October 30, 1773 Hannah’s Rock

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII. The appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

Arjumand Banu was the daughter of a wealthy Persian noble, third wife of Emperor Shah Jahan of the Mughal Empire, who ruled the lands of South Asia from modern-day Afghanistan to Kashmir and south to the Deccan plateau of South India.

Sha-Jahan-and-Mumtaz-Mahal-600x600As Empress consort and beloved by the Emperor above all his wives, Arjumand was better known by the title “Mumtaz Mahal”, translating from the Persian as “the exalted one of the palace”.   Jahan called her ‘Malika-i-Jahan’.  She was his “Queen of the World”.

The labor and delivery of a daughter, the couple’s 14th child was a terrible trial for the Empress Consort, a 30-hour ordeal resulting in postpartum hemorrhage leading to  her death on June 17, 1631.

The Emperor went into secluded mourning, emerging a year later with his back bent, his beard turned white.  There followed a 22-year period of design and construction for a mausoleum and funerary garden, suitable to the Queen of the World.

This was no ordinary building, this grand edifice to the undying love of an Emperor.  The English poet Sir Edwin Arnold described the place as “Not a piece of architecture, as other buildings are, but the proud passion of an emperor’s love wrought in living stones.”  Today the palace is known among the 7 “Modern Wonders of the World” or simply, the Taj Mahal.

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The “Pillarization” of northern European society constituted a separation along religious and political lines, so strict that many individuals had little to no contact, with people outside their own pillar.  19th century Belgian society divided along three such cohorts,  segregating itself largely along Catholic, Protestant and Social-Democratic strata.

The worst days of the South African Apartheid system had nothing over the European society of the age, when it came to social segregation.  Pillars possessed their own institutions: universities, hospitals and social organizations. Each even had its own news apparatus.

The romance between Colonel J.W.C van Gorkum of the Dutch Cavalry and Lady J.C.P.H van Aefferden was a social outrage. The 22-year old noblewoman was a Catholic.  33-year old Colonel van Gorkum was a Protestant and not a part of the nobility.  The couple’s marriage in 1842 was the scandal of Roermond but, despite all that taboo, theirs was a happy marriage lasting 38-years.

The Colonel died in 1880 and was buried next to the wall, separating the Catholic and Protestant parts of the cemetery.  Van Gorkum’s Lady died some eight years later, wishing to be buried next to her husband. Such a thing was impossible.  She would be buried opposite the wall in the Catholic part of the cemetery, as close as she could get to her beloved husband.

Such was The Law for this time and place, but neither custom nor law said anything about a little creative stonework.  So it is the couple joins hands in death as in life, together and inseparable, for all eternity.

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 Oud Kerkhof cemetery in Hasselt, Belgium

From the 1997 film Titanic to the fictional Shakespearean lovers Romeo and Juliet to the very real Roman General Marc Antony and his Greek Princess turned Egyptian Pharoah Cleopatra VII, the appeal of the Tragic Romance is as old as history and as new, as popular culture.

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Few such tales have anything over the tragic love affair, of the unfortunate Hannah Robinson.

Hannah Robinson was one of the most beautiful women in all Colonial Rhode Island, the privileged daughter of the wealthy Narragansett planter Rowland and Anstis (Gardiner) Robinson. Years later during the time of the American Revolution, the opulent Robinson mansion entertained the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

As a young girl, Hannah had nary a care in the world and spent countless hours on a large rock, enjoying the view overlooking Narragansett Bay.

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The view as it looks today, from Hannah Robinson tower

When she grew older, Hannah attended Madame Osborn’s finishing school in Newport. There she fell in love with the French and Dancing instructor Pierre Simond, the son of an old family of French Huguenot ancestry who liked to go by the name, Peter Simon.

The degree to which the penniless Simond reciprocated the young woman’s feelings is difficult to know, but Hannah fell hard.

Peter took a position as private tutor to one of the Robinison cousins, a short two miles away.  It wasn’t long before Simond was secretly visiting Hannah, at home. He’d hide out in a large cabinet in Hannah’s room.  The pair called it the “Friendly Cupboard”.  At night, Simond would hide out in a large lilac bush where the couple would talk for hours, and exchange letters.  Anstil was quick to get wise but she never let on, to her husband.

