“Now or Never Our Deliverance Must Come”: George Washington and the Power of Contingency

“Contingency” is a historical concept easy enough to understand but among the toughest to convey, whether to students in a classroom or guests at a historic site.  Essentially it means that things in the past did not have to turn out the way that they did.  Just one different choice could have set our entire historical experience in a different direction.  Put another way, as Stephen Jay Gould suggested in a related context, if we rewound the tape of history back to a certain point and pressed “play,” would events have turned out the same?

Exploring such counterfactuals can be enormously useful–and intellectually challenging–as an educational tool.  For example, what if we rewound our notional historical tape back to this date in 1781?  What would we find?  Were you in New York, at the New Windsor Cantonment (which you can visit today), you would have found a rather somber 49-year-old Virginian named George Washington.  The year had not been kind to his Continental Army, and the War for Independence was looking far from won.  In fact, precisely the opposite was the case.  The American economy had collapsed; the British government was restored in Georgia; and most of South Carolina, part of North Carolina, the Chesapeake Bay, and much of Virginia were already back under British authority (so confident of victory was Lord North’s ministry that Virginia’s former royal government, including Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, was ordered back to the Chesapeake to resume its responsibilities).

And things were far more bleak on Washington’s immediate front.  The French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, held such disdain for Washington’s troops that he wanted to avoid fighting alongside them at almost any cost.  Overall French patience with the conduct of the war, especially after they failed to wrest the Caribbean islands from British control, was rapidly disappearing.  As for Washington’s army, one might not blame Rochambeau for such a bleak view.  The mutiny of the entire Pennsylvania line, then the New Jersey line (which ended with executions), and then the threatened mutiny of Massachusetts’ sergeants all brought Washington’s own confidence to perhaps its lowest ebb.  That’s why on this date in 1781, you would have found him at his writing desk at New Windsor, worrying about the future in a letter to John Laurens.  “We are at the end of our tether,” Washington lamented, “and that now or never our deliverance must come.”

He could not know that seven months later he would be back in Virginia, watching the surrender of the second-largest British army in the field in a defeat of such magnitude that it would bring down the British government, end the war, and formally usher the United States of America onto the world stage.  But it is critical for historians–especially public historians–to be able to grasp and then convey the importance of such moments to others as a potent reminder that nothing was or, like the current threatened closure of Sweet Briar College, is inevitable.  Historians should leave to authors such as Jane Austen the power to determine that things happened “exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so,” for in real life, then and now, what might later seem natural, at the time might appear quite extraordinary.  And those are powerful enough moments to dwell on.

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“He forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe”: The Limits of Hospitality in Revolutionary Virginia

Tuckahoe Plantation
Tuckahoe Plantation

In the fall of 1777, Thomas Anburey was an officer in the British army that John Burgoyne surrendered after the battles of Saratoga.  As part of the “Convention Army,” Anburey found himself in Virginia, near Charlottesville, where he and his fellow officers were allowed to find their own accommodations among the various planters in the area.  Anburey took advantage of his several years as a prisoner of war to record his experience with the people and places he encountered.  His resulting Travels Through the Interior Part of America have proven an invaluable resource, an exceptional glimpse into life in wartime Virginia, a society that, at least among what they called the “better sorts,” had managed to retain its legendary reputation for hospitality and politeness, in spite of the insidious impact of the daily brutality of slavery and the democratizing effects of the War for Independence, both of which make appearances in Anburey’s record.

The nature of social relations in the 18th century was complex across the British world, of course, and perhaps growing quite tenuous on the American side of the Atlantic, as this brief passage suggests.  To “unpack” it, as academics like to say, reveals many layers of supposition and perception, and some rather fruitful lines of discussion regarding their connection to gender and culture.  Perhaps none, though, is more interesting and nuanced than the clear avoidance of any frank acknowledgment of the obvious, which has all sort of implications for how people related to each other and to the circumstances in which they found themselves, male or female, free or enslaved, prisoner or not.  On that day at Tuckahoe in the winter of 1779, in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1741-1793) and his daughters, a social line was crossed and the limits of Virginia hospitality reached.  The reaction of the young lady alone to the officer’s “warmth” and “violence” is worth a discussion–but perhaps in keeping with that time and place, it would be better not to mention it?

I cannot but in justice say, that in all the gentlemens’ houses I have visited, they never started, or would suffer any conversation on politics; sometimes, when alone with the ladies, they would indulge and rally us a little, at our being prisoners, but all with great good humour; the only unpleasant circumstance of the kind that I recollect was at Tuckahoe, where an officer suffered his vexation to overcome that gratitude he was bound to shew for the hospitality he met with.  Colonel Randolph every year made a present of two hogsheads of tobacco to his daughter as a venture, to purchase dresses and ornaments, and the ships had always been so unfortunate as to be captured. As several officers were sitting with the ladies, the conversation ran upon politics, when Miss Randolph innocently asked, “How we came to be taken prisoners?” The officer with some warmth replied, “Just as your tobacco was, by a superior force.” I need not tell you the distress and confusion of the young lady, as well as of the officer himself, who immediately became conscious of what he had said, and for his ill-timed violence, he forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe.

