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Posts Tagged ‘1776’

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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“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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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.

Alright…

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.

Nope.

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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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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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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