Beyond Obama’s Call for “An Honest Accounting”: A Warning from John F. Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. of the Danger of Historical Myths

America’s historical mythology is much in the news these days, causing even President Obama to call for “an honest accounting of America’s history” as a means of healing painful and persistent wounds.  But our flawed national narrative did not begin in 1861, however, or even in 1787.  It goes back even farther than that, to the very beginning, to 1775 and 1776.  I was reminded of that, the intellectual basis of much of my own work on the American Revolution, when I recently visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum.  The beginning of the introductory film to the museum set a noble and important challenge for historians and citizens alike.  With audio drawn from a speech delivered by President Kennedy at Yale University’s commencement ceremony on June 11, 1962, which was drafted by distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a member of the White House staff, it humorously played with the rivalry between Yale and Harvard before launching into the much more serious business of charging Yale graduates that day to disenthrall themselves from the powerful myths of our past, so they can confront the present with a new sense of reality and, therefore, a stronger idea of our shared strength, because we have honestly acknowledged our common weaknesses.

For many reasons, such as the terrible recent events that have dominated our collective consciousness, and because in my academic work I strive, foremost, to disentangle myth from reality in the moment of America’s founding — and, perhaps, also because, 50 years later, I have followed Schlesinger as a Fellow in the History Department at Harvard, and therefore feel something of an obligation to his own memory as a historian who keenly understood our professional commitment to public service — these words struck me and remain both a powerful reminder and a stern warning.

Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere. For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie: deliberate, contrived, and dishonest. But the myth: persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.

Many thanks to the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum for access to the original draft and notes to this speech.

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“Soften This Business”: New York and the Loyalist Legacy at Waterloo

That the loyalists of the American Revolution helped shape the British Empire after independence is no secret.  In particular, Maya Jasanoff highlighted the importance of the “loyalist diaspora” to the development of Canada and other parts of the British world in her terrific Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (2011).  There were also those figures who I call “legacies” of the Revolutionary loyalists, the sons and daughters of those who, but for their loyalty to the British constitution, would have finished their days in New York or Virginia or Massachusetts and therefore never have had to opportunity to act on the stage of greater British history.  As we today remember the Battle of Waterloo, the ultimate conflict of the Napoleonic Wars, an era much more transformative and costly to Britain than anything that happened on this side of the Atlantic, and much more important to early American history than is generally considered, my thoughts inevitably turn to those loyalist legacies that, if one looks closely enough, can be found almost anywhere.  And, true to form, one needs look no further than the entourage of Wellington himself 200 years ago today for a direct connection between America–in this case, New York–and a battlefield in Belgium.

Fairly well known is Sir William Howe DeLancey, who, as Wellington’s chief of staff, was the senior British casualty of the battle.  Less well known is the officer who was by his side that day, and attended DeLancey when he was first struck by enemy fire: his first cousin, DeLancey Barclay.  Like Delancey, who was born in New York City in 1778, Barclay was born in British New York to loyalist parents, on 16 June 1780 in Hell’s Gate, Long Island.  His father, Thomas Henry Barclay, was the brother of Cornelia DeLancey, William Howe DeLancey’s mother.  A former lawyer who had studied with John Jay and was related to him by marriage, Thomas Henry was then an officer in the Loyal American Regiment, commanded by his brother-in-law, the erstwhile Virginian Beverley Robinson.  Barclay, it seems, was related to a Who’s Who of American revolutionary notables, from Jay to Robert Livingston to Lord Stirling to Benjamin Franklin.  But as a result of his father’s loyalty, DeLancey Barclay started off life in British occupied New York City and then, after the British evacuation in 1783, lived in Annapolis, Nova Scotia, before possibly returning to New York City when his father was appointed British consul-general for the Eastern United States in 1799.  Not long after, however, on 11 January 1800, DeLancey Barclay followed his cousin, by then Sir William, into the British army.

For the next 15 years, Barclay steadily moved up the ranks from Cornet in the 17th Dragoons to, in 1814, Captain and Lieutenant-Colonel of the 1st Foot Guards.  On the day of the battle with Napoleon, 18 June 1815, New York must have seemed a distant memory–if a memory there was at all–to the American cousins riding behind Wellington.  According to the contemporary account of Sir William’s widow, Lady Magdalen Hall DeLancey, the battle “began about eleven; near three, when Sir William was riding beside the Duke [of Wellington], a cannon ball struck him on the back, at the right shoulder, and knocked him off his horse to several yards distance.”  The Duke, having, of course, other things to attend to (like saving the free world), paused to bid goodbye to his friend and then rode on to attend to the fighting.  But Sir William was not left alone.  His cousin, Colonel DeLancey Barclay:

“…who had seen him fall, went to him instantly, and tried to prevail upon him to be removed to the rear, as he was in imminent danger of being crushed by the artillery, which was fast approaching the spot; and also there was danger of his falling into the hands of the enemy. He entreated to be left on the ground, and said it was impossible he could live; that they might be of more use to others, and he only begged to remain on the field. But as he spoke with ease, and Colonel Barclay saw that the ball had not entered, he insisted on moving him, and he took the opinion of a surgeon, who thought he might live, and got some soldiers to carry him in a blanket to a barn at the side of the road, a little to the rear.  The wound was dressed, and then Colonel Barclay had to return to the Division; but first he gave orders to have Sir William moved to the village; for that barn was in danger of being taken possession of by the enemy. Before Colonel Barclay went, Sir William begged him to come quite close to him, and continued to give him messages for me. Nothing else seemed to occupy his mind. He desired him to write to me at Antwerp; to say everything kind, and to endeavour to soften this business, and to break it to me as gently as he could. He then said he might move him, as if he fancied it was to be his last effort. He was carried to the village of Waterloo, and left in a cottage….”

