On November 30, Round Tabler John (Jack to us) Buchanan gave a talk that accomplished the near impossible: he deepened our admiration for George Washington. Since George was at or near the top of all our greatness charts, this was a feat that intensified everyone's interest in Jack's new book, The Road to Valley Forge. Jack urged us to "leave the monument aside and look at Washington the man." He took us on a quick, fascinating tour of his personality, showing there was a Washington who enjoyed jokes and cards and the company of witty women. As for Washington the general, Jack looked at all sides of him -- the ferocious attacker and the cautious delayer who opposed putting "anything to the risque." He cast a caustic glance at military ignoramuses such as John Adams, who kept demanding the instant annihilation of the enemy. He also took a piece out of historian Wayne Bodle, who claims the Steuben- trained survivors of Valley Forge were never really tested on a battlefield. Ultimately, Jack gave us a Washington who made mistakes on some battlefields but redeemed them by the quality of his leadership over 8 long years of a war that combined violence and politics, a game the general played surpassingly well. The applause reached the ovation level and the rush to buy copies of The Road to Valley Forge kept Jack signing books long after the waiters and waitresses had cleared the dining room.
Sandy Sanford gave us an enthusiastic review of The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. The book covers the years from 1609 to 1664, when the Dutch ruled Manhattan. Sandy said it was really two books, one he called "The Story" and the other "The Term Paper." The Story is terrific. It is full of material no one has ever read before. It is based on 12,000 pages of primary source material in 17th Century Dutch, which has defied previous attempts to translate it (and decipher the penmanship). Mr. Shorto came on the scene just as Dr. Charles Gehring finished sixteen volumes of translations, which he began in 1974. The book is, in Sandy's words, "a continuous description of events that has never before been available." All the famous names are in it -- Henry Hudson, Peter Stuyvesant, Peter Minuit and the central character, Adrian Van der Donck, the canny lawyer who forced Stuyvesant and the Dutch West Indies Company to give New Netherlands a charter of rights in 1653. Meanwhile, the Term Paper runs through the book, dwelling at length on Dutch contributions to American tolerance, civil government and freedom of religion. Sandy found it distracting but he admits others may not feel that way. It did not prevent him from recommending the book as a fascinating narrative.
Tom Fleming reported on The Lady of the High Hills, Natalie Delage Sumter, by Thomas Tisdale, University of South Carolina Press. In a contest for offbeat books, this would take first prize. Natalie Delage was an 11 year old French aristocrat whose parents sent her to New York to escape the Reign of Terror. She became the ward of Aaron Burr, who wanted someone to help his daughter Theodosia learn French. Born in Versailles, Natalie was the godchild of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. If Burr was the sexual predator portrayed by his enemies, Natalie would have been his ultimate prey. By the time she left the Burrs at 17, she was exquisitely beautiful. On her return voyage to France, she fell in love with Thomas Sumter, son of the Revolutionary War guerilla. Sumter had been appointed secretary to the Paris legation, where Robert R. Livingston soon negotiated the Louisiana Purchase. Sumter stayed in the diplomatic service, which included a 12 year stint as ambassador to Brazil. Some of Natalie's children married into the French nobility, others sought American spouses. Natalie managed to stay in touch with relatives and friends on three continents and eventually died in the high hills of the Santee, revered by all. The book has only one flaw: the author's low opinion of Aaron Burr. He seems to have believed every vicious story ever published about Burr and prints them all, apparently oblivious to the way these slanders were contradicted by Natalie's devotion to her "American father" to the day of her death.
For those who like to do the light fantastic to minuets and quadrilles, Friday, May 13, is the night to be in Charleston to celebrate the 225th fall of the city to Henry Clinton's British army in 1780. Participants must be in correct period clothing, either British uniforms or civilian attire. The dance caller will be the celebrated John Millar of Colonial Williamsburg. The dancers will cavort in the Charleston Exchange, a building more famous in its day than the Philadelphia State House or Boston's Faneuil Hall. Palladian in its design, the Exchange went up at the foot of Broad Street well before the Revolution. Shiploads of cut, dressed and beveled Portland stone went into its facade. George Washington was the guest of honor at a splendid ball there in 1791, on one of his presidential tours. Tickets for the 2005 grand fete are $35. Attendance will be limited to 180 people. For more information, check Charlestonball@AOL.com on your computer.
