“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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Stout Fellows and Fine Girls: Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Book of Negroes

In an recent exchange about the stellar new Canadian television series “Book of Negroes,” based on a novel, which is itself based on a set of historical documents listing former slaves, and soon to be broadcast as a miniseries on BET, an acquaintance on Facebook asked me about the men and women from Williamsburg, Virginia, whose names appear it in.  This post is by way of an answer.

They don’t look like much.  At first glance, one might dismissively confuse them as 18th-century merchant ledgers of some sort, listing goods and services rendered rather than people.  But the fact that the pages do mark people who were once goods, but returned to being individuals again by a British government that kept a promise made in 1779 for freedom to all enslaved men and women who made it to their lines during the war against the American patriots, makes the manuscript ledgers that make up the “Book of Negroes” nothing short of remarkable.

The books were created in 1783, during the British evacuation of New York City, the last royal hold on what had become the United States of America.  At the time, the city was teeming with former slaves who were fearful for their tenuous liberty and their former owners whom were keen to have them returned to a lifetime of servitude.  A few slaveowners, such as Carter Braxton–a reluctant signer of the Declaration of Independence–sent agents to seek them out and attempt to return them.  When Braxton’s agent, Williamsburg merchant Robert Prentis, found a few and attempted to leave New York with them, another Virginian told him not to bother.  Beverly Robinson, the brother of a former speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, was in Manhattan, too, but in another capacity–as a British officer, the commander of the largest loyalist regiment raised in the American colonies.  Robinson, who had lived in the Hudson Valley for a time before the war, warned Prentis that the British high command would stand behind the Philipsburgh Proclamation, issued by Henry Clinton in June 1779.  Clinton, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, made it official British policy that no one could claim another person as his property within British lines and all former slaves were free to seek whatever occupation, choose whatever life, they wanted to.  Robinson informed Prentis essentially what Charles Cornwallis had told Virginia governor Thomas Nelson in 1781: slaveowners could enter Yorktown to look for slaves and former slaves were free to leave with their former owners, but only if the former slaves chose to.  Otherwise, they weren’t going anywhere they did not want to go.  Prentis left New York empty-handed, and Braxton admitted that independence might have been a hasty mistake.

The books themselves were generated in 1783, after the terms of the Treaty of Paris were agreed to, granting American independence.  In it, an important provision, insisted upon by the Americans in Article VII, was that “any negroes or other property of the American inhabitants” would not be taken away by the British when they left.  To the Americans, that meant slaves would be returned, of course.  But to the British, the key words in the treaty were “other property,” and because of Clinton’s proclamation, the former slaves were people, not property at all, and therefore not covered by the article.  No matter how many times George Washington appealed to Clinton’s successor, Guy Carleton, for the return of the slaves, the answer was always the same: No.  But what to do with them?  Thousands had found their way to New York City, along with loyalists and what was left of the British army.  So the decision was made to evacuate them, along with everyone else, to other British colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.  Some went to Britain.  Most went north, to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  Others were less fortunate and sent south, to the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean.

As the books record a striking amount of information about each individual, we know that almost 1000 Virginians were among them.  Clerks listed each of them as they boarded their assigned vessels to leave.  Consequently, we know what they looked like, how old they were, where they had lived, whom had once owned them, and when they left.  We know that some took their liberty in 1775, at the very beginning of the conflict, when then-governor Lord Dunmore issued his famous proclamation offering freedom to slaves whom would fight the patriots.  A number of others went in 1779, during a major, but brief, British invasion of the Chesapeake, not long after Clinton’s proclamation was issued and became widely known.  But most seem to have joined the British armies of Robinson, Cornwallis, and Benedict Arnold in 1781, when many free and enslaved Virginians thought the war lost by the patriots as much of the Old Dominion was returned to royal control.  Lord Dunmore had even been ordered back across the Atlantic to resume his old post (he was on a ship headed to Virginia when Cornwallis surrendered).  And we know that several, such as 20-year-old Deborah–“stout wench, thick lips, pock marked,” had belonged to George Washington.

At least 14 came from the old capital of Williamsburg, including one owned by George Wythe.  Their entries from the Book of Negroes are transcribed below.  Of their fates, we know almost nothing, but their names deserve to be remembered and their stories to be told.  And like all good history, the sources beg more questions than reveal answers.

