The Mysterious Hero’s Return

The Hero returned from Boston is an engraving a bare-breasted woman with her arm curled around the neck of a properly dressed gentleman with a sword.

Among the most curious treasures in the library of the American Revolution Institute is a monochrome aquatint with etching of a properly dressed gentleman with his left hand gripping the pommel of his sword and his right arm draped around a bare-breasted woman whose arm is curled suggestively around his neck. The legend reads The Hero returned from Boston. The publication line reads “London. Printed for Thos. Hart, as Act directs, 7th Sepr. 1776.” The print is excruciatingly rare. Besides our imprint, there is one in the Yale University Art Gallery.

Our effort to understand the print leads down peculiar byways of the eighteenth-century print business. The name of the publisher, Thomas Hart, is associated with a series of fictitious portraits of American leaders, including George Washington (including one on horseback and one on foot), John Hancock, Israel Putnam, David Wooster, Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, Esek Hopkins, Benedict Arnold, John Sullivan, and John Paul Jones, dated between 1775 and 1779. These prints, all of which are mezzotints, are attributed to publishers