October 11, 1776 Valcour Island

One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country. For now, he had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

In the early days of the American Revolution, the 2nd Continental Congress looked north, to the Province of Quebec. The region was lightly defended at the time, and Congress was alarmed at its potential as a British base from which to attack and divide the colonies.

The Continental army’s expedition to Quebec ended in disaster on December 31, as General Benedict Arnold was severely injured with a bullet wound to his left leg.  Major General Richard Montgomery was killed and Colonel Daniel Morgan was captured, along with about 400 fellow patriots.

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Profile of the schooner “Liberty”

Quebec was massively reinforced in the Spring of 1776, with the arrival of 10,000 British and Hessian soldiers. By June, the remnants of the Continental army had been driven south to Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point.

Congress was right about the British intent to split the colonies.  General Sir Guy Carleton, provincial governor of Quebec, set about doing so almost immediately.

Retreating colonials took with them or destroyed almost every boat along the way, capturing and arming four vessels in 1775:  the Liberty, Enterprise, Royal Savage, and Revenge.  Determined to take back the crucial waterway, the British set about disassembling warships along the St. Lawrence, moving them overland to Fort Saint-Jean on the uppermost navigable waters leading to Lake Champlain, the 125-mile long lake dividing upstate New York from Vermont.

There they spent the summer and early fall of 1776, literally building a fleet of warships along the upper reaches of the lake.  120 miles to their south, colonials were doing the same.

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Sawmill at Fort Anne

The Americans had a small fleet of shallow draft bateaux used for lake transport, but needed something larger and heavier to sustain naval combat.

In 1759, British Army Captain Philip Skene founded a settlement on the New York side of Lake Champlain, built around saw mills, grist mills, and an iron foundry.

Today, the former village of Skenesborough is known as “Whitehall”, considered by many to be the birthplace of the United States Navy.  In 1776, Major General Horatio Gates put the American ship building operation into motion on the banks of Skenesborough Harbor.

Hermanus Schuyler oversaw the effort, while military engineer Jeduthan Baldwin was in charge of outfitting. Gates asked General Benedict Arnold, an experienced ship’s captain, to spearhead the effort, explaining “I am intirely uninform’d as to Marine Affairs”.

200 carpenters and shipwrights were recruited to the wilderness of upstate New York. So inhospitable was this duty that workmen were paid more than anyone else in the Navy, with the sole exception of Commodore Esek Hopkins. Meanwhile, foraging parties scoured the countryside looking for guns, knowing that there was going to be a fight on Lake Champlain.

It is not widely known, that the American Revolution was fought in the midst of a smallpox pandemic. General George Washington was an early proponent of vaccination, an untold benefit to the American war effort.  Nevertheless, a fever broke out among the shipbuilders of Skenesborough, that almost brought their work to a halt.

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Lake Champlain:  Garden island (right), Valcour Island (left)

It was a hastily built and in some cases incomplete fleet that slipped into the water in the summer and autumn of 1776.  In just over two months, the American shipbuilding effort produced eight 54′ gondolas (gunboats), and four 72′  galleys.  Upon completion, each hull was rowed to Fort Ticonderoga, where it was fitted with masts, rigging, guns, and supplies. By October 1776, the American fleet numbered 16 vessels, determined to stop the British fleet heading south.

As the two sides closed in the early days of October, General Arnold knew he was at a disadvantage.  The element of surprise was going to be critical.  Arnold chose a small strait to the west of Valcour Island, where he was hidden from the main part of the lake. There he drew his small fleet into a crescent formation, and waited.

Carleton’s fleet, commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle, entered the northern end of Lake Champlain on October 9.

Valcour 2Sailing south on the 11th under favorable winds, some of the British ships had already passed the American position behind Valcour island, before realizing they were there. Some of the British warships were able to turn and give battle, but the largest ones were unable to turn into the wind.

Fighting continued for several hours until dark, and both sides did some damage.  On the American side, Royal Savage ran aground and burned. The gondola Philadelphia was sunk. On the British side, one gunboat blew up. The two sides lost about 60 men, each.  In the end, the larger ships and the more experienced seamanship of the English, made it an uneven fight.

