“My Servants Really Live Like Kings & Queens”: Below Stairs Intruding Above Stairs, ca1774

Downtown Abbey and its highly problematic depiction of the experience of servants at the end of the era of widespread bonded servitude has tended to color the opinions of many viewers about the nature of such lives.  More important is the reminder that it can, and should, provide us with that servitude was–and is–a spectrum as expansive as the Atlantic Ocean, from slavery at the clearest end to indentured apprenticeship and liveried valets at the murky other side.  Few topics are more deserving of the considered attention of historians and, yet, few subjects have such a dearth of primary sources to aid us, leaving theory and supposition as poor substitutes for thoughtful, because informed, analysis.  

That is a heavy appetizer for such a light main course, one provided by Laura Walpole Keppel, a younger, Georgian, nonfiction version of Maggie Smith’s splendid Dowager Countess of Grantham.  On this date in 1774, a year when George III was on the throne of Great Britain and George Washington attended more fox hunts than church services, Laura lamented, in a letter to her aunt, the lives of those below her stairs because of the problems they caused her above them.  The letter excerpt is of interest for many reasons, not least because it grants us the privilege of an unfiltered perspective on the outward lives of servants in Georgian England — and has nothing to do with Julian Fellowes.

What plagues servants are!  My upper ones all quarrel’d last week, such a piece of work, I thought I must have turn’d ’em all away, I did not sleep for two nights, for they discovered things of one another, that I am sure they are very sorry for, & I believe heartily repent having come to me in their passion.  At present tis blown over but if ever they quarrel again, my Ld has told ’em they shall ev’ry one be discharged in one day.  ’tis intollerable that ones life is to be made miserable by such wretches.  Indeed Charlotte’s maid (who was out of the quarrel) said truth, that they lived too well, & had nothing to find fault with, & therefore quarrel’d with one another.  & that is the true state of the case.  for my servants really live like kings & queens & are never scolded.

History Matters?: Musings on the Big “So What?” of Public History

The other night, a rather good friend who covers history and related issues for a local newspaper and I were discussing the many recent changes at Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the place with which I am most closely associated, comparing and contrasting the challenges that its new leadership faces with historic sites in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere.  You might respond to that with a rather trenchant, “Huh?”  After all, CW is the largest living history site on the planet, while the Hudson Valley is littered with dozens, if not hundreds, of small Dutch colonial stone houses, many of which are open for a few months out of every year as county executives and others talk a great deal about boosting heritage tourism (which, for me, remains the single largest untapped economic opportunity in upstate New York) without actually doing anything about it.  So where is the context for the comparison?

Well, as my Contracts professor in law school always said, “follow the money.”  So many of these places, for lack of proper funding and spending priorities, either exist in anonymity, cared for and about by a relative handful of mostly well-meaning locals, or are facing substantial financial problems created by an identity crisis caused by questionable decision-making (A cigar bar at CW’s Chowning’s Tavern? Tut, tut.).  The question about them to which most people can relate, however, is “So what?”  Put another way, as a measure of the meaning of place, my friend and I asked each other “Do these sites matter?” and then started listing one site after another to evaluate what the loss would be, to a community or to posterity, if Historic Site A or Historic House B shut its doors forever?  As Frank Vagnone has explored better than any public historian out there, are there some sites just not worth saving; that really don’t, in a sense, matter?

There are plenty of examples of this.  The one that most readily comes to my mind is the boyhood home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, in Alexandria, Virginia.  I recall visiting it when it was a museum but don’t remember much else beyond the generic information that most historic houses inflict on guests.  One certainly gained very little insight into what was important to know about the early life of one of the most significant figures in American history in the house where he grew up.  But, boy, did I learn about closets being taxed (Not true. Anywhere. Ever).  Failing as a museum, it was returned to being a private home, which it remains today in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America, Old Town Alexandria.  So, what was lost in that transition, when it shut its doors to the public?  In my view, almost nothing, as it wasn’t serving much of a purpose in providing an anodyne interpretation of questionable accuracy about Antebellum life, peppered with the names of Lee and his family.  But one can still get that from the historic marker on the street in front of the building, rather than spend an admission fee to go inside.  Compare that with a terrific museum almost around the corner in Alexandria, at Gadsby’s Tavern, which does a splendid job of reflecting the cultural experience of the Early Republic, with lectures, dances, and tours that run pretty much year round, which keeps the place alive (my favorite tour there was actually given by a collection of elementary and secondary school children–short on facts but long on charm).  The folks running Gadsby’s certainly understand, when it comes to public history, that creating an authentic experience, which is what most guests are looking for these days, is as important as attention to accuracy.  Maybe even more so, in some cases.