Then came the night Rowland spied the white paper, fluttering to the ground. He rushed to the lilac and beat at the bush with a stick, until there emerged a ragged French teacher.  After that, Rowland kept his eldest on a very short leash.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  If Hannah Robinson was stubborn, she came by it honestly.  In a rare moment of weakness, Rowland allowed Hannah and young sister Mary to attend a ball at Smith’s Castle some ten miles up the road, accompanied by a black “servant” called “Prince” who really was, it turns out, an African prince.

So it was, the trap was sprung.

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Smith’s Castle house, one of the oldest homes, in Rhode Island, is now a National Historic Landmark

The trio came to a place on horseback, where there awaited a carriage.  Peter’s carriage.  Mary cried and Prince begged her not to go but, to no avail.  This was the couple’s elopement.  Hannah would have it no other way.

Rowland was apoplectic and cut off his daughter, from her allowance.  The happy couple moved to Providence, but Dad proved to be right.  Now penniless, Simon soon lost interest in his young wife and left her.  Sometimes for days on end.  Others for weeks at a time.

Hannah’s health went into a steep decline.  Not even the little dog sent by her mother, nor her childhood maid – a woman also named Hannah, could bring back her spirits.  The young woman wasted away in Providence as, just 35-miles to the south, Mary contracted tuberculosis, and died.  Anstis’ health, failed.

Rowland Robinson would come to relent, but too late.  Hannah’s health was destroyed.  The fast sloop from Providence delivered a sickly shadow of her former self.

The four strong servants carrying the litter were asked to stop by the rock, where Hannah had passed all those happy hours as a girl.  Watching the bay.  She picked a flower.  “Everlasting Life”.

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Everlasting Life

A sad reunion followed between the two women, the sick mother and the sick daughter.  Anstis would recover and live to see a Revolution bring Independence to the American colonies.  Not so the unfortunate daughter.  Hannah Robinson died at home on this day in 1773.  She was 27.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built an observation tower in 1938, at the place where Hannah used to watch the Bay.  At four stories in height the thing was used for coastal watch, during World War 2.  The tower was rebuilt in 1988, using timbers from the original construction.

You can climb the Hannah Robinson tower to this day if you want, there in North Kingstown, not far from the rock where that little girl spent a happy childhood.  Watching the bay, all those many years ago.

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Hannah Robinson Tower, North Kingstown Rhode Island

 

 

 

April 28, 1752 John Stark, American Cincinnatus

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

The Roman Republic of antiquity operated on the basis of separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of authority. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

The retired patrician and military leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was called from his farm in 458BC to assume the mantle of Dictator and, despite his old age, again, twenty years later. With the crisis averted, Cincinnatus relinquished all power and the perks which came with it, and returned to his plow.

The man’s name remains symbolic, from that day to this. A synonym for outstanding leadership, selfless service and civic virtue.

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

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Outside of his native New Hampshire, few remember the name of John Stark.  Born August 28, 1728 in Londonderry (modern day Derry), the family moved up the road when the boy was eight, to Derryfield. Today we know it as Manchester.

On April 28, 1752, 23-year-old John Stark was out trapping and fishing with his brother William, and a couple of buddies. The small group was set upon by a much larger party of Abenaki warriors. David Stinson was killed in the struggle, as John was able to warn his brother away. William escaped, in a canoe.

John was captured along with Amos Eastman.  267 years ago today, the hostages were heading north, all the way to Quebec, where the pair were subjected to a ritual torture known as “running the gauntlet”.

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Frontiersman Simon Kenton, running the gauntlet

In the eastern woodlands of the United States and southern Quebec and Ontario, captives in the colonial and pre-European era often faced death by ritual torture at the hands of indigenous peoples, a process which could last, for days.  In running the gauntlet, the condemned is forced between two opposing rows, where warriors strike out with clubs, whips and bladed weapons.

Eastman barely got out alive, but Stark wasn’t playing by the same rules.  He hit the first man at a dead run, wrenching the man’s club from his grasp and striking out, at both lines.  The scene was pandemonium, as the tormented captive gave as good as he got. To the chief of the Abenaki, it may have been the funniest thing, ever. He was so amused, he adopted the pair into the tribe.  Eastman and Stark lived as tribal members for the rest of that year and into the following Spring, when a Massachusetts Bay agent bought their freedom. Sixty Spanish dollars for Amos and $103, for John Stark.

3590100173_0a6114e466_bSeven years later during the French & Indian War, Rogers’ Rangers were ordered to  attack the Abenaki village with John Stark, second in command.  Stark refused to accompany the attacking force out of respect for his Indian foster family, returning instead to Derryfield and his wife Molly, whom he had married the year before.