ValcourIslandMap1776Detail

Only a third of the British fleet was engaged that day, but the battle went badly for the Patriot side. That night, the battered remnants of the American fleet slipped through a gap in the lines, limping down the lake on muffled oars. British commanders were surprised to find them gone the next morning, and gave chase.

One vessel after another was overtaken and destroyed on the 12th, or else, too damaged to go on, was abandoned.  The cutter Lee was run aground by its crew, who then escaped through the woods.  Four of sixteen American vessels escaped north to Ticonderoga, only to be captured or destroyed by British forces, the following year.

Valcour 1On the third day, the last four gunboats and Benedict Arnold’s flagship Congress were run aground in Ferris Bay on the Vermont side, following a 2½-hour running gun battle.  Today, the small harbor is called Arnold’s Bay.

200 escaped to shore, the last of whom was Benedict Arnold himself, personally torching his own flagship before leaving it for the last time, flag still flying.

The British would retain control of Lake Champlain, through the end of the war.

The American fleet never had a chance and everyone knew it.  Yet it had been able to inflict enough damage at a point late enough in the year, that Carlton’s fleet was left with no choice but to return north for the winter. One day, Benedict Arnold would enter history as a traitor to his country.  For now, the General had bought his young nation, another year in which to fight.

postcard
A 1905 postcard displays the remains of Benedict Arnold’s flagship, the “Congress”.
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October 7, 1777 A Hero with No Name

Burgoyne had no choice but to capitulate, surrendering his entire force on the 17th of October, a devastating defeat for the British cause which finally brought France in on the side of the Americans.  The American Army had gone toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet, and it was still standing.

Three hours from the upstate New York village of Sleepy Hollow, in the woods of Schuylerville, there stands the statue of a leg.  A boot, actually, a man’s riding boot, along with an epaulet and a cannon barrel pointing down, denoting the death of a General.  It seems the loneliest place on earth out there in the woods, with nothing but a footpath worn into the forest floor to lead you there.

It was October 7, 1777, the last day of the Battle of Saratoga.  General Horatio Gates was in overall command of American forces, a position which greatly exceeded his capabilities.  Gates was cautious to the point of timidity, generally believing his men to be better off behind prepared fortifications, than taking the offensive.

Benedict Arnold
General Benedict Arnold

Gates’ subordinate, General Benedict Arnold, could not have been more different.  Arnold was imaginative and daring, a risk taker possessed of physical courage bordering on recklessness.  The pair had been personal friends at one time.  By this time the two were often at odds.

British General John “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne led a joint land and water invasion of 7,000 British and Hessian troops south along the New York side of Lake Champlain, down the Hudson River valley.

It had started out well for him with the bloodless capture of Fort Ticonderoga, but Burgoyne ran into a buzz saw outside of Bennington, Vermont, losing almost 1,000 men to General John Stark’s New Hampshire rebels and a militia unit headed by Ethan Allen, calling itself the “Green Mountain Boys”.

Burgoyne intended to continue south to Albany, linking up with forces under Sir William Howe and cutting the colonies in half.  The 10,000 or so Colonial troops situated on the high ground near Saratoga, New York, were all that stood in his way.

Burgoyne's Route to SaratogaAmerican forces selected a site called Bemis Heights, about 10 miles south of Saratoga, spending a week constructing defensive works with the help of Polish engineer Thaddeus Kosciusko.  It was a formidable position:  mutually supporting cannon on overlapping ridges, with interlocking fields of fire.  Burgoyne knew he had no choice but to stop and give battle at the American position, or be chopped to pieces trying to bypass it.

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm, the first of two battles for Saratoga, occurred on September 19.  Technically a Patriot defeat in that the British held the ground at the end of the day, it was a costly victory.  English casualties were almost two to one.  Worse, the British column was out at the end of a long and tenuous supply line, while fresh men and supplies continued to move into the American position.

Freeman’s Farm could have been a lot worse for the Patriot cause, but for Benedict Arnold’s anticipating British moves, and taking steps to block them in advance.

