves. Kenneth Jackson, Columbia professor and editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of New York, says “I think we should be very proud of him (Hamilton) and New York. I don’t think we have really honored him as much as we should have.”
Hamilton enthusiasts are prone to complain that he has never achieved the fame of Washington or Jefferson. But even the most ardent Hamilton booster has to admit there are reasons for this lesser position. “Ham” was never president and he died relatively young in a nasty duel with Aaron Burr. But he was the founder who foresaw an urban, industrial future for the mostly agrarian United States of his era, and he fought ferociously for a strong national government to achieve this goal. Richard Sylla, professor of economics at NYU and chairman of the Museum of American Finance, is working on a book about Hamilton’s foresight. He says the brilliant West Indian born Hamilton "wrestled with the same problems we’re facing now.”
Douglas Hamilton, a direct descendant, will be one of about 30 with Hamilton blood in their veins attending the opening. This contemporary Hamilton says it’s time for Hamiltonians to stop attacking Jefferson and concentrate on promoting their founder.
The house was moved in 1889 to make way for street construction. It wound up jammed between a church and later, an apartment tower. Parts of the house were sliced off to make it fit. No wonder visitors were few. It was dark and dismal inside and most people in the neighborhood didn’t even know what it was. The move back to a portion of Hamilton’s original estate became a necessity when the house began decaying to the point of near collapse.
Before you rush up for a visit, be prepared to discover that only part of the house has been restored. But the net effect is still impressive. There is a sunlit foyer with a study off to the side, leading into a connected living room (which has a piano owned by Hamilton) and then into an eight-sided dining room with full-length mirrors on all three doors, matching the room’s three windows.
Alas, this is only part of the first floor. The back two rooms and the upper floor are unfinished, and will probably remain that way. The upper floor has been cleared for office space for the National Park Service, which administers the house. This has left some pro-Hamilton activists very unhappy; they see the offices as a violation of the house’s integrity. It looks like Hamilton will still be stirring up debates from followers who will undoubtedly point out that no one has installed offices in the upper floors of Monticello.
A Founding Father Who Disappeared Without a Trace
Long before Judge Crater did his famous vanishing act, Judge John Lansing, Jr evaporated in 1829. He left behind an enormously important legacy. As a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he broke the rule of secrecy and took voluminous notes on the debates that raged around him. His notebooks are part of the same Copley collection that contains the John Adams letter. Others at the convention, such as James Madison, also took notes but edited them before publishing them years later. Copley never revealed his notebooks to anyone, which means his jottings have an immediacy that makes them seem doubly authentic.
Among the more startling items: Edmund Randolph, an opponent of writing a new constitution, strenuously insisted that “the sentiments of the people should be consulted first” – a move that almost certainly would have ended in disaster. Randolph also wanted the country broken up into three divisions and one executive taken from each to create some sort of troika. Gunning Bedford of Delaware savagely attacked the “ambition and avarice” of the large states, who were pushing for proportional representation. Alexander Hamilton warned that the individual states were too weak to survive without a union – and remarked it was a miracle that they had gotten as far as a convention. Hamilton also said he was ready to become a martyr to free government but expressed grave doubts as to whether they would be able to avoid either “the violence of Democracy” or the “Tyranny of a Despot.” When a bicameral legislature was proposed, a cynical Edward Rutledge of South Carolina remarked that the lower house might be honest but would probably lack ability to legislate. The upper house would monopolize ability. There was more than a hint that the aristocratic Rutledge considered the average citizen too stupid to participate in government.
The notebooks were purchased by Roger Hertog, chairman of the New York Historical Society, who announced he would donate them to the Society’s library. Pauline Maier, professor of history at MIT, called it a “spectacular acquisition.” She praised the Society for planning to digitalize the notebooks for the use of scholars everywhere.
Lansing’s notebooks became part of his estate after the 75 year old jurist walked from his New York hotel to a dock on Cortlandt Street to deliver some letters to an Albany bound packet boat. He never returned to the hotel. Most people presumed he had fallen off the dock and drowned. But his body was never found. Thurlow Weed, the powerful Albany publisher and politician, later claimed that the Judge had been murdered by prominent men whom he opposed politically.