John Stark returned to military service in 1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, accepting a Colonelcy with the 1st Regiment of the New Hampshire militia.

During the early phase of the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Colonel William Prescott knew he was outgunned and outnumbered, and sent out a desperate call for reinforcements. The British warship HMS Lively was raining accurate fire down on Charlestown Neck, the narrow causeway linking the city with the rebel positions. Several companies were milling about just out of range, when Stark ordered them to step aside. Colonel Stark and his New Hampshire men then calmly marched to Prescott’s position on Breed’s Hill, without a single casualty.

Stark and his men formed the left flank of the rebel position, leading down to the beach at Mystic River.  The Battle of Bunker Hill was a British victory, in that they held the ground, when it was over. It was a costly win which could scarcely be repeated. At the place in the line held by John Stark’s New Hampshire men, British dead were piled up like cord wood.

John Stark’s service record reads like a timeline of the American Revolution. The doomed invasion of Canada in the Spring of 1776. The famous crossing of the Delaware and the victorious battles at Trenton, and Princeton New Jersey. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and his Brunswick mercenaries ran into a buzz saw in Bennington Vermont, in the form of Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys and John Stark, rallying his New Hampshire militia with the cry, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”  When it was over, Stark reported 14 dead and 42 wounded. Of Lt. Col. Baum’s 374 professional soldiers, only nine walked away.

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Battle of Bennington

The loss of his German ally led in no small part to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s defeat, at Saratoga.  Stark served with distinction for the remainder of the war and, like Cincinnatus before him, returned home to his farm.

In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered for a reunion. Stark was 81 at this time and not well enough to travel. Instead, he wrote his comrades a letter, closing with these words:

“Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

The name of the American Cincinnatus is all but forgotten today but his words live on, imprinted on every license plate, in New Hampshire.  “Live Free or Die”.

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A Trivial Matter
Neither George Washington nor Samuel Adams liked political parties, believing that such “factions” would splinter the Congress and divide the nation.

April 8, 1740 Jenkin’s Ear

For the future Georgia colony, the War of Jenkins Ear was an existential threat.

A series of escalating trade disputes had already taken place between British and Spanish forces, when the Spanish patrol boat La Isabela drew alongside the British brig Rebecca in 1731. After boarding, Commander Juan de León Fandiño accused the British commander of smuggling.  The discussion became heated, when Fandiño drew his sword and cut off the left ear of Captain Robert Jenkins.  “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same”, he snarled, “if he dares to do the same.”jenkins-ear-1

Seven years later, Captain Jenkins was summoned to testify before Parliament where, according to some accounts, he produced his own severed ear in a pickling jar, as part of his presentation.

This and other incidents of “Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects” were considered insults to the honor of the British nation and a provocation to war.

A squadron of three 70-gun British third-rates was patrolling off the coast of Cornwall on April 8, 1740, when a mast was sighted to the north.  What at first appeared to be a French vessel was revealed to be the 70 gun ship-of-the-line Princesa, when she struck her French colors and hoist the Spanish flag.  Outnumbered 3-to-1, Princesa put up a good fight, but the issue was never in doubt.  She was brought into Portsmouth for repairs, entering British service as HMS Princess in 1742.  What had once been described as “the finest ship in the Spanish Navy”, would serve Her Britannic Majesty for another 42 years.Princesa

For the future Georgia colony, the War of Jenkins Ear was an existential threat.  Spain had laid claim to Florida, when Ponce de Leon first mapped the territory in 1513.  The territory which later became North & South Carolina joined the British Colonies to the north in 1663, leaving the areas in-between in dispute.  James Oglethorpe founded the 13th colony of Georgia as a buffer to Spanish incursion, two years after Mr. Jenkins lost his ear. Battle of Bloody Marsh (Model)

By 1736, Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica on the barrier island of St. Simon, off the Savannah coast.  The Spanish landing force of 4,500 to 5,000 men arrived on St. Simon’s Island in July of 1742, opposed by only 950 British Rangers, Colonial Militia and Indian Allies.

Oglethorpe’s forces attacked a Spanish reconnaissance in force at the Battle of Gully Hole Creek in the early morning hours of July 7, followed by the ambush of a much larger force that afternoon, in what would be known as the Battle of Bloody Marsh.  In the smoke and confusion, the Spanish never did figure out how puny the forces were who opposed them.  These two victories were as big a boost to British morale as they were a blow to that of their adversary.  The last major Spanish offensive into Georgia ended with a complete withdrawal, a week later.

