Archive for the ‘The Revolution (1775-1783)’ Category

In our world, there are lots of famous pairs.  There are a lot of things that just work really well together, like they were meant to be.  And as we start the fifth year of Today’s History Lesson, let’s name some.

Chocolate and peanut butter.
Donnie and Marie.
Spaghetti and meatballs.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Calvin and Hobbes.
Blue Falcon and Dog Wonder.
Abbott and Costello.
Sonny and Cher (ok…admittedly, they worked slightly less well together).
Starksy and Hutch.
Brooks and Dunn.

You get the picture.  In the political world, there have famous pairings, too.  We immediately think of duos like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or maybe John and Abigail Adams.  Lexington and Concord.  Valley Forge and Baron von Steuben.  Republicans and tax breaks for the wealthy…I jest, I jest!!!  Hmmm…Democrats and deficits…there, does that even it out?  Anyways, we could go on and on, but I’ll focus instead in one.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  We’ve talked about both of these immensely influential Founders on many occasions, but it’s time we put them together.

Hamilton and Washington were a team for the better part of twenty-five years.  Washington, the first President, was the calm, steady leader.  Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, was the impetuous, forceful subordinate.  It fact, it’s very safe to say that during Washington’s first term (and much of his second), Alexander was the second most powerful man in America.  He was more powerful than Vice President Adams.  He was more powerful than Secretary of State Jefferson.

Hamilton’s influence made him a lot of enemies, and Washington’s deference to Hamilton made a great many exceedingly jealous.  Thomas Jefferson, in particular, came to believe that Washington was little more than a marionette, dancing on the strings manipulated from above by a power-maddened Hamilton.

But George Washington’s trust in Hamilton was built on years of experience in close proximity to the man.  Whether you like Hamilton or hate him (or are completely indifferent), you must know that Washington was a pretty good judge of people, and he knew Hamilton better than most.

Their collaboration began on this day in history…March 1, 1777.  George Washington was a General…in fact, he was the General of the army.  Alexander Hamilton was an artillery company Captain, who had distinguished himself in the Battle of White Plains and the Battle of Trenton.  His leadership abilities and good performance under pressure (and under fire) had made him something of a desirable commodity.  General Nathanael Greene had requested his services.  Henry Knox (at that time a Brigadier General) had also sought out Hamilton to be an aide.  Hamilton had refused both, preferring to earn his Revolutionary glory on the field of battle.

But when General Washington invited Hamilton to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, it was an offer he simply couldn’t refuse.  He accepted the General’s offer and joined his staff on this day with the elevated rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  And that’s where this “dynamic duo” got its start.

Speaking of Captains, our son learned today that he has been promoted to the rank of Captain.  Congratulations to him!!

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If you’re in mixed company and you say, “Boy, that Samuel Adams was really something!“, most people will ask about the variety to which you refer.  And that’s a remarkable shame.  I’m probably being old-fashioned and naive, but I think it’s a terrible indictment on our culture to mention the older of the Adams cousins (the younger being our first Vice President and second President) and have most people start listing off the various beers and lagers made by the company that bears his name.

Yes, the Samuel Adams beer company makes dozens of brews, some seasonal, some year-round.  People swear by it, love it, drink it on their cornflakes, and have it with their pumpkin pie.  There’s probably even a game on Sporcle where you get five minutes to list as many flavors of Samuel Adams beer as you can.

But what’s been lost in the beer goggles (and probably in many classrooms) is that Samuel Adams (the beer) doesn’t even exist if there wasn’t first Samuel Adams (the man).

If you don’t know the “who” better than the “brew”, I’ll make it super simple for you (whoa!!…a bit of unintentional poetry).

Samuel Adams was quite possibly the single most important driving force behind the initial push for independence in the Thirteen Colonies.  If Twitter had existed in the 1760s (I’m still trying to figure out why Twitter exists today, but one rant at a time), Adams would have been the guy everyone linked to in order to know what was going on.

And while his history has been largely forgotten, Samuel Adams was a giant in his time.  When John Adams went to France in 1779, he was recognized as “not the famous Adams.”  He wrote that his cousin had “the most thorough Understanding of Liberty, and her Resources, in the Temper and Character of the people…”.  Jefferson (the author of The Declaration of Independence) called him “the man of the Revolution…for depth of purpose, zeal, and sagacity, no man in Congress exceeded, if any equalled Sam Adams.”

The British also knew Samuel Adams, and steins of beer were not part of their discussions.  If you want to know their opinion of the man, it’s best explained by example.  In June of 1775, the governor of Massachusetts (Thomas Gage) offered amnesty to all the “rebels” causing trouble…all rebels, that is, but two.  John Hancock and Samuel Adams.  When the British Redcoats met the colonial militias at Lexington and Concord, what was their primary mission?  War?…no.  Territory?…no.  The arrest of Adams and Hancock?…yep.

In the shadow of Thomas Paine’s publication of Common Sense, Samuel Adams (a long-time newspaperman) returned to print.  On February 3, 1776, an article written by Adams (and published under the pseudonym “Candidus”) was published in the Boston Gazette.  It contained what was quite possibly the first call for an actual, formal declaration of independence.  “By declaring independence,” he penned, “we put ourselves on a footing for an equal negotiation.”

And like Paine, he had words for the Quakers.  A devoutly religious man himself, “Candidus” appreciated Quaker piety.  But their tendency to favor the British monarchy under the guise to “pacifist neutrality” irritated him.  “If they profess themselves only pilgrims here, let them walk through the men of this world without interfering with their actions on either side.”

Some of Adams’ words would upset people today.  They upset people in the 1770s.  But when the members of the Continental Congress decided on indpendence a few months later, the words of “Candidus” were on their lips.