But that brings me back to my friend and I and our talk about CW and local sites in New York, places such as the Kiersted House in Saugerties and the Senate House in Kingston.  What would we — speaking broadly as a historian of Early America — lose if such places went the way of the Robert E. Lee house?  As for CW, the loss would be tremendous, of course.  And that’s not just because more than 2,000 jobs would be gone and the economic disappearance of 600,000 visitors a year could cripple a community.  Or that the survival of irreplaceable artisanal tradecrafts would be at stake, as important as those are.  It’s because CW has the potential to teach us so much about what it has meant to be an American, for better and worse–or, more accurately, what other people wanted being an American to mean, both in terms of Thomas Jefferson’s state-building construction efforts of the 1700s and John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s hyper-patriotic nation-building reconstruction project of the 1900s.  Telling that story right, as CW once did, has a tremendously powerful potential for doing good in our modern civic life.  Getting it wrong, on the other hand, can do tremendous damage.  But it is, as my friends across the pond say, early days for the new CEO, Mitchell Reiss, so we will see whether he can right the ship.  I do not envy him as he attempts to keep in the air all the balls he has just been thrown only, knowing the place as I do, to be tossed a new one just about every day.  Again to borrow a British phrase, there’s still all to play for in Williamsburg.

But what of Hudson Valley sites?  On one side of the river, Dutchess County is chock full of can’t-miss places, where interesting stories are told quite well and something of an absence would be felt if they closed.  My particular favorites are the newly reinterpreted Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage, and the Gilded Age, Downton Abbey-fueled enthusiasm of the interpreters at Staatsburgh State Historic Site.  The other side of the river has not been quite so fortunate in its management of historic resources.  Orange County has tremendous sites, such as Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh and the New Windsor Cantonment, that can make us reconsider just how close the United States came to dying in its infancy, and by American–not British–hands, and the ways in which the memory of that period was (re)shaped by those who came after (Make no mistake, at these places you can learn how George Washington was every bit as important to the founding of America as the history books say he was.  In short, no Washington, no United States.  It’s just that simple, and that’s coming from the guy who constantly preaches that history is never simple.).  Those are matters of critical historical analysis that would be lost, to the clear detriment of our collective historical memory, if closed.

In Ulster County, there is probably only one historic site that rises to the level of registering more than a blink of the national eye if it shut down, which is the Senate House in Kingston.  Although open for only a few months each year as it is, and even then interpreted in a way that I can only say seems like a missed opportunity, it might be the most important historic site, in terms of the sweep of Early American history, between New York City and Albany, and that includes places like West Point.  That’s because, like at Williamsburg, only there can the story be told of the transformation of a colony into a state, and of (some) subjects into citizens, and why that makes a difference.  In 1777, Kingston went from being the capital of British New York, where the provincial convention last met, and the new constitution was written and first read (aloud, in the center of town), to the capital of an independent government — hence, the Senate House, where met the upper chamber of the legislature created by the first New York constitution.  There can be told the important story of the process of establishing independence, of letting go of the British (and Dutch) past, through the lives and experiences of the people who made it happen, and those whom opposed it, of the people whom embraced it and those whom feared it.  Those are the sorts of questions that could be put to guests–and not just New Yorkers–to make up their own minds about and wonder, a historian like me might hope, what all the fuss was about and, more to the point, was all the sacrifice worth it?  After all, Kingston was more or less burned to the ground by the British later in 1777, although the extent to which the considerable damage caused can be wholly attributed to the patriots’ enemies is debatable.  The “Burning of Kingston” still puts a nice bookend on that particular chapter in our nation’s history.  And think–only 13 places in America can claim that mantle, so Kingston should not lose its chance.