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The conflict which began in 1739 ended in 1748, though major operations ceased in 1742 when the War of Jenkins Ear was subsumed by the greater War of Austrian Succession, involving most of the major powers of Europe at that time. Peace arrived with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

April 5, 1761 Sybil’s Ride

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends and even that of George Washington.  She then stepped off the pages of history.

“Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of”…Sybil Ludington.

Wait…What?

Paul Revere’s famous “midnight ride” began on the night of April 18, 1775.  Revere was one of two riders, soon joined by a third, fanning out from Boston to warn of an oncoming column of “regulars”, come to destroy the stockpile of gunpowder, ammunition, and cannon in Concord.

paul-revereRevere himself covered barely 12 miles before being captured, his horse confiscated to replace the tired mount of a British sergeant.  Revere would finish his “ride” on foot, arriving at sunrise on the 19th to witness the last moments of the battle on Lexington Green.

Two years later, Patriot forces maintained a similar supply depot, in the southwest Connecticut town of Danbury.

William Tryon was the Royal Governor of New York, and long-standing advocate for attacks on civilian targets.  In 1777, Tryon was major-general of the provincial army.  On April 25th, the General set sail for the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound with a force of 1,800, intending to destroy Danbury.

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Patriot Colonel Joseph Cooke’s small Danbury garrison was caught and quickly overpowered on the 26th, trying to remove food supplies, uniforms, and equipment.  Facing little if any opposition, Tryon’s forces went on a bender, burning homes, farms and storehouses.  Thousands of barrels of pork, beef, and flour were destroyed, along with 5,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 bushels of grain, and 1,600 tents.

Colonel Henry Ludington was a farmer and father of 12, with a long military career.  A long-standing and loyal subject of the British crown, Ludington switched sides in 1773, joining the rebel cause and rising to command the 7th Regiment of the Dutchess County Militia, in New York’s Hudson Valley.

908d9d26ffc8bb0c9e8a59b25da92429--american-revolutionary-war-paul-revereIn April 1777, Ludington’s militia was disbanded for planting season, and spread across the countryside.  An exhausted rider arrived at the Ludington farm on a blown horse, on the evening of the 26th, asking for help.  15 miles away, British regulars and a force of loyalists were burning Danbury to the ground.

The Dutchess County Militia had to be called up.  The Colonel had one night to prepare for battle, and this rider was done.  The job would have to go to Colonel Ludington’s first-born, his daughter, Sybil.

Born April 5, 1761, Sybil Ludington was barely sixteen at the time of her ride.  From Poughkeepsie to what is now Putnam County and back, the “Female Paul Revere” rode across the lower Hudson River Valley, covering 40 miles in the pitch dark of night, alerting her father’s militia to the danger and urging them to come out and fight.  She’d use a stick to knock on doors, even using it once, to fight off a highway bandit.

By the time Sybil returned the next morning, cold, rain-soaked, and exhausted, most of 400 militia were ready to march.

Arnold’s forces arrived too late to save Danbury, but inflicted a nasty surprise on the British rearguard as the column approached nearby Ridgefield.  Never outnumbered by less than three-to-one, Connecticut militia was able to slow the British advance until Ludington’s New York Militia arrived on the following day.  The last phase of the action saw the same type of swarming harassment, as seen on the British retreat from Concord to Boston, early in the war.35 miles to the east of Danbury, General Benedict Arnold was gathering a force of 500 regular and irregular Connecticut militia, with Generals David Wooster and Gold Selleck Silliman.

Though the British operation was a tactical success, the mauling inflicted by these colonials ensured that this was the last hostile British landing on the Connecticut coast.

The British raid on Danbury destroyed at least 19 houses and 22 stores and barns.  Town officials submitted £16,000 in claims to Congress, for which town selectmen received £500 reimbursement.  Further claims were made to the General Assembly of Connecticut in 1787, for which Danbury was awarded land.  In Ohio.

Keeler_tavern_ridgefield_cannonball_2006At the time, Benedict Arnold planned to travel to Philadelphia, to protest the promotion of officers junior to himself, to Major General.  Arnold, who’d had two horses shot out from under him at Ridgefield, was promoted to Major General in recognition for his role in the battle.  Along with that promotion came a horse, “properly caparisoned as a token of … approbation of his gallant conduct … in the late enterprize to Danbury.”  For now, the pride which would one day be his undoing, was assuaged.The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield is now a museum.  The British cannonball fired into the side of the building, remains there to this day.