[Anburey’s Travels, Richmond, Feb. 18th, 1779]

(Attempted) Murder Most Foul on All Hallow’s Eve in Colonial Virginia

Detail from the 1751 map drawn by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry showing Chatsworth's location.
Detail from the 1751 map drawn by Peter Jefferson and Joshua Fry showing Chatsworth’s location.

While 18th-century Virginians, with their healthy Latitudinarian distrust for anything that even hinted at the supernatural or superstition (fine for French and German fanatics, in their view, but not for the reasonable English), that did not mean that passion and violence did not enter their lives.  And so it was that on this date, All Hallow’s Eve in 1775, that Archibald Cary wrote to Thomas Jefferson, then in Philadelphia, about “very disagreable” news from the neighborhood along the upper James River, near Richmond.  The main characters were Peyton Randolph, the youngest son of William and Anne Carter Harrison Randolph of Wilton, and Lewis Burwell, who had just married Peyton’s sister, Lucy.  We don’t know precisely the nature of the argument, or what lie told by Peyton spurred Lewis into action (“to give the lie” was to charge another with a falsehood, something highly impolite under any circumstances).  We do know that they were rather different people.  Peyton was a native Virginian who sided with the patriots, while Lewis, although born in Virginia, had grown up in England, educated at Eton, Oxford (Balliol), and the Inner Temple of London, and remained a known loyalist for the rest of his life.  Cary’s main concern in telling Jefferson was that “the Speaker and his Lady,” the elder Peyton Randolph and his wife Elizabeth (the young Peyton’s aunt), who cared deeply for their extended family, not be alarmed by the news. It is interesting that even a Halloween stabbing, it not proving mortal (because the ladies stepped between them), could be swept under the Randolph family rug in Revolutionary Virginia.  Who needs Downtown Abbey with stories like this?

Peyton Randolph of Wilton, c. 1773 (Virginia Historical Society)
Peyton Randolph of Wilton, c. 1773 (Virginia Historical Society)

“As to News the Papers will Give you all Things except a very disagreable one in this Neighbourhood, a dispute arose at Dinner at Chatsworth between Payton Randolph and his brother Lewis Burwell, who gave the other the Lye, on which Payton struck him, Burwell snatched a knife and struck him in the side, but fortunately a Rib prevented it’s proving Mortal, he was prevented by the Lady’s from making a second stroke.  You’l judge what Poor Mrs. Randolph must suffer on this Unhappy Affair, but she is become Familiar with Misfortune.  Payton is well and no notice is taken of the affair as I can see by Either[.] they Dined at my House the day after I got Home.  If the Speaker and his Lady have not been acquainted with this matter say nothing of it to them.”

For the full text of the letter, visit http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0129.

“A Season for Reflection”: A Loyalist’s Last Letter to Thomas Jefferson and to America

Near Charing Cross, not far from Nelson’s Monument at Trafalgar Square, is Spring Gardens.  In the 18th century, as today, it was at the heart of Whitehall and surrounded by British government offices.  And on October 25, 1779, in the long-gone Cannon Coffee House, it was a place where one man said goodbye to his history and his home.  Just a few years before, John Randolph had been one of the most prominent lawyers in British Virginia.  The colony’s Attorney General, he also lived in the capital’s most impressive private home, also now long-gone.  His two daughters were described by more than one visitor to Williamsburg as “the most beautiful girls in America.”  He was also an accomplished violinist, who often spent evenings playing duets with his close friend and relation, Thomas Jefferson.

But then the American Revolution changed all of that, almost in the twinkling of an eye. Choosing to remain remain loyal to the British constitution that his father, Sir John Randolph, had taught him to treasure and defend as the only true gaurantor of freedom in the world, he watched as his world collapsed around him.  His daughters were threatened on the streets of their town and he was attacked as a “tory,” an epithet as ridiculous as it was inaccurate. In the summer of 1775, as his brother, Peyton, went to Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress, and his son, Edmund, rode to join George Washington’s staff, John took his family to London, where he thought he could perform the same diplomatic magic that both his father and brother had worked when relations between Virginia and Britain had seemed at their breaking point.  He failed, of course, but he never stopped trying, even as fewer doors in that area of Whitehall, near Charing Cross, were opened to him.

Having time on his hands, and the past on his mind, John sat down at the Cannon Coffee House and decided to write a letter to his dear friend, Thomas Jefferson, who had become governor of the new independent state of Virginia.  In it his pours out explanations, philosophical observations, literary allusions, opinions, hopes, and fears.  He writes his own revolutionary history.  And he warns of the fickleness of pretended allies.  In the field of political thought, it’s a remarkable statement of the sort of Augustan moderation that had once dominated British political culture, and which might have held the empire together as a place where differences of opinion could be accommodated rather than considered as differences in principle.  But it also reveals a torrent of emotions bordering on unreality, nowhere expressed more clearly than in his plea “to rescind your Declaration of Independance” and “be happily reunited to your ancient and natural Friend,” written to the man who wrote the declaration and saw it adopted more than 3 years before.