Of course, reasonable people will and should differ about these things.  After all, this post just represents my humble, even though informed, opinion.  But the broader point that I hope people ask whenever they drive by or walk into one of the legions of historic sites in America, or are asked to become a trustee or a volunteer or a donor, is threefold: 1) What line to the story of our nation’s history does this place contribute? 2) Is it actually being told there? 3) What would be lost if it disappeared? In other words, ask the big historical question, one that I encourage students to engage: “So what?”  Your answer will be the real measure of whether a historic site matters.

“I will not force my daughter to marry utterly against her will”: A Governor, A Planter’s Daughter, and the Perils of Passion

The signature of Francis Nicholson.

Most people will probably agree that Francis Nicholson (1655-1728), by the time of his second go-round as Virginia’s resident governor in the early 1700s, was, to put it mildly, a complete basket case and in the midst of the crisis of his life in the winter of 1702-1703.  In the language of the 18th century, he became “undone.”  And that’s saying quite something for the 47-year-old former army officer whom had served in the abandoned English garrison at Tangier and then been booted out of the short-lived Dominion of New England in 1689.  The cause?  His, by all accounts, uncontrollable passion for 19-year-old Lucy Burwell of Fairfield Plantation, in Gloucester County, the daughter of Lewis Burwell, a major Virginia planter and member of the Governor’s Council.  Nicholson’s conduct in the case, which included begging Lucy and threatening almost everyone else, was so offensive to the sensible nature of Virginians at the time that it reached the coffeehouses of London, where friends overheard the gossip and pleaded with Nicholson to just calm down and forget about her.

I find the episode of endless interest because of what it says about the dynamic social character of the British Atlantic world at the time, when Augustan sense–meaning politeness and moderation–was just beginning to dominate the broader culture, setting the parameters for acceptable discourse.  Nicholson was, however, oblivious to those expectations when it came to Lucy.  The subject is worth a much longer piece that considers it in a different context than most historians have placed it, as the episode, in the end, cost Nicholson his job.

Fairfield Plantation
Pre-1897 image of Fairfield Plantation in Gloucester County, Virginia.

But it also is a fascinating reflection on the social perceptions of the Virginians, whom were as culturally English as if they lived in the Home Counties.  The correspondence that flew back and forth between Nicholson and Lucy Burwell and both of her parents is extraordinary for the social and cultural assumptions that are packed into them.  Nicholson, for his part, appears to have honestly assumed that Lucy had no choice in the matter of a husband, that it was entirely up to her father whom she married.  And it followed, at least to Nicholson, that Lewis Burwell must have some personal reason for not bestowing his daughter’s hand on the governor, especially after Nicholson, according to Philip Ludwell, Jr., who was quite close to situation, had sent Lucy, her parents, and friends presents worth 500 pounds in order to sway them all to his way of thinking.  Ludwell, however, knew that Nicholson was stretching the truth a bit: “All the things that she had received were 3½ yards of dirty point lace and a purse containing 8 stone rings and a small seal, which he put into her hand wrapt up in her handkerchef, and rid away.”  According to Ludwell, “She sent them back.”  But that didn’t stop Nicholson, whom returned the gifts to Lucy, which caused Ludwell to personally take them back to Nicholson’s house, “whereat the Governor violently abused me.”

Wine bottle seal of Lewis Burwell.
Wine bottle seal of Lewis Burwell.

Lewis Burwell behaved rather differently and seems to have been guided by the hardening rules of politeness, deference, and reason that became so familiar later in the century to influence, if not determine, the relationships between people of different sorts.  But everyone has her or his limits.  After a particularly virulent epistolary tirade from Nicholson in December 1702, Burwell had just about had enough.  On the day after Christmas, he complained to the governor about his treatment, but their social standing being so different, between that of a royal governor and a mere private gentleman, Burwell’s options were limited.  Nicholson charged Burwell with thoughts and behavior that Burwell did not deserve and “which I could easily clear my self of were our circumstances alike, but since they are so different that I cannot answer for my self in such words as I think I aut to do were we on even grounds.”  Therefore, it must suffice for Burwell to say that he is “a loyal subject, an honest man, and one that hath always endeavoured to do my duty to the utmost of my power.”  Nicholson did not respond in kind.  He pleaded with Burwell, “for God sake Sir,” choose him for Lucy and “doe it before it be too late.”  Nicholson continued to heap invective on Burwell for months thereafter, bringing the business of the colony almost to a halt and alienating every planter who disagreed with him, but Burwell would not budge, mainly because Lucy’s hand was not, in fact, his to give.  As Burwell wrote to Philip Ludwell, Sr., in London, “I am daily alarmed with threatening messages of ruine, for what I know not, unless it be because I will not force my daughter to marry utterly against her will, which is a thing no Christian body can do.”