Henry Ludington would become Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, and grandfather to Harrison Ludington, mayor of Milwaukee and 12th Governor of Wisconsin.

Gold Silliman was kidnapped with his son by a first marriage by Tory neighbors, and held for Nearly seven months at a New York farmhouse.  Having no hostage of equal rank with whom to exchange for the General, Patriot forces went out and kidnapped one of their own, in the person of Chief Justice Judge Thomas Jones, of Long Island.

Mary Silliman was left to run the farm, including caring for her own midwife, who was brutally raped by English forces for denying them the use of her home.  The 1993 made-for-TV movie “Mary Silliman’s War” tells the story of non-combatants, pregnant mothers and farm wives during the Revolution, as well as Mary’s own negotiations for her husband’s release from his Loyalist captors.

IMG_6632General David Wooster was mortally wounded at the Battle of Ridgefield, moments after shouting “Come on my boys! Never mind such random shots!”  Today, an archway marks the entrance to Wooster Square, in the East Rock Neighborhood of New Haven.  Sybil_Ludington_stamp

Sybil Ludington received the thanks of family and friends and even that of George Washington.  She then stepped off the pages of history.

Paul Revere’s famous ride would have likewise faded into obscurity, but for the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Eighty-six years, later.

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“Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.
Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,–
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.
Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,–
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.
Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.
A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.
It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.
It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.
You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,—
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.
So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere”.
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Founding Mother
Fatherless at age three and orphaned at twelve, Mary Ball learned a sense of independence, at an early age. Mary was wed at age 22 in a “semi-arranged” marriage by her guardian, George Eskridge. Mary’s first and only husband was Augustine “Gus” Washington, father of six borne of the union. Gus died when the eldest was only eleven and Mary thirty-five, leaving Mary to raise Eskridge’s namesake and four surviving siblings, alone. Today, little is written about Martha Ball Washington, a woman whose personal strength of character, taught her son to lead by example. Though himself childless, eleven-year-old George would grow to become a General in the cause of Liberty, first President of the United States and “Father of his Country’.

April 2, 1722 The Silence Dogood Letters

“Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” – Silence Dogood

The fifteenth child of Josiah and Abiah Franklin was born in a little house on Milk Street in Boston, across from the Old South Church.

The family moved to a larger house at Union & Hanover Street, when little Ben was six. As the tenth son, Benjamin Franklin was destined to be “tithed” to the church, but Josiah changed his mind after the boy’s first year in Boston Latin School. In light of the small salary, it was too expensive to educate a minister of the church.

The boy was sent to George Brownell’s English school for writing and arithmetic where he stayed until age ten, when he went to work in his father’s shop making tallow candles and boiling soap. After 1714, “Dr.” Benjamin Franklin’s education came exclusively from the books he picked up along the way.

By twelve the boy was “Hankering to go to sea”.  His father was concerned about his running away. Knowing of the boy’s love of books, the elder Franklin apprenticed his son to the print shop of James Franklin, one of his elder sons, where he went to work setting type for books. And reading them.  He would often “borrow” a book at night, returning it “early in the Morning lest it should be miss’d or wanted.”

benjamin-franklin-apprentice_1718By 1720, James Franklin began to publish The New England Courant, only the second newspaper to appear in the American colony.

Franklin often published essays and articles written by his friends, a group described as “The Hell-Fire Club”. Benjamin desperately wanted to be one of them, but James seemed to feel that sixteen-year-old little brothers should be seen, and not heard..

Sometime in March 1722, a letter appeared beneath the print shop door. “Sir, It may not be improper in the first Place to inform your Readers, that I intend once a Fortnight to present them, by the Help of this Paper, with a short Epistle, which I presume will add somewhat to their Entertainment”. The letter went on in some detail to describe the life of its author, Mrs. Silence Dogood.

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That first letter was published on April 2.  True to her word, Silence Dogood wrote again in two weeks.  And then again, and again.  Once every two weeks, for 28 weeks.  Her letters were delightful, cleverly mocking the manners of Boston “Society”, and freely giving advice, particularly on the way that women should be treated. Nothing was sacred.  One letter suggested that the only thing students learned at Harvard College, was conceit.

dogood_illustrationJames Franklin and his literary friends loved the letters, and published every one. All of Boston was charmed with Silence Dogood’s subtle mockery of the city’s Old School Puritan elite. Proposals of marriage came into the print shop, when the widow Dogood coyly suggested that she would welcome suitors.