Not beer.

Recommended Reading: Samuel Adams: A Life

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As my knowledge of America’s Revolutionary era has reached the “ankle-deep” stage over the last couple years, there are a few authors that I should probably thank.  Without question, Ron Chernow’s studies of Alexander Hamilton and (most recently) George Washington get a mention.  David McCullough is another, especially for his biography of John Adams.

For you internet junkies, I have to thank Frances Hunter’s American Heroes and Martin and company over at What Would the Founders Think.  These two sites have both taught me so much about the early days of this nation, and both deserve a look from you. 

But one author that I think may sometimes get overlooked is Joseph Ellis.  My first exposure to his writing came several years ago with His Excellency.  Then I read American Sphinx, his work on Thomas Jefferson.  A couple of months back, I picked up First Family, which represents Ellis’ return to John and Abigail Adams.  One of these days, I’ll actually get it finished.

In the introduction to First Family, Ellis reminds us that John and Abigail shared one of the most remarkable relationships in U.S. history.  It wasn’t just the steadfastness of their marriage, the struggles raising of a family (including a future President), and growing old together that set them apart.  In fact, those things are pretty common to many couples.

But Ellis writes, “Abigail and John traveled down that trail about two hundred years before us, remained lovers and friends throughout, and together had a hand in laying the foundation of what is now the oldest enduring republic in world history.  And they left a written record of all the twitches, traumas, throbbings, and tribulations along the way.  No one else has ever done that.”

He informs us that the record consists of “roughly twelve hundred letters between them” and describes it as “a treasure trove of unexpected intimacy and candor.”

Throughout the Colonies’ push for independence, this second “First Couple” spent quite a bit of time apart, as duty often called John away, whether it be to Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress, or even further away to Paris.  David McCullough writes that Abigail’s letters often concerned news from the homefront.  “…family, of politics, of her day-to-day struggles to manage expenses, cope with shortages, and keep the farm going…”.

However, Abigail was far more than just the keeper of the house while John was away.  She was a shrewd woman with a strong mind and a keen sense her husband’s work and its implications, not only for them, but for generations that would follow.  On March 31, 1776, she wrote to John concerning the British evacuation of Boston and smallpox vaccinations.

But then she followed up with some seemingly parenthetical thoughts that have become her most famous words.  “And, by the way,” she wrote, “in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.”  She continued on (quoting Daniel Defoe), “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.”  And then she offered up a playful (or was it?) threat for her husband’s consideration.  “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to forment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Mrs. Adams final statement here is most remarkable.  A woman, living in a society completely dominated by men, talking of independence and equality.  And while her husband took her statements as playful banter, I cannot but imagine that the phrase “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation” really packed a punch.  This was the reason he and other men were meeting in Philadelphia, talking about revolution and independence from the rule of tyranny.

Abigail Adams threw down the proverbial gauntlet to her husband, challenging him (and those with whom he gathered) to consider the possibility that freedom involved more than “taxation with representation” and more than throwing off the shackles of King George III.  Maybe it also included equality for women in the voting booth.  She and John both detested slavery (their letters discuss it on numerous occasions), and maybe freedom had something to say about that as well.

Ninety years and a bloody Civil War would be required to ultimately end the curse of slavery in America.  And more than 150 years would pass before women were finally allowed to vote.  But Abigail’s letter saw that “city of the future” in the spring of 1776, when the battle-cry of freedom was just warming up.

Recommended Reading:  First Family:  Abigail and John Adams

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Our drive back from Estes Park was good, and it’s good to be home, but it’s also a bit sad to see a vacation end.  It was like that back in August when we returned from a couple days in Phoenix.  I’m well aware of the need to come home…work awaits, and we’re not celebrities that possess bank accounts overflowing with disposable income.  But still, I wish vacations, wherever we enjoy them, didn’t have to end.


The fall of 1777 saw the Continental Army in a pretty bad state.  General Horatio Gates stunning victory at Saratoga (which I promise we’ll discuss at some point) was the lone high point in an autumn of despair and defeat.  For General George Washington, it was one defeat after another.  Losses at Cooch’s Bridge and Chadd’s Ford had left the capital of Philadelphia open to  General William Howe’s British Redcoats…and the Second Continental Congress booking the fastest flights out of town.

But as bad as their military results were, it was the general condition of Washington’s men that was most appalling.  The soldiers were destitute.  Many were sick, many more were hungry, and most all of them were inadequately clothed.  In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming recounts the Commander-in-Chief’s words to Alexander Hamilton, then a Lt. Colonel.  Writing in mid-September, Washington lamented, “The distressed situation of the army for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing is truly deplorable.”

There was no relief in sight.  The Congress, which was busy “committee’ing” itself to death, was broke.  Many Colonists, unwilling to accept I.O.U.’s from a bankrupt government while becoming increasingly convinced of eventual British victory, found it easier to sell their goods to the British, who actually paid for stuff.  So the Continental Army went without, which made it more difficult to fight, which made British success more sure, which made Colonists fearful of supplying its Army, which…well, you see the vicious circle.  General Washington was within his right to simply take from the people what his men needed, but Fleming correctly asserts that “he was always aware that he was fighting a war for the civilian hearts and minds as well as for military victory.”  Washington used this power very sparingly and with much delicacy.

Against this backdrop, it’s probably easy to understand how Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Germantown was almost inevitable.  Philadelphia had fallen in late September (just days after Washington’s lament to Hamilton), and General Howe had divided his forces, leaving some to defend the captured city while moving a sizeable group (about 9,000 strong) north to Germantown.  General Washington saw his opponent’s division of forces as a chance to strike back.