The curious affair continued for several months and the correspondence it generated is, frankly, some of the most entertaining of the period to read.  As I stated, it eventually led to Nicholson’s replacement in 1705 by the utterly reasonable, but unfortunately short-lived, Edward Nott, as even Nicholson’s friends could no longer save him from the rumors that reached London that Nicholson could no longer govern his own passions, and so could not be trusted to govern a colony.  At least not until he remembered himself.  But he did recover and was later appointed royal governor of South Carolina.

The site of Fairfield Plantation today.
The site of Fairfield Plantation today.

As for Lucy, her story does not have a happy ending.  She chose to marry 37-year-old Edmund Berkeley in 1703, a neighbor in Gloucester County.  They had 13 years and five children together before she died during a measles epidemic in 1716, at the age of 33.  In March 1717, Philip Ludwell, Jr., wrote to Nicholson, then back in England, that the “measles hath been epidemicall amongst us this winter, it hath run quick thro my family tho I thank God I have lost none…but poor Mrs. Berkeley dyed of it.”  One can only imagine Nicholson’s thoughts and feelings on reading those final words about the woman he had once so desperately wanted–and whom generated a passion in Nicholson that cost him so much.  As for the historical record, the affair is one of those that make the 18th century of such endless fascination as men and women attempted, with widely varying degrees of success, to come to terms with a rapidly changing world.  And it also reminds us that history is almost always better–and stranger–than fiction.

“A Powerful Change”: “Common Sense,” Patriot Politics, and Newspaper Editing in a Revolutionary World

Alexander Purdie's 2 February 1776 edition of the Virginia Gazette.
Alexander Purdie’s 2 February 1776 edition of the Virginia Gazette.