Something of a flutter occurred at the Nov. 30 meeting when Tom Fleming submitted for a passaround a photograph of the tombstone of Charles Morgan, which has the following inscription: "Revolty Spy. One of the captors of Major Andre. Capt Wm Gifford's Company, Col Dayton's 3rd N.J. Reg, 1745-1803." Fred Cookinham immediately pointed out the three militiamen who captured Andre in Westchester County were named Paulding, Van Wart and Williams. Where did Morgan fit in? Tom Fleming said he would consult Bill Fleming (no relation) his internet pal who sent the picture to him from upstate New York. Bill's reply was: "Search me. I just take interesting historical pictures." Tom speculates that Morgan may have been one of the soldiers at the outpost in North Castle, commanded by Lt. Colonel John Jameson, to which the militiamen brought Andre. But a more likely explanation is Morgan's role as a spy. Col. Elias Dayton's regiment was stationed at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and Dayton regularly sent spies to Staten Island and New York. Morgan may have been one of the agents who picked up a story that an American major general was about to defect. It was this story that spurred Major Benjamin Tallmadge's suspicion of Andre at North Castle. Colonel Jameson was inclined to let Andre continue his journey to New York. Tallmadge was heavily involved in espionage work.
Jack Gardner, historian emeritus at Delaware State University, says this was sent to him by a group of reenactors who swear it is authentic Continental Army humor. "The parson said that having such a perilous job I should be thinking of the hereafter. I told him I think of the hereafter all the time. No matter where I am -- not just at the Meetin' House, but on detail, pushin' on after the Redcoats, cookin' provisions, or g'in to the tavern, I constantly ask myself: "Now jus what am I hereafter?"
Jack Buchanan has spent several years researching and restoring the spiritual and psychological Washington. Out Dr. Jeffrey H. Schwartz, professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, is spending $500,000 to find out what he looked like at 19, when he began duking it out with the French and Indians in the western wilderness, at 45, when he took command of the Revolutionary Army, and at 57, when he was sworn in as the first president. Dr. Schwartz, who has been hired by the Mount Vernon estate for this unlikely job, is starting with the sculpture of Jean-Antoine Houdon, who came to America in 1785 and spent weeks studying and sketching Washington before doing his famous bust and later statue. Houdon even covered the great man's face with plaster, forcing him to breathe through two straws, to get an exact likeness. Dr. Schwartz is working with a group at Arizona State University that uses computers to age or make younger a person's appearance, using portable laser scanning equipment. The team has also scanned onto their disks the Washington life mask at the Morgan Library in New York and other likenesses as well as a scan of his dentures. They hope to capture not only his face but his whole body. The big challenge will be to reverse the engines and take Washington from 57 to19. Science knows a lot about how aging affects the face and body but it's still mostly guesswork in the other direction. Nevertheless, the team hopes to have three images in their computers by next summer that will be used to make replicas from high density foam. These will in turn be used to make molds for the final figures, which you can see at Mount Vernon at the end of 2006.
If your travels take you to Maine when the weather warms up, you might be interested in laying hands on Montpelier: This Spot So Sacred to a Name So Great. That is the title of the first ever catalog of the General Henry Knox Museum in Thomason, Maine. The catalog documents the museum's collection of Federal period furniture and dishes purchased by Henry Knox in the years after the Revolution. There is also a pianoforte, believed to be the first to travel way down east, and a magnificent mirror-fronted Sheraton style bookcase. Montpelier is a reconstruction of the 1794 mansion built by General Knox in what was then the Maine wilderness. He and his wife, Lucy, who weighed almost as much Henry, enjoyed some happy years there while he was the country's first secretary of war. After Knox's untimely death in 1806, the mansion went into a decline and was razed in the 1870s. But loyalty to Knox's memory remained strong, and the reconstruction was completed in the 1920s. You can obtain a paperback edition of the catalog for $14.95. The internet address is www.generalknoxmuseum.org.