I have provided it here in its entirety, although somewhat lengthy, as a reflection of the American Revolution as a civil war, and as a reminder for the legions of historians who have never considered the “lives, fortunes, and sacred honour” risked and lost by those who differed from patriots in opinion, rather than principle.  John died in London on January 31, 1784, his last wishes to be buried in Williamsburg, where he rests today in the crypt of the Wren Chapel of the College of William & Mary, next to his brother and father.  This letter to Jefferson was never sent.  It was not found until 1840, when it was discovered among the papers of Sir Edward Walpole, the son of John’s father’s dear friend, Sir Robert Walpole.  The letter has since been reprinted in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson.  This is my transcription of the original.

London, Cannon Coffee House Spring Gardens

Dear Sr
October 25. 1779

The Letters, with which you some considerable Time ago, honourd me, got to Hand; tho’, from their appearance, their Contents were known to many, before they reach’d the Person, for whom they were intended. The gloomy Cloud, which hung over our public affairs, and the general Suspicion, which prevail’d at that Time, recommended Caution, and prevented my answering them. But, as Matters now are fully understood, and the Ultimatum seems to be fix’d between the contending Parties; if You are not unwilling to read, I am under no Apprehension, in delivering my Sentiments to you.

Mr. J. Power, who is just arrived from Virginia, informs me, that you have been lately elected Successor to Mr. Henry, who presided over your Colony for three Years, the utmost successive Time allow’d for holding that office. I must take the Liberty to say, that your Constituents cou’d not have chosen a man of greater abilities to conduct their affairs, than you possess; and permit me to add my Hope, that Futurity may speak as favourably, of your Moderation.

If a Difference in opinion, was a good Ground for an Intermission of Friendship, Mankind might justly be said, to live in a State of Warfare; since the Imperfection of human knowledge, has render’d Mens Minds as various as the Author of their Being, has shap’d their Persons. The Man who condemns another, for thinking differently from himself, sets up his Judgment as the Standard of Conception; wounds the great Liberty we enjoy, of thinking for ourselves; and tyrannizes over the Mind, which Nature intended shoud be free and unconfin’d. That Tyrant, I cannot suppose You, to be. The Liberality of Sentiment, which ever distinguish’d you amongst your Acquaintance, when you were upon a Level with them, has not, I hope, forsaken you, since you have been rais’d to a Sphere, which has made you, superior to them. Shou’d I therefore be so unfortunate, as to make any observations, which may not meet with your approbation, for the Honour of your Understanding treat them with Benignity. I will allow you in such Case, to consider them, as the overflowings of a Mind, too zealous in the Cause in which it is engaged; but I must demand of you to admit, that they are the legitimate offspring, of an uncorrupted Heart. But, before you pass Sentence, I shall call on your Candour, to give them a fair Hearing.

When our unhappy Dispute commenc’d, (tho it arose from Circumstances, which left an opening for an honorable accomodation, yet) I saw that it was big with Mischief, and portended Ruin and Desolation, Somewhere. I thought that it behov’d me to reflect with the utmost Deliberation, on the Line of Conduct, which I ought to pursue, on so critical an Occasion. I clear’d every avenue to Information, and laid myself open to Conviction, let it come from what Quarter it wou’d. I read with avidity every thing which was publish’d on the Subject, and I put my own Thoughts in Writing, that I might see how they wou’d stand on Paper. I found myself embarrass’d by a thousand Considerations, acting in direct opposition to each other. In this Situation I had no Resource left but to submit myself Solely to the Dictates of my Reason. To that impartial Tribunal I appeal’d. There I reciev’d Satisfaction; and from her Decision, I am determin’d never to depart.

Si fractus illabatur Orbis

impavidum ferient Ruinæ.

Adversity is a School, in which few Men wish to be educated; yet, it is a Source, from whence the most useful Improvements, may be derived. When the Mind shrinks not from its approach, it offers a Season for Reflection, calls forth the Powers of the Understanding, fixes its Principles, and inspires a Fortitude, which shews the true Dignity of Man. In that School I have been tutor’d; from its Tuition I have drawn those advantages, and I am unalterably resolved, that all other Motives shall give Way, to the fullest and most unequivocal Enjoyment of them.

The Insults I reciev’d from a People, (whose Interest I always considerd as my own) unrestrain’d by the Influence of Gentlemen of Rank gave me much Uneasiness: But, the unmanly and illiberal Treatment, which the more delicate Part of my Family met with, I confess, fill’d me with the highest Resentment. As there is Nothing which I forget so soon as an Injury; and as animosity never rankles in my Bosom, I have cast the whole into oblivion. There let it lie buried; for Implacability belongs only to the unworthy.