There can be no doubt about the impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense on the character of the American Revolution.  Charles Lee wrote to George Washington in January 1776 that “I never saw such a masterly irresistible performance.”  Although others found in it some serious weaknesses–Landon Carter, in a dispute with Richard Henry Lee, noted in his diary that “I gave my opinion freely as to the nonsense instead of Common Sense advanced”–sufficient evidence exists for historians to conclude that Paine’s pamphlet paved the way for people below the level of the elite, ruffled-shirt types to embrace independence from Great Britain. But how did those people read it, especially in Virginia, where the patriot movement had not yet caught sufficient fire amongst the sorts not named Henry, Jefferson, or Madison?  They certainly didn’t read it as most people today do, as a complete work, purchased in a single volume from his or her local bookseller.  Most people read it in drips and drabs of excerpts printed in their local newspapers.  But how many of Paine’s words were included, the ways in which they were arranged, and whether they were printed at all, were editorial matters entirely in the hands of colonial printers–or at least almost entirely. In early 1776, there were three newspapers in Williamsburg, Virginia, published by Alexander Purdie, John Pinkney (for the benefit of the children of the recently deceased Clementina Rind), and William Hunter, all called the Virginia Gazette (much to the confusion of generations of historians).  Purdie’s press was located where the Tarpley, Thompson & Company store is today, Pinkney printed his paper on the first floor of the Ludwell-Paradise House, and Hunter–whom had learned his trade from none other than Benjamin Franklin–pushed out his paper at the site of the current reconstructed print shop. It was Alexander Purdie who first got his hands on a copy of Common Sense, and in no way was that by chance.  It appears, from an unpublished letter rediscovered only in 2013, that John Page, then head of the Virginia Committee of Safety, received a copy of it from Richard Henry Lee almost immediately after Paine’s work was first printed in Philadelphia in January 1776.  Within weeks it was mysteriously dropped off with a letter to Page by “an invisible hand” who then “disappeared.”  Page was instructed to make sure it was published as soon as possible.  But by whom?  Page’s first, and perhaps only, choice, for a variety of reasons, was the stalwart patriot Purdie, although even he needed some convincing, as it took Page two attempts to secure Purdie’s assistance. This was high political communication, however, in the dangerous days of the early independence movement, so Page took no chances as to what would appear in the paper, not even with Purdie.  According to Page, he took an evening, sitting in a Williamsburg tavern, and went through Paine’s work, judiciously selecting the paragraphs to be printed and–almost as crucially–the order in which Purdie and his assistants would print them.  What resulted was Page’s version of Common Sense, one quite unlike that read today.  Page selected 14 paragraphs–mostly those that addressed the rational, political issues–and rearranged them to appear in a more more logical order, even shifting individual sentences from one place to another, so that the constitutional argument for independence would appear clearest to those whom most needed to hear the message and stand the greatest chance of being rightly, in Page’s opinion, persuaded by it. And so, on this date — 2 February — in 1776, there appeared on the first page of Purdie’s newspaperExtracts from a pamphlet just published in Philadelphia, entitled COMMON SENSE, addressed to the inhabitants of America.”  Pinkney soon followed suit, but with different, less carefully selected and arranged, excerpts, perhaps to gain some ground on his competitor just down Duke of Gloucester Street.  Hunter, already showing signs of his committed loyalism, refused to print it at all.  In fact, his press printed a lengthy rebuttal to it in his paper, hoping to stem the tide of the movement towards independence. So thanks to Richard Henry Lee in Philadelphia, John Page in Williamsburg, the trusty Alexander Purdie, and that “invisible hand,” Paine’s words could reach and penetrate the minds, and not just the hearts, of Virginians.  And it worked.  Just over a month later, Fielding Lewis could report to Washington that “The opinion for independentcy seems to be gaining ground. Indeed most of those who have read the Pamphlet Common Sence say it’s unanswerable.”  Washington himself credited Paine’s arguments with converting the hearts and minds of Virginians to the patriot cause: “I find common sense is working a powerful change there in the Minds of many Men.”  How much of that powerful change was directly worked by Page’s pen and Purdie’s press is arguable, but it is likely that, without them, Virginia’s road to independence would have taken a rather different path.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Williamsburg in the Book of Negroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thieves, Strumpets, Tobacco, and the French: A Glimpse into the British Atlantic World, ca1760

On this date, October 10, in 1760, William Fauntleroy appears to have been a bit cranky.  A planter and merchant in Tidewater Virginia, he took a few minutes to pen an epistolary snapshot of life in the 18th-century British world in a fascinating letter to his sister, Elizabeth, then in London.  It covers the British criminal justice system, gender, property, transatlantic commerce, and the Seven Years’ War, then raging in Canada, all through the perspective of one person, with his own bundle of informed and uninformed presumptions about that world.  Although William avoids the one ubiquitous subject that practically no one in colonial Virginia ever wanted to discuss–slavery–this letter otherwise gives us a very human moment and reveals the many ways in which we lose more than we gain when we see the Atlantic as a barrier, and a not a bridge, before the American Revolution.

It does make one want to find out how “cousin Henry” and Mary turned out, doesn’t it?

Sorry cousin Henry did not conduct his matters better in Virginia.  It’s really the fault of that convict wench that served part of her time with me.  If I were you I’d have her hanged for going back to Britain before her convicted time was out.  Her name was Mary Acres and you may easy know where she was convicted from.  I hope Henry is released by now and will reflect on himself and alter his course in life.  Things sent that came by Capt Brough were sent immediately to cousin Sally and Judah Fauntleroy according to your desire.  Sally is married to Doctr Mortimer, a fine man.  Judy is married to one of Col Carter’s sons, a good family and fortune.  I can’t tell what cousin Harry did with the money he got from Mr Hodge but believe when young men gitte so in love with common theaves & strumpettss they can’t have too much money.  I got with the extrs [executors] of your cousin Moore Fauntleroy’s and at last have your just clame inclosed.  Tobo [tobacco] now with so high, thought it most for your Interest considering there being no convoy & war times to send you a good Bill.  I think to send you & Mr Ribright a Little Tobo this year.  As for the war with us, the French lattly has given up Montreale without striking a Blow, so we have all North America from the French.