Williamsburg in the Book of Negroes

Isaac, 21, squat stout mulatto. Formerly slave to John Henderson, Williamsburgh, Virginia; brought off by his parents 5 years ago by proclamation [1778].
 
John Jones, 40, slow, well sized man, M. Formerly slave to Richard Jones, Williamsburg, Virginia; left that with Lord Dunmore in 1776. 
 
Peter Prentice, 32, squat, scar on right wrist, (Engineer Department). Formerly slave to John Southern, Williamsburg, Virginia; left him 3 years ago [1779].
 
Jupiter King, 24, stout fellow. Formerly slave to Col. King, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 3 years past [1779].
 
Sally Dennis, 20, stout wench. Formerly the property of [Lewis] Burrell of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 2 years ago [1781].
 
John Gustus, 19, stout fellow. Formerly the property of John [Tazewell] of Williamsburg, Virginia; left him 4 years ago [1779].
 
Hannah Jackson, 12, fine girl. Formerly the property of William Holt of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 4 years ago [1779].
 
Nancy Dixon, 30, sick at present with a girl her daughter, 6 years old. Formerly the property of John Dixon of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 3 years ago [1780].
 
Simon Johnson, 16, likely lad, (Trumpeter, American Legion). Formerly slave to John Cooper, Williamsburgh, Virginia; joined the army with General Arnold in 1781.
 
James Rea, 24, ordinary fellow without legs. Formerly slave to George [Wythe], Williamsburg, Virginia; left him in 1779.
 
Robert Holt, 24, stout fellow. Formerly slave to William Holt, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him in 1779.
John Gray, 28, stout fellow. Formerly slave to Captain Howard Harrand, Williamsburgh, Virginia, who put him in the Army from whence he deserted. [UNK]
Nancy Moody, 14, fine girl. Formerly the property of Henry Moody of Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him 5 years ago [1778].
Peggy Minton, 22, likely wench, Quadroon. Formerly slave to William Black, Williamsburgh, Virginia; left him in 1779.

For more on the historical context of the Book of Negroes, I highly recommend Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution.  For a terrific website that offers considerable access to a number of primary sources, including the Book of Negroes, visit Black Loyalist.  There are two copies of the original texts, one set in Canada and the other in Britain.  It is from the latter copy that I made the above transcriptions.

Feet of Clay: Benjamin Harrison, Founding Father…and Smuggler?

Berkeley PlantationNot many people know much about Benjamin Harrison (c1726-1791), one of the patriots’ “principal & most violent Leaders” (according to an anonymous loyalist observer), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a governor of Virginia.  According to Edmund Randolph, writing long after the American Revolution, Harrison was a “favorite of the day” and “scrupled not to utter any untruth,” although his frankness was “sometimes tinctured with bitterness.”  Not that you’ll get much reliable information about him if you visit the impressive but poorly interpreted Berkeley Plantation, his home on the James River between Williamsburg and Richmond, he did lead an interesting life, that bespeaks, as my grandmother used to say, “something rustling behind the curtain.”  His father and two sisters were killed by lightning strikes in 1745; his mother died the same year, leaving him, at about 19 years old, and fresh from the College of William & Mary, in charge of his surviving family and hundreds of enslaved men and women.  Even in those circumstances he was a complicated figure: Benjamin Rush reported that pleasure was his ultimate goal, so it makes sense that his favorite book seems to have been Fanny Hill, yet he was also responsible for what might have been the first and largest mass inoculation against smallpox, including his enslaved families, in early American history, when the pestilence threatened his own daughters.

And he was also a smuggler.  Like John Hancock, he was one of those patriots who inveighed against the tightening of the Navigation Acts because it meant more British warships patrolling the Chesapeake Bay and, consequently, threatened his own bottom line.  How do we know this?  Well, we could just say that the apple fell not far from the tree and leave it at that.  Both his father and grandfather were accused of, and investigated for, smuggling dating back to the late 1600s.  But Harrison made it easy for historians by simply telling us.  Hardly an Israelite without guile, documents now at the Houghton Library of Harvard University spell out his schemes in letters with his primary accomplice, a Boston merchant and Son of Liberty.  In the late 1760s and early 1770s, they kept their eyes peeled for any opportunity at all to skirt import restrictions, especially when it came to illicit cargoes of dried fish and wheat from New England.  In 1772, for example, he wrote a letter to his Boston accomplice, complaining about the effectiveness of the officer in command of the British warship then on the Virginia station–the crew of which could have also included Francis Otway Byrd, a Royal Navy Midshipman and son of Harrison’s neighbor, William Byrd III.  Any illegal effort, Harrison wrote in January, “will Depend on the lookout that is kept here by the Men of War,” but “at present there is no doing any thing in the smugling [sic] way.”  But if they were to find their way to rid themselves of the troublesome naval captain, “I shall carry my former Scheme into Execution.”  “[T]wo or three successful Voyages of this sort,” Harrison observed, “would make a fortune.”