Early in the morning of October 4, 1777, he divided his 11,000 men into 4 columns and prepared for battle.  But just as at Chadd’s Ford, foggy conditions created confusion among the Continentals, and 2 of the columns got lost.  In a couple of hours, the fighting was over.  The Continental Army retreated from the field suffering 152 killed, 521 wounded, and 400+ captured.  The British held their positions at the cost of 71 dead and 450 wounded.

Washington had shown pretty good battlefield tactics, and a victory here (coupled with the victory at Saratoga) may have caused the British the reconsider their stake in the Colonies.  But his men lacked the necessary training (and they certainly lacked the necessary support and equipment) to deliver a knockout blow at this point.  And what’s more, members of Congress now began to doubt that their military leader had the moxie to successfully engage the British.  Whispers of a replacement, one General Horatio Gates (hero of Saratoga), were now being heard.

The Continental Army would engage the British in minor skirmishes over the next two months, but the Battle of Germantown left General Washington’s men with little choice but to find a place close enough to keep tabs on the British, but far enough to keep a major engagement off the table.  That place?…Valley Forge.

Recommended Reading:  Washington’s Secret War

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“I regret that I have but one life to live for my country.”

When I was in grade school, the extent of my knowledge about Nathan Hale was limited to just three things.  That he was captured by the British during the American Revolution, that he was hanged, and the words above were the last he spoke before the hangman’s noose did its deadly work.

I’m quite a bit older, and I still don’t know much about the man.  But I don’t think I’m the exception.  Nathan Hale died at just 21 years of age, and lived in a time when record-keeping was nothing like it is now.  So information is sparse, and what we have is sketchy.  There are no portraits of Hale, so we really don’t know what he looked like.  The statues formed in his honor?…they’re pretty much artist interpretations of what his appearance may have been.  His famous last words…the ones that made him famous that I learned at an early age?…people don’t actually know if he said them.

So what do we know?

Nathan Hale was a Captain in the Continental Army, and as the British worked to capture New York City in 1776, the 21-year-old volunteered to go behind British lines and spy on their movements.  That was early September.  And as we know, General Washington and the Continental Army were forced to leave and as they did, a fire broke out that burned a quarter of the city.

It was never determined if the fire was an act of nature, or an accident, or if it was deliberately set.  But the British believed that it was the work of rebel activity, and rounded up a couple hundred potential suspects.  One of them was Hale.

And apparently, it didn’t take them long to figure out he was a spy.  And if we recall the case of Major John André, the penalty for spying was death.  But unlike André, there was almost no delay in carrying out Hale’s sentence.  On September 22, 1776 (just one day after the fire and his arrest), Nathan Hale was hanged.

It’s pretty clear that the young man made some kind of statement before the deed was done.  And several accounts have him saying something at least close to the quote we all know.  But those may not be his exact words, however much they’ve been immortalized.  Still, Hale seems to have been a daring young man.  And he was certainly willing to risk the one life he could live in the service of his country.

So whether or not the statement is 100% correct, it is appropriate, because there are few deeds more noble than that.

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The Battles of Lexington and Concord convinced a goodly number of Colonial doubters that war with the British Crown was inevitable.  Bluster and pontification, threat and proclamation…they were all one thing (I’m not sure that’s grammatically proper, but oh well).  Muskets and shot, bloodshed and death…well, that was altogether different.

But still, there were those Colonists who wanted to avoid going to war against a superpower.  They recognized that there were serious issues that needed to be resolved, but believed a peaceful solution was still possible.  On July 8, 1775, these men prevailed upon the remaining members of the Second Continental Congress to send the Olive Branch Petition to King George III.  In it, they addressed their grievances, but also maintained their loyalty to the Crown.

Of course, 18th-century communication was slow, so it took some time for the Olive Branch Petition to arrive in the King’s hands.  But it mattered little because King George had already received word of the incidents at Lexington and Concord.  And his men had intercepted correspondence (particularly from John Adams) advocating war.  The King refused to even open, much less read, the Olive Branch Petition.

On August 23, 1775, King George III issued his response: A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition.  In it, the Colonies were declared to be in open rebellion against the Empire, and it gave officials permission “to use their utmost endeavours to withstand and suppress such rebellion.

And while the war of words would continue for a period of time, it was clear that words were no longer going to fix the tenuous situation.  The time for Revolution had truly arrived.

Recommended Reading: American Sphinx

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It’s easy for us to think that when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in October of 1781, the American Revolution ended.  But news didn’t travel very quickly in the 18th century, and even if it did, the British didn’t consider the conflict over.  Yorktown ended up being the last major conflict, but Britain actually stopped fighting (two years later, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris)  more for political reasons than because it felt like it had lost the war.

So while fighting largely ceased in the eastern part of the Colonies, it continued in the west as the British worked in conjunction with the various Indian tribes to fight the militias.  As the Colonists drifted westward, many of the native tribes were being pushed off their ancenstral homelands.  And they felt as though this was the last best chance to push the white man back east and reclaim lands they believed rightfully theirs.  The British used this situation to their advantage, arming the Indians and feeding both their desires and their fears.

It’s here that Simon Girty enters the stage.  A white man raised by the Indians, he had defected from the Colonists in 1778 to fight with the British.  And now, in 1782, a large contingent of natives gathered in Ohio and made ready to raid settlements in Kentucky.  In his biography of Daniel Boone, Robert Morgan writes that Girty fired up the various tribes with a bold speech.  Concluding, he said, “Brothers, the intruders on your lands exult in the success that has crowned their flagitious acts….Was there a voice in the trees of the forest, or articulate sounds in the gurgling waters, every part of this country would call on you to chase away these ruthless invaders, who are laying it waste.” If you’re interested in learning more about this man (who was one of the most hated men in America at the time), check out an excellent piece from Frances Hunter’s website…it’s well worth the read.