Historic Sites Worthy of Your End-of-Year Gifts

Historic sites and historians (I try to not distinguish between public and academic historians but we’ll get to that later) do not exist to turn a profit for investors. Clearly, it isn’t for the money that we do what we do, but because we are guardians, even proselytizers and champions, of the importance of preserving the past and teaching its lessons to people who need to learn them, which is pretty much everyone. Learning how to look at the world thorough someone else’s eyes, to–perhaps literally–stand in their shoes, is a public service to today’s world offered by the close study of yesterday. That effort does, and should, go far beyond the antiquarians of not-that-long ago who insisted in keeping old stuff around just because it was, well, old, and therefore had some sort of inherent value just because of that fact, with little recognition that people make history, not a nicely shaped stick of wood. People, therefore, give meaning to things, like a nicely shaped stick of wood, and reveal how such things changed or remained the same over time in ways that also impacted other people, sometimes in profound ways that even the most clever historians still don’t fully comprehend (that little American Revolution thing is still a tough one). While vestiges of antiquarianism remain (sometimes I think just to spite the rest of us), the vision of most historians I know is to remember the people, prominent and obscure, whether through means of digital history or first-person interpretation or exhibitions of collections, who made us who we are and how that might help us guide our future, as individuals and as a community.

The fact remains, however, that there is a business of history. I don’t mean that in the crude, lost-the-plot way that some historic sites seem on the verge of fully embracing (reminder to self: queue up blog post about ghost tours), which is to focus more on revenue than on mission and vision. There is no escaping our need for the financial and other resources that enable us to reach out to those whom we hope to teach, whether through an engaging tour, a museum that interprets our houses and collections, or other educational technique. Public historians simply cannot dismiss the imperatives of revenue and the market–even our very particular market, where sentiment is of considerable value–because by ignoring them we stand the risk of wrecking endowments, destroying donor confidence, alienating guests, and therefore, after hiring consultants who frequently do more harm than good, unwisely spending ourselves into an oblivion from which only the most exceptional historic sites can recover. The business of public history represents a very fine line to walk between revenue and mission, but it is one that we must follow, which requires public historians, especially leaders of sites and programs, to be historians, marketers, media experts, tech geeks, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and politicians, all wrapped into one. But, as challenging as that is, there are few more rewarding endeavors, for our collective mission is a noble one: to speak for people who cannot speak for themselves. Now that strikes me as a pretty good reason to get up in the morning.

That leads to me to my first annual recommendations of historic sites that I think walk that fine line well enough to be worth your financial consideration before the end of the tax year, so that you can claim those all-important charitable deductions come next April. It is highly subjective, as being entirely focused on the northeast United States, particularly Virginia, and expressly excluding those sites with which I have especially close personal or professional associations, namely Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello, Historic Huguenot Street, and a few others (of course, give freely to those splendid institutions). Otherwise, I have selected these sites based on a considerable amount of study of what these sites do and how they do it, which sufficiently reflects my developing view of the principles of the business of history and what I see as good practices in maintaining the delicate balance between mission and money. Like history, it includes big names and obscure ones, sites devoted to one person or house and sites spread out over acres with a number of buildings. It does not include collections-based museums, per se. That’s for another time, but instead focuses on sites that blend different kinds of interpretation of the past. And it is all based on a set of unique metrics that I am creating to evaluate such things, topics (guest acquisition costs, anyone?) about which I’ll later bore you to tears, I’m sure.

So, with that mountain of caveats traversed, on with the show. What would you add to the list?