I write this not to besmirch the memory of a celebrated American “founding father” (a rather meaningless label that I try, and often fail, to avoid).  After all, passing judgment on people of the past–even of the present, for that matter–isn’t my job as a historian (although I will confess to a sincere hatred of Alexander Hamilton and William Byrd II).  Instead, the point is a useful reminder that these people were, like all people, hopeless flawed and very messy, which is what makes studying and reading about their real lives and experiences so terribly interesting.  Getting them right is especially important now, with shows like “Sons of Liberty” and “Turn” taking our Revolutionary history and throwing it into a multimedia grinder on a weekly basis.  Yes, Benjamin Harrison was a smuggler, which almost certainly influenced his political behavior on behalf of the patriots.  Political economics had an enormous and complicated influence on the course of the American Revolution, which is the subject of my next book.  But, like it or not, those are the kind of persons who made America, men and women with feet of clay whom, in the end, created an extraordinary work of art.

“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

“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]

A War of Passion: Charles James Fox and the Enthusiasm of the American Revolution

While I ponder the warp and woof of the dialogical origins of the American Revolution and what that might mean for those of us who daily attempt to straddle the 18th and 21st centuries (an unsteady endeavor at times), I thought I’d share these words to ponder from a 29-year-old Charles James Fox.

ImageFox hardly needs an introduction to anyone with even a passing familiarity with late 18th-century British politics. Fox’s connection with Williamsburg was a bit tenuous, having attended Eton at the same time as some of its luminaries. Snippets from surviving correspondence suggest that Ralph Wormeley, a member of Virginia’s Council and a loyalist during the Revolution (both of his younger brothers served in the British army and he was placed under arrest in 1776 and 1781), appears to have been on friendly terms with him, although it must be said that Wormeley appears nowhere that I’ve seen in Fox’s voluminous correspondence. Fox’s connection to the American cause during “the Troubles,” on the other hand, was direct and explicit. His argument during the 1774 debate over the Quebec Act that “My idea is that America is not to be governed by force, but by affection and interest,” is as much a reflection of that as is the following passage.

Fox’s statement is interesting to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is Fox’s continued use of the language of sensibility–which centers on passion, affection, and emotion–at the core of Georgian political culture (and its departure from the political language of the utterly sensible Augustan world it supplanted, at least temporarily). “Enthusiasm” was once a word to be decried as the characteristic of one who has, more or less, lost his or her mind. One prominent historian of my acquaintance has referred to enthusiasm as “the anti-self of the Enlightenment.” Fox’s language is also interesting for his employment of “interest,” that oft-employed and even more often misunderstood 18th-century word, the shifting meaning of which encapsulated changing relationships among Britons on both sides of the Atlantic in the period.

Fox’s speech is overwrought and overstated and could serve as the battle cry for all those adherents to revolutionary sensibility for whom “moderation” was something to abhor. Just imagine what Edmund Burke–not far removed from his days as the doyenne of the sublime and not yet shaken to his core by the violence of the French Revolution–might have thought as he sat and listened to it.

“The war of the Americans is a war of passion; it is of such a nature as to be supported by the most powerful virtues, love of liberty and of country and at the same time by those passions in the human heart which give courage, strength, and perseverance to man; …every thing combines to animate them to this war, and such a war is without end; for whatever obstinacy enthusiasm ever inspired man with, you will now have to contend with in America: No matter what gives birth to that enthusiasm, whether the name of religion or of liberty, the effects are the same; it inspires a spirit that is unconquerable and solicitous to undergo difficulties and dangers, and as long as there is a man in America so long you have him against you in the field.  The war of France. . . is a war of interest; it was interest that first induced her to engage in it, and it is by that same interest that she will measure its continuance.”

