Today is the anniversary of the start of the war. I was checking the Massachusetts weather, which is rainy and blustery. Kind of like Brooklyn right now too. I hope it doesn’t throw off any events planned for later. Tonight I’m attending a virtual program. The pandemic has accelerated such activities because we all became so reliant on it when the world shut down. The above image comes from George Jones Varney’s “The Story of Patriot’s Day, Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775,” published in 1895 on the first anniversary of Patriots’ Day. It is the Somerville powder house captured by General Gage’s men on September 1, 1774. We tend to think the war just began on its own, when really things had been building for at least a half a decade going back to the Boston Massacre in 1770. One could go further back too depending on how one chooses to look at it. It will be interesting to see how these next 3-4 years play out with the coming of Revolutionary War 250.
Once a month the editors of the Journal of the American Revolution ask contributors a different question related to some aspect of the era. This month’s question is about resources available online that scholars can thus use for their research even during the pandemic shutdown. Research has become much easier in recent years with the growing availability of material that can be found online. Still, doing research in this moment is difficult. Some colleagues and I are grappling with this very issue on a project unrelated to the period. For anyone interested in researching the Colonial and Early American period even in this moment when libraries, archives, and other repositories are still closed, this list is a good place to begin.
(image/Yale University Art Gallery)
I hope everyone is having a relaxing Mather’s Day Sunday. Alas there is not much recourse but to shelter in place but the true spirit of the holiday is to honor or remember those who do or did so much for us, usually with such little notice or credit. If we have to do that while sheltering in place, it is all well and good. Yesterday I resumed a project that had hit a bit of a wall for a week or so. Every day out of the saddle makes it that much tougher to pick up again. It is just that easy to not do it. I wrote 400 words yesterday and am going for 450 today. It is amazing how if you sit down a write a few lines the process takes over. I have a friend to whom I text at the end of the day with my progress on these things. Yesterday he reminded me of Eleanor Roosevelt’s mantra that the way to begin is to begin.
Said friend lives in the Carolina area and yesterday sent me the images your see here from King’s Mountain. He has been visiting a great deal this spring and has told me that, like Green-Wood Cemetery here in Brooklyn, visitation is way up during the pandemic. That said, there is still enough space to maintain social distancing. One of our goals it take a week-long or so road trip to hit some of the Revolutionary and Civil War sites in Georgia and the Carolinas, which I have never seen. It seems that especially with the War of Independence the southern theater is often overlooked and misunderstood.
Happy Mother’s Day, all.
Yesterday was the 245th anniversary of the firing at Lexington and Concord. The stamp above is a commemorative, one of a three-stamp set, from the 1925 sesquicentennial. As I understand it, one of the reasons people associate Massachusetts and Virginia–but not New York–so closely with the Revolutionary War is that in the 1920s the former two states out-hustled the latter in the heritage tourism game. It is something I intend to delve into more in these next few years during the 250th, which we are already in right now. I think the role the sesquicentennial in the 1920s played in our understanding of the Revolutionary War is under appreciated.
Today is Patriot’s Day in New England. The Red Sox would have played a morning game in Fenway concurrent with the running of the Boston Marathon. Even though I have not lived in New England for more than 40 years I still have many relatives there and feel a strong connection to Patriot’s Day. My relatives usually watch the marathon from a small town outside Boston itself. Also, I ran cross-country in high school and remember Bill Rodgers and the runners of that period so vividly. Hopefully they will get the race in this coming September as they plan.
This past November I received an email from Bob Crothers, an independent scholar who had my article in the Journal of the American Revolution about Isaac Roosevelt and was reaching out to tell me of his research relating to New York State before, during, and immediately after the Revolution. Bob received his B.A. in Economics from Brown and M.B.A. from Harvard Business School before a long career on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Now retired, he is pursuing his interest in History full-time researching and presenting on various subjects. Among other topics, Bob has an interest in the New Deal Era mural in the Poughkeepsie post office depicting the 1788 New York State Ratification Convention that took place in that city. Bob and I finally met in person last month when he came to Federal Hall on Presidents Day. Last week he traveled to Washington D.C. to conduct research on the post office mural. Here is his guest article on the experience.
By Bob Crothers
I’m preparing a talk to be given in the fall of this year on the debate and compromise of the New York State Ratification Convention. This Convention took place June 17-July 26 1788 in the then-third Court House of Poughkeepsie, which burned down in 1804. In November 2019, the day after Thanksgiving, I visited the only memorial to this long-forgotten event. That memorial is a late 1930s mural located on the second floor of a Depression Era-built Post office painted by a New Jersey artist named Gerald Foster.
The mural shows 23 of the 67 delegates to this convention and focuses on a handshake between Alexander Hamilton, the most well known Federalist, both state and nation-wide, and Governor George Clinton, probably the most dedicated Anti-Federalist in the nation at this time. Clinton was the first non-royal New York governor; he would go on to serve twenty-two years in the post; he also served as Vice-President in Thomas Jefferson’s second term. Clinton subsequently died in office as James Madison’s first term Vice-President in 1812.
