At our June meeting, Round Tablers got a rare treat. They not only listened to a first class historian reveal new and startling facts about scientist and spy Edward Bancroft, one of the enigmas of the American Revolution -- they got a fascinating account of how he made one of his most important discoveries. Thomas J. Schaeper, professor of history at St. Bonaventure’s University in upstate New York, is the author of one of the past year’s best books, Edward Bancroft, Scientist, Author, Spy. In an off-hand easy-going style, he told how he discovered some Bancroft direct descendants in England and when he visited them, found in metal boxes in one of their attics an astonishing number of two hundred-year-old letters and other documents.
Mr. Schaeper also made us think seriously about crucial questions. Was Bancroft a traitor? He was born in America but he left as a very young man, and spent the rest of his life in England. Mr. Schaeper argued convincingly that he may have accepted a British offer of a hefty pension to report on Benjamin Franklin and the other Americans in Paris out of a patriotic desire to preserve the unity of the empire, an emotion shared by thousands of men and women we now call loyalists. Even more intriguing was Mr. Schaeper’s refutation of another accusation against Bancroft: he murdered diplomat Silas Deane in 1789 as he was about to sail back to America. In 1959 Julian Boyd, editor of the Thomas Jefferson Papers, electrified the historical world with three articles in the William and Mary Quarterly supposedly proving this crime. Boyd argued that Deane was a fellow spy and Bancroft wanted to silence him. Mr. Schaeper calmly and swiftly demolished Boyd’s evidence. He also disposed of another claim, made by an historian named Cecil Currey, that Benjamin Franklin was also a spy, working in secret concert with Bancroft. There is not a scintilla of evidence for this doozie, though it remains popular to this day on the internet.
Along with guiding us through all this tricky history, Mr. Schaeper managed to make us appreciate Bancroft’s gifts as a scientist and writer. He was a younger version of Ben Franklin – which undoubtedly explained their friendship. Bancroft was also a devoted husband and father. With a hint of a smile, Mr. Schaeper closed his fascinating discourse by admitting his man was also “a very good spy.”
The applause was thunderous, making us hope that our speaker felt his 350 mile journey from northern New York was worthwhile.
Our secretary, Jon Carriel, led the way in this portion of our conclave with a report on Patrick Henry, First Among Patriots by Thomas S. Kidd, a professor of history at Baylor University. Jon whetted our reading appetites by telling us that this was a book that exhibited Henry “warts and all.” We were guaranteed to find Henry inspiring, admirable, commendable – and sometimes foolish and sometimes appalling. Unlike most of the founders, Henry came from a hardscrabble background and was often in desperate need of money to support no less than 17 children. He was also far more religious than most of the founders and was deeply affected by the evangelical side of Christianity. Self-educated as a lawyer, he first gained fame as an advocate of the “Parson’s Cause”—opposing Virginia’s state supported Anglican Church. His passion on this subject made him an almost instinctive supporter of the revolutionary resistance to British authority in America. Henry served three terms as governor of Virginia as the war for independence began in earnest and another two years in the 1780s but he never thought of himself as a politician. He spoke out when he found things political going in the wrong direction. “Give me liberty or give me death” was only one of many ringing pronunciamentos. When the other founders despaired of governing under the ramshackle Articles of Confederation and organized a constitutional convention, Henry “smelled a rat” and became a ferocious opponent of giving the federal government added powers. But a personal feud with Thomas Jefferson prevented him accepting the man from Monticello as the leader of the embryo Republican Party. He deplored the Republicans’ love affair with the French Revolution and was on his way to becoming a Federalist when death ended his turbulent life at the age of 63. Jon summed up the book with a wise observation: it made him realize the way Henry and the other founders thought structurally about the American government. He wished today’s political pundits would learn to try this approach.