“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]

For Independence Day: Britain’s Intercepted Copy of the Declaration of Independence

For Independence Day: Britain's Intercepted Copy of the Declaration of Independence

Several years ago, as I was going through the “Intercepted Letters” file at the National Archives (UK) in Kew, I came across this striking document, one of a relative handful of existing copies of the very first printing of the Declaration of Independence. What made the find even more fascinating was the condition of the document: it could have come off Dunlap’s Philadelphia press yesterday. Put on a ship to England right away, it was snatched by British authorities and, perhaps after a perusal by Lord North or even the King, consigned to this file in August 1776, where it has remained ever since. It still interests me to think about what the moment of encountering it must have been like, and also to look again at this document, with the stamp in the upper left-hand corner proclaiming it the property of HM government–unlike the United States of America.

“I will make the shores of James River an example of terror”: The nature of war in 1781 Virginia

British forces under the command of William Phillips (with Benedict Arnold) occupied Williamsburg from April 20 to April 22, 1781.  By many accounts, they were treated well, even warmly, by many of the inhabitants, much to the chagrin of more committed patriots.   As a result, a number of citizens were arrested and charged with “disaffection to the interests of their country,” prompting this remarkable statement from Phillips, written on April 29 to the Marquis de la Fayette.  It is all the more notable because Phillips was well-known and respected by many Virginia leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, as a reasonable, even moderate, officer, from the time Phillips spent as a prisoner of war in Charlottesville as part of Burgoyne’s “convention army.”  Clearly tensions on both sides were reaching a peak, given that the Revolution in Virginia was hanging increasingly in the balance.

When I was at Williamsburg, and at Petersburg, I gave several inhabitants and country people protections for their persons and properties.  I did this without asking, or even considering, whether these people were either friends or foes, actuated by no other motive than that of pure humanity. I understand, from almost undoubted authority, that several of these persons have been taken up by their malicious neighbours, and sent to your quarters, where preparations are making for their being ill treated; a report which I sincerely hope may be without foundation. I repeat to you, sir, that my protections were given generally from a wish that, in the destruction of public stories, as little damage as possible might be done to private property, and to the persons of individuals. …I am obliged to declare to you, sir, that if any persons, under the description I have given, receive ill treatment, I shall be under the necessity of sending to Petersburg, and giving that chastisement to the illiberal persecutor of innocent people, which their conduct shall deserve. And I further declare to you, sir, should any person be put to death, under the pretence of their being spies of, or friends to, the British government, I will make the shores of James River an example of terror to the rest of Virginia.

“We are in confusion beyond parallel”: Nation-building in Revolutionary Virginia

Edmund Randolph's signature on a piece of Virginia currency issued in 1775.On June 21, 1776, Edmund Randolph was caught in a whirlwind in Williamsburg.  A member of the 5th Virginia Convention, he had already voted for the resolution for independence from Great Britain and adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  But then the hard work had to begin.  Randolph was at the center of building a new nation, with everything that tends to entail, from political infighting to fighting a war to constructing a whole new government.  And meanwhile, the remains of the old nation–of everything that Lord Dunmore and his family had left behind, including slaves, when they fled Williamsburg a year before–had to be dealt with.  It’s no wonder that the 22-year-old saw “confusion beyond parallel” in the opening months of the American Revolution, on this date 237 years ago.
We are in confusion beyond parallel: no government is in existence but such as is vested in the hands of the Convention. This august body yesterday elected delegates for Congress, and rejected Colonels Harrison and Braxton. It was first determined we should have only five. The fortunate candidates were Wythe, Nelson, Jefferson, R. H. Lee, and T. L. Lee. We are engaged in forming a plan of government. God knows when it will be finished. It is generally thought that the contest will be between President Nelson and Mr. Henry, who shall be governor. Hunter’s gun manufactory has turned out twenty or thirty excessively fine guns, upon which the Convention made a contract with him for all the guns he can make in the course of a twelvemonth, at the price of 6 each. I know not what to add, except that Lord Dunmore’s estate is ordered by Convention to be sold.

SOURCE: Edmund Randolph to George Baylor, 21 June 1776, printed in Moncure Daniel Conway, Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed In the Life And Papers of Edmund Randolph (1888), 29.