A GALAXY OF FLOATING HEROES
In February, Tim McGrath took Round Tablers on an unforgettable voyage aboard the ships of the Continental Navy. He summed up what he was going to say with stirring words: the story was “not just about ships, or about dates and battles.” It was about politicians, visionary shipbuilders, sailors, officers, some very brave, many with tragic ends. It was also about wives and lovers, and like all narratives from the first part of our nation’s story, it was about slaves.
Tim proceeded to make good on every one of those promises. We learned how John Adams persuaded the Continental Congress to create a navy – in spite of opposition from politicians like Samuel Chase of Maryland, who called it “the maddest idea” he had ever heard. He told how Congress voted to build 13 frigates but soon found their dollars inflated so wildly that they were paying over a million dollars per ship. He described how John Adams’s fellow New Englanders managed to get their sons, brothers, cousins and assorted other relatives placed in command of a startling number of ships. Black Americans were about ten percent of the crews. Many were slaves and some of their owners treated them abominably—seizing their share of their ships’ prize money and refusing to free them.
The story rapidly transcended such painful facts, as daring commanders took on the Royal Navy all over the globe. Tim’s favorites were soon visible – John Barry, “the sailors’ Captain”, John Paul Jones, the daring Scotsman who never admitted defeat, no matter how badly a battle seemed to be going. He won his most famous victory in an epic battle off Flamborough Head on the English coast, while thousands of stunned Britons watched from the shore. Finally there was Gustavus Coyningham, Irish-born captain of the swift cutter, Revenge, who sank, burned or captured more ships than Barry and Jones combined. Coyningham often operated off the English coast, sending insurance rates soaring. Frantic British ship captains called him “the Dunkirk Pirate.”
Not to be forgotten was another daring commander, John Peck Rathbun, who encountered the immense Jamaica Fleet enroute to England, guarded by dozens of men of war. Rathbun coolly sailed into the middle of this armada and persuaded one merchantman after another to surrender to his menacing cannon, flung a prize crew aboard, and sailed the captive ship back to Boston. Several fellow American captains imitated him and when the prizes were sold, the total take was over a million dollars.
High romance accompanied these daring sailors everywhere. John Paul Jones had at least one girl in every port. When the British captured Coyningham in 1779, he was shipped to England loaded with chains, for hanging. General Washington changed their minds by promising to hang six captured Royal Navy officers in retaliation. Meanwhile Gustavus’s feisty wife, Anne, sailed to France to persuade Ambassador Ben Franklin to win his release. By the time the war ended, the Continental Navy, which had launched 57 ships, had dwindled to two. Their story awaited a historian who would breathe new life into all these daring sailors -- and they have found him in Tim McGrath. To add an exclamation point to the storm of applause that swept over the Coffee House as Tim finished his talk, Chairman Dave Jacobs rose to inform the members that the Round Table was awarding Tim our annual prize. Give Me A Fast Ship was the best book on the American Revolution in the year 2014.
ARE FACTS NOW IRRELEVANT?
Last month, the Broadside reported on the myths and fictions that crowded a version of our Revolution on the American Heroes Channel. This month we have the dolorous task of reporting another assault on the facts of our great drama. Sons of Liberty, a three part series on the History Channel, begins with a twenty or twenty five year old actor playing Samuel Adams, brawling in the streets with redcoats and loyalists. As one critic remarked, it looked a lot like Martin Scorcese’s “Gangs of New York.” The year is supposed to be 1765, when the real Sam Adams was a plump forty year old, definitely not inclined to exchange kicks and punches with anyone. Almost as an afterthought, the History Channel tells us the series is really historical fiction. Alas they seem oblivious to the fact that good historical fiction doesn’t alter fundamental facts, such as the age and temperament of real historical characters. At least as egregious is the actor playing John Hancock, the richest merchant in Boston. He looks all of a callow twenty two, and acts accordingly. Also trotted out are versions of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington which verge on the idiotic. We are forced to ask a sorrowful question: if the show is not history, and not genuine historical fiction, what exactly is it? We’ll let the History Channel come up with an answer to that conundrum.
BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
The reviewers were plentiful in February. First in line was Dick Mooney reviewing a biography of Dr. Joseph Warren by Samuel A. Foreman. Dick wryly adds that everybody knows the doctor now. “He’s the fellow who makes out with General Gage’s wife in Sons of Liberty.” In the real historical world, however, the opposite is the case. Warren has been totally forgotten. Biographer Foreman, himself a doctor, can’t stop lamenting this unfortunate fact. The first 100 pages tell us about Warren’s rise from abject poverty to medical prominence. He was the doctor of choice for John and Abigail Adams, Cousin Sam and loyalist governor Thomas Hutchinson. He was also a pioneer in persuading people to accept vaccination against smallpox. When Sam Adams became a patient, Warren switched from occasional writer of angry letters about British arrogance to full fledged rebel conspirator. He gave the orders that sent Paul Revere and his fellow riders on their way – and the guilt he felt from the bloodshed he saw on April 19 compelled him to join the men in the redoubt on Breed’s Hill two months later. He died there from a bullet in the back of his head. Dick finds fault with Dr. Foreman’s fondness for baseless speculation but finds it amusing that he thinks Mrs. Gage was the person who told Warren about the expedition to Concord. At least he does not explain it by pointing to anything as improbable as the steamy sex of the History Channel.
Joanne Grasso told us about The Return of George Washington by Edward J. Larson. The book opens with Washington’s retirement ceremony at Annapolis in 1783. Larson then draws on letters, speeches and public writings over the next six crucial years, where Washington slowly abandoned his thoughts of retirement and began to realize that the country still badly needed his leadership. Joanne has special praise for Larson’s treatment of the Constitutional Convention. He brings alive the rancorous clashes between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. She also has warm words for his description of the pomp and ceremony of the first presidency. She concludes that the book is a “good read.” Watch out, she adds: “you might learn something as well!”
Maria Dering told us about Spies, Patriots and Traitors, American Intelligence in the Revolutionary War by Kenneth A. Daigler. At first glance she saw little new in the book; it seemed a routine review of a much written about subject. Then she realized that Mr. Daigler is himself a professional conspirator – he’s a retired CIA man. He calls Benjamin Tallmadge “the case officer for the Culper Ring.” Unfortunately, his terminology goes awry in some cases. But he has a broad understanding of how fragile and error-prone spycraft can be. When he focuses on these errors, the book comes alive. He’s also internationally minded. One of his best chapters is “Covert Action in Europe Leading to the French Alliance.” Maria found the book a “good compilation of important information told from an interesting perspective.”
HAMILTON, THE MUSICAL
Also on our historical plate for 2015 is a musical starring Alexander Hamilton which is being sold to the public with a passion that is nothing less than awesome. A ten page article in the New Yorker explained and defended it. A similar exercise in the New York Times does the same thing in even more direct language. The man behind this explosion is Lin-Manual Miranda, the composer, lyricist and star of the show. In 2008-9, he conquered Broadway with “In the Heights”, a musical set in Washington Heights. The show blended salsa with rap and hip-hop to spectacular effect, winning four Tony awards. Then Mr. Miranda read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton and saw in his story an American saga that connected to the Latino and Black experience. Born out of wedlock in the West Indies, raised in poverty, Hamilton arrived in America just as the Revolution was exploding and soon became an essential part of it. He rocketed from George Washington’s most valuable aide to Secretary of the Treasury, then fell into disgrace by perpetrating America’s first public sex scandal – and died in a duel with Aaron Burr. Miranda saw similarities with Tupac Shakur, the West Coast rapper who was shot to death in 1996. A metaphorical Hamilton began singing and dancing in his mind and was soon doing it on stage at the Public Theater. The impact on some people has been remarkable. Hamilton’s run has been extended again and again. Our Andrea Meyer saw it with Latino friends who were thrilled by it. The idea of the founding fathers as immigrants, singing songs in a style that belonged to their people, had never occurred to them. Andrea tells us that Ron Chernow has been a consultant for the show. Many lines quote or paraphrase Hamilton’s letters. There are minor details which are not accurate, Andrea adds. But most of it is very accurate. Whether the show will translate to white America is a large question. Our Lynne Saginaw recently said: “Rap music and a bunch of guys in Continental Army uniforms dancing in hip-hop style? The mind reels, the stomach churns. I’m concerned less knowledgeable folk will mistake this stuff for the truth. It’s a great shame because the truth was thrilling.” As we went to press, the producers of Hamilton announced it would open on Broadway in July.
DID YOU KNOW?
A few months ago a researcher found in the archives of the Town of Sandwich (England) a hitherto unknown copy of the Magna Carta. The timing could not have been better. That same week, the four copies owned by Britain were brought to Parliament to launch the 800th anniversary celebration of the famous document, signed by a reluctant King John of England in 1215. The Sandwich edition, though it is somewhat damaged, was estimated to be worth 10 million pounds. But the town has decided not to sell it. They are going to use it as a tourist attraction. The mayor of Sandwich, Paul Graeme, added a comment of special interest to Americans. He thought perhaps it was fitting that a copy of the first great guarantee of equal justice to all men and women had been found in Sandwich, “a town where Thomas Paine lived, who proposed in his pamphlet Common Sense a Continental Charter for what were then the American colonies, “answering (as he put it) to what is called the Magna Carta of England…securing freedom and property to all men…and the free exercise of religion. Through the American Declaration of Independence, continuing in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Magna Carta still underpins liberties worldwide.”