The British and Indian tribes swept south.  One of their destinations was Bryan Station, a fort and settlement in modern-day Lexington, Kentucky.  But the settlers got advanced warning of their approach and retreated to the protection of the fort.  In response, men from the surrounding area gathered at Boone’s Station and headed north, pursuing the Indians who had left the area.  Among them was Daniel Boone and his son Israel.

All along the path, Boone found signs of the enemy camps, and it worried him immensely.  The natives normally didn’t leave obvious clues to their whereabouts and travels.  Morgan writes, “Their campfires were left burning; their trail was plainly marked; and every indication showed that they desired a pursuit…”.  Daniel Boone smelled a trap.

On August 19, 1782, Boone and 180 other men (led by John Todd and Stephen Trigg) approached Blue Licks, an area of rising ground where the Licking River forms a U-shape as it meanders.  Boone was familiar with the territory and knew that beyond the river, there were ravines where the enemy would be waiting.  He urged caution and a delay for more reinforcements, but others jumped the gun and crossed the river.  The battle was about to be joined, and Boone could do little but go along.

It was a perfect trap as the 180 men reached the high ground, and there met a withering fire from Girty, the Indians, and the British, led by William Caldwell.  Things fell apart very quickly.  Both Colonels Todd and Trigg were shot down early in the battle, and only Boone’s group could make any advance, before retreating for fear of being flanked and surrounded.

Men were falling fast and Daniel Boone wanted to get his son out of the action.  Turning to look for a horse, he heard a thud behind him.  He wheeled around to see Israel fall with a bullet to the heart, his son dying almost instantly in front of him.  With the enemy bearing down, a grief-stricken father couldn’t even stop to grab his son’s body, but rather mounted the horse and made his escape.

The Battle of Blue Licks cost the Kentucky militia dearly, as 77 of the 182 men were killed.  The British counted fewer than a dozen killed.  And for Daniel Boone, the loss of his Israel was devastating.  Another son, Nathan, would later recount, “Father used to be deeply affected, even to tears, when he spoke of the Blue Licks defeat and the death of his son.”

Recommended Reading:  Daniel Boone – Morgan’s biography is upcoming on my list.

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Camden, South Carolina may not be a place that’s familiar to you, and that’s ok, because I’ve never been there, either.  But, like nearly every other town in existance, the World Wide Web provides us with an instant connection.  Displaying typical southern charm and called home by roughly 7,000 people, Camden is one of South Carolina’s oldest cities and appears to have a rich history.

Of course, not all the history is so great, at least for Americans.  Take this little nugget as an example…

In Revolutionary history, Camden (well, actually a battlefield just to the north of the city) is home to the Battle of Camden.  Fought on August 16, 1780, it was the worst Continental Army defeat in the entire war.  Think on that for just a minute…

In a series of conflicts spanning 7 or 8 years (depending on where you put the starting and ending points of the Revolution), the Continental Army suffered numerous defeats…we’ve talked about several.  Fort Washington and New York in the north, Richmond and Savannah in the south.  And there were smaller places in between.  Savannah fell with barely a shot fired.

So what makes Camden so embarrassingly special?  That’s a multi-part answer.  First, General Horatio Gates’ Continental forces significantly outnumbered (by nearly two-to-one) their Redcoat counterparts (led by the famous Cornwallis) in both men and cannon.  In addition, Gates was a former British officer, well-versed in British tactics and battlefield strategy.

But advantages like this mean little when the General made mistakes that nullified them.  Though he knew British formations well, he lined up some of his most inexperienced men opposite the most experienced British troops.  He was fighting in an area that was heavily loyal to the British, which meant getting fresh food and supplies from locals was, in the best case, problematic.  And that lack of good food and water led to sickness and disease, which compromised the power of his fighting force.  These were not the kinds of mistakes a leader of Gates’ caliber should be making…or were they?

Maybe Gates wasn’t nearly the General he thought he was.  Sure, there was the miracle of Saratoga a couple of years back, but unlike commanders who learn by placing their experience within a proper context, Gates learned that American troops were simply better than the British.  This was just clearly wrong, as copious amounts of battlefield testimony would have verified.

He may have been the big loser at Yorktown, but Charles Cornwallis was a brilliant tactician, and Gates was overmatched.  And that became apparent after the first volley at Camden.  The right flank simply disintegrated and men turned and fled the field.  The one militia to hold its ground (800 men from North Carolina) offered up stiff resistance, but with most other men heading for cover, they were badly outnumbered.

In one hour, the Continental Army (again, with a two-to-one advantage in men) had been trounced.  Killed and wounded totaled 900, with another 1,000 captured…half the original force…in one hour.  In addition, the Continental Army lost all 7 cannon and most of their supplies.  The British?…less than 70 killed and less than 250 wounded.

The disaster that was the Battle of Camden was the end of the line for General Horatio Gates.  He was stripped of his command, and just narrowly avoided a court-martial.

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This evening’s (brief) edition of Today’s History Lesson begins with a “thank-you” to Frances Hunter.  Frances Hunter’s American Heroes is a terrific website devoted to the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Yeah, you know, the two guys that discovered the Pacific Ocean.  Well, if that’s all you think there is to the story, you have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes.  If you haven’t been, go visit.  It’s like Morpheus offering you “the red pill.”  While writing about Andre Michaux, Frances held a contest which I happened to win, earning me a copy of Hunter’s latest book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and it just arrived yesterday).  It’s historical fiction that includes Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, the afore-mentioned Michaux, and a host of other historical characters.  I’m super-excited to dig in.