The personal animosity between Gates and Arnold boiled over in the days that followed.  Gates’ report to Congress made no mention of Arnold’s contributions at Freeman’s Farm, though field commanders and the men involved with the day’s fighting unanimously crediting Arnold for the day’s successes.  A shouting match between Gates and Arnold resulted in the latter being relieved of command, and replaced by General Benjamin Lincoln.

Saratoga ReenactmentThe second and decisive battle for Saratoga, the Battle of Bemis Heights, occurred on October 7, 1777.

Lieutenant Colonel Heinrich Christoph Breymann’s Hessian grenadier regiment formed the right anchor of Burgoyne’s line, manning a wooden fortification some 250′ wide by 7′ high.  It was a strategically important position, with nothing between itself and the regiment’s main camp to the rear.

Even though relieved of command, Benedict Arnold was on the field, directing the battle on the American right.  As the Hessian position began to collapse, General Arnold left his troops facing Balcarre’s Redoubt on the right, riding between the fire of both armies and joining the final attack on the rear of the German post.  Arnold was shot in the left leg during the final moments of the action, shattering the same leg that had barely healed after the same injury at the Battle of Quebec City, almost two years earlier.

It would have been better in the chest, he said, than to have received such a wound in that leg.

Burgoyne had no choice but to capitulate, surrendering his entire force on the 17th of October.  It was a devastating defeat for the British cause, which finally brought France in on the American side.  A colonial Army had gone toe to toe with the most powerful military on the planet, and was still standing.

A British officer described the battle:  “The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.”

Three years later, Benedict Arnold betrayed the American fortifications at West Point to John André.  The name of one of our top Revolution-era warriors, a General whom one of his own soldiers later described as “the very genius of war,” became that of Traitor.

One of Arnold’s contemporaries commented that, if the Patriots ever caught him they would hang him, and then they would bury his leg with full military honors.

Saratoga Arnold Monument

So it is that there is a statue of a leg in the forest south of Saratoga, dedicated to a Hero of the Revolution who has no name.  On the back of the monument are inscribed these words:

“In memory of

the most brilliant soldier of the

Continental Army

who was desperately wounded

on this spot the sally port of

BURGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT

7th October, 1777

winning for his countrymen

the decisive battle of the

American Revolution

and for himself the rank of

Major General.”

Saratoga ObeliskToday, the Saratoga battlefield and the site of Burgoyne’s surrender are preserved as the Saratoga National Historical Park.  On the grounds of the park stands an obelisk, containing four niches.

Three of them hold statues of American heroes of the Battle.  There is one for General Horatio Gates, one for General Philip John Schuyler and another for Colonel Daniel Morgan.

The fourth niche, where Benedict Arnold’s statue would have gone, remains empty, to this day.

September 29, 1780 John André

In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.   John André was a spy.

In an age before radio or television, John André was an interesting guy to be around. He was a gifted story teller with a great sense of humor. He could draw, paint and cut silhouettes. He was an excellent writer, he could sing, and he could write verse.  André was a British Major at the time of the American Revolution, taking part in his army’s occupations of Philadelphia and New York.

Andre
Adjutant General John André

John André was a spy.

Major André was a favorite of Colonial-era Loyalist society. For a time, André dated Peggy Shippen, the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia loyalist. She married an important Patriot General in 1779, a relationship which provided the connection between the British spy and a man who could have gone into history as one of the top tier of our founding fathers.

Had he not turned his coat.  Peggy Shippen’s husband was Benedict Arnold.

Arnold was Commandant of West Point at the time, the future location of one of our great military academies. At the time, West Point was a strategic fortification on high ground, overlooking the Hudson River. The British capture of West Point would have split the colonies in half.

John André struck a bargain with Benedict Arnold that would turn a Hero of the Revolution into a name synonymous with “Traitor”.  General Arnold would receive £20,000, over a million dollars today, in exchange for which he would give up West Point.

Benedict Arnold
General Benedict Arnold

André sailed up the Hudson River in the Sloop of War HMS Vulture on September 20, 1780. Dressed in civilian clothes, Major André was returning to his own lines on the 23rd, six papers written in Arnold’s hand hidden in his sock. André was stopped by three Patriot Militiamen; John Paulding, David Williams and Isaac Van Wart. One of them was wearing a Hessian overcoat, and André thought they were Tories. “Gentlemen”, he said, “I hope you belong to our party”. “What party”, came the reply, and André said “The lower (British) party”. “We do”, they said, to which André replied that he was a British officer and must not be detained. That was as far as he went.