Independance, it is agreed on all Hands, is the fix’d Purpose of your Determination. Annihilation is preferable to a Reunion with Great Britain. To support this desirable End, you have enter’d into an alliance with France and Spain, to reduce the Power of this Country, and make Way for the Glory of America. What Effect this Connection will have on you, or this Kingdom, Time alone can discover; But be it rememberd, that France is perfidious, Spain insignificant, and Great Britain formidable. The united Fleets of the House of Bourbon, lately cover’d the Seas, and paraded off Plymouth. A Descent was threaten’d, and universally expected. The british Fleet was then in a distant Part of the Channel, and there was nothing remain’d to defend this Kingdom, but the internal Strength and Valour of its Inhabitants. The Space of three Days remov’d the Alarm, by producing a fruitless Departure of this mighty Squadron. Soon after this, the two Fleets came in Sight of each other, (a Great Superiority in Number lying on the Side of the Enemy) and a bloody barrage was expected to follow. The british Fleet in the Evening, form’d themselves into a Line of Battle and brought to, imagining that the combin’d Fleet, wou’d in the Morning begin the attack; but when that Period arriv’d, there was not an Enemy to be seen, from any one of our Ships. On which, our Fleet steer’d into Port, and there has continued unmolested, ever since. Individual Ships have been taken, but all our valuable Fleets from every Quarter of the Globe, for the present Year, are arriv’d in Safety; yet, our Ports are filled with French and Spanish Ships, and our Gaols with their Subjects.

Admiral Keppels Engagement off Brest about 15 Months ago, tho’ a shameful one, as he had it in his Power to strike a Decisive Blow and omitted it, was converted into a meer Party Business here. His Conduct is now, very generally reprobated; The City of London has with-held the Golden Box, which the Rage of Party had prepared as a Present for him. Yet ill as he is supposed to have behav’d, the french fleet sustain’d such Damage on that Occasion, that it did not come out of Port, for near a twelve Month after. History does not furnish us with Instances of greater acts of Heroism, than have been exhibited in the Course of the last Summer, in some of our naval Engagements. National Party is very much on the Decline, and the Safety of the State, seems to supersede all other Considerations.

The Junction of the Spaniards, was more a Matter of Joy in England, than a Terror. The fingering of their Gold, is no small object with a commercial People. When his Catholic Majesty’s Rescript was deliver’d at St. James’s, and became known, instead of lowering, the Stocks immediately took a Rise. And the Dutch, who have already an immense Property in our Funds are still buying in, notwithstanding the various Difficulties, with which this Kingdom is surrounded. This Sir is a Short, but true Narrative of the State of british affairs, in Europe.

It must be confess’d, that the French have gain’d advantages in the West Indies; but it may be observ’d, that they have recover’d no more than what they lost in the last war. In Contests between great Nations, Events must be uncertain, and no Party can expect an uninterrupted Series of Success. Disappointments some times beget Exertions, which may give a new Face to Affairs. When the Troops, which are to be sent for the Protection of our Island, arrive, and the ships are on float, which the succeeding Spring will produce, these will unfold to us, Truths, about which, we at present, may form very different Ideas. The French may boast of their Prowess in Destaings Engagement with Barrington, but few think here, that the Glory of the british Navy was in any Degree diminish’d in that Encounter.