Thomas Hickey.  A member of General George Washington’s Life Guard and conspirator in the plot to either kidnap or kill the General.  When we visited him last week, he had just been caught and arrested.  But June 28, 1776 would see no declaration for independence for this young Sergeant.


He was to be made an example for other soldiers who would might consider acting against their uniform.  He was taken to a field and hanged on a gallows.  But his sentence was not witnessed by only a few, as may have been the case of Major John André.  Instead it was done in front of 20,000 Continental Army soldiers.  And while there were 20 or so arrests made in the case, no one else received the death penalty, as they turned “state’s evidence” to further implicate Hickey.

As mentioned before, the actual plot to kill General Washington is a bit murky, but there is little doubt that it existed.  The fact that everyone turned on Thomas Hickey may be the cause of the glorification of the story down through the years.  The famous “Poisoned Peas” tale is likely just a tale, and may come out of the sensationalism.  As it goes, Hickey made an arrangement with one of Washington’s servant girls to lace his peas with arsenic.  The servant girl warned the General who, rather than eat the peas, threw them out to the chickens roaming in the yard.  They ate the peas and promptly died, leading to Hickey’s arrest.

That certainly doesn’t coincide with what we discussed last week, but as we know, stories get bigger over time.  Anyways, there you have it.  Hickey’s hanging and some vegetables that most kids already believe to be poisoned.

I happen to love peas, as long as they’re not from a can…those are deadly.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Hickey – This is some good information. Keep in mind that records of this incident (now more than 230 years old) are murky. But I think this is interesting reading.

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During the American Revolution, New York City was very much a center for British sympathizers.  That’s not especially surprising, as we’ve mentioned it on a couple of occasions.  And what’s more, the violence and persecution (I think the term is appropriate here) against them was widespread, as the pro-independence Colonists there had little trouble finding Loyalists to torment.

So when General George Washington arrived on the scene in April of 1776 to oversee military preparations, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Loyalists might target him in order to exact a bit of revenge.  The British, still stinging from the loss of Boston in March, probably would have welcomed a change of leadership at the head of the Continental Army.

On June 21, 1776, a plot to convince Patriot soldiers to defect to the British was uncovered.  It was orchestrated by William Tryon, New York’s former governor, who had been ousted from his position by the Patriots.  David Matthews, New York City’s current mayor and a Tory, was accused of funding the operation, which involved bribes to Continental Army soldiers.  And while it was never completely proven, Matthews spent some time in prison.

But most shocking was the discovery that members of Washington’s guard, most notably, Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were involved.  Having been assigned to his position in March, he was caught passing counterfeit money.  While in prison, he told a fellow soldier that his crimes were part of a much larger plot.

Evidence seems to suggest that included in the plans was the capture or assassination of General Washington and other members of his staff.  There doesn’t seem to be 100% consensus on whether a plot to kill the General actually existed.  Some historians seem to think so, while others are doubtful.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I’ve quoted dozens of times), Ron Chernow writes of a definite assassination plot.  So I’m inclined to believe that one existed.

How far-reaching such a plan reached is hard to say, but we know for sure that only Thomas Hickey’s neck would feel the bite of the hangman’s rope, as his execution was carried out a week later.

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We pick up where we left off yesterday, with British troops having left Boston in search of Samuel Adams and John Hancock.  Revere and Dawes had reached both and warned them of the British approach, at which point both packed their bags and headed for Philadelphia.

And as the dawn began to break on April 19, 1775’s version of Lexington, Major John Pitcairn led 700 British regulars into town.  There to greet them were 75-80 Colonial Minutemen, led by Captain John Parker.  The British major probably looked on the “rabble” assembled before him and chuckled.  He ordered the forces arrayed against him to pack up and head home…probably with the condescending tone of an arrogant schoolmaster scolding a wayward child.

Of course, we know what happened next.  A shot was fired (“the shot heard round the world”) from an unknown gun, and the skirmish was on.  Scattered shots were soon replaced by organized volleys from the British.  The wiser of the Minutemen (most all of them) turned and ran for cover, but not before 8 men were killed, including Parker’s cousin.

News carried quickly even in those computer-less, telephone-less days.  When the British arrived in Concord (to seize military supplies) less than 2 hours later, he found an enemy that numbered in the hundreds.  Bullying tactics now would be a much more difficult proposition.  While the British were able to capture and destroy some weapons, it quickly became apparent that the Colonials were not backing down.  So as fighting broke out anew and British began taking casualties, the orders were given to head back to Boston.

And throughout the 15-mile retreat, they were shot at by an ever-growing number of Minutemen, who picked off their targets from behind rocks and trees.  At the end of these engagements, casualty counts showed the British with more than 300 killed, wounded, or missing.  The “rabble” they faced suffered fewer than 100.

The Americian Revolution had begun, and it began with American victory.

Recommended Recreation:  Minuteman National Historical Park

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The winter of 1779-1780 was a pretty bad one for thirteen Colonies struggling to free themselves from cross-Atlantic control.  First off, the weather was miserable.  “Washington’s army, encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, suffered more than it had at Valley Forge from severe frosts and six-foot banks of snow.”  Those words, from Ralph Ketcham’s extensive biography of James Madison, succinctly summarize some of the worst conditions anyone could remember.  Even the British, with a recent run of successes, called a halt to operations.