Andrew Harris followed Jon with a report on a book that sounded intriguing at first hearing: The World, The Flesh and the Devil, A History of Colonial St. Louis by Patricia Cleary of California State University. Andrew assured us the book was not as salacious as the title suggests (which may have disappointed some listeners.) The narrative focuses heavily on the political leaders in the formerly French territory of Louisiana. One is familiar, Bernardo de Galvez, the governor who sided with the Americans during the Revolution. The other two are obscure. The first third of the book tells us about Pierre de Laclede, the founding father of the city. He arrived from France as the French and Indian War began and had numerous adventures, romantic as well as political. When France transferred New Orleans and the territory on the western side of the river to Spain, Laclede founded St. Louis which swiftly became a gathering place for Frenchmen and women unhappy with Spanish rule. They defiantly flew the French flag over St. Louis, perplexing a great many people, especially the British who now ruled the east bank of the Mississippi. The book comes to a climax in the battle of St. Louis, fought on May 26, 1780, while a new governor, Spaniard Fernando de Lebya, was trying to bring some order out of the chaos left by the now deceased Laclede. The British sent 1000 troops against the city in response to Governor Galvez’s support of the Americans. With only 300 Spanish regulars plus some undependable colonial militia, Lebya beat off the redcoats with heavy casualties. Ms Cleary narrates the rest of St. Louis’s colonial history in broad strokes, ending with President Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory, making the city part of the United States. Andrew concluded the book would be an important resource for scholars but he intimated without quite saying so that the tangled tale is hard going for general readers.
Polly Guerin told us about Unlikely Allies by Joel Richard Paul of the California Hastings College of Law. The book tells the story of three remarkable players in the struggle for independence. First is Silas Deane, the Connecticut merchant who is described as “a humble and unsuspecting patriot” when he became America’s first envoy to France. Plunged into a world of spies and double agents, Deane emerges as an unsung hero. His ally was the French playwright, Caron de Beaumarchais. He worked with Deane to arm the Americans when their prospects for victory looked dim. At least as important was the cross-dressing Chevalier D’Eon, who was a courageous soldier and top notch swordsman, though he spent most of his life dressed as a woman. Polly describes the book as a rollicking romp, written in the style of a swashbuckling novel. It is full of lavish period detail and at the same time it is serious history. “You’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next,” she assured her fascinated listeners.
We’ve been keeping you up to date on the continuing struggle between the local New Jerseyans who are trying to preserve the integrity of this famous battlefield and the greedy academics of the Institute for Advanced Study, with their tax-free wealth and brigade of lawyers and phony experts. They won the first round in court last spring and remain grimly determined to build a 15 unit housing development where George Washington and his ragged men inflicted a crucial defeat on the British Army, further redeeming the disasters of 1776 in the wake of the Christmas night triumph at Trenton. On June 6th, the day after our meeting, wonderful news appeared on our computers. THE NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION, ONE OF THE MOST RESPECTED HISTORICAL ORGANIZATIONS ON THE SCENE, HAD ADDED THE BATTLEFIELD TO ITS 2012 LIST OF AMERICA’S 11 MOST ENDANGERED HISTORICAL PLACES. In its 25 year history, the National Trust has put more than 250 historic sites on its list. Only a handful have been lost. “The battle of Princeton transformed prospects for the American Revolution and proved to be a major turning point in the war,” declared Stephanie Meeks, the Trust’s president. ”The story of our country’s fight for independence is incomplete without a fully preserved Princeton battlefield.”
Need we say more? The battlefield’s supporters are looking forward to the next round in court with new confidence. We urge Round Tablers all over the country to support this crucial cause.
Every Revolutionary War buff and scholar knows the story of the climactic moment in the battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island) when 250 Maryland regulars led by General William Alexander charged thousands of oncoming British troops, checking their victorious rush and preventing the capture of hundreds of American soldiers fleeing across Gowanus Creek to the shelter of the American forts on Brooklyn Heights. George Washington, watching from one of the forts, gasped: “What brave fellows I must lose this day!”