How far the French have been useful to you in Amer[ica], you must be better qualified to determine, than myself: Yet, I cannot avoid expressing my Wish, that you had never enterd into any Engagements with them. They are a People cover’d with Guile, and their Religion countenances the Practice of it, on all of a different Persuasion. They are educated in an Aversion to the English, and hold our Constitution in the utmost Detestation. They have the Art to insinuate, and the Wickedness to betray when they gain an admittance. Laws, they have none but such as are prescrib’d by the Will of their Prince. This is their only Legislature. They know your Coast, are acquainted with your Manners, and no Doubt have made Establishments amongst You. A Footing in the Northern Provinces, is what they most devoutly wish to obtain. As a Means to effect their Purpose, they have sufferd you to run in Debt to them, and as a Security for the Payment of it, they say that your Lands are answerable. If you are not able to satisfy their Demands, how will you have it in Your Power to frustrate this Claim? But if you are able to discharge the Debt, how will you recompense them, for the Services, which they will urge that they have renderd to you. Your Trade is of no Consequence, it is not an object with them. Nothing but a Partition of your Country will silence them. When that happens, you may bid adieu to all social Happiness; the little finger of France will be more burthensome to you, than the whole weight of George the 3d. his Lords and Commons. Can it be imagin’d that a Prince, who is a Tyrant in his own Dominions, can be a Friend to the Rights and Priviledges of another People? Can it be Policy in him to waste his Blood and Treasure, in reducing one Rival, in order to raise another, more formidable perhaps, than his ancient Competitors? Your good Sense I am persuaded, will not suffer You to cherish such an opinion, and you cannot be so wanting in Discernment, as not to see the base Designs of this treacherous Nation. If France engaged in this Quarrel, for no other Purpose, than to fight your Battles, and vindicate your injured Rights, her Generosity will lead her to confer all the Benefit of her Conquests on you. When you become invested with the Possession of their acquisitions, you may then believe them to be your Friends; but until that happens, you ought to consider their Designs as dangerous, and not suffer yourselves to be deciev’d by such an artful and despotic People. But let us suppose in theory, what, facts I am convinced will not verify, that the Powers now contending with G. Britain are too great for it to withstand. What do you imagine will be the Sentiments of the other States of Europe on this Subject? These Potentates stand in such a Relation to each other, that as a Security to the whole, a Ballance of Power must be preserv’d amongst them. G. Britain has always held that Ballance. How dangerous a Neighbour would France become, if her principal opponent, and the great Arbiter of Europe shou’d be overwhelm’d? The Empress of Russia sees with a jealous Eye, the Strides which the french are taking towards universal Monarchy. The King of Prussia is too old a Soldier, to suffer a Rival to strengthen himself, on the Ruins of an old and natural ally. The Dutch are governd too much by their Interest, to see it in Danger, and never to make an Effort to preserve it. The Danes are the fast Friends of England. All these Nations wou’d have taken a decided Part long before this, had the Situation of G. Britain made it necessary: But the Truth is, our Councils are as vigorous, our Resources as great and the national Firmness as inflexible, as they have ever been, even in the most flourishing Periods recorded in the History of this Country. If you regard the assertions of a set of Men, who are distinguish’d by the appellation of the Opposition, you must I own form a different opinion, from that which I have endeavour’d to inculcate. They will tell you that the Glory of England is pass’d away, its Treasures exhausted, and that the Kingdom stands on the Brink of inevitable Destruction, owing to the Weakness and Wickedness of Administration. Believe not, my Friend, such Prophets. The Luxury of this Nation, and of Course its Expences, are unbounded. These Excesses must unavoidably make Mankind necessitous. The Department of a Minister is lucrative and alluring. The King, in order to silence the Clamour of Party, having frequently chang’d his Servants, has by this Means excited an Idea, that Noise will always procure a Removal of the Ministry. It is for this Reason, that they who have a Chance for the Succession, ring such alarms thro the Nation, in order to throw an odium on them, and get them out of their Places; yet these very People who are the Authors of so much Turbulence, don’t think as they speak. Some join in the Cry; others suspend their opinions, till they recieve more convincing Proofs; and a third, thinking that Government ought to be supported strengthen as far as they can, the Hands of their Rulers. But still, the great Machine moves on, the Ministry Keep their Places, and look as if their Possession would be of long Duration. But a Change wou’d be of little Service to the Nation; for if it silenc’d one Party, it wou’d open the Mouth of another; and the Kingdom be just in the same Situation that it is in at this Time, and has been for many Years past.

If you form an opinion of our public affairs, by the Picture which is drawn of them in our daily Exhibitions, I acknowledge, that you must concieve my account of them to be, chimerical. But whoever wishes to avoid Error, must steer clear of an english Newspaper. There are of daily Papers publish’d in the Year, 27. Millions: The Types, the Ink, the Paper and a Stamp &c. distinctly pay a Duty to Government. Judge then, what a Revenue these Publications must produce. It is for this Reason that Ministry throw no Impediment in their Way; for punishing the Libels they contain, wou’d reduce their Number, and lessen of Course, the Emoluments arising from them. I have often thought, that the Toleration of such indecent Compositions, was a Reflection on Government, but it is a Maxim in England, that as soon as an Evil produces Good, it ceases to be an Evil.

The short Representation of the british affairs, which I have given you above, is intended to prepare you, for one important Question, momentous not only to America, and Great Britain, but also to Europe in General: Wou’d it not be prudent, to rescind your Declaration of Independance, be happily reunited to your ancient and natural Friend, and enjoy a Peace, which I most religiously think would pass all Understanding? I can venture to assure you, that your Independance, will never be acknowledg’d by the Legislative Authority of this Kingdom: The Nation would not agree to such a Concession; and your suppos’d Friends, who are so lavish in your Praise on other Occasions, wou’d on this, be against you. Every Immunity, which you can reasonably ask for, will be granted to you; the rapacious Hand of Taxation will never reach you. Your Laws and Regulations will be establish’d on the solid Basis of the british Constitution; and your Happiness will be attended to, with all the Solicitude, which belongs to an affectionate Parent. Reflect, I beseach you, on what I have said. Let not the flattering Possession of Power, which may be wrested from you in a Moment, stand in Competition with the Good of your Country, which you have now an opportunity of making, as lasting as Time itself. But if you still persist in your Resolution, never to listen to the voice of Reconciliation, Remember, that I, who know your Situation, and wish you every Degree of Happiness, tell you, that what you take to be the End, will be only the Beginning of your political Misfortunes.

I must now put a Period to a long Letter, the writing of which, is a very unusual Labour to me. How you may recieve it I know not. Be that as it will, I shall enjoy one Consolation, which is, a quiet Conscience. I see such Determination in Government, to proceed to the last Extremity with you; such a Disposition in the Powers of Europe to go to War; and such Mischiefs hovering over America, that I shou’d think myself an undutiful Son, and criminally guilty, if I did not impart to you, the Distress I feel on your Account. Let our opinions vary as they will, I shall nevertheless retain a very sincere Regard for you. How far your Politics may be blended with your Friendships, I cannot tell; but as I have ever preserv’d my esteem from improper Mixtures, I shall subscribe myself now as I always have done, Dr Sr, Your very affectionate Friend & humble Servt,

John Randolph

“A Very Smal Trifle!”: A North Briton’s View of the American Revolution

Photograph of Daldowie
Daldowie, the home of the Bogle family outside of Glasgow. It was heavily renovated in the 19th century, before this photo was taken.

