After a court martial composed of senior generals of the Continental Army, Major John Andre, who had been captured on a mission to Major General Benedict Arnold who was about to betray West Point to the British, was executed on October 2, 1780. Andre made a positive impression on all American officers who came in contact with him, universally praised for his courage and good humor in adversity. However, the rules of war were the rules of war. He had been captured in civilian garb within enemy lines on the mission of a spy. He must therefore meet the fate of a spy. Andre appealed his sentence to Washington, not to spare his life, but that his mode of execution be an honorable firing squad rather than the dishonorable gallows. Washington declined the appeal although he esteemed Andre, in his phrase, as an “accomplished man and gallant officer.”
We have an eyewitness account of Andre’s death from James Thatcher, a surgeon in the Continental Army:
October 2d.– Major André is no more among the living. I have just witnessed his exit. It was a tragical scene of the deepest interest. During his confinement and trial, he exhibited those proud and elevated sensibilities which designate greatness and dignity of mind. Not a murmur or a sigh ever escaped him, and the civilities and attentions bestowed on him were politely acknowledged. Having left a mother and two sisters in England, he was heard to mention them in terms of the tenderest affection, and in his letter to Sir Henry Clinton, he recommended them to his particular attention. The principal guard officer, who was constantly in the room with the prisoner, relates that when the hour of execution was announced to him in the morning, he received it without emotion, and while all present were affected with silent gloom, he retained a firm countenance, with calmness and composure of mind. Observing his servant enter the room in tears, he exclaimed, “Leave me till you can show yourself more manly!” His breakfast being sent to him from the table of General Washington, which had been done every day of his confinement, he partook of it as usual, and having shaved and dressed himself, he placed his hat upon the table, and cheerfully said to the guard officers, “I am ready at any moment, gentlemen, to wait on you.” The fatal hour having arrived, a large detachment of troops was paraded, and an immense concourse of people assembled; almost all our general and field officers, excepting his excellency and staff, were present on horseback; melancholy and gloom pervaded all ranks, and the scene was affectingly awful. I was so near during the solemn march to the fatal spot, as to observe every movement, and participate in every emotion which the melancholy scene was calculated to produce.
Major André walked from the stone house, in which he had been confined, between two of our subaltern officers, arm in arm; the eyes of the immense multitude were fixed on him, who, rising superior to the fears of death, appeared as if conscious of the dignified deportment which he displayed. He betrayed no want of fortitude, but retained a complacent smile on his countenance, and politely bowed to several gentlemen whom he knew, which was respectfully returned. It was his earnest desire to be shot, as being the mode of death most conformable to the feelings of a military man, and he had indulged the hope that his request would be granted. At the moment, therefore, when suddenly he came in view of the gallows, he involuntarily started backward, and made a pause. “Why this emotion, sir?” said an officer by his side. Instantly recovering his composure, he said, “I am reconciled to my death, but I detest the mode.” While waiting and standing near the gallows, I observed some degree of trepidation; placing his foot on a stone, and rolling it over and choking in his throat, as if attempting to swallow. So soon, however, as he perceived that things were in readiness, he stepped quickly into the wagon, and at this moment he appeared to shrink, but instantly elevating his head with firmness he said, “It will be but a momentary pang,” and taking from his pocket two white handkerchiefs, the provost-marshal, with one, loosely pinioned his arms, and with the other, the victim, after taking off his hat and stock, bandaged his own eyes with perfect firmness, which melted the hearts and moistened the cheeks, not only of his servant, but of the throng of spectators. The rope being appended to the gallows, he slipped the noose over his head and adjusted it to his neck, without the assistance of the awkward executioner. Colonel Scammel now informed him that he had an opportunity to speak, if he desired it; he raised the handkerchief from his eyes, and said, “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” The wagon being now removed from under him, he was suspended, and instantly expired; it proved indeed “but a momentary pang.”
