When History Came to Life Before Our Eyes
In April the Round Table had a unique experience. Out of The Coffee House lounge emerged a reincarnation of one of the American Revolution's most original eyewitnesses, Philip Freneau. Intimate college friend of James Madison, survivor of a tour on a British prison ship in Wallabout Bay, deplorer of the brutal slavery the British practiced in the West Indies, nationally famous poet and Thomas Jefferson's spokesman in the newspaper war with Alexander Hamilton for control of the American public mind, Freneau had a lot to say and he started saying it vigorously, brilliantly, wittily, before our goggled eyes and amazed ears for the next 45 enthralling minutes.
Okay, now we'll calm down and admit that this magnetic apparition was Joseph Smith. In his other incarnations, Joe is a member of our Round Table and an actor of considerable note. He has played John Merrick in The Elephant Man and Virgil in a staged version of Dante's Inferno. But he is best known for vividly original recreations of historical personalities like The Young Abraham Lincoln, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Philip Freneau. We especially enjoyed the part of Phil's story in which he demolished Alexander Hamilton's tendency to favor the one percent over the ninety nine percent and President George Washington became prone to denounce "that rascal Freneau" in language he would never repeat within the earshot of respectable ladies. Joe (as Freneau) did not point out that George was a definite one percenter thanks to Martha's money, which was just as well, given the number of Washington worshippers in our conclave. The applause was thunderous and sustained beyond what mere writers of history earn at our podium. It was our Round Table's way of saying thanks for this chance to not merely hear about history, but to live it.
Books Books Books
Dr. Joanne Grasso led things off with a review of James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. Joanne says she was drawn to the book by a claim on the jacket cover that Madison was "tough". James Madison? she wondered, this slight, remarkably intelligent, incredibly studious man, tough? It was the last word she would have applied to him. But she came away from this book concluding that "the great little Madison", as his wife Dolley called him, "indeed was tough!"
Joanne ticked off the reasons for this startling conclusion. Madison defended the Constitution he had written in a three month ordeal during one of Philadelphia's hottest summers. He was the only sitting president who led troops in the field. He survived the humiliation of seeing the White House incinerated. All this in spite of weighing little more than 100 pounds and surviving bouts of illness which justified the adjective "sickly" to describe his health – or lack of it. Mr. Brookhiser convinced her that this little man was "smart, tough and wily."
Brookhiser combines the journalist and the historian in his style. He calls Madison a "cogwheel in one of the first American political machines, the Virginia Dynasty." He also brashly called Madison's solution to the problem of slavery "worthless, a pathetic case of intellectual and moral failure" without so much as citing a single footnote to support this denunciation.
Leisurely reading is not Brookhiser's goal. The book races through the high points in chapters entitled: The First Political Party", "The Wilderness Years," "War Leader" and "Retirement." At times Dr. Grasso found herself questioning his focus and wanting more information. She concluded that greatness such as Madison's requires more time and attention than Mr. Brookhiser is willing to give it.
Mike Harris reviewed something new and different: a set of DVDs from a series called "The Great Courses." This one is titled: "American Ideals: Founding a Republic of Virtue." On 2 DVDs are twelve 30 minute lectures. Among the things Mike found most appealing was the pause button. Why? Although you can hit that button anytime, he rarely resorted to it because "the presenter is really so good, you actually want to hear what he has to say.
The subject is the impact of 18th Century philosophy, morality and reality, which created the background for the American Revolution. The presenter is Dr. Daniel N. Robinson of Oxford and Columbia Universities. He is invariably "picture perfect," in his language even when he is talking about "little Jimmy Madison, all four feet ten of him." The sarcasm gives the listener a feeling that he is in touch with a man with a sense of humor as well as a fund of recondite knowledge. Mike closed claiming that anyone who wants to know more about the "thought processes" that led to the creation of the American Republic will find it on these DVDs
Is Jefferson Being Slandered at Monticello?