The Bogles of Glasgow were one of those families who illustrate rather nicely the intricate and often unexpected interconnectedness of the revolutionary world, or at least certain parts of it, and the rich personal stories that breathe life into it. The Bogles started in the tobacco trade when it took off in the years following the Peace of Utrecht. Following what became a common pattern for that part of the trade, the Bogle family established stores near Tappahannock, Virginia, and were assiduous in developing relationships with planters on the south side of the Rappahannock River. Their association with eastern Virginia lasted from the 1720s to the 1770s and their correspondence is filled with the ways in which the political economy in oronoco tobacco tied northern Europe (especially Rotterdam), Scotland, and the Chesapeake together in a fascinating web, one that differed markedly from the established sweet-scented trade that dominated Tidewater Virginia and London, in everything from business practices to political persuasions.

One particular letter, written on 4 November 1775, connects the greater British Empire, from the Chesapeake to Scotland and India, as George Bogle, outside of Glasgow, informed his son in Calcutta (then working with Warren Hastings) of the death of their relation in Virginia in 1775. It also provides a fascinating window into a lowland Scots (or, rather, North Briton) view of the Boston Tea Party and the American insurgency.

[Y]our Cousin German, Mr William Bogle dyed very Lately in Virginia of a fever to the Inexpressible Grief of His Mother, his Sister Nancy, and of His numerous Connections and Relations.We have been for some time, and are at present Engadged in War with our Colonys in America, who broke out in a most unnatural, unprovoked Rebellion against us their Mother Country Occasioned as they aledge on Account of a Small duty of 3d pr lb of Tea which the Parliament Burdened them with, a very smal triffle! The first Quantity sent to them they had the Daring Efronterie to throw into the Sea in Spite of the Act of Parliament.We have Come to Blows and Bloodshed some months ago upon the 10th last September they shut up their Ports against Exportation from the Colonys, and it is Imagined with good reason that the Parliament will shut up the Ports from Britain and Ireland from Exporting any thing to them whatsoever, only our men of Warr Will make good the Landing of Warlike Stores and provisions for the use of our Fleets and Armys in the Colonys, by which it is believed They will then be in a very miserable situation and of which I doubt not.

[Bogle family Papers, Mitchell Library (Glasgow), 19/22]

“Having never been a Favourite of the Great”: A Revolutionary Printer’s Commitment to His Principles

The Ludwell-Paradise House.
The Ludwell-Paradise House.

This post is about the sincerity with which people up and down the social scale applied political thought to personal action in the revolutionary world.  Here I’m referring to William Rind, one of Williamsburg’s printers, who lived at the Ludwell-Paradise House on Duke of Gloucester Street, and probably there printed his edition of the Virginia Gazette.

Neither one of the well-known (and well-heeled) “Founders” who led provincials into secession from the British Empire, nor one of the almost-as-celebrated (and probably almost-as-apocryphal) men and women of the lower sorts who pushed the elites into rebellion, Rind was one of those folks whom often get lost in the historiographical scrum over who mattered most in the American Revolution. His American Revolution seems not to have been one imposed from the top down, nor one instigated from the bottom up, but perhaps was one that developed from the middle out (I’ll direct any more considered inquiry of the role of printers in the Revolution and Early Republic to my friends Joe AdelmanJeff Pasley. and Todd Andrlik). In any case, Rind was a particular favorite of the patriots in Williamsburg and seems to have taken the lofty motto he chose for his newspaper–“Open to all Parties but Influenced by None”–quite seriously, as the letter below suggests.

This unpublished letter (until recently stuck in a drawer at Eyre Hall on the Eastern Shore) was written in February 1769 in response to a complaint from a Northampton County patriot, Severn Eyre, that Rind had not been quick enough about printing an essay criticizing the new governor, Lord Botetourt. While unique in a number of respects, it is of especial interest for the window it opens–however briefly–into a particular moment in the lives of people who lived in this place during the constitutional crisis.  Rind and his assistant, William Lumley, permit us to follow them on a cold winter’s day from Blovet Pasteur’s shop (next to the Raleigh Tavern), down the street to Rind’s office, into Lumley’s trunk, and then inside Rind’s own head as he considers the practical issues of printing a newspaper and its connection to his political faith. It allows us a glimpse into the ways political thought informed the daily lives of people such as Rind, and does so in a way that helps us attend to the complex intersection of constitutional abstraction, political culture, and individual behavior in Revolutionary Williamsburg, which makes studying that time and place so terribly interesting.

