Sometimes humorous, always insightful, often deeply moving, James Grant's talk on John Adams was a memorable close to our spring season. Our speaker more than lived up to the promise of the title of his book, John Adams: Party of One. He told us he had been working on the book, evenings and weekends, for twenty years. He helped us see this unique, long unappreciated founding father in the round. Charming John was not, any more than he was diplomatic, even though he spent six years in Europe wearing that particular hat. He talked back to everyone, including French Foreign Minister the Count de Vergennes, whose loans were keeping the Revolution afloat. In Holland he had the gall to try to peddle the American economy as a good investment, even though we owed upwards of $200,000,000, making him the nation's first junk bond salesman. With the assist of some good news from Yorktown, he got a big loan and recognition of American independence from the Dutch at a crucial moment. His truculence may have helped -- at least it didn't hurt -- in obtaining a five star peace treaty from a recalcitrant George III. Mr. Grant ranged across John's remarkable career and his amazing list of accomplishments, confessing at the close how deeply he came to admire his courage, his determination, his candor, his largeheartedness. There is no doubt that he convinced us all to raise John Adams several notches higher in the pantheon of American founders.
Tom Fleming reviewed Sons of Providence, The Slave Trade and the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye, Simon and Schuster. Tom found the book mesmerizing. It features a warts and all portrait of John Brown, the older of the two brothers who funded Brown University. His younger brother, Moses, was an early abolitionist who played a leading role in banning slavery from Rhode Island. John remained an unrepentant slave trader to the end of his days. From birth this short fleshy contentious older brother was a prototypical early capitalist whose main interest was maximizing his profits and heaven help anyone -- the British government -- and later the U.S. government -- who got in his way. John was also a political operator whose powers of persuasion leave the reader openmouthed and even gasping.
When the Revolutionary War ended in victory, John and his fellow Rhode Island capitalists had no enthusiasm for submitting to Congressional taxation. In 1782, when the desperate Congress proposed a duty on imports as the only hope of avoiding bankruptcy, John Brown helped persuade Rhode Island to veto the idea. It was the reductio ad absurdum of the makeshift constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which required a unanimous vote to float the proposal. It took Rhode Island a full year to approve the federal Constitution and send representatives to Congress. Who was among them? John Brown, of course, and he once more demonstrated his skills in the art of crooked deals.
Threaded through the story is the silent feud between the two brothers over slavery. In this struggle, Moses prevailed up to a point. John agreed to let Rhode Island ban slavery. But he and the rest of the state's merchants continued to participate in the slave trade. Tom called Sons of Providence a landmark book, full of information about the American Revolution and the new republic that few if any people have seen before.
Jim Davis reviewed The First Emancipation, The Story of Robert Carter,the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves by Andrew Levy. Jim said he would like to report this is a book worth reading. Unfortunately, it has too many flaws. First is the title. Robert Carter, son of "King" Carter, was not a founding father. Carter served in no position beyond delegate to Virginia's House of Burgesses. He signed no document forming America. He did not even serve in the army. He prevented his sons and slaves from fighting with Washington. Carter grew tobacco on several plantations. The author devotes endless details to this part of the story. We get descriptions of every room in Carter's mansion. When he "gets religion" we follow this development in equally endless detail. The author makes much of Carter freeing his slaves while Jefferson and Washington did not do so. They needed the slave economy (there was no visible alternative) to enable them to attend to larger matters. Moreover, Carter did not free his slaves until his wife died and he quit growing tobacco. They were no longer any use to him. Levy at first claims Carter's noble act was purposely forgotten but he finally admits it was Carter's vain, shallow boring life which has buried his one great accomplishment. This is a book not worth reading, Jim convincingly concluded.
Sandy Sanford gave us his take on The Grand Idea, George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbach, Simon and Schuster, 2004. In the summer of 1784, six months after Washington returned to Mount Vernon, he made a western trip about which most Americans know nothing. It occupies the opening chapters of this book, which Sandy found fascinating. Washington was worried about the American union, held together by the thin and fraying threads of the Articles of Confederation. He was especially concerned about the Americans who had moved West. He feared, in James Madison's words, that they would become "an alien, jealous and hostile people." Washington hoped that by modifying the Potomac's riverbed and constructing locks at strategic points, they could connect the stream to the headwaters of the Ohio and make it a highway for commerce and union. Sandy had only one complaint: the maps are disappointing. In the paperback edition which he read, they are small and fuzzy. Otherwise the book is a vivid narrative, full of colorful anecdotes.
Maria Dering reported on American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy by James Lamberton Harper, Cambridge University Press, 2004. The author is Professor of American Foreign Policy and European Studies at the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The jacket has many glowing comments by early readers. But Maria found the book disappointing. Harper's thesis is that Hamilton and Machiavelli inhabited the same moral and intellectual world, where emerging states have to adapt to the law of the jungle to survive. The author calls Machiavelli "notorious", Hamilton "a new prince", and John Jay "prissy." One begins to doubt his objectivity. The book is full of forced comparisons between the two men. There are digressions comparing Venice and France, France and America. Ultimately, Maria found herself asking: why is it important to compare Hamilton and Machiavelli? She regretfully decided it was not important and this wordy book was ultimately a waste of time.
If you want to hear how minimal some people's knowledge of American history is, dig this: A website is selling "action figures" from American history who are dressed in authentic costumes and have a 4 minute audio chip which enables the figure to speak 25 different phrases drawn from the historical person's biography. At the head of the list is a figure entitled "Franklin Roosevelt." The only trouble is, it is dressed in 18th Century clothes and is obviously Benjamin Franklin.