Only a handful of the Marylanders survived. Most were cut down by the massed volleys of the British infantry. Today, the site of this heroic moment is at the intersection of Third Avenue and 8th Street in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. An artisanal pie place occupies one corner and an auto body shop is across the street. There is no marker. Not even the ghost of a memory commemorates these brave men.
A small group of history enthusiasts, led by Bob Furman, president of the Brooklyn Preservation Council, are determined to change this cruel omission. They believe there is a mass grave a few dozen yards to the east of the intersection that contains the remains of the Marylanders. “The evidence is strong,” Mr. Furman says. “I’m confident enough that I tell everyone I know.”
Alas, Mr. Furman and his backers cannot test their theory. The site is currently a concrete-covered vacant lot full of weeds, and surrounded by a chain link fence. The owners have zero interest in the history that may lie beneath their real estate. They want to develop the property themselves or sell it to someone who will build apartments or a factory on it. Meanwhile they have rebuffed all of Mr. Furman’s pleas to permit at least an exploratory dig before the opportunity vanishes for decades.”It’s not a cheap piece of property,” they told a reporter from The New York Times. But Mr. Furman and his followers remained stubbornly convinced that someone – a foundation or a single wealthy donor – will give them the money they need to realize their dream.
Jim Kaplan has sent us news that the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution has approved his application to place an historic marker in Trinity churchyard, honoring General Horatio Gates. For centuries, Horatio has been reposing in the churchyard with no indication of his rank or achievements in the American Revolution. On Sunday, October 21, following the Sunday services, there will be a ceremony in the churchyard installing the marker. If there are any admirers of General Gates among the Round Tablers, we urge them to attend and congratulate Mr. Kaplan. It will be the culmination of a long campaign. Well over a year ago, he visited the Round Table and told us about his desire to honor the general.
In 1783, Thomas Jefferson gave birth to an idea that has had worldwide influence. We’re not talking about a new rendition of the Declaration of Independence, which was already on its way to inspiring 200 other nations to imitate it in the next century. This idea was a solution to a problem that could have had a deleterious impact on the shaky American union. In 1783, with independence achieved, the United States realized it lacked a currency. Transactions were being conducted in a hodge-podge of Spanish, French and Portuguese money, plus some British coins, which George III had forbidden his treasury to export in quantity to America. Robert Morris, justly called the financier of the Revolution for his role during the war, came up with a solution that only enlarged the problem: he recommended coins based on 1.440th of a Spanish dollar, which was the most common coin in circulation.
Instead, Jefferson recommended adopting the dollar, and making it our own by dividing lesser coins into decimal fractions of the basic unit. This was vastly better than the clumsy British system, which divided the pound into 20 smaller units and those into 12 smaller units. It was also better than playing games with the Spanish dollar, cutting pieces off it and calling them “pieces of eight.” Jefferson’s idea was instantly recognized as a stroke of genius around the world. Today, every country on the globe has a decimal currency system. Way to go, Tom!
Thanks to book review chair Lynn Saginaw’s amazing ability to discover offbeat developments in the Revolutionary story, we have this startling news. Tom Lingenfelter, president of the Heritage Collectors Society, was going through a some ancient letters when he stumbled upon a list of names marked with x’s in pen and pencil. There were 26 of them, and he soon realized he was looking at the roster of the Union Fire Company, which Ben Franklin organized in 1736! Mr. L. does not plan to sell the document for the moment. It needs official analysis and authentication. But it’s still an amazing discovery.
The venerable Coffee House has a tradition of celebrating July 4 with a dinner. Someone in their ranks got a very good idea: why not contact their bi-monthly guests, the Round Table, for a speaker? Our chairman canvassed our ranks and Jack Buchanan was a willing volunteer. In a concession to the modern Gotham tendency to leave town on the Great Holiday itself, Jack’s speech was scheduled for June 27. He spoke on the Southern campaign, a subject on which he has exhibited a mastery in The Road to Guilford Courthouse and other books. The turnout was excellent and the enthusiasm for the drama-filled story of the Revolution in the Carolinas equally so. We liked this partnering and thought all our members would enjoy hearing about it.