Sir,
I received yours of the 22d ultimo by which I am sorry to see you have taken offence at my not publishing the Piece signed Curtius sooner. It would have been very inconvenient to me to have printed it then, as it would have put me to the Expence of giving a Supplement, at a Time I was so scarce of Paper, as to be afraid I should be obliged to stop my Gazette for want of it. You say, “you know the Piece was delivered into my own Hands ….” What Wm Lumley, who lives with me, Subjoins to this will, I doubt not, convince you that you was misinformed in that Point, as also that no “Court Sycophant” (having never been a Favourite of the Great) nor any Person out of my House, had ever Seen it till it was printed. I have ever made it a Rule to consult no Man what Pieces I shall publish, and shall ever adhere to it. But, I think, the Authors should give their Names to the Printer for his private Satisfaction, which should by no means be divulged, when the Pieces are of such a Tendency as to create him Enemies, and as he is ignorant in anonymous Pieces whether they come from Friends or Foes, the Consequences may be often hurtful to him. I do not expect any Gentleman will insure me his Vote; but I hope you will do me the Justice to believe that I act up to my Motto, and I think I have often proved it, Sometimes to my great Loss; both by the Expense of printing 2000 Supplements a Week, and by losing many subscribers, who prefer old News, to new Pieces, of what Nature soever. I will therefore still hope for the Continuance of your Friendship, which I desire no longer that I shall be thought to maintain a free Press. I am, with Gratitude and Respect, Sir,
Your much obliged humble
Servant,
Wm. Rind

Sir Williamsburg, Feby 11th 1769
The piece signed Curtius was left at Mr. B. Pasteurs Shop, where I happened to step in, when he gave it me. I know not whether it was the same Day that it was left with him, or the next.
I opened it in the Shop, & seeing it was a Piece for the Press, I put it into my Pocket without reading it. When I came home I shewed it to Mr. Rind, & we both read it; & then I took it into my own Room, & locked it up in my Trunk, with some other Pieces; & there it has remained til given to the Compositor to set for the Press. These particulars I could very safely make Oath to, were it necessary.
I am very respectfully
Sir, Your unknown hbl Sevt
Wm. Lumley

[Eyre Family Papers, VHS]

“Return to your Family & indeed to yourself”: The American Revolution of One Virginia Family

On this date in 1775, John Randolph, a Virginia loyalist, wrote his final extant letter to his patriot son, Edmund.  This letter is remarkable in several ways, not least for the pathos that pervades it.  Edmund had turned 22 only two days before but was already well on his way to Massachusetts to join George Washington’s staff as aide-de-camp, recommended by Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee. Edmund’s new life, tied so closely to that of the new nation, eventually lead to the first President’s cabinet as America’s first Attorney General and second Secretary of State.  But in 1775, that was all just beginning as the old world of his family was collapsing–they were readying themselves to depart Virginia for London and uncertainty. The only member of his family whom Edmund would ever see again was his youngest sister, Ariana, who returned to Virginia with their father’s body in the spring of 1784. His sister, Susanna (one traveler in 1775 recorded her and her sister as “the two greatest beautys in America”), died in London in 1791. His mother, also called Ariana, was buried with Susanna, her husband, and her children, at St. Mary Abbott’s in Kensington in 1801 (buried with Ariana was also the mystery of a lost correspondence of more than 20 missing letters between her and Thomas Jefferson written in the last decade of her life). Their story after they left Williamsburg reflects the high expectations and dashed hopes of many loyalists.

The language of the letter exudes a sense of desperation. It is full of spelling mistakes, crossed-out words, and insertions. Whatever the reasons for the sloppiness of the text, this was clearly not an easy letter for the 48-year-old John Randolph to write, in the midst of the greatest personal and public struggle of his life.

My dear Edmund,

I wrote you a long letter recommended to the care of Mr Willing at Philadelphia, wherein I pointed out my Reasons why I thought your military undertaking will not suit your situation or be so advantageous to you as residing in Wmburg. Your Uncle we hear is dangerously ill at Richmond. His Legs swell very much, & his asthma increases. It is thought his Duration here will be but short. You should never be out of the way when so much depends on your Presence. I shall certainly go to Engld with my Family before October. I want you very much to take my Place at the Capitol. His Majesty will provide for me at Home & you may certainly get into my Office. I propose selling all my Estate both real & personal at the next meeting in October. You have often told me that you wd relinquish your Legacy given by Mr Jennings. As an equivalent I shall give you the full Contents of my Study, & propose giving my Bonds for the Remainder. I have appointed yourself & Uncle my Trustees for selling my Estate & shall join Mr Blair with you. Consider what an honorable & advantageous outset you will make in the Law. Is not the Glory of the Cabinet equal to that of the Field? Is not this better than broken Limbs, fatigue, Shatterd Health, & an eternal want of money? For God’s sake return to your Family & indeed to yourself Abandon not your Sisters who are wretched about you, Come back & Heaven will protect all your Undertakings.