The discovery of those papers brought Benedict Arnold’s treachery to light. Arnold immediately fled on hearing of André’s arrest, even as George Washington was headed to his place for a meeting over breakfast.

John André was tried and sentenced to death as a spy, and jailed on September 29. He asked if he could write a letter to General Washington.  In it he asked not that his life be spared, but that he be executed by firing squad, considered to be a more “gentlemanly” death than hanging.

Peggy-Shippen
Peggy Shippen

General Washington thought that Arnold’s crimes were far more egregious than those of André, and he was impressed with the man’s bravery.  Washington wrote to General Sir Henry Clinton, asking for an exchange of prisoners.

Having received no reply by October 2, Washington wrote in his General Order of the day, “That Major André General to the British Army ought to be considered as a spy from the Enemy and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations it is their opinion he ought to suffer death. The Commander in Chief directs the execution of the above sentence in the usual way this afternoon at five o’clock precisely.”

John André was executed by hanging in Tappan, New York, on October 2, 1780. He was 31.
Andre Postcard

John André had lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house during his nine month stay in Philadelphia, while the British army occupied the city. As they were packing to leave, a Swiss-born citizen named Pierre Du Simitiere came to say goodbye. He was shocked to find a Gentleman such as André looting the Franklin residence. The man had always been known for extravagant courtesy, and this was completely out of character. He was packing books, musical instruments, scientific apparatus, and an oil portrait of Franklin, offering no explanation or response to Du Simitiere’s protests.

Long afterward, in the early 20th century, the descendants of Major-General Lord Charles Grey returned the painting to the United States, indicating that André had probably looted Franklin’s home under orders from the General himself. A Gentleman always, it would explain the man’s inability to defend his own actions. Today, the oil portrait of Benjamin Franklin hangs in the White House.

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Benjamin Franklin, Oil on canvas, by David Martin, 49″ x 40″

September 22, 1776 Nathan Hale

‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country'”.

The nine Hale brothers of Coventry Connecticut fought on the Patriot side of the Revolution, from its earliest days.  Five of them helped to fight the battles at Lexington and Concord.  The youngest and most famous brother was home in New London at the time, finishing the terms of his teaching contract.

Nathan Hale’s unit would participate in the siege of Boston, Hale himself joining George Washington’s army in the spring of 1776, as the army moved to Long Island to block the British move on the strategically important port city of New York.

General Howe appeared at Staten Island on June 29 with a fleet of 45 ships.  By the end of the week, he’d assembled an overwhelming fleet of 130.

There was an attempt at peaceful negotiation on July 13, when General Howe sent a letter to General Washington under flag of truce. The letter was addressed “George Washington, Esq.”, intentionally omitting Washington’s rank of General. Washington declined to receive the letter, saying that there was no one there by that address. Howe tried the letter again on the 16th, this time addressing it to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.”.  Again, Howe’s letter was refused.

British Landing
British Landing on Long island

The next day, General Howe sent Captain Nisbet Balfour in person, to ask if Washington would meet with Howe’s adjutant, Colonel James Patterson.  A meeting was scheduled for the 20th.

Patterson told Washington that General Howe had come with powers to grant pardons.  Washington refused, saying “Those who have committed no fault want no pardon”.

Patriot forces were comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27, 1776. With the Royal Navy in command on the water, Howe’s army dug in for a siege, confident that the adversary was trapped and waiting to be destroyed at their convenience.

Retreat-from-LI
British retreat from Long Island

On the night of August 29-30, Washington withdrew his army to the ferry landing and across the East River, to Manhattan.

With horse’s hooves and wagon wheels muffled, oarlocks stuffed with rags, the Patriot army withdrew, as a rearguard tended fires, convincing the redcoats in their trenches that the Americans were still there.

The surprise was complete for the British side, on waking for the morning of the 30th.  The Patriot army had vanished.

The Battle of Long Island would almost certainly have ended in disaster for the Patriot cause, but for that silent evacuation over the night of August 29-30.