Tom Fleming had an interesting experience in July at Valley Forge, where he spoke on his book, Washington's Secret War, The Hidden History of Valley Forge. As Tom uttered his closing lines, the door on the left opened and out on the stage walked a huge man dressed in superfine 18th Century clothes. It was Dean Malissa, the man who has taken over impersonating Washington from William Sommerfield. Tom kept his cool and held out his hand. "General," he said. "This is a pleasure and a privilege!"
A smiling George replied that he was giving the next speech, and he decided to come out on the stage to tell Tom how much he had enjoyed his book on Valley Forge. Tom stayed for George's speech, which he found very enjoyable. It mixed humor and history in a delightful way. At one point, George assembled a group and taught everyone how to dance the minuet. At another point, he talked movingly about his many memories of Philadelphia.
When Fraunces Tavern launched an exhibit, "Fighting for Freedom, Black Patriots and Loyalists," they were excited to receive an offer of a portrait of a black American sailor. The offer came from a retired urologist, Dr. Alexander McBurney, who had bought the painting in 1975 when bicentennial enthusiasm was running high. The sailor is standing in front of an American ship, wearing a blue officers' coat and a shirt open to his waist. McBurney decided to get the painting cleaned up for the exhibit and sent it to Boston. There, restorers started working on the black hand with solvent; to their amazement, the hand turned white. More solvent was applied to the brown chest and they discovered underneath it an expensive white shirt. This was duly reported to Dr. McBurney. Then he received a phone call from Fraunces Tavern. "How's our black sailor doing?" he was asked. "He's just fine but he's white," McBurney said. Apparently a very devious forger had created the black sailor by painting over an original white sailor, to satisfy our current eagerness to find black 18th Century heroes. Fraunces Tavern replaced the sailor with Jean Baptiste Le Paon's portrait, "Lafayette at Yorktown," in which the French hero stands besides his black valet, James Armistead, who became a very good spy during the runup to the victorious siege. As for Dr. McBurney, he has had the sailor painted black (or more precisely, brown) again and rehung it in his dining room. "He's an old friend," he said.
The tenth National War of 1812 Symposium is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 7 at the Star Spangled Banner House in Baltimore. The program includes talks on the British occupation of Maine (we bet you didn't know about that one), the U.S. Marines at the Battle of St. Leonard's Creek, Maryland, the 1812 exploits of General Winfield Scott and the role (if any) of Jeffersonian gunboats in the war. The day will end with a discussion of the 1812 Bicentennial. The cost of admission is $37.50. For more information contact Glenn Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An uproar is raging in posh Greenwich about the display of a large mural depicting the exploits of Israel Putnam in the French and Indian War and in the Revolution. A triptych, 9 feet by 20 feet, the mural includes a scene in which Old Put, musket in hand, stares down a snarling wolf. Elsewhere, captured by Indians, he is stripped to the waist and tied to a stake with flames leaping around him. The mural was painted in 1935 by a local artist, James Daugherty, as part of a WPA program for artists in the Great Depression. For a long time the painting was displayed in the gym of the Hamilton Avenue public school. Recently it was restored and loaned to the local library. Then came plans to display it in the foyer of the newly renovated school. That's when numerous parents decided it was too scary for youngsters to look at. A news story on the ban has triggered a flood of emails from outraged Americans, as far away as California. One Greenwich resident summed up the brawl: "Unfortunately today we have to psychoanalyze everything."
The National Park Service has closed the 204 year old mansion built by Alexander Hamilton. For several decades the house has sat on a rather cramped lot at Convent Avenue and 141st Street, It has never received the quality restoration that the homes of other founders, such as Jefferson's Monticello, were accorded by enthusiastic admirers. Most of the rooms are bare of furniture. The Grange is being moved to nearby St. Nicholas Park, where it will at least regain its amputated front and back porches. But what it really needs is an Alexander Hamilton Association that will raise several million dollars for a truly authentic restoration.
Comedian Bob Hope once observed to Queen Elizabeth II, that since America had purchased both the Queen Mary I & London Bridge for considerable cash, "You didn't lose an Empire, you gained an attic." But never had he realized the true possibilities!
On June 14th (Flag Day) the British really cleaned up at our expense at Sotheby's. An American Revolutionary flag, captured by Lt. Colonel Banastre "Bloody" Tarleton at Pound Ridge in Westchester County, and three others captured by him at Waxhaw, SC were sold at auction for a total of $17.3 million, a record for both the sale of flags and for any Revolutionary artifacts.
The flag from Pound Ridge contains 13 red and white stripes centered with a red badge which may have it's origins in the French cavalry. Sotheby's claims that it is the oldest surviving American national flag containing the 13 stripes. This may make folks in the Bennington (VT) Museum quite annoyed, as they claim their flag has the same distinction.
The other flags comprise the only intact set of regimental colors: two are "Grand Division" colors (one blue: the other yellow). The third, the Regimental Colors, has a gold field containing a beaver and palmetto tree (symbols from Continental currency) and a blue canton containing 13 white five-point stars. Five point stars!!! I wonder if Betsy Ross is spinning (or sewing) in her grave!
Ed Bearss, America's dean of battlefield experts, has reported that Savannah, Georgia, now has an American Revolution Round Table!! This is extremely important, for our newest member represents the first establishment of an ARRT outside of the Middle Atlantic States. With Savannah in the fold, could Charleston, SC or Williamsburg, VA be next? We hope so!! Who knows, we may even see one in Boston one of these days!
"As you know, before I began my military and political careers, I ran a bookstore. Your treasurer has a great collection of books from previous speakers that he is now going to offer for $5.00 each or five for $20.00 at the October meeting. Even if you have purchased books in the past, please consider buying a few for presents or donations to your local libraries. The ARRT needs the cash and the Williams Club (and your treasurer's apartment) needs the room!"
The answer to June's quiz: Nathan Hale.
A free dinner to all who report the correct answer by mail, phone or email!