Like most of our speakers, our guest for February, John Steele Gordon, treated us to an exploration of a topic about which most of us knew little. In this case it was George Washington's monument. We learned with amazement that it took almost a century for the politicians to complete this unique memorial. At 555 feet, it remains the tallest stone structure in the world. The story of the decades long struggle to create this monument to our nation's chief founder is fascinating in itself. It is full of famous names such as Elizabeth Hamilton, the founder's widow, and Dolley Madison, who devoted years to fundraising which still left the monument sadly incomplete. But these revelations proved to be only the first of a series of treats. The explanation is in the title of Mr. Gordon's new book, Washington's Monument and the Fascinating History of the Obelisk. We were soon listening to a history of these unique slabs of stone and the way they captured the imagination of nations all over the world since the days of ancient Egypt. Mr. Gordon proved himself the master of at least a dozen stories almost as fascinating as the Washington Monument. He also seemed to have something close to an engineer's appreciation of the technical difficulties involved in moving such staggering tons of stone across seas and continents. The Round Tablers could not get enough of his often witty descriptions of where the various obelisks around the world came from and why they were favored as a way of commemorating fame. We came away pleased to know that the Washington Monument is probably the world's most famous obelisk. But we also enjoyed a new and lively consciousness of the way these stone spires had become symbols of history in a dozen different guises. We have no doubt that Mr. Gordon's book will soon be in every Round Tabler's library.
One of our newest members, Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, gave us a lively account of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal, our speaker for February. Ms. Kaplan saw it as a revealing untold story of marginalized groups in the American Revolution - enslaved and free blacks, American Indians, women and British loyalists. She praised the way the book dramatized the impact of the Revolution on these groups and also described how they had to cope with Old World conflicts between French and British, Spanish and British and their Indian allies. She listed the eight individuals on whom Ms. DuVal focused. All of them had interesting stories to tell, notably Oliver Pollock a slave trader who settled in New Orleans and devoted much time and money to sending supplies and weaponry up the Mississippi to the Americans. Another interesting figure was Amand Broussard, a Cajun who hated the British for expelling him and his family from Acadia. Ms. Kaplan also explained the book's title. As the 18th century ended free blacks, slaves, women and Indians lost what little bargaining power they had during the Revolution. She thought that the book should be required reading for those who wish to understand the deep roots of past and present pro-activism by these groups.
EVACUATION DAY REBORN
For more than a century, Evacuation Day was a major holiday in New York City. Gotham proudly celebrated her role in the climactic moment of the American Revolution - - November 25, 1783, when British troops retreated from the city and boarded the transports that would take them back to the mother country. Then came World War I, in which the British were our allies. The federal government decided Evacuation Day had better be abandoned. Arthur Piccolo, chairman of the Bowling Green Association and James Kaplan, head of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society, decided to bring this important day back to life. They lobbied the City Council and after hours of testimony and arm-twisting, the politicians voted to co-name Bowling Green Plaza "Evacuation Day Plaza." This leaves the future wide open to ever bigger and better celebrations of Evacuation Day. The Round Table will be an eager participant in these future festivals. Meanwhile we offer our congratulations to Messrs Piccolo and Kaplan.
GEORGE WASHINGTON HITS IT BIG
If anyone has some doubts about the importance of Evacuation Day, they should pay a visit to the Doyle Auction Galleries. There they will discover the story of the fourth highest price ever paid for a single page letter. It was written by General Washington to his wartime aide, James McHenry on December 10, 1783, little more than two weeks after the first Evacuation Day.
When Washington entered New York City on Evacuation Day, he led a triumphant parade down Broadway beside Governor George Clinton of New York. On December 4, Washington called together his officers and bade them farewell in a tearful ceremony at New York's Fraunces Tavern. He left the city later that day on his way home to Mount Vernon. His progress was slow. Jubilant crowds stopped him again and again in cities such as New Brunswick and Trenton. Finally he reached Philadelphia and had a few moments to write a letter to former aide McHenry.
Dear Sir: After seeing the backs of the British forces turned upon us and the executive of the state of New York put into the peaceable possession of their capital, I set out for this place. On Monday next I expect to leave the city and by slow traveling arrive at Baltimore on Wednesday where I will spend one day and then proceed to Annapolis and get translated into a private citizen.