Andre, who wrote poetry in his spare time, had a poem in his pocket written by Jehoida Brewer in 1776 that Andre had transcribed during his captivity from memory: Continue reading
The American Revolution witness several examples of Yankee ingenuity that astonished the foes of the United States and delighted their friends. David Bushnell while an undergraduate at Yale in 1775 developed the plans for the Turtle, the first submarine used in combat. Among his innovations was using water as a ballast to raise and lower the submarine, a screw propeller to move the Turtle and a time bomb to serve as the weapon of the Turtle.
The Turtle was constructed and in August General George Washington authorized an attack on HMS Eagle, the flagship of Admiral Richard Howe. The attack was made on September 7, 1776. The Turtle was piloted by Sergeant Ezra Lee. The attack did not succeed. On February 20, 1815 Ezra Lee wrote a letter describing the attack to General David Humphreys:
Judge Griswold, & Charles Griswold Esq. both informed me that you wished to have an account of a machine invented by David Bushnell of Say. Brook, at the commencement of our Revolutionary war. In the summer of 1776, he went to New York with it to try the Asia man of war: – his brother being acquainted with the working of the machine, was to try the first experiment with it, but having spent untill the middle of August, he gave out, in consequence of indisposition. – Mr. Bushnell then came to General Parsons (of Lyme) to get some one to go, and learn the ways & mystery of this new machine, and to make a trial of it.
General Parsons, sent for me, & two others, who had given in our names to go in a fire ship if wanted, to see if we would undertake the enterprize: – we agreed to it, but first returned with the machine down Sound, and on our way practised with it in several harbours. – we returned as far back as Say-Brook with Mr Bushnell, where some little alterations were made in it – in the course of which time, (it being 8 or 10 days) the British had got possession of Long Island & Governor’s Island – We went back as far as New Rochelle and had it carted over by land to the North River. – Continue reading
If Historiographers should be hardy enough to fill the page of History with the advantages that have been gained with unequal numbers (on the part of America) in the course of this contest, and attempt to relate the distressing circumstances under which they have been obtained, it is more than probable that Posterity will bestow on their labors the epithet and marks of fiction; for it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this Country could be baffled in their plan of Subjugating it by numbers infinitely less, composed of Men oftentimes half starved; always in Rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.
“But was there ever an instance of a General running away as Gates has done from his whole army? And was there ever so precipitous a flight? One hundred and eighty miles in three days and a half. It does admirable credit to the activity of a man at his time of life.”
Colonel Alexander Hamilton’s comment after the battle of Camden
The battle of Camden, August 16, 1780, was a humiliating defeat for the Americans. Led by General Horatio Gates, a former British officer, 3700 Americans, more than half of them militia, were defeated by 1500 British regulars and 600 Loyalist militia. 900 Americans were killed and wounded, and a thousand Americans captured, compared to a British loss of 68 killed and 250 wounded. Most of the American militia ran at the opening of the battle and Gates fled with them, riding his horse 60 miles to Charlotte, North Carolina. Gates, thankfully, was never given a field command again. His blundering had thrown away the only major American regular military force remaining in the South. It was a disaster for the Americans and a humiliating one.
The one bright spot in this fiasco was the heroism of General Johann de Kalb and the Maryland and Delaware Continentals he led. Born in 1721 into a family of peasants, de Kalb managed the incredible feat in Eighteenth Century Old Regime France of rising due to sheer ability to the rank of Brigadier General and entered the ranks of the nobility as a baron. He first became familiar with America in 1768: serving as a French spy he traveled throughout the colonies to determine the level of dissatisfaction of the colonists with British rule. He grew to sympathize with the Americans. He came back to America with Lafayette in 1777, becoming a Continental Major General.