James was jailed at one point, for printing “scandalous libel” about Massachusetts Governor Joseph Dudley.  The younger Franklin ran the shop in his absence, when Mrs. Dogood came to his defense.  Quoting Cato, she proclaimed:  “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.

And then the letters stopped, much to the dismay of the Courant and its readership. One wrote to the editor, saying the paper had “lost a very valuable Correspondent, and the Public been depriv’d of many profitable Amusements.”

On December 3, James Franklin ran an ad. “If any Person . . . will give a true Account of Mrs. Silence Dogood, whether Dead or alive, Married or unmarried, in Town or Country, . . . they shall have Thanks for their Pains.” It was only then that his sixteen-year-old brother fessed up.  Benjamin Franklin was the author of the Silence Dogood letters.

benjamin-james-franklin-grangerAll of Boston was amused by the hoax, but not James. He was furious with his little brother, who soon broke the terms of his apprenticeship and fled to Pennsylvania.

So it was that a future Founding Father of the Republic, the inventor, scientist, writer and philosopher, the statesmen who appears on our $100 bill, came to Philadelphia.  Within a few years Franklin had set up his own print shop, publishing the Philadelphia Gazette as well as his own book bindery, in addition to buying and selling books.

Benjamin Franklin’s efforts are in no small part a reason why literacy standards were higher in Colonial America, than among the landed gentry of 18th century England. Higher, I expect, than even today.

Franklin’s diplomacy to the Court of Versailles was every bit as important to the success of the Revolution, as the Generalship of the Father of the Republic, George Washington. Signatory to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is arguably Ben Franklin who broke the impasse of the Convention of 1787, paving the way for ratification of the United States Constitution.

b66a0356-04ff-459f-8838-9f8438937061-bannerBy then too old and frail to deliver his own speech, Franklin had someone else read his words to the deadlocked convention.

“On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument”.

As I witness the disintegration of civil society, over politics, I cannot deny the wish that my countrymen might, each in his turn, doubt a little of his own infallibility.

 

A Trivial Matter
Despite ending his formal education at age ten, Benjamin Franklin is considered to be one of the great polymaths along with the likes of Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Schweitzer. A prolific inventor, Franklin never patented a single one, believing such innovations should be shared, freely. A brief list of Franklin’s inventions include bifocal glasses, the lighting rod and the Franklin stove.  The founding father’s personal favorite was a musical instrument which came to be played by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven: the Glass Armonica

March 22, 1790 Jefferson

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone”. President John F Kennedy, addressing a White House Dinner honoring Nobel Prize recipients, 1962.

In April 1962, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed a White House Dinner, to a group of Nobel prize winners.  Some of the greatest intellects of the era were assembled in that room.  The President began:

Ladies and gentlemen“, he said, “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone“.

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Jefferson himself knew how he wished to be remembered.  He left specific instructions.  Three accomplishments the founding father himself saw as his own legacy, inscribed on the stone which marks his grave:

Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson served two terms as President of the United States, but didn’t put it among his top three accomplishments.  That’s how much he couldn’t stand politics.

The public life of Thomas Jefferson reads like a timeline for the founding of this nation.

220px-Official_Presidential_portrait_of_Thomas_Jefferson_(by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800)(cropped)In a time when colonists considered themselves to be Englishmen, Jefferson sought to disestablish the Anglican communion of the Church of England, seeking from the earliest days of his public career to establish a freedom from state-sponsored religion.

The preamble to the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom written in the man’s own hand, states “that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry“.

Jefferson expanded on the principle decades later, in a letter to the Baptist church of Danbury, Connecticut.  Referring to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State“.

Jefferson drafted no fewer than 126 bills in three years as Virginia state legislator and later governor, introducing measures for public education and religious freedom. Alarmed at the growing power of the landed aristocracy, Jefferson took aim at laws of entail and primogeniture, that permanent, hereditary and near-feudal system of increasingly large plantations worked by white tenant farmers and African slaves.

Assigned to a committee of five to write the Declaration of Independence, it is Jefferson’s hand we see on our national birth certificate.

Jefferson fled when the Patriot turned traitor Benedict Arnold burned the city of Richmond at the head of a British Army, and narrowly escaped a cavalry force under “Bloody Banastre Tarleton”, sent for his capture.