Following evacuation, the Patriot army found itself isolated on Manhattan island, virtually surrounded.  Only the thoroughly disagreeable current conditions of the Throg’s Neck-Hell’s Gate segment of the East River, prevented Admiral Sir Richard Howe (William’s brother), from enveloping Washington’s position, altogether.

Expecting a British assault in September, General Washington became increasingly desperate for information on British movements.

Nathan Hale CaptureWashington asked for volunteers for a dangerous mission, to go behind enemy lines, as a spy.  Up stepped a volunteer.  His name was Nathan Hale.

Hale set out on his mission on September 10, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster. He was successful for about a week but appears to have been something less than “street smart”.  The young and untrained Patriot-turned spy, placed his trust where it did not belong.

Major Robert Rogers was an old British hand, a leader of Rangers during the earlier French and Indian War.  Rogers must have suspected that this Connecticut schoolteacher was more than he pretended to be, and intimated that he, himself, was a spy in the Patriot cause.

The hanging of Nathan HaleHale took Rogers into his confidence, believing the two to be playing for the same side.  Barkhamsted Connecticut shopkeeper Consider Tiffany, a British loyalist and himself a sergeant of the French and Indian War, recorded what happened next, in his journal: “The time being come, Captain Hale repaired to the place agreed on, where he met his pretended friend” (Rogers), “with three or four men of the same stamp, and after being refreshed, began [a]…conversation. But in the height of their conversation, a company of soldiers surrounded the house, and by orders from the commander, seized Captain Hale in an instant. But denying his name, and the business he came upon, he was ordered to New York. But before he was carried far, several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

The “stay behind” spy Hercules Mulligan would have far greater success reporting on British goings-on, from the 1776 capture of New York to the ultimate withdrawal seven years later.  But that is a story for another day.

Nathan Hale was brought to the gallows on September 22, 1776, and hanged as a spy.  He was 21.  CIA.gov describes him as “The first American executed for spying for his country”.

Nathan HaleThere is no official account of Nathan Hale’s final words, but we have an eyewitness statement from British Captain John Montresor, who was present at the hanging.

Montresor spoke with American Captain William Hull the following day under flag of truce.  He gave Hull the following account: “‘On the morning of his execution,’ said Montresor, ‘my station was near the fatal spot, and I requested the Provost Marshal to permit the prisoner to sit in my marquee, while he was making the necessary preparations. Captain Hale entered: he was calm, and bore himself with gentle dignity, in the consciousness of rectitude and high intentions. He asked for writing materials, which I furnished him: he wrote two letters, one to his mother and one to a brother officer.’ He was shortly after summoned to the gallows. But a few persons were around him, yet his characteristic dying words were remembered. He said, ‘I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country‘.

George-Washington-Brooklyn-Heights

July 8, 1776 The Liberty Bell 

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, on George Washington’s birthday, 1846 .

Philadelphia’s city bell originally hung from a tree near the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. The date is uncertain, but it probably dates back to the city’s founding in 1682. The bell would ring to alert citizens of civic events and proclamations, and to the occasional civic danger.

The “Liberty Bell” was ordered from the London bell foundry of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in 1752, arriving in August of that year. Weighing in at 2,080 lbs, it has written upon it a passage from the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible; the third of five books of the Torah. “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”.

Mounted to a stand to test the sound, the first strike of the clapper cracked the bell’s rim. Authorities tried to return it, but the ship’s master couldn’t take it on board, so the bell was re-cast by two local founders, John Pass and John Stow. It was broken into pieces, melted down and re-cast, with the addition of 10% copper to make the metal less brittle.

The_Bell's_First_Note_by_JLG_Ferris
The Bell’s First Note, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Pass and Snow bragged that the bell’s lettering was clearer on this second casting than the original. The newly re-cast bell was ready in March 1753, when City officials scheduled a public celebration to test the sound. There was free food and drink all around, but the crowd gasped and started to laugh when the bell was struck. It didn’t break this time…it sounded like two coal scuttles being banged together.

Pass and Stow hastily took it away, again breaking the bell into pieces, and again melting it down to be recast.