After Gates and the militia fled, de Kalb and his 800 Continentals fought ferociously against the entire British Army, making charge after charge, with de Kalb at the head shouting, “To me, my Continentals!” His Continentals were defeated only after de Kalb fell with 11 wounds. General Cornwallis, commander of the British forces at Camden, had his personal surgeon treat his brave adversary. De Kalb died three days later. To a British officer who offered his sympathy, de Kalb gave a ringing reply that should be remembered by every American: “I thank you sir for your generous sympathy, but I die the death I always prayed for: the death of a soldier fighting for the rights of man.” The towns and counties named DeKalb throughout the United States are a tribute to a very brave man and able soldier who died for his adopted country.
Here is the report of Cornwallis on his victory:
Cornwallis, Charles, the Earl
1780 Letter from Charles, the Earl, Cornwallis to Lord George
Germain, dated 21 August 1780.
It is with great pleasure that I communicate to Your Lordship an Account of a Compleat Victory obtained on the 16th Inst., by His Majesty’s Troops under my command, over the Rebel
Southern Army, Commanded by General Gates.
In my Dispatch, No. 1, I had the honour to inform Your Lordship that while at Charlestown I was regularly acquainted by Lord Rawdon with every Material incident or Movement made by the
Enemy, or by the Troops under His Lordship’s command. On the 9th Inst. two Expresses arrived with an account that Genl. Gates was advancing towards Lynche’s Creek with his whole Army, supposed to amount to 6,000 men, exclusive of a Detachment of 1,000 Men under Genl. Sumpter, who, after having in vain attempted to force the Posts at Rocky Mount & Hanging Rock, was believed to be at that time trying to get round the left of our position, to cut off our communications with the Congarees & Charleston; That the disaffected Country between Pedee & Black River had actually revolted, and that Lord Rawdon was contracting his Posts and preparing to assemble his force at Camden. Continue reading
But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic. Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their “lives . . . fortunes . . . and sacred honor.
Saint John Paul II, December 16, 1997
A good way to observe the Fourth of July is to read aloud the Declaration of Independence. My family has done that for years. The Declaration is not an historical artifact to be mentioned in passing in forgettable speeches once a year. It is the most radical document ever to issue from the pen of Man:
- Rights derive from God and are unalienable.
- That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.
- Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
- All men are created equal.
- That the people have a right to overthrow a government that is becoming a despotism.
These words, as a cursory glance around the world reveals, remain just as revolutionary and controversial today as when Mr. Jefferson wrote them two hundred and forty years ago. His words are not meant to be worshiped, but rather to be argued about and debated. It is common to date the end of the American Revolution to 1783. Not so, not so. That is when Britain recognized the independence of the United States. However, the Revolution itself, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence, is an ongoing proposition, and each day it has defeats and victories, and the outcome of that Revolution is still very much in doubt. It is up to each of us, by our actions today, to determine whether the vision of the Founding Fathers is a true one or not. Continue reading
Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion.
Pope Leo XIII
American Catholics, a very small percentage of the population of the 13 colonies, 1.6 percent, were overwhelmingly patriots and played a role in the American Revolution out of all proportion to the small fragment of the American people they represented. Among the Catholics who assumed leadership roles in the fight for our liberty were:
General Stephen Moylan a noted cavalry commander and the first Muster Master-General of the Continental Army.
Colonel John Fitzgerald was a trusted aide and private secretary to General George Washington.
Father Pierre Gibault, Vicar General of Illinois, whose aid was instrumental in the conquest of the Northwest for America by George Rogers Clark.
Hercules Mulligan-Ran a haberdashery in New York City during the War which catered to British officers, and all during the occupation of that community by the British was a spy for George Washington. Washington cleared him of suspicion of Loyalism by having breakfast with him the day after the evacuation by the British of New York in 1783.
Father Eustache Lotbiniere who served as chaplain to one of two Continental regiments, known as Congress’ Own, of French Canadiens.
Nurse Mary Waters’, an Irish immigrant, work in the Continental Army hospitals was praised by Surgeon General Benjamin Rush.