The following story came to us via a clandestine route that cannot be revealed but is nonetheless assuredly reliable. A judge from a large western state recently toured Monticello and made the following report. The staffer who conducted the tour "never missed an opportunity to downplay Mr. Jefferson's accomplishments and repeatedly stressed that Mr. Jefferson, though professing equality for all, chose not to free his slaves even at death, unlike George Washington." She claimed that Mr. Jefferson never invented anything but merely adapted ingenious gadgets he had seen in Europe for his own uses. As for illegitimate children by Sally Hemings, the staffer said with wry disgust that Jefferson "quite possibly" was the father of all of them. The Judge came away thinking that Thomas Jefferson "was not honored at Monticello."
A Monument to a Tragic Battle
Michael Kahn is a police officer and local historian in Yorktown Heights, New York. With the help of generous donors and the Yorktown Historical Society, he has played a leading role in creating a superb monument to the largely forgotten Battle of Pines Bridge which took place near Yorktown Heights on May 14, 1781. Stationed in and around the large Davenport House were the soldiers of the mostly African American 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Their commander was Colonel Christopher Greene. The house overlooked Pines Bridge and the Croton River, two vital links to the Hudson River. Some people thought it was an excellent point from which to launch an assault on British-held New York.
At dawn on May 14, Colonel James De Lancey and his regiment of loyalists attacked the regiment without warning and achieved complete surprise. They were able to break into the house and stab Colonel Greene as he struggled out of his bed. The regiment's soldiers and junior officers were bayoneted without mercy and routed. The raiders dragged the dying Greene out of the house, planning to take him prisoner. But he soon expired of his wounds and they left his body by the side of the road. The regiment's casualties are variously reported, but they seem to have been about 40 killed and wounded.
Michael Kahn decided that the battle deserved to be remembered. "Too many people think the Revolution was fought between Anglo-Saxons in red coats and Anglo-Saxons in blue coats," he says. "Too many people don't know about the diversity of the troops." His research not only revealed that most of the 1st Rhode Island were black; not a few were Indians. With that in mind, he found a gifted sculptor who has created three symbolic figures, standing back to back with guns aimed at an unseen enemy. One is black, another is white, and the third is an Indian. It is immensely moving and dramatic. We urge Round Tablers who have the time or opportunity to visit Yorktown Heights not to fail to stop and admire it.
Don't Let Them Destroy the Princeton Battlefield!
In what one historian has called "a repulsive example of institutional arrogance," the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton is going ahead with plans to build housing for 15 faculty members on a crucial part of the Princeton Battlefield. The Institute recently persuaded the Princeton Regional Planning Board to roll over and grant them permission, over the angry objections of the Princeton Battlefield Society. The whole thing is nauseating. This conclave of supposed scholars, whom one would presume to have some respect for historical sites, is instead blandly ignoring protests from local defenders of the battlefield. Making the whole thing even more atrocious is the fact that there is plenty of room elsewhere on the Institute's ample acres to build the housing. It is sheer disgusting willfulness at work. The Battlefield Society has hired an attorney and filed suit to prevent the construction from beginning. Naturally, they could use a contribution or two. If you want to send cash or a comment, write to Bill Marsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
George W's Distillery is Open for Business
In our previous issue we told you about George Washington's beer, which did not score big with contemporary guzzlers. But there may be redemption for the nation's founder in the booze business. His agents at Mount Vernon have a thriving business in the sale of his whiskey. Dennis Pogue, the director of preservation who oversaw the reconstruction of the distillery, is pleased with the way things are going. "We had amazing documentation for the rebuilding, he says. "We knew who was working here, even how much they were being paid." That knowledge allows for a full experience for visitors to the site. You can even page through a replica of a ledger in the distillery storage room.
Washington sold mostly to neighbors within a five mile radius, according to Mr. Pogue. Bartering was common — oysters, shoe leather, ducks, turkeys. In 1799, the year of Washington's death, Sarah Chichester, who lived down the road, paid in corn and wheat for 32 gallons of Washington's whiskey, plus fine flour and 7,000 herring.
"People kept saying, 'you're teasing us here—what does it taste like?'" Mr. Pogue said. "So we decided to make enough to offer for sale and see how it went."Mr. Pogue and his team used Washington's recipe and methods to make a twice-distilled unaged rye whiskey, using a mash of rye, corn and malted barley that was the standard of the time. When the whisky was released in 2010, it sold out in a few hours. Since then, the distillery has released two other batches; the first aged reserve was released late this past October.