The whole performance was repeated in June 1753.  This time most thought the sound to be satisfactory, and the bell was hung in the steeple of the State House. One who did not like the sound was Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly. He ordered a second bell in 1754, though he was unsuccessful in his efforts to return the original for credit to the Lester and Pack foundry.

The new bell was attached to the tower clock, while the old one was, by vote of the Assembly, devoted “to such Uses as this House may hereafter appoint.” One such use of the old bell occurred on July 8, 1776, to announce the public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Bells are easily melted down for ammunition, so the bell was taken down and hidden before the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. The distinctive large crack began to develop some time in the early 19th century, about the time when abolitionist societies began calling it “The Liberty Bell”. Some say it cracked while ringing after the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835.

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The Liberty Bell is paraded through the streets of Philadelphia, 1908, in a recreation of its 1777 journey to Allentown

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported the last clear note ever sounded by the Liberty Bell, in its February 26, 1846 edition:

“The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb. It had been cracked before but was set in order of that day by having the edges of the fracture filed so as not to vibrate against each other … It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.”

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“#23”, Benjamin Harrison

The bell would periodically travel to expositions and celebrations, but souvenir hunters would break off pieces from its rim, and additional cracking would develop after several of these trips. The bell’s travels were sharply curtailed after it came back from Chicago with a new crack in 1893, and discontinued altogether in 1915.

Former President Benjamin Harrison may have had the last word as the Liberty bell passed through Indianapolis in 1893. “This old bell was made in England”, he said, “but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men.”

July 7, 1798 XYZ

In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

Imagine that you’ve always considered yourself to be somewhere in the political center, maybe a little to the left.  Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your country’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. So much so, that you are subject to execution by your government.  And all that time, your politics haven’t changed.

Our strongest ally in the American Revolution lost its collective mind in 1792, when France descended into its own revolution.    17,000 Frenchmen were officially tried and executed during the 1793-94 “Reign of Terror”, including King Louis XVI himself and his queen, Marie Antoinette.  Untold thousands died in prison or without benefit of trial.  The monarchical powers of Europe were quick to intervene and for the 32nd time since the Norman invasion of 1066, England and France found themselves at war.

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Execution of Marie Antoinette

Both sides in the European conflict seized neutral ships which were trading with their adversary.  The “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation” between Great Britain and its former colonies, better known as the “Jay Treaty”, all but destroyed relations with the French Republic.  France retaliated by stepping up attacks on American merchant shipping, seizing 316 vessels in one 11-month period, alone.

France had been the colonies’ strongest ally during the American Revolution, now the Jay treaty infuriated the French, who believed the agreement violated earlier arrangements between the two nations.  Making matters worse, America repudiated its war debt in 1794, arguing that it owed money to “L’ancien Régime”, not to the “First Republic” which had overthrown it and executed its King.

In 1796, France formally broke diplomatic relations with the United States, rejecting the credentials of President Washington’s Ambassador, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

The following year, President John Adams dispatched a delegation of two.  They were future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall, and future Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who later became the 5th Vice President, lending his name to the term “Gerrymander”.  Their instructions were to join with Pinckney in negotiating a treaty with France, with terms similar to those of the Jay treaty with Great Britain.

The American commission arrived in Paris in October 1797, requesting a meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.  Talleyrand, unkindly disposed toward the Adams administration to begin with, demanded a bribe for himself and substantial ‘loan’ to the French Republic, before so much as meeting with the American delegation.  The practice was not uncommon in European diplomacy of the time.  The Americans were appalled.

Believing that the Adams administration sought war by exaggerating the French position, Jeffersonian allies in Congress joined with more warlike Federalists in demanding the release of the commissioner’s communications. It was these dispatches, released in redacted form, which gave the name “X-Y-Z Affair” to the diplomatic and military crisis to follow.

Nicholas Hubbard, an English banker, was identified in the transcripts, only as “W”.  W introduced “X” (Baron Jean-Conrad Hottinguer) as a “man of honor”, who wished an informal meeting with Pinckney.  Pinckney agreed and Hottinguer reiterated Talleyrand’s demands, specifying the payment of a large loan to the French government, and a £50,000 bribe to Talleyrand himself.  Met with flat refusal by the American commission, X then introduced Pierre Bellamy (“Y”) to the Americans.  Lucien Hauteval (“Z”), Talleyrand’s personal emissary, was then sent to negotiate with Elbridge Gerry.  X, Y and Z, each in their turn, reiterated the Foreign Minister’s demand for a loan, and a bribe.