Will Randall tells us that a rabbi friend asked him to put together a talk on the Jews contribution to colonial and revolutionary America at his synagogue for Yom Kippur. It was so successful he has been asked to give it elsewhere. Ron Blumer has taken to calling Will "Rebbe Randall" and other folks are trying to ask him tactfully, "Are you Jewish?" Will says researching the talk was an enlightening experience. He tied it into the 350th anniversary of the first Jews arriving in New York. Will also reported that his October talk at the UN on Thomas Jefferson had an audience of 500. You can see pictures of it at www.unsrcsocietyofwriters.org.
Tom Fleming reports that he has been invited by the New York State Society of the Cincinnati to be their George Washington Professor for the next four years. That means he has to keep in touch with the latest research and publications on the great man, and report to the Society in a speech or seminar once a year. Tom, who is an honorary member of the New York Society, has also been invited to give the annual George Rogers Clark lecture next October at Anderson House in Washington D.C. His subject will be Alexander Hamilton.
Many years ago, a reviewer of one of my theatrical productions began his article with the statement: "This is a tough one to call." After viewing "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America" at the New-York Historical Society, I must confess to the same feelings. For unlike the Met's Gilbert Stuart exhibit across the park, whose total focus is on the artist's paintings, and is thus a trip back in time, the Hamilton exhibition is a multi-media adventure, which lends itself to an exciting, if somewhat strange experience.
One's first impression begins before you enter the building, for the entire facade is covered with a giant multicolored ten dollar bill. Once inside, you face lifesized statues of Hamilton and Burr, aiming pistols while 10 feet apart. It is the exact distance that was paced off, and you can see the actual weapons on the wall behind the figures. Upon entering the exhibition area, pick up both a free audio guide and a special copy of the New York Post, which contains 18th & 19th century stories written in its present day style ("Capital to Leave NYC for Philly, Potomac" and an opinion page debate: "Is Manufacturing Good For the Nation?" Pro: Hamilton; Con: Jefferson).
Major sponsors include NYHS, the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the History Channel: the latter immediately obvious. A room labeled "His World" contains two giant screens displaying the words of the 34 people whose portraits fill the walls. These are the men and women who most influenced Hamilton's life: the Washingtons, Jefferson, the Madisons, Jay and, of course, Burr. Some are, however, too highly hung to be viewed well. The main hall ("His Vision") is, again, a strange mix. One wall is dominated by screens flashing Hamilton's words and modern movies of tourists in front of the White House, the Coast Guard cutter "Eagle" and military jets. It presents Hamilton's influence upon America's present day position as a world power; but few persons paid much attention. The center of the hall contains original Hamilton letters: one, written at 12, wishing for a war so that he may join the army; another a draft of Washington's Farewell Address. Copies of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers (printed in 1787-1788) are also included. These documents are in low light and a booklet is available with transcripts. The opposite wall contains all manner of objects relating to Hamilton's life: slave shackles; cannonballs; coinage; pictures of Wall Street, Federal Hall & Yorktown; a ship's model of the one that brought him to America; a broadside announcing the Declaration of Independence. The area is divided into sections dealing with his boyhood, army life, Federalist service as Secretary of the Treasury; his work in banking and publishing; and his social life and death.
The final section is an excellent timeline running the back wall of the building, contrasting Hamilton's life and the world around him. This leads to the gift shop with a highly original collection of exhibition-oriented items: T-shirts, magnets, rulers, dueling pistol pins, bookmarks
and books. If you schedule your visit correctly you may be able to view a theatrical production (live & filmed actors) "Alexander Hamilton: In Worlds Unknown." Call for times. Enjoy this exhibition, Hamilton closes Feb. 28; just be prepared for the unexpected. (A tip! The NYHS accepts PBS Thirteen membership cards for free admission and a 10% gift shop discount; thus it's like being a member of both).
Seven winners received a free dinner at the November meeting!! Their answer was William Dawes (Paul Revere's riding partner). His descendants were Lt.Col. Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin; and Charles Dawes, Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge.
What does The Battle of Trenton Monument have in common with Grant's Tomb? A free dinner to all correct respondees. You must answer by e-mail, snail mail or phone: no in person answers at the meeting.