THE OLD STONE HOUSE
Several people have urged us to call attention to the only memorial to the 1776 battle of Brooklyn, George Washington’s worst defeat. The Old Stone House, a two story Dutch colonial farmhouse, has earned its title by sheer accident. It happened to be in the middle of the bloody collision between 10,000 American and 20,000 British and German soldiers, in which 1300 Americans were killed or captured. The house is a replica of its 1699 original, restored in 1997 and opened as a museum thanks to decades- long efforts of several Brooklyn politicians and two Brooklyn historians, Herb Yellin and John J. Gallagher. As Round Tablers know, Washington managed to evacuate most of his army from Brooklyn by night, rescuing the Revolution from fatal collapse. The Old Stone House is valuable, Pulitzer prize winning historian Edwin Burrows says, because the battlefield itself has completely disappeared. The house is the only anchor we have left. One mystery linked to this disappearance is the whereabouts of the dead. Theories abound about the location of a mass grave in an oval on Third Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets, but only a huge prohibitively expensive excavation could prove it. So we have the lovely old house, which you can visit for only three dollars, and gaze out the windows of the second floor, now an art gallery, imagining the carnage that once raged a few dozen feet away.
GEORGE WASHINGTON CROSSES THE PERSIAN GULF
That’s right, the Persian Gulf. This fall the Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi opened a branch of the Louvre Museum, part of a long term agreement with the French government. Not a few people were startled when museum officials in Abu Dhabi announced they had paid the Armand Hammer Foundation a hefty undisclosed sum for a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. Recent sales of Stuart portraits have been in the $8 million range.
This 1822 painting shows the first American president sitting at a desk, one hand resting on a document, the other cradling a sword hilt. In this late era version, Stuart added a rainbow in the sky outside Washington’s red-velvet curtained window. Arab museum officials saw it as a symbol of hope for a new nation. The portrait will be displayed beside Jacques Louis-David’s epic painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” which is on loan from the Palace of Versailles. Americans should be pleased to discover that George Washington can speak to people so distant and different from the world he knew.
THE SCHOOL OF THE LOYALIST
For those who want to get a different viewpoint on the American Revolution, the School of the Loyalist at Historic New Bridge Landing will be open again this year.
The hosts are the 4th Battalion of New Jersey Volunteers and the Bergen County Historical Society. From Aug. 28-30, visitors will enjoy academic presentations by speakers such as John Nagy, workshops, drill instruction, battlefield exercises and a number of camp activities, including an authentic field hospital. Nestled along the Hackensack River, New Bridge Landing was the home of loyalist captain John Zabriskie, whose house still stands there. Nearby property was owned by Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk. They were all part of the three battalion brigade commanded by General Cortlandt Skinner. Loyalists were numerous in New Jersey. New Bridge was the site of no less than ten battles, skirmishes and encampments. Google “The School of the Loyalist” for more information.
CONTINENTAL ARMY CAMP FOR KIDS
The loyalists are not the only ones who are getting into the summer camp game. In Washington DC, the Society of the Cincinnati has announced they are sponsoring an idea which could (we hope) inspire a lot of imitators. From July 27-31, they will run a day camp at their headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue. Girls and boys from 8-12 are invited to join experts who will tell them about the daily life of soldiers and women in George Washington’s army. Campers will dress in period costumes and enjoy hands-on activities, including sewing a tent and learning drill musters and dances. The camp will conclude with an open house for parents to see demonstrations of what the campers learned during their week in the 18th Century. You can learn more about the Society of the Cincinnati on their website, societyofthecincinnati.org
THE SPEAKER FOR APRIL: Tom Fleming THE SUBJECT: His new book, The Great Divide The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined A Nation
AND A WORD FROM OUR CHAIRMAN
We will gather as usual at the Coffee House Club, 20 W 44th St. on the sixth floor at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 7 to continue the Round Table’s 56th year. As usual, we would like everyone’s reservation in advance. The stamp-deprived can call Jon Carriel at 212 874 5121 or email him at email@example.com. If you have any questions about the menu, you can contact Jon either by phone or email.
Your most obdt svt,
David W. Jacobs