Mount Vernon
Go ahead and get the eye-rolling done and over with. While Colonial Williamsburg dwarfs almost every other historic site on the planet in terms of revenue and expenses–and therefore program offerings and outreach–Mount Vernon is the next biggest dog on the block (Monticello is in third place on that list). And, yes, it has a gajillion intangible assets that most sites would die to have (less than 45 minutes from Capitol Hill, depending on traffic in Alexandria). And, yes, I should probably have left it off the list because of my close connections with it. So why is it here? Because they spend your money just so bloody well, thank you very much. With intelligent investments in messaging, guest services, the physical plant (from the education center to the new library), personnel (nabbing Doug Bradburn was a coup for a number of reasons; their next hire should be Azie Dungey as director of comedic affairs or something like that; she’s terrific, and showing that a site takes its work seriously but can laugh at itself is pretty important) and ventures into new methods of interpretation. They stick to their mission and work in smart ways to advance it, and their balance sheet is solid, not masked by occasional, or even regular, dips into a deep endowment. Their interpretive shift from the house to GW the man, and the women and men, free and enslaved, who surrounded him and made Mount Vernon an active community, was subtle but critical. Simply put, the Ladies Association seems to know what to do with your history-minded dollar (it not hurting that its subject appears on it).

Historic Bethlehem
From the largest to one of the smallest, Historic Bethlehem is one of several historic sites that tells the story of the Moravians who arrived in America in the 1700s, built shockingly sturdy stone structures, and maintained their unique cultural characteristics long after most other Protestant religious sects had blended into general American culture. Historic Bethlehem, with a small budget and staff, does a fine job of interpreting the distinctive Moravians, preserving their sites, and introducing guests to Bethlehem itself, which is a pretty cool place any time of year. Even in the best of times, religious history is a tough sell, yet this site finds ways to keep people coming back for it, despite being more than an hour away from any major metro area.

Plimoth Plantation
There are dozens of historic sites that have a revenue/expense stream between $5 million and $8 million a year. Plimoth is among the best of them, especially for the way they cover some very sensitive interpretive territory, namely the contributions and experience of the Wampanoag Indians. Plimoth made a bold decision to not just focus on the Pilgrim story that every American schoolchild will have embedded into their historical consciousness by the age of eight, but to take seriously the story of the Indians who ensured their survival and have a deeply integral history of their own that is ignored at most sites, when it’s not being turned into a pantomime. At Plimoth, they are not interpreted, as such, but presented as they should be, as living history properly conceived, as a people who did not vanish into the mists of time but who remain vibrant in the lives of modern tribes in America and Canada. They even clearly instruct guests to leave behind their modern preconceptions about such people with as much directness as possible, which is somewhat refreshing. No subtlety there about a subject for which subtlety just won’t do. Moreover, although an entirely reconstructed site, the staff does a fine job of representing the life and times of the so-called Pilgrims, hardly the most sympathetic of groups, despite what Longfellow (and Wishbone, for that matter) tried to do for them, but they have remained true to their mission, in terms of programming, in a way that should generate admiration in the public history community, Keep in mind, Plimoth’s balance sheet is not something that its board will want to frame and hang on the wall any time soon. It needs an endowment to provide a buffer for economic downturns. But a year-end contribution will help continue to tell the important stories of several peoples who deserve to be remembered in our collective effort to make sure the future can learn from the past, while not ignoring the influences of the present.

Valentine Richmond History Center
Face it, anyone within driving distance of central Virginia, this place is just fun. No site has done more to reinvent public history as a concept, and the creative ways it can reach out and insert itself into a thriving, vibrant community, than this one. From their creative exhibitions to their Community Conversation to their celebration of modern tattoo trends in the city, it finds a way to engage young people by not being afraid of trying new things, even if those efforts might not succeed. In short, the Valentine pushes through many interpretive barriers and completely destroys others, and therefore deserves support–and attention. Watch this space as the site undergoes a massive renovation, setting the bar that much higher for the rest of us.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Stratford Hall, Old Salem, Preservation Virginia, Sturbridge Village

“He forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe”: The Limits of Hospitality in Revolutionary Virginia

Tuckahoe Plantation
Tuckahoe Plantation

In the fall of 1777, Thomas Anburey was an officer in the British army that John Burgoyne surrendered after the battles of Saratoga.  As part of the “Convention Army,” Anburey found himself in Virginia, near Charlottesville, where he and his fellow officers were allowed to find their own accommodations among the various planters in the area.  Anburey took advantage of his several years as a prisoner of war to record his experience with the people and places he encountered.  His resulting Travels Through the Interior Part of America have proven an invaluable resource, an exceptional glimpse into life in wartime Virginia, a society that, at least among what they called the “better sorts,” had managed to retain its legendary reputation for hospitality and politeness, in spite of the insidious impact of the daily brutality of slavery and the democratizing effects of the War for Independence, both of which make appearances in Anburey’s record.