Thomas Fitzsimons served as a Pennsylvania militia company commander during the Trenton campaign. Later in the War he helped found the Pennsylvania state navy. After the War he was one of the two Catholic signers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787
Colonel Thomas Moore led a Philadelphia regiment in the War.
Colonel Morgan Connor served as Adjutant General of the Continental Army in 1777.
Major John Doyle led a group of elite riflemen during the War. Continue reading
Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, [and] which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, and [which] insured to the good eternal happiness, are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, letter to James McHenry, November 4, 1800.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, as he signed his name when he added his signature to the Declaration of Independence, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. When he died at the age of 95, he was the last of the Signers to depart this vale of tears.
The scion of perhaps the richest family in the colonies, Charles Carroll was initially uninterested in politics and, in any case, was debarred by his religion from participating in politics in his native Maryland by his religions. However, in his thirties he became a passionate advocate of American independence from Great Britain and quickly became one of the chief leaders of the Patriot cause in his home colony. It was only natural as a result that he was sent to Congress, in spite of his religion, where he was one of the chief spokesmen for independence and happily placed his signature on the Declaration even though by doing so he risked not only his fortune but his life if the British had prevailed. By the end of 1776 the revolutionary government of Maryland had issued an act of religious freedom, and Carroll and his fellow Catholics in Maryland enjoyed the same civil rights as Protestants.
In 1778 he returned to Maryland and helped draft the state constitution and in setting up the new state government, serving in the State Senate until 1800, and briefly in the United States Senate.
A slaveholder, throughout his career Carroll spoke and wrote of slavery as an evil that must come to an end as soon as possible. He attempted, but failed, to have Maryland implement a plan of gradual emancipation. At the age of 91 he took on the task of being president of the Auxiliary State Colonization Society of Maryland, part of a national movement to have free blacks voluntarily colonize what would become Liberia in Africa.
Throughout his life his two main passions were the American Revolution and his Faith. Like most of the Founding Fathers he regarded the idea of political liberty divorced from sound morality, derived from religion, as an absurdity. He set forth his ideas on this subject in a letter to Secretary of War James McHenry in 1800 in which he lamented the then current American political scene: Continue reading
I occasionally encounter people who claim that freedom is an abstraction, and that they would never die for an abstraction. That has never been the case in my family. McClareys have fought in all the nation’s wars down to the present, and we have attempted to remember them beginning with the first, Andrew McClary, a man who has fascinated me since my father told me about him so long ago.
He is memorialized in the above section of a painting by John Trumbull and depicting, with artistic license, “The Death of General John Warren.” The Major is shown raising his musket to brain a British soldier attempting to bayonet the dying Warren, a warlike action quite in character for him, and one which warms the cockles of my heart. My wife has noted over the years how much I resemble Major Andrew, and it is intriguing how his facial features have been passed down through the generations of my family.
Born in 1730 in Ireland, at an early age he emigrated to New Hampshire with his family. He grew to six feet, a giant of a man for his time, jovial in disposition but always ready to fight if need be to defend his rights or the rights of those he loved. The colonies were fortunate that quite a few men, like George Washington, who had served in the French and Indian War, were still in the prime of life and constituted a potential officer corps with, in many cases, combat experience, at the time when the Revolution began. Major Andrew McClary was typical of these men. After serving as an officer in Rogers’ Rangers during the French and Indian War, and singlehandedly throwing six British officers out of a tavern window during a loud “discussion” on a memorable evening, he had settled down as a farmer outside of Epsom, serving as a selectman of that town, a member of the New Hampshire legislature, and, always, as an officer of the New Hampshire militia. When news of Lexington and Concord reached him, he abandoned his plow, told his young family he was off to fight the British, and immediately marched off with a company of 80 militiamen to the siege lines around Boston. There he met up with his old friend from Rogers’ Rangers Colonel John Stark, who made McClary a major in his regiment of New Hampshire militia.