The Continental Congress was meeting at Annapolis. Washington's slangy description of his plan to resign his command to them is evidence of his high spirits. Now we flash forward to the Doyle Gallery auction. Almost as fascinating is the Gallery's publication of what they call the "provenance" of the letter. It was bought in 1859 as part of McHenry's papers. The buyer was a Baltimore collector named William Walters, who paid $21 for it. The letter was then passed on to Walters' descendents, the last of whom died in 2011. In 2012 it was auctioned at the Doyle Gallery -- and sold for $362,500 to a private collector.
DOES THE MUSICAL HAMILTON RECAST THOMAS JEFFERSON AS A VILLAIN
One of our most venerable magazines, the Atlantic Monthly, has published an article suggesting that the new hit musical, Hamilton, does serious damage to Thomas Jefferson's reputation. The author cites the show as further evidence that "Jefferson's star may be fading." Democrats are erasing his name from political dinners because of his slave-owning history. A Gettysburg College professor recently told us that Abraham Lincoln "hated Thomas Jefferson." In 2012, when historian Henry Wiencek published a controversial book on Jefferson as a slave master, the New York Times called him "The monster of Monticello."
In the musical, Jefferson is a well dressed dandy who avoided fighting in the war and - for a man who wrote the phrase "all men are created equal" -- holds hypocritical positions about slave ownership and women's rights. "Hey neighbor. Your debts are paid because you don't pay for labor," Hamilton snaps at Jefferson during one of the play's cabinet face offs. Hamilton represents everything currently in the Zeitgeist - he is an immigrant, an orphan and a self-made man. Jefferson represents everything that is out of fashion. He's a slave owning aristocrat. Despite promises to free his 175 slaves upon his death, Jefferson only freed five - those related to his mistress Sally Hemings. Jefferson doesn't show up until the musical's second act. The American Revolution is over when he returns from Paris. "What did I miss?" he sings, dressed in a foppish purple velvet outfit, dancing across the stage like a dilettante. "I've been in Paris meeting lots of different ladies. I guess I basically missed the late '80s."
In a 1996 article for the Atlantic Monthly, the Irish historian Conor Cruise O'Brien predicted Jefferson would soon have no place in American history: "I believe that in the next century as blacks and Hispanics and Asians acquire increasing influence in American society, the Jeffersonian liberal tradition will become socially and politically untenable." The Atlantic concludes that the Puerto Rican born creator of the musical, Lin Manuel Miranda, has indeed made Jefferson seem socially and politically untenable. The question is, will the urge to re-examine an American icon catch on?
BIG NAMES SAY THE PRINCETON BATTLEFIELD SOCIETY IS WRONG
In mid-February the New York Times published an article on the dispute over the Princeton battlefield. The reporter quoted Mark Peterson, chairman of the History Department at the University of California, Berkeley, who analyzed a study of the battlefield on behalf of the Institute for Advanced Study. Readers of the Broadside know the Institute wants to build a housing project on a crucial section of the battlefield. Professor Peterson says the PBS has it all wrong. He says "the shooting actually takes place several miles west of the town and through the center of the town where Princeton University is today." Theodore J. Crackel, former editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington, agrees with him. "Unless you want to tear down a third of Princeton University's buildings where the battle also took place," he said. "It doesn't seem that they are ever going to have a definitive answer to this." Other prominent historians such as James McPherson and David Hackett Fischer have persuaded the Institute to move the planned housing farther from the battlefield park, and insert a screen of vegetation between them. The PBS is now citing land-use law, including the Federal Clean Water Act to block the construction. The housing development, they say, infringes on protected wetlands, though state officials say they have found no evidence of that. The Civil War Trust said the Institute rejected an offer last year of $4.5 million for the 22 acres surrounding the housing site. "They said this project was a critical need," a spokesman for the Trust said. "To us it is astounding that faculty housing is a critical need."
Strangest of all is Mark Peterson's argument. He says that he can see preserving acres to honor battles in the Civil War where thousands of men perished in a single conflict, many of them unidentified. "In the battle of Princeton, however, only a few dozen men were killed." The fact that these men died while changing the history of the American Revolution seems to have made no impression on Professor Peterson.