The nature of social relations in the 18th century was complex across the British world, of course, and perhaps growing quite tenuous on the American side of the Atlantic, as this brief passage suggests.  To “unpack” it, as academics like to say, reveals many layers of supposition and perception, and some rather fruitful lines of discussion regarding their connection to gender and culture.  Perhaps none, though, is more interesting and nuanced than the clear avoidance of any frank acknowledgment of the obvious, which has all sort of implications for how people related to each other and to the circumstances in which they found themselves, male or female, free or enslaved, prisoner or not.  On that day at Tuckahoe in the winter of 1779, in the company of Thomas Mann Randolph (1741-1793) and his daughters, a social line was crossed and the limits of Virginia hospitality reached.  The reaction of the young lady alone to the officer’s “warmth” and “violence” is worth a discussion–but perhaps in keeping with that time and place, it would be better not to mention it?

I cannot but in justice say, that in all the gentlemens’ houses I have visited, they never started, or would suffer any conversation on politics; sometimes, when alone with the ladies, they would indulge and rally us a little, at our being prisoners, but all with great good humour; the only unpleasant circumstance of the kind that I recollect was at Tuckahoe, where an officer suffered his vexation to overcome that gratitude he was bound to shew for the hospitality he met with.  Colonel Randolph every year made a present of two hogsheads of tobacco to his daughter as a venture, to purchase dresses and ornaments, and the ships had always been so unfortunate as to be captured. As several officers were sitting with the ladies, the conversation ran upon politics, when Miss Randolph innocently asked, “How we came to be taken prisoners?” The officer with some warmth replied, “Just as your tobacco was, by a superior force.” I need not tell you the distress and confusion of the young lady, as well as of the officer himself, who immediately became conscious of what he had said, and for his ill-timed violence, he forfeited all claim to the hospitality of Tuckahoe.

[Anburey’s Travels, Richmond, Feb. 18th, 1779]

“Winter. A Favourite Song.” from Williamsburg’s “Poet’s Corner” in 1775

It’s not exactly the Writer’s Almanac, but nobody said that 18th-century poets were long on talent.  They did, however, seem to possess fathomless resources of earnestness–and not a little charm.  This one struck me as particularly well-suited to today, when here in Williamsburg, on this Feast of All Saints, the skies are grey, the leaves are falling to the ground, and nature is starting to be “disrob’d of her mantle of green.”  There are several versions of this traditional British poem, each of which begins with the same stanza.  This appears to be of Scottish origin, although there are English versions as well that have been set to music. It was printed in one of Williamsburg’s newspapers in August 1775.

WHEN the trees are all bear, not a leaf to be seen,

And the meadows their beauties have lost,

When all nature’s disrob’d of her mantle of green,

And the streams are fast bound with the frost.

While the peasant, inactive, stands shiv’ring with cold,

As bleak the winds northerly blow,

And the innocent flocks run for ease to the fold,

With their fleeces besprinkled with snow.

In the yard, where the cattle are fodder’d with straw,

And they send forth their breath like a stream;

And the neat looking dairy maid sees she must thaw

Flakes of ice that she finds in the cream.

When the lads and the lasses, for company join’d,

In a croud round the embers are met,

Talk of fairies and witches that ride on the wind,

And ghosts, till they’re all in a sweat.

Heaven grant, in this season, it may be my lot,

With a nymph whom I love and admire;

While the icicles hang from the eve of my cot,

I may thither in safety retire.

Where, in neatness and quiet, and free from surprize,

We may live, and no hardships endure,

Nor feel any turbulent passions arise

But such as each other can cure.

[Printed in the Virginia Gazette, 21 August 1775]