Visitors can tour the distillery and watch demonstrations of 18th-century whiskey-making, complete with costumed distillers who stoke the fire and stir the mash. If you happen to be around when the team is making real rye, ask for a taste of white dog the Washington way – straight from a wooden bucket. You can find George Washington's Distillery and Gristmill on Route 235 (three miles south of Mount Vernon) Tours of the distillery run from April 1 to October 31 Admission is $4. We got all this great info from Lynne Saginaw.
A Tribute to George — or a Denunciation?
The British National Army Museum recently conducted an online poll of around 8,000 people which produced a short-list of five men to compete for the title of Britain's greatest military enemy. One important criterion for the contest was that each commander needed to have personally led an army on the field of battle against British forces, ruling out front-runner Adolf Hitler. General Washington ran far ahead of Irish independence hero Michael Collins, France's Napoleon Bonaparte, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
The Chicago Tribune reported this story and quoted historian Stephen Brumwell as saying the American Revolutionary War was "the worst defeat for the British Empire ever," so it's no surprise that the architect of that defeat is still one of Britain's most despised historical figures. We think Mr. Brumwell and the Tribune have gotten the story all wrong. The Brits don't regard this vote as an insult. After a war they have a tradition of saying good things about enemy leaders who have earned their respect. Maybe they remember what George said at a dinner he gave for the British officers he had captured at Yorktown. When one of them offered a toast to George III, our George cheerfully raised his glass and said: "Confine him to England and I'll drink him a full bumper!"
Did You Know—???
Bob Heffner, one of the founders of the Philadelphia Round Table, has long been a triple threat guy. Along with a day job for the Philly police department, he has done a lot of acting and a lot of reading about the Revolution. He has now combined the latter two passions to emerge as General Henry Knox, Washington's artillery commander.
Bob is determined to correct the abysmal public ignorance about his hero. Along with the general's achievements during the war as a cannoneer, he has been telling people that Knox was the consummate supporting actor behind the scenes in peacetime. He convinced a dubious Washington to attend the Constitutional Convention. Knox worked up a sketch of a new government with senators and representatives and a STRONG president, which won Washington's approval and was very close to the version finally adopted. As secretary of war in Washington's cabinet, Knox pushed for building frigates for our embryo navy which became crucial when President Adams tangled with French privateers during the 1798 Quasi War and President Jefferson got involved in the Barbary Wars. He also worked hard to improve Indian-White relations, repeatedly insisting on giving the Indians a square deal in negotiations with the Federal government and protecting them from encroachment by greedy state governments like New York's.
Bob will be portraying the General in a series of plays at the Historic Philadelphia history theater this season. Maybe we can get him to pay us a visit ala Mr. Freneau.
Tom Fleming wins a Big One
On May 7, at a dinner in the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, the Gomez Foundation for Mill House presented Tom Fleming with their Pioneer Award for his lifetime achievements as an historian and novelist. The Foundation honors Luis Moses Gomez, builder of a trading post on the Hudson River five miles north of Newburgh which has become the oldest Jewish house in America. During the ceremony, Carol Berkin, Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and Kenneth Jackson, Jacques Barzun Professor of history at Columbia University, spoke warmly of Tom's talents. Accepting the award, Tom discussed how "spiritual pioneering" had led him from his Irish-American youth to an exploration of the Revolutionary era, where he discovered that brotherhood was a crucial part of the American experience.
A Shipbuilder for the Enemy? Say It Ain't So, Bill
Bill Fleming, who frequently supplies the Round Table with photos of famous folk buried in forgotten cemeteries, recently discovered he has a great great great grandfather who built two ships that took control of Lake Ontario in the War of 1812, frustrating American hopes of invading Canada. Patrick Fleming was the head foreman in the dockyard that hammered together the men of war. Bill assures us he was not a loyalist fugitive from the Revolution. He was a Scottish Catholic whose family had emigrated to Canada long before the upheavals of 1776.