A young Madison (shown above), snowbound in Virginia, took the time to investigate the Colonies’ second problem:  money.  The Colonies had lots of money floating around…roughly $200 million in paper currency.  The real issue was that it wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed.  The previous couple of years had seen currency values fall, in some cases, to less than 1% of their face value.  And James Madison came to some interesting conclusions.

After extensive reading, he determined that the value of money…well, let’s just quote him directly.  “…does not depend on its quantity.  It depends on the credit of the state issuing it, and on the time of its redemption; and is not otherwise affected by the quantity, than as the quantity may be supposed to endanger or postpone the redemption.”

Of course, a good many people disagree with that premise, even today.  Many times, we’ll say things like, “If the government has trouble paying its bills, they’ll just print more money.”  It’s a derisive statement that implies the following:  if the government prints more money, there are more dollars in the system for the same amount of goods and services.  This serves to make dollars less valuable and, by extension, goods and services more expensive.  I’m no economist, so while that line of thinking resonates with me and seems to make sense, I have no idea as to whether things really operate like that.

Anyways, Madison’s thoughts flew in the face of conventional wisdom during the Revolution as well.  So it’s not surprising that he disagreed with the rest of the Continental Congress when, on March 18, 1780, that body resolved to reduce the $200 million of outstanding currency to just $5 million with a 1:40 reverse monetary split.  Ketcham writes, “It was hoped the new currency would escape depreciation and thus stabilize Congressional finances…Yet the act stopping the Continental currency presses took power from Congress precisely when it needed more to prosecute the war.”

James Madison was despondant.  Writing to Thomas Jefferson, his new (and eventual life-long) confidant, his depressed pen would write, “It is to be observed that the situation of Congress has undergone a total change from what it originally was.  Whilst they exercised the indefinite power of emitting money on the credit of their constituents they had the whole wealth and resources of the continent within their command, and could go on with their affairs independently and as they pleased.  Since the resolution passed for shutting the press, this power has been entirly given up and they are now as dependent on the States as the King of England is on the Parliament.”

General Washington, from his vantage point in an army that, to this point, was largely unpaid and very poorly-provisioned, said, “I see one head gradually changing into thirteen…I see the power of Congress declining for the consideration and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America, and am fearful of the consequences.”

A twenty-something Alexander Hamilton, now part of Washington’s military staff, pored over the situation and partially agreed with Madison, though he strongly believed that foreign loans were the best solution.  He would write, “The quantity of money in circulation is certainly a chief cause of its decline.  But we find it is depreciated more than fives times as much as it ought to be. … The excess is derived from opinion, a want of confidence.”  These words were part of a letter, more than six-thousand words in length, that outlined a financial system and was composed under a pseudonym and sent to a congressman (Robert Morris).

But for the time being, the devaluation of the currency was a painful decision, and wiped out the savings of many Americans.  And 1780 was only 3 months old, and much more hardship was in the works.

Recommended Reading:  Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Robert Morris – It’s hard to believe he was just 23 years old when he penned this.

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On February 18, 1776, a young Alexander Hamilton sent a letter to the Royal Danish-American Gazette that he was joining the military.  Big news?  I’m not sure it was at the time and, in the subsequent 235 years, millions of men and women have made the same honorable decision.

Hamilton, having arrived in the Colonies less than four years before, was now a student, a writer, and a budding revolutionist.  He was entrenched at King’s College and, as a young man of just 19 (or so, depending on his exact date of birth), had already studied enough to receive a bachelor’s degree and begin advanced law studies.  He was also an avid writer, publishing a series of articles (anonymously) called “The Monitor” in the New-York Tribune from November of 1775 to early February 1776, as the Colonies were by now in a declared (by the Crown) state of rebellion, and full-out war loomed.

So his decision may have come as a surprise to some, but Hamilton was fascinated with the order of the military, its command structure, the drills, and the precision of it all…even though he saw much more of those things in the British Redcoat formations than in the Colonial militias.  In fact, he was already serving in a volunteer militia company.  And when New York’s Provincial Congress announced the formation of an artillery company to defend New York, Hamilton jumped at the chance to join.

In his letter, which he did not sign, he wrote, “It is uncertain whether it may ever be in my power to send you another line…I am going into the army and perhaps ere long may be destined to seal with my blood the sentiments defended by my pen.  Be it so, if heaven decree it.  I was born to die and my reason and conscience tell me it is impossible to die in a better or more important cause.”

And on March 14, 1776, Hamilton was assigned to lead the artillery company with the rank of Captain.  The (good) fallout from this event is extensive.  Alexander Hamilton trained his men well, he dressed them well (partly at his own expense), and he worked them into a cohesive unit that served with distinction as open conflict with the British heated up.

His conduct got him noticed by General George Washington, who eventually added the young Captain to his staff (with a new rank of Lieutenant Colonel).  And of course, the rest is history, as the two would go on to form one of the strongest tandems in the Revolution and in the formation of a young America.

And it all began with Hamilton’s good work as the “Captain of a Company of Artillery.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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More than a year ago, we talked about Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  I wrote back then that it needed no introduction as it was a sacred place in American history.  I likened the winter of 1777-78 to being placed on an anvil, where heat, and hammer blows, and high pressure work together to create a strong finished product.  In my mind, Valley Forge fits well into that analogy.

The stunning victory by the Continental Army over General Burgoyne’s British at Saratoga in September of 1777 could only be celebrated momentarily, as fresh forces swept over Cooch’s Bridge, Chadd’s Ford, and into Philadelphia, scattering the Second Continental Congress and putting General Washington’s men “on the anvil”.