August 12. 1775  I am your affect. & afflicted Father J. Randolph

[Misc. Mss of Clements Library, Univ. of Michigan, CW Rock microfilm M-1031]

“An accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature”: The Somerset Case in Williamsburg

If I was Counsel for Somerset the Negro, (says a Correspondent) I would take up the Matter higher than any of his Counsel have yet done.  I would urge, and I think I could prove, that he neither now is, nor ever was, the Property of his Master; that the original Vendor had no Right to sell, nor the original Purchaser to buy him; that all Mankind, as they are born, ought to live, equally free; and that the Slave Trade, whatever the mercantile World may urge to the contrary, is an infamous bartering of human Flesh and Blood, an accursed Violation of the most sacred Right of human Nature.

This strenuous opinion is remarkable not that it was printed at all–it first appeared in the London Public Advertiser of 16 May 1772–but that it was reprinted in the Virginia Gazette of Alexander Purdie and John Dixon just over two months later, on 23 July.  Regardless of the actual holding in the case of James Somerset, which held that slaves were servants under a 1679 statute and not chattel property, which did not actually make Somerset, or any other slave, legally free, the perception was quite different.  Somerset himself was said to have reported to a relative that he told the servants that “Lord Mansfield had given them [slaves in England] their freedom.”  The news spread across the Atlantic. In late 1774, one planter advertised that an enslaved man in Virginia had run away, probably to get to England, based on “the Knowledge he has of the late Determination of Somerset’s Case.” It certainly stands as a strong reminder of the power of perception to shape opinion and behavior, rather than the actual facts of the case, of the difference between rhetoric and reality, especially when it comes to our understanding of the personal and constitutional tensions involved in the struggle for independence.

“Their particular fortune to be called to the trial”: American loyalists make an appeal to the King

On this date in 1788, a year before French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in a bid for their constitutional rights, American loyalists from the War for Independence published an address to George III that perfectly articulated their own view of those rights–rights for which they, too, had pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honour.”  They had presented it to the King on July 2, including their thanks to him for recommending their claims to Parliament.  It’s a poignant reminder that the loyalists in the American Revolution, whom Bernard Bailyn once derided as “the losers,” were hardly the oversimplified “tory” menace created by patriot propagandists–and enshrined by generations of subsequent Whig historians. Those historians, and the patriots who preceded them, needed to create a narrative with antagonists who stood clearly against what only the American patriots could have been fighting for–the whiggish principles of individual rights and representative government.  Without them, the orthodox story of the American Revolution celebrated in 19th-century history books, modern school textbooks, and the tomes that continue to appear in the popular press, which provide a powerful impetus to the development and maintenance of American identity, just doesn’t work; the narrative collapses and the American Revolution becomes much more complex, and in need of a closer look, if the enemy was actually, as Edmund Randolph–the son of just such an oversimplified and maligned (in his time and ours) “tory”–put it: “spotless as to treason even in thought.”

As the loyalist writers–one of whom was Edmund’s brother-in-law, John Randolph Grymes–argued in their address of 1788, they had “devoted their fortunes, and hazarded their lives in defence of the just rights of the Crown, and the fundamental principles of the British Constitution,” which was “no more than their duty demanded of them.”  However, history had put their constitutional faith to the test in the War for Independence because the great Whig schism of 1776 made it “their particular fortune to be called to the trial.” But there was little question for them about the path to take, regardless of the hazards, as they believed that the British constitution held out “out to mankind the glorious principles of justice, equity, and benevolence, as the firmest basis of Empire.” They did not presume to claim more loyalty than other British subjects but, distinguished by their suffering, “they deem themselves entitled to the foremost rank among the most zealous supporters of the Constitution.” The loyalists stressed, despite their want, that at all times and on all occasions, they were equally ready, as they had been, “to devote their lives and properties to your Majesty’s service, and the preservation of the British Constitution.”

[Sources: Edmund Randolph’s History of Virginia, p. 219; 14 July 1788, Morning Chronicle or London Advertiser]

“So very contradictory to Humanity”: A Loyalist’s View of Slavery

Beverley, RobertIn July 1761, Robert Beverley arrived back in Virginia after 11 years at school in England, first at Beverley Grammar School, then to Wakefield, and finally to Trinity College, Cambridge.  A friend at the time described him as exhibiting “the best Sense, Abilities & many Excellent Qualities.”  Having left the Tidewater when he was 10 years old, he returned to an alien place. His father had died when he was away, leaving him the owner of Blandfield Plantation and its community of enslaved men and women, one of the largest in the colony.  Whatever the 10-year-old Robert might have felt about slavery when he left Virginia in 1750, the 21-year-old had very decided views on the subject.  #OTD in 1761, within days of his return, he expressed to a London merchant his “aversion to Slavery” as “‘something so very contradictory to Humanity.”  He went on to explain that “if ever I bid adieu to Virginia it will be from that cause alone.”

Robert Beverley did “bid adieu” to Virginia, in a way, as he remained staunchly loyal to the British world that his countrymen were bent on destroying.  He stated unequivocally that “I see so many Beauties and so great a display of political Wisdom in our Constitution that I cannot look upon any attempt to subvert it with Patience.” And so he retreated to Blandfield to wait out the American Revolution and never again engage in public affairs.