At the battle of Bunker Hill, Major McClary led the regiment onto Breed’s Hill, where the battle was fought on June 17, 1775. The advance of the regiment was momentarily blocked by a gaggle of Massachusetts militia standing about on the road doing nothing. That obstruction was removed when McClary yelled out that New Hampshire would like to borrow the road, if Massachusetts was not using it. Continue reading
The eldest of twelve children, Sybil Ludington grew up in a household of ardent patriots, her father being the commander of the local militia in Duchess County New York. On April 26, 1777 she became, at age 16, a heroine of the Revolution when she rode forty miles to her father’s militia encampment at night on her horse Star to spread the alarm that the British were moving on Danbury Connecticut. During her ride she successfully defended herself against a highwayman using a long stick. She used the same stick to bang on the door of houses along the way to let the occupants know that the British were on the march, Thanks to her, her father Colonel Henry Ludington chased after the British with 400 of his militia. They were unable to intercept the British before their attack on Danbury, but they, along with other militia units, harassed the British as they retreated to New York. The campaign is considered a turning point that helped ensure firm patriot control in Connecticut. Sybil received the personal thanks of George Washington. Continue reading
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1837) Continue reading
“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, March 1763, in his speech against warrantless searches allowed under the proposed Excise Bill before the British Parliament.
James Otis had a glittering career ahead of him. At the age of 35 in 1760 he was Advocate General for the Admiralty Court in Boston. His wife Ruth was heiress to a fortune worth ten thousand pounds. He threw it all away and resigned his post to represent pro bono, he refused the fee they wished to pay him saying that in such a great cause he despised all fees, colonial merchants subject to writs of assistance. A writ of assistance was a court order that allowed British officials to search at whim houses and businesses of those suspected of smuggling without obtaining a search warrant. These writs were in effect for the lifetime of the King during whose reign the writ was issued. Bearers of writs of assistance were not responsible for any damage caused by their searches. Otis viewed the writs to be a violation of Magna Carta, English case law and the traditional English legal doctrine that an Englishman’s home was his castle.
In a five hour address that captivated listeners at the Boston State House on February 24, 1761, James Otis denounced the writs of assistance:
Your Honors will find in the old books concerning the office of a justice of the peace precedents of general warrants to search suspected houses. But in more modern books you will find only special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named, in which the complainant has before sworn that he suspects his goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged that special warrants only are legal. In the same manner I rely on it, that the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal. It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. I say I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted, for I beg leave to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to other Acts of Parliament.
In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed “to all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and subjects”; so that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King’s dominions. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner, also, may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm. In the next place, it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the Archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul. In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him. Fourthly, by this writ not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us: to be the servants of servants, the most despicable of God’s creation?
Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.
Otis lost the case, but his bold stand was considered the start of the American independence movement. John Adams was present during the speech and later wrote:
“The child independence was then and there born,[for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.”
In the years to come he helped popularize the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Mental illness cut short his services to the American cause, illness exacerbated by his receiving a blow to his head from a British customs inspector in 1769. In years to come he would have alternating periods of madness and lucidity. His wife Ruth, although her personal political sympathies were Tory, loyally stood by her husband and cared for him.
Otis did not let his madness stop him from bearing arms. Hearing the artillery bombardment preparatory to the battle of Bunker Hill, he snuck out of his house, got a rifle, and joined the American troops on Breed’s Hill. After the battle he walked home. Continue reading
On March 14, 1776, that sea going Catholic son of Ireland John Barry, received his commission as a Captain in the Continental Navy from the Continental Congress. It was signed by John Hancock, President of the Congress. Barry wasted no time making his mark.
Barry was placed in command of the USS Lexington, 14 guns, on December 7, 1775. Captain Barry took the Lexington on its maiden voyage on March 26, 1776. On April 7, 1776, Barry had his initial victory of the war, taking H.M.S. sloop Edward after a short but fierce engagement. This was the first naval victory of the new Continental Navy and the first British warship captured by the Americans. Barry had begun his victorious military career and started to earn the proud title of Father of the American Navy.