Sir William died a week later, attended by his wife to the end.  The Episcopal Church of All Saints, Waterloo, now stands roughly on the site of the cottage to which DeLancey Barclay had him moved.  He was buried in Belgium and now lies with the other casualties of the battle.

But what of his cousin?  Barclay survived the battle and rose in his profession, as well as in his country’s esteem.  He married, purchased a country house in southern England, became aide-de-camp to the Duke of York, was brevetted Colonel of the 1st Foot Guards, and then advanced with the Duke when he became King George IV, who made Barclay a Companion of the Bath and aide-de-camp to the British monarch.  Barclay would not, however, enjoy such lofty emoluments for long, as he died in England in 1826.  His father, then still living in New York as a British diplomat, wrote upon hearing the news:

“On the 29 March, 1826, departed this life our beloved son DeLancey Barclay, after an illness of three days.  In addition to his being an amiable, correct man and a dutiful, affectionate son and husband, he was one of the most promising and rapidly advancing men in the British Army. … His death was universally lamented. To his aged parents and friends his loss is irreparable.”

That loss was felt in many places in New York, including a small hamlet on the Hudson River — Saugerties — where DeLancey’s brother, Henry Barclay, helped build a community, quite literally, in the new United States.  The product of the same loyalist context as his brother, Henry chose an American life, grasping the opportunities offered by the industrial revolution to build mills, homes, and several churches, including Trinity Episcopal Church, for himself, his family, and friends, and St. Mary of the Snow Roman Catholic Church, for his mainly Irish immigrant workers.  He also helped establish the village itself and served as its first president — a rather different loyalist legacy than that of his brother, DeLancey, a hero of Waterloo.

Words, Words, Words: A Capital Tool to Learn and Use Colonial American Language

When I usually take to this blog, at least of late, it’s either to share an interesting historical tidbit or cheerlead for the Save Sweet Briar Campaign.  I do, after all, have a book to write.  Today’s post is therefore a first for me: A book endorsement.  I can hardly call it a review, as I’m in no way dispassionate or nonpartisan about the work, so enthusiastically do I endorse Dr. Joan Bines’ Words They Lived By: Colonial New England Speech, Then and Now (2013).  A fellow University of Virginia alumnus, Dr. Bines has been deep in the trenches of public history for some time as the director of a terrific and important site in Weston, Massachusetts — The Golden Ball Tavern, an 18th-century inn that is the only place I know that tells the story of the loyalists in the American Revolution and tells it well.

With her experience as an educator of students of all ages, her infectious love of language, and a keen talent for concise, even charming, description, Dr. Bines has provided a clear answer to a question with which I wrestled when I was chief historian at Colonial Williamsburg, dealing with a legion of first-person interpreters and other guides: What did men and women sound like in the 18th century?  Thankfully, there is no shortage of literary evidence from the period, but there is a somewhat frustrating paucity of sources that tell us much of anything about common speech in colonial America.  Sure, we can pull out a play by Robert Munford or a sermon by George Whitfield and refer to their vocabulary and sentence structure, but they cannot be considered representative by any stretch of the imagination.  I encouraged CW’s interpreters to read what I encourage my students to read — as many 18th-century Anglo-American sources as possible, especially the sort that were geared towards broader audiences, such as newspapers, novels, and pamphlets.  But I always hoped for a secondary source, written informatively and engagingly and with proper scholarly apparatus (e.g., accessible footnotes!) that could provide interpreters, guides, and, frankly, anyone interested in the daily lives of colonial Americans, with a firm foundation on which to build their understanding of the men and women of that time.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure in happening upon Dr. Bines’ book on my recent return to New England, which accomplishes all that I wished for CW’s interpreters and guests (the ultimate beneficiaries).  Do not let the title fool you: Although it nominally focuses on New England, and its primary sources are mainly derived from this place and its people, it is tremendously useful regardless of one’s region of interest, so nicely does it explore and explain basic assumptions of colonial American speech, including syntax, vocabulary, and the slipperiness of idiom.  As I implied above, it is based on the right sources and limited to a manageable chronological period so as to be reliably representative.  Of course, it does not reflect the speech patterns of enslaved men and women — for that, we must keep on searching — but it also does not presume to do so.  It does, however, draw so many of its sources from women, that gender is not really an issue.  Moreover, Dr. Bines has organized it quite well, in terms of its chapters, aptly illustrated it with her own photography, and included a quite helpful bibliography and index.

Is the book the be-all and end-all of the subject?  Of course not.  But it doesn’t pretend to be.  Dr. Bines’ work is, however, the best foundation I’ve encountered upon which to build one’s practical understanding of colonial American speech.  To even approach a vernacular understanding of the period, I’d combine it with Mary Miley Theobald’s Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked, published a few years ago by CW (or just follow her blog), and then build on that with a heavy dose of Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (go with the 2nd edition of 1736, which was found in more colonial libraries than any other English dictionary, including Johnson’s) and a few servings of the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  But do start with Dr. Bines’ splendid book.  By doing so, I guarantee that you’ll not only learn much about the 18th-century world, but also a great deal about our own.