Two more dedicated political enemies than Hamilton and Clinton (perhaps excluding Hamilton and Burr) would be hard to find. Governor Clinton, first elected in June 1777, had done a remarkably effective job of protecting the state’s interests and keeping taxes low, taking full advantage of the great harbor growing in NYC.
The mural memorializes the July 26, 1788 breakthrough in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate and stalemate threatening to keep New York State from ratifying the U.S. Constitution. The stalemate was finally broken when the prominent Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith, a one-time sheriff of Poughkeepsie but at the time a NYC resident, brought his mentor, Governor Clinton, to an agreement with Federalist Alexander Hamilton, to ratify the Constitution. The key to this was the pledge that the first American Congress, set to meet in NYC would pass, in its first assembly, both 1) a Bill of Rights and 2) the promise of another Constitutional Convention within two years. This handshake ended by far the most difficult negotiation between these first two identifiable political parties in US constitutional history. Under those terms, New York became the eleventh state to ratify the US Constitution.
As I studied the mural, it seemed to me unlikely that the painter would have known of this history and thus been able to choose the participants depicted in this painting, But who could have advised and directed him? I had a candidate in mind, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but needed to find a way of gaining more information.
I knew FDR to be a serious historian, particularly of his own Dutch Colonial family and of Dutchess County, where his branch of the family had resettled in the early 19th Century, following the arrival and settlement of his family in New York City in the 1600s.
I enlisted two potential resources: 1) the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park NY to trace FDR’s involvement and 2) the Smithsonian Institution’s Archive of American Art in Washington, DC, which holds the papers of the artist, Gerald Foster.
The FDR Presidential Library suggested I send them an email outlining my interest, which would be assigned to one of their several archivists, who would respond to me within two weeks. Precisely two weeks later, to the day, I received a healthy packet of materials from Mr. F., my archivist, which contained two particularly interesting items, The first was a copy of a manuscript letter dated May 28, 1939 from Foster to the head of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Section of Fine Arts (“the Section”), the funder of the mural, pertaining to ”the subject matter and the characters portrayed” in his Ratification Mural. One sentence reads: The idea for this group was suggested by Pres. Franklin D, Roosevelt. Another reads: Authentic old portraits were found for eighteen (out of 21) of the figures shown.
The second item was a copy of a typewritten letter from the chief of the Section of Fine Arts to the President of the United States, dated April 29, 1939, dealing with a jury of local Poughkeepsie arts experts, including a “Miss Reynolds” concerning the approval of designs for several Poughkeepsie post office murals. A sentence reads: “Since Miss Reynolds is not in agreement with the jury, and as there are four or five designs which appear to us to be of merit, I would appreciate very much your reviewing the designs.”
So FDR was clearly involved in this mural development and there was a Cherchez La Femme individual named Reynolds making trouble. Shades of Alexander Hamilton’s affair many years earlier! (Further research turns up many references to Miss Reynolds as FDR’s great friend and fellow historian at the Dutchess County Historical Society, Helen Reynolds. Mystery solved!)
This past week, I explored the painter’s side of the occasion and found several interesting references in the microfilm of Gerald Foster’s papers at the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. The first was a typed memo describing Foster’s recollections and personal details of his meeting(s) with FDR on this and two other, less significant, murals done by the painter. Another was a handwritten note on the verso of an unidentified sketch noting FDR’s involvement in the details of its preparation. And lastly there is the local Poughkeepsie newspaper’s page one announcement on May 18, 1938 of the Ratification mural’s dedication.
QED, the Ratification mural in the Poughkeepsie Post Office was conceived and directed by our then-president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aided by his fellow Dutchess County Historical Society correspondent Helen Reynolds, and executed by muralist Gerald Foster in 1937/38.
I do not have much to say about the events of March 5, 1770 at the moment but I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly mention that today is the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. I don’t believe it is saying too much to aver that we are now fully in the American Revolutionary War sestercentennial. There will be many events over the next six years, climaxing of course in July 2026. That seems far away but will be here before we know it. I am old enough to remember the bicentennial of the Revolutionary War in 1976. That 200th anniversary was just two years after Watergate and one year after the Fall of Saigon. Talk about the need for a usable past.
While I was too young to understand at the time how scholars used the 200th anniversary as a moment to explore our understanding of the war, I was very much aware of how the commemoration played out in the public consciousness. You couldn’t miss it in 1976; it was just all around you. I know that many communities are already preparing for events coming over the next six years. Publishers, too, are no doubt planning on releasing numerous works that will add further nuance to our understanding. Our current moment is an opportune time to study and reflect on the events of the 1770s, so far away and yet closer and more relevant than ever, and take to heart the lessons that the men and women of that time–our forbears–learned at such great cost.
(image/Library of Congress)
Earlier today I noted that today is the 246th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Here we see an extraordinary allusion to that 1773 event: a 1906 Puck magazine centerfold depicting “The American dope party.” Puck began publication in 1877 and ended its run four decades later in 1918. Those who live in New York City may know the Puck Building on Houston Street just east of Broadway. That ornate structure is testimony to the magazine’s financial as well as cultural success. Puck was hugely influential and never afraid to take on all-comers, including the likes of Tammany Hall, industrial titans, robber barons, monopolists, grifters, and just plain cronies of whatever stripe. The magazine neatly coincided with the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, who appeared for good and ill on the cover more than eighty times over the decades.