American politics were sharply divided over the European war.  President Adams and his Federalists, always the believers in strong, central government, took the side of the Monarchists.  Thomas Jefferson and his “Democratic-Republicans” found more in common with the ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité’ espoused by French revolutionaries.

In the UK, the ruling class appeared to enjoy the chaos.  A British political cartoon of the time depicted the United States, represented by a woman being groped by five Frenchmen while John Bull, the fictional personification of all England, laughs from a nearby hilltop.

John Bull cartoon

At this point, the United States had little means of defending itself.  The government had disbanded the Navy along with the Marine Corps at the end of the Revolution, selling the last warship in 1785 and retaining only a handful of “revenue cutters” doing customs enforcement.  The Naval Act of 1794 established a standing Navy for the first time in US history.  In October 1797, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates.  One of them, USS Constitution, saw its first combat in the Quasi-War with France, and remains in service to this day, the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy.

Quasi War

Adams’ commission left without entering formal negotiations, their failure leading to a political firestorm in the United States.  Congress rescinded all existing treaties with France on July 7, 1798, authorizing American privateers to attack French shipping. The undeclared “Quasi-War” with France, had begun.

Four days later, President John Adams signed “An Act for Establishing and Organizing a Marine Corps,” permanently establishing the United States Marine Corps as an independent service branch, in order to defend the American merchant fleet.

For the United States, military involvement proved decisive.  Before military intervention, the conflict with France resulted in 28 Americans killed, 42 wounded, and over 2,000 merchant ships captured.  Following intervention, the US suffered 54 killed and 43 wounded, with only a single ship lost, and that one was later recaptured.

The undeclared naval war with our former ally was settled with the Treaty of Mortefontaine, also known as the Convention of 1800, and ratified the following year.

July 4, 1826 Founding Fathers

The letters between Adams and Jefferson together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

Thomas Jefferson met John Adams at the 1775 Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the two forming a close personal friendship which would last for most of their lives.   They were two of the committee of five assigned to write the Declaration of Independence, and worked closely together throughout the era of our founding.

The friendship between the two men came to an end during the Presidential election of 1800.  Mudslinging on both sides rose to levels never before seen in a national election, an election in which both sides firmly believed the election of the other, would destroy the young nation.HamJeff

Jefferson defeated one term incumbent Adams and went on to serve two terms as President.

On Jefferson’s retirement in 1809, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, took it upon himself to patch up the broken friendship between the two founding fathers. Dr. Rush worked on his personal diplomatic mission for two years.  In 1811, he finally succeeded.

There followed a series of letters between Adams and Jefferson, which together constitute one of the most comprehensive historical and philosophical assessments ever written about the American founding.

Their correspondence touched on a variety of topics, from the birth of this self-governing Republic, to then-current political issues, to matters of philosophy and religion and issues of aging. Both men understood that they were writing not only to one another, but to generations yet unborn.Letters

Each went to great lengths to explain the philosophical underpinnings of his views.  Adams the Federalist, the firm believer in strong, centralized government.  Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican, advocating for smaller federal government and more autonomy for the states.

In 1826, Jefferson and Adams were the last of the founding fathers.  In an ending no fiction writer would even dare to contemplate, both men died on this day in 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped to create.

Adams was 90. His final words as he lay on his deathbed were “Thomas Jefferson still survives”.  Adams had no way of knowing that Jefferson had died five hours earlier, at Monticello.  He was 82.

Daniel Webster spoke of the pair a month later, at Faneuil Hall, in Boston. “No two men now live” he said”, (or) any two men have ever lived, in one age, who (have) given a more lasting direction to the current of human thought. No age will come, in which the American Revolution will appear less than it is, one of the greatest events in human history. No age will come, in which it will cease to be seen and felt, on either continent, that a mighty step, a great advance, not only in American affairs, but in human affairs, was made on the 4th of July, 1776″.