Martha Jefferson
A 1965 oil portrait of Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by artist George Geygan, based on contemporary descriptions of her physical attributes and executed 183 years after her death. H/T Firstladies.org

Martha Skelton, née Wayles, became Mrs. Jefferson in 1772, following the death of her first husband.   The marriage lasted ten years until her death in 1782 and produced six children, two of whom lived, to adulthood.

Jefferson was inconsolable on the death of his wife and withdrew for weeks, from the public eye.  He later burned their correspondence, leading some commentators to describe the relationship as “enigmatic’.

I don’t think so.  On his death some forty years later, Thomas Jefferson still wore a locket about his neck, containing a lock of Martha’s brown hair.

Jefferson was minister to France in the early days of the French Revolution, and witnessed the storming of the Bastille.  He was a regular companion of the Marquis de Lafayette and contributor to Lafayette’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  It’s here in 1787, that Jefferson is believed to have begun a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, sixteen-year-old Sally Hemings.  Modern DNA analysis has demonstrated a connection along the male Jefferson line, with at least one of Hemings’ children.

Thomas Jefferson became the nation’s 1st Secretary of State on this day in 1790, serving the first administration of  President George Washington.

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Thomas Jefferson at 78

As President of the United States, Jefferson personally tutored Corps of Discovery Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the sciences of mapping, botany, natural history, mineralogy, and astronomy and navigation, and gave the man unlimited access to his library at Monticello, at that time the largest collection of geography and natural history books in the world.

In 1819, the 76-year-old Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, personally organizing its state charter and planning for the course curriculum, while designing the architecture for ten Roman and Greek pavilions forming a quadrangle connected by colonnades and surrounded by serpentine walls.

As if that wasn’t enough, the man cut 791 verses from the King James bible with a razor, and rearranged them into the 46-page volume The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly known as the Jefferson Bible.  He then translated the thing into French, Greek, Latin and back to English.  It interested him to do so.

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The University of Virginia, Jefferson’s “Academical Village” H/T Wikipedia

On the subject of slavery, the man remains an enigma.  Jefferson referred to the “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors” while he himself owned slaves.  As many as 600, over the course of his life.

In an ending no fiction writer would dare to contemplate, Jefferson and fellow founder John Adams died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day from the birth of the Republic they had helped create.

It is fashionable today, to judge the past by the standards of our day.  As if the present were somehow exempt from the just scorn of future generations.

The founder’s ideal of freedom Of religion has somehow morphed into an imagined freedom From religion.  Candidates argue for abolishing the Electoral College, transforming this self-governing Republic to a Democracy.  Somehow the image of five wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, comes to mind.

A week ago, a member of the United States House of Representatives criticized the third President, for believing African slaves to be 3/5ths of a person.

I would not condone the odious practice of one human being “owning” another, any more than I’d endorse those places where the practice continues, to this day.  I don’t know anyone who does.  It’s worth mentioning though, Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world, 275 years before the “Shot Heard ’round the World“.   Every New World economy from Canada to Argentina was engaged in slavery.  The first English colony to legally adopt the practice was Massachusetts, with the ironically named “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” of 1641.

The 3/5ths compromise of the United States Constitution was a political concession.  The young nation was broke in the wake of the late Revolution, in need of new forms of taxation.  Southern states argued that slaves should be counted as persons for purposes of apportionment.  More seats meant more votes in Congress, more electors in the Electoral College.

6-three-fifthsThe more industrialized states to the north saw such a measure as placing a disproportionate burden of taxation, on themselves.  The 3/5ths compromise kicked the can down the road, passing the Gordian knot to be settled by another generation, in rivers of blood.

The connection between Jefferson and the 3/5ths compromise stems from the election of 1800.  Jefferson defeated Aaron Burr through disproportionate electoral support from the southern states, though it took 36 ballots, to do so.  The Congressman’s claim seems a bit of a stretch:  the third President was away in France while the Constitution was being written.

In a perfect world, our self-appointed ruling class would have cracked a book.  Candidates for political office would better understand our shared history.   The real thing is so much more interesting than the pop culture and political varieties.

 

A Trivial Matter
While a brilliant writer, Thomas Jefferson received no such gift when it came to public speaking. It’s not that his speeches were’t well written and meaningful, he was just a lousy speaker. His voice was halting and often inaudible, barely better than a mumble. John Adams once said, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” Unlike his predecessor, President Jefferson delivered the State-of-the-Union address in writing, beginning a practice which would continue until Woodrow Wilson’s first term, in 1913.