AN EXPLORATION OF JEWISH ROOTS IN PHILADELPHIA
Lynne Saginaw, our book review chairman, urges everyone to think about visiting a site in Philadelphia that Polly Guerin, board member and culture maven, wants us to know about. At the Museum of Jewish American History, located on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, a fascinating exhibit has recently opened. "American Roots: The Andrews Family" traces the 300 year history of a family that includes the revolutionary patriot and financier Haym Salomon and Benjamin Nones who served with distinction under Count Pulaski in the Carolina campaign.
SCHOLASTIC PUBLISHING HALTS CHILDREN'S BOOK ON SLAVE
"This is something that reflects contemporary feelings about black history," a publisher friend told the Broadside. He was talking about Scholastic Publishing's decision to halt distribution of a picture book about George Washington and his enslaved cook, Hercules. The book portrayed the former president's house slaves as happy smiling workers. Scholastic had previously defended the book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The story focused on Hercules and his daughter, Delia, as they baked the president a birthday cake. Scholastic said that it had been written with "the utmost care." They claimed it was a proven fact that Washington doted on Hercules and the cook lived a life of "near-freedom." They claimed he was "the first celebrity chef in America." Critics were unimpressed and a rash of one star reviews on Amazon and a Change.org petition calling for its removal from stores changed the publisher's mind.
Broadside's comment: Scholastic's defense of the book failed to make an important distinction about American slavery - the huge difference between house servants and field hands. The field hands were the ones who did the heavy labor and most resembled the conventional image of the slave. Washington himself had no illusions about them. He once did a sort of time and motion study to see how long it took a group of slaves to do some heavy labor - and compared it to how long it took free workers. He concluded slavery was a system with grave flaws. The slave saw no reward for his labor. This was why Washington told numerous people he hoped slavery would be eliminated as soon as possible - and to set an example, freed all his slaves in his will.
THE KENNEDY PRIZE FOR HISTORIC DRAMA
The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History should be getting more publicity. In concert with Columbia University, the Kennedy family has created this award for a play or musical inspired by American history. The prize includes a cash award of $100,000. This year's finalists included An Octoroon by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, Sweat by Lynne Nottage and Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. The winner was the hit musical, Hamilton. The prize was announced on Feb. 22, which happens to be both George Washington's and Ted Kennedy's birthday. Later in the spring, it will be awarded to Hamilton in a public ceremony.
THE JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION KEEPS US ON OUR HISTORICAL TOES
Todd Andrlik, winner of our annual award for his book on how newspapers reported the revolution, continues to do wonders to spread the word through his Journal of the American Revolution. Each month they publish the best articles of the preceding 30 days. A year's worth is now being published in hardcover books. This year's volume is now available via Amazon on a preorder basis. Last year's edition sold out in a few weeks.
Here is a sample of the 10 most popular articles for February 2016
Why God is in the Declaration but not the Constitution by Anthony J. Minna
Two years aboard the Welcome - the American Revolution on Lake Huron by Tyler Rudd Putman
The Carefree and Kindhearted General George Washington by Nancy K. Loane
George Washington Convenes a Firing Squad by Joshua Shepherd.
The Battle of the Vigie Peninsula by Bob Ruppert
You can find more about these titles by going to allthingsliberty.com.
THE SPEAKER FOR APRIL: PATRICK O'DONNELL
HIS SUBJECT: WASHINGTON'S IMMORTALS,
THE STORY OF THE
MARYLAND AND DELAWARE REGIMENTS
From Long Island to Yorktown, this division of the Continental Army repeatedly distinguished themselves. The book has won remarkable pre-publication publicity. It was voted the best history book of the month of March on Amazon. A long article about it has appeared in a major English newspaper. The Wall Street Journal gave it a rave review in their March 4 edition. Patrick O'Donnell is well known for his ability to write dramatic accounts of struggles on historic battlefields.
AND A WORD FROM OUR CHAIRMAN
We will continue the Round Table's 56th year on Tuesday, April 5, 2016, at 6 pm at The Coffee House Club, at 20 West 44th Street, on the sixth floor. As usual, we would like everyone's reservation in advance. The stamp-deprived can email our treasurer, Jon Carriel, at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 212-874-5121.
Your most obdt svt,
David W. Jacobs