Of course, for the analogy to work completely, an anvil needs a hammer, and I contend that it arrived in Valley Forge on February 23, 1778, in the form of Friedrich Wilhelm Augustin Ludolf Gerhard von Steuben. Ron Chernow paints our “hammer” as “a Prussian soldier with a drooping face and ample double chin.”  He goes on:  “He billed himself as a German baron and acted the part with almost comical pomposity.  Although the baron and the honorific ‘von’ were likely fictitious, Frederick William August von Steuben came from a military family and had served as an aide to Frederick the Great.”

Much like the Marquis de Lafayette, the government was suspect of promising to pay a foreign addition to the army, especially when it couldn’t really pay the guys already on the payroll.  But like Lafayette, Baron von Steuben arrived at his own expense and said he would dispense with pay unless the Americans were ultimately victorious.  The government liked these no-cost additions.

His goal, to quote a favorite movie of mine, was to “put backbone into young jellyfish”, and he set about doing so immediately.  His coursework included intense drillwork, formation marching, musket loading, and bayonet fixing.  I’m not sure if he offered up (like Sally Struthers) the optional degrees in Business Management or Accounting, but he rewrote the army’s drill manual and created a training guide for company commanders.

Those in command of the army at Valley Forge had little doubt that von Steuben was a potent elixir for the flagging Continental Army.  He brought precision and order to the formations.  His goals for the men, once accomplished, gave them confidence and a greater cohesion.  They learned to work together in battle.  His hammer blows were helping to create a more powerful weapon.

One private would write, “Never before or since have I had such an impression of the ancient fabled god of war as when I looked on the baron.  He seemed to me a perfect personification of Mars.”  General Washington and his staff recognized it as well, and by May, not only was the Continental Army very different from the soggy, defeated force that had staggered into Valley Forge, but Baron von Steuben was sporting a new rank…that of (honorary) Major General.

Hammer indeed.

Recommended Reading: Washington’s Secret War

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The loss of Fort Washington in mid-November and the subsequent surrender of Fort Lee meant that the Colonies had not only lost control of Manhattan and the Hudson River, but they had lost New York altogether.  General Washington’s forces were bedraggled, defeated, and in full retreat.

For the last couple of weeks (since the Mahattan disaster), the order of the day was to avoid all major conflicts with the British Army, which was following close behind.  Instead, the Continental Army engaged in rearguard actions that were meant to harass the Redcoats and keep them constantly uncomfortable while, at the same time, presenting little risk to the men.

As Washington’s men approached the Raritan River near New Brunswick, New Jersey, their General gave thought to turning and facing his pursuers.  But the condition of his forces put paid to that hope.  So other than a heavier-than-usual rearguard action, the trudging retreat in the cold and snow continued.

On December 8, 1776, his forces crossed the Delaware River and entered Pennsylvania, effectively giving up New Jersey without a fight.

It’s not recorded anywhere, but one is left to wonder if General Washington looked back across the ice-choked Delaware to the New Jersey shore and said, MacArthur-style, “I shall return.”

Indeed, three weeks later, with the bells of Christmas still ringing, Washington’s forces would re-cross the Delaware River attack the still-chemically-altered British and Hessian troops camped at Trenton.

But on this day, morale in the Continental Army was at as low a point as it would be during this increasingly difficult struggle for freedom.

Recommended Reading:  Washington’s Secret War

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By mid-November of 1776, the reality of their rebellion against the King George III was beginning to slap the Colonists in the face…hard.  The excitement of July 2nd’s Declaration of Independence had, in the ensuing months, been replaced a new truth.  A sobering, more immediate truth, stronger than the flush of breaking from the Crown.  The Colonies were now faced with an angry motherland, a motherland which had a pretty good army and an overwhelming navy.

The colonial militia was inexperienced, poorly equipped, lacked proper training, and simply wasn’t prepared to deal with an organized fighting machine like the one populated with Redcoats.  Early engagements verified it.  New York City’s fall in September was truly embarrassing to General Washington, who looked in anger at the men turning tail and shouted, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?”

September’s humiliation became October’s embarrassment at White Plains where, despite holding the high ground and inflicting more casualties than they took, the colonials were forced to retreat.  Desertion was becoming a problem, as were drunkeness and carousing.  Looking across the battlefields at the polished muskets, crisp uniforms, and strict discipline, it’s not hard to imagine Washington’s growing despair.

The White Plains debacle left the colonials with the barest of grips on Manhattan.  Fort Lee and Fort Washington, both constructed in early 1776, were built on opposite sides of the Hudson River, and constituted the last best positions that Washington’s men could hold in the area.  But that was fleeting as well.

On November 16, 1776, General Washington watched from Fort Lee’s observation post as Fort Washington was overrun by a combined force of British soldiers and Hessian mercanaries.  This loss was particularly painful because a large amount of supplies (muskets, gunpowder, etc.) were captured, as were more than 2,800 prisoners.

But even worse, Fort Lee was left in an indefensible position.  Four days later, it would be surrendered.  Washington was forced to retreat from New York with what was left of his “army”.  It was during the retreat that Thomas Paine would write that “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

General Washington, unanimously chosen to lead the militias, was now being heavily criticized for the loss of Fort Washington.  The army was a mess, dissension was growing, and the war for independence was looking more and more like a mismatch of comical proportions.

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We’ll keep it brief this evening…

Barely one week had gone by since the Second Continental Congress had passed the Lee Resolution, which declared the 13 Colonies to be independent from the British Crown, and there was a bustle of activity.  Some members of the Congress had returned home, needing to sell the idea of independence to their constituents.  Others (5 in particular) had been formed into a committee that was charged with creating a formal “declaration of independence”.