For most of its long run Puck included a political cartoon centerfold. The one we see here does not depict Roosevelt himself, but does capture an issue close to his heart: his attempts to strengthen the nation’s food and drug laws. Many reformers were active in the cause of ending food and medicine adulteration. A government scientist named Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley created a Poison Squad in 1902 to eliminate Borax, formaldehyde, and other “preservatives” from the food supply. Though removed from the formula for Coca-Cola in 1903, cocaine itself remained legal in the United States until 1914; many Americans used that drug for medical purposes, but many others abused it as well. Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, his expose of the meat industry, in February 1906. Puck printed this centerfield on June 27, 1906 of “Indians” dumping unhealthy food, medicine, clothing, and “dope” into the harbor. The subtitle in small print at the bottom reads: “A Lesson in Practical Patriotism Taught by the Boston Tea Party.” It was into this milieu that President Theodore Roosevelt stepped to reform the food and drug industries during his administration.
The political and social pressure worked. That summer of 1906 Congress passed the The Pure Food and Drug Act creating the Food and Drug Administration. President Roosevelt signed both that and the Federal Meat Inspection Act on June 30, the same week this cartoon appeared.
(image/Library of Congress)
Today is the 246th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. As I understand it the name of this pivotal event that helped lead to the American Revolution is a construction of nineteenth century historiography; Americans began using the expression “Boston Tea Party” in the 1820s, shortly after the War of 1812. This Nathaniel Currier lithograph from 1846 does not use the term “Boston Tea Party” at all, but the still common “destruction of tea at Boston harbor.” In the lead-up to the Civil War Americans both North and South used and misused the memory of the Revolution for their own purposes. Those purposes could with be either nefarious or to appeal to people’s better angels. Lincoln in his First Inaugural hoped that “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave” might forestall civil war, which of course is not what happened in 1861. A century and a half later in our own time it remans the same, with people using and misusing the iconography of the Revolution for purposes good and ill.
We are now just two weeks away from the 2020s. As early as next March will come the first big 250th anniversary of the events leading to the American Revolution: the Boston Massacre of March 1770. I know that some communities are in the nascent stages of preparing for various anniversaries. Major League Baseball has already set the 2026 All-Star Game for Philadelphia, just as they did fifty years previously in 1976 during the Bicentennial. It is my understanding that other professional leagues intend to follow suit, but I guess time will tell.
(image/Owensboro Community & Technical College)
I hope everyone’s weekend is going well. Early last month at the East Coast Toy Soldier Show in Hackensack I took the photo one sees here. It is an original Johnny Tremain playset manufactured by Louis Marx and Company in the late 1950s just after the movie’s release in 1957. That Disney production of course was based on the 1943 Esther Forbes young adult novel of the same name. Calling Johnny Tremain a young adult novel however does not do the book full justice; Forbes fully intended the monograph to be read by adults as well as kids, which is how the best children/young adult literature is supposed to be read. Indeed Johnny Tremain’s actual subtitle is: A Story for Old and Young. Forbes was awarded the John Newberry Medal in 1944 for Johnny Tremain. I’m sure it went well with the Pulitzer Prize for History she had won the previous year for her biography of Paul Revere.
My father, who as a very young man just out of high school worked for a brief time as a longshoreman on the Boston wharves around which the book is set, gave me a copy of Johnny Tremain when I was about ten. Recently, inspired by seeing the playset above, I ordered a new copy to replace my long-lost edition. Thankfully it also contains the poignant sketchings drawn by graphic artist Lynd Ward. I am about halfway through it right now. The book stands up remarkably well. The trick to reading historical fiction is to understand the context in which the particular title was written. One must never read historical fiction with the idea one is actually studying history. Historical fiction is less “history” than “memory,” not so much a study of the past but a take on how we remember and use that past. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels for instance was released in 1974, toward the end of the Vietnam War. Esther Forbes began Johnny Tremain on December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Prior to that she had toiled on the draft of a different novel about the Revolutionary War Era, one with a more neutral, even pacifist theme that rang hollow to Forbes after the surprise Japanese attack. Again, context is everything when it comes to historical fiction.
If one is looking for a good book to give the young (or old) reader in one’s life this holiday season, I have the perfect idea.
I went today as a tourist to the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters in Washington. The museum and library are in Memorial Continental Hall, which are connected by a hallway to Constitution Hall, which I did not see. The museum is really something, as is the library. There were many things to see; among the things that struck me the most were these genealogy pamphlets about how to research one’s Revolutionary War ancestor by ethnicity. It’s a small reminder of how complicated the Revolutionary War period was. There are handouts for French, Jewish, Native American, and Spanish ancestry. And this is just touching the surface. The Dutch, for instance, are another category all their own. Then there are the Portuguese, and so on and so forth. New York City alone was a babel of languages and dialects.
I had a great talk with several young staffers during my excursion about the museum and its historical mission and memory. If you are ever in D.C. and are looking for something to see right near the mall, the DAR headquarters is not a bad choice.