March 15, 1783 A Pair of Spectacles

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.

The great rebellion effectively came to an end in October 1781 with Lord Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, though no one knew it at that time.  Eight years after the “shot heard round the world“, the American Revolution had slowed to a standoff.

King George III remained personally in favor of prosecuting the war even after the Patriot victory at Yorktown, while opinion in Parliament, was split.  Across the water, some 26,000 British troops remained in occupation in Charleston, Savannah and New York, backed up be a mighty fleet.

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The Americans’ greatest ally departed in 1782, never to return.  With state finances already prostrate with debt, l’Ancien régime (French: “the old order”) would be overthrown by its own revolution inside the next ten years, the French King Louis XVI and Queen Consort Marie Antoinette executed, by guillotine.

Negotiations carried on for nearly three years in Paris while, an hour’s drive north by modern highway from the British occupation of New York, the Continental Army waited at Newburgh.

France wasn’t the only one, ruined by this war.  The American Revolution debilitated the finances of all three principle belligerents, none more so than the new-born American Republic, itself.  In fact, the fledgling United States nearly died on this day in 1783, by the very hands which had given them birth.

The Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in March 1781, provided for a loose alliance of sovereign states. In theory, Congress possessed the authority to govern foreign affairs, conduct war and regulate currency.  In practice, these powers were limited to a national body with no authority to enforce its will on the states.

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In 1780, Congress promised Continental officers a lifetime pension, equal to half-pay upon discharge.  The government in Philadelphia attempted to amend the Articles, to allow a new import duty or “impost”.  States were divided against the measure.  Two years later, the cupboard was bare.  Continental soldiers weren’t being paid at all.   

It wasn’t even possible to borrow.  That required evidence, of an income stream.

The politician who alienates a battle hardened army in the field walks on dangerous ground.  Don’t pay for their services, that’s a good way to do it.  At the outset of war, these guys left homes and fields and families, to risk their lives on behalf of the dream of Liberty.  Many among their number, had given all in service to that dream.

There was little to do during those long winter months of 1782-’83, but wait.  Each with his own financial hardship waiting at home, every man worried that his promised compensation, would not come.  The rumor mill worked overtime:  The Army would be disbanded.  The promised pensions would remain, unfunded.

4

The vague unease of rumor turned to a fury of near certainty through the late winter months, as one overture after another met with defeat, in Congress.  On March 10, an unsigned letter believed to have been written by Major John Armstrong, aide to General Horatio Gates, urged unspecified action against the Continental Congress.  Another called for a meeting on the morning of March 11.  Events were building toward armed insurrection.  A coup d’état.

General George Washington reacted quickly, objecting in his General Orders of March 11 to the “disorderly” and “irregular” nature of such a meeting.  Washington specified the morning of March 15 for an officer’s meeting and requested a report, implying that he himself, would not be present.

The mood was one of surprise and anger when the Commander-in-Chief himself walked into the room, hard men pushed past the point of patience, and now determined to take action.  The General urged patience in a brief and impassioned speech remembered as the Newburgh address.

Washington’s words may as well have fallen on deaf ears.  There was little of the usual deference, in this room.

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Reconstructed Temple at the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site, where the critical meeting took place on March 15, 1783

The future President of the United States then produced a letter from a member of Congress, to read to his officers. The content is unimportant. George Washington gazed on the letter in his hands without speaking and, fumbling in his pocket, came up with a pair of reading glasses. These were new.  Few men in the room even knew the man required glasses.

Washington spoke:

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.

The words were as a physical blow, on the men assembled in that room.  Obstinate and unheeding mere moments before, the realization dawned on all at once.  This man had been at their head and by their sides.  Washington had personally endured every bit of the hardship, as these men bent on mutiny.

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There was hardly a dry eye in the place.  The moment was broken for all time.  Bent on mutiny a mere moment before, the cream of the continental army now determined, to wait.  This Republic to which we owe so much may have died before it was born, two hundred thirty-six years ago on this day.  All but for one magnificent man with an actor’s sense of timing.  And a new pair of spectacles.

 

A Trivial Matter
At age twenty-six, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children: Jacky and Patsy. The Father of the Nation never had any children of his own. At 6 feet, 3½ inches and 200-pounds, George Washington towered above his fellow Continental soldier, with an average height of 5-feet, 8-inches in height.