The next day (June 12, 1776), another committee was formed.  This group of 13 men was given the more daunting (if less immediate) task of drafting a constitution for a confederation.  And for more than a year, the work and the debate would continue.  And on November 15, 1777, America’s first “constitution”, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, were approved by the Congress.

A collective sigh of relief probably went up from men assembled…until they realized that, in the midst of a war against a more powerful opponent, with a financial condition approaching bankruptcy, they would somehow have to get this document ratified.  That would take three and a half years.

Recommended Reading: American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic

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In their 25-year relationship, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton didn’t disagree on very many things.  But the differences they had were pronounced.  Over time, we’ll look at a couple of them.  Today, we’ll look at one.

The disposition of Major John André.

If you recall, André had been found with plans to the fort at West Point which had been given him by Benedict Arnold.  And once the Continental Army’s leadership discovered that it indeed was Arnold who committed treason and eluded capture, there was a combined feeling of intense sadness and rage at his actions.

But André was the guy they had captured, not Arnold himself.  A letter, likely originating from Hamilton’s pen, was quietly sent to the British requesting a trade of the popular André for Arnold, but that was refused.  Benedict Arnold probably heaved a sigh of relief, as he probably would have been lynched before he ever went to trial.

The disagreement between Washington and Hamilton had nothing to do with Major André’s fate…his execution was certain.  It had everything to do with its implementation.  If John was considered a spy, he would hang.  If he was categorized as an officer, he would be shot…a much more honorable death.

Hamilton argued that the Major had been lured behind enemy lines by Arnold against his wishes, and had not intended to take on the role of a spy.  Washington argued that John André had come ashore secretly, crossed enemy lines, worn civilian clothes, and used a pseudonym, all traits of a spy.

Washington won the argument.

Major André, for his own part, had little doubt of his fate.  He considered himself a loyal officer and preferred to die as one, but death is death, and he faced it like a man.

At 5:00pm, the prisoner was led from Yoast Mabie’s Tavern in Tappan, and mounted the wagon under the scaffold.  He placed the noose around his own neck and donned his own handkerchief.  When asked if he had anything to say, André reportedly replied, “Nothing but to request you will witness to the world that I die like a brave man.”

The wagon pulled away and, a short time later, Major John André was dead.  More than one Continental officer was impressed with André…his rapid ascent in the British Army surprised few that met him.

Alexander Hamilton would later recall his disagreement with the future First President with a certain amount of resignation when he wrote, “The death of André could not have been dispensed with, but it must still be viewed at a distance as an act of rigid justice.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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On September 25, 1780, Benedict Arnold was in a bad state.  But truthfully, being on the wrong side of right was nothing new to the General.

Arnold had enjoyed a pretty lavish lifestyle among Philadelphians, a choice which saddled the General with a sizeable debt.  He began looking for ways to supplement his income, and found them after the British left Philly in the spring of 1778 and General Washington put him in charge of the city.  Arnold used his position to sell “protection” and to profit from the sales of supplies in the city.

This angered the local politicians (possibly as much from Arnold horning in on their little racket as it was an issue of questionable integrity), who brought charges against the General.  Benedict Arnold demanded a court-martial to clear his name…and got one in 1779.  And while he was exonerated of nearly every charge, he earned a stern rebuke from General Washington.

In the midst of this, he had married Peggy Shippen in April of 1779, a girl half his 38 years of age who had been largely spoiled rotten by her parents (who were also British Loyalists).  Her rather expensive tastes did little to improve his financial situation.

Shippen also maintained communications with British merchant-spies, and it was those contacts that eventually began the process of Arnold’s defection.  Washington’s stinging rebuke led to Arnold resigning his command, but in August of the following year, Arnold had been given command of the fort at West Point.

He began negotiating turning over the Fort to the British, finally agreeing to do so in exchange for money.  Having already weakened the Fort by shuttling off supplies and soldiers, he met with Major John André on September 21st and gave him the plans.

But on the morning of the 25th, word of André’s capture reached Arnold as he prepared for breakfast, and he knew eventually the full plot would come to light.  He packed his bags, left home, and boarded the HMS Vulture.

Benedict Arnold had officially defected to the British.

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The trip out here to Colorado was really good.  A snafu at the car rental place meant we lost about 3 hours of sleep Tuesday night, but gained a brand-new 2010 Caravan Town and Country for our trouble.  The dash lighting is ugly, though the interior lighting is super-cool.  It was pretty comfortable, but didn’t have enough torque to pull a baseball bag of ping-pong balls up the hills.

Just like last year, it was raining when we drove into Estes Park.  But like I’ve said, it matters little what the weather is like…the Rockies are simply awesome.  The cabin is great (again), Wendye and Shelley continue to be great hosts, and the Big Thompson River still sings in the evening.

But something historical…and I’ll keep it really brief, because as much as I love to drive, it’s a tiring job.

Major John André’s day had started badly.  André was a spy in the British Army…in fact, he was the head of the British spy network.  He had been negotiating with Benedict Arnold.

Arnold had taken command of West Point in August of 1780, and had promptly began planning to turn it over the British.  André met him at his home on the evening of September 21st and received plans for the fort.  On the 22nd, André dressed as a civilian and began making his way back to the British lines.

As dawn broke on September 23, 1780, he was stopped by three Americans, who discovered the West Point documents in his socks and placed him under arrest.  It wouldn’t take long to figure out that the plans had come from Arnold, who would have to try to “get out of town” in a hurry.

Major John André was first held at Sands Mill.  He was then taken to Continental Army headquarters in Tappan, New York.  After questioning, he was placed in a makeshift prison.  His cell?…Yoast Mabie’s Tavern, from where the Orangetown Resolutions had originated six years prior.

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