Congress on April 3, 1776 formally authorized American privateers to raid British merchant ships. In this Congress was merely recognizing what was already well under way, the patriot governments of the various colonies having issued letters of marque and reprisal since the beginning of hostilities. The British parliament would authorize privateers against American merchant ships in December 1776.
Privateers were a traditional part of European naval war which fitted in well with the American national character. Private operations, a common seamen on board a privateer after a successful cruise of capturing several British ships, could come back home with a small fortune in his pocket, often enough to purchase a small farm, or an inn, or set himself up in trade. Privateers led by more daring commanders would even make prizes of several smaller ships of the Royal Navy. Of course the risks were commensurate with the rewards, with death by sinking, or the slow death of rotting away in a British prison hulk if a crew was captured, ever a possibility. Most American sailors were eager to take the risk, so many that the Continental Navy often found it difficult to man its ships. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. Maryland, my Maryland. Written by James Ryder Randall in white heat in 1861 after he learned that his friend Francis X. Ward had been killed by soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts in the Baltimore riot of 1861. A heart felt plea for his native state to join the Confederacy, set to the tune of O’Tannenbaum it became one of the more popular songs in the Confederacy. Tuberculosis prevented Randall from serving in the Confederate Army, so he joined the Confederate Navy. After the War he was commonly referred to as the poet laureate of the lost cause. A Catholic, his later in life poems were usually religious in nature.
Although the Civil War brought forth Maryland my Maryland, there are many references to Maryland’s proud Revolutionary history:
Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland! Continue reading
“The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”
On August 10, 1815, Thomas Jefferson set pen to paper to respond to John Adams’ letter to him of July 30, 1815. Go here to read that letter. Jefferson was no more optimistic than Adams that a true history of the American Revolution could be written:
On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? who can write it? and who ever will be able to write it? nobody; except merely it’s external facts. all it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown. Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you & I know, never made such speeches. in this he has followed the example of the antients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. the work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. it’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him. I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, altho’ I never read it through. but a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went thro’ it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. but on the questions of Independance and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes & voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. on the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. on the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. but the whole of my notes on the question of independance does not occupy more than 5. pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets. they have never been communicated to any one. do you know that there exists in MS. the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788.? the whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by mr Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? these people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred. Continue reading
John Adams often groused that the true history of the American Revolution would never be written. Considering this, it is somewhat surprising that he did not undertake the task himself. He had ample time after his Presidency, and his lively and copious correspondence indicates that age had not lessened his skill with a pen. It is possible that he simply viewed it as an impossible task, as he indicated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on July 30, 1815:
Dear Sir Quincy July 30th 1815
Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?
The most essential documents, the debates & deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever. Mr Dickinson printed a speech, which he said he made in Congress against the Declaration of Independence; but it appeared to me very different from that, which you, and I heard. Dr Witherspoon has published speeches which he wrote beforehand, and delivered Memoriter, as he did his Sermons. But these I believe, are the only speeches ever committed to writing. The Orators, while I was in Congress from 1774 to 1778 appeared to me very universally extemporaneous, & I have never heard of any committed to writing before or after delivery.
These questions have been suggested to me, by a Review, in the Analectic Magazine for May 1815, published in Philadelphia, page 385 of the Chevalier Botta’s “Storia della Guerra Americana.” The Reviewers inform us, that it is the best history of the revolution that ever has been written. This Italian Classick has followed the example, of the Greek and Roman Historians, by composing speeches, for his Generals and Orators. The Reviewers have translated, one of Mr R H Lee, in favour of the declaration of Independence. A splendid morcell of oratory it is; how faithful, you can judge.
I wish to know your sentiments, and opinions of this publication. Some future Miss Porter, may hereafter, make as shining a romance, of what passed in Congress, while in Conclave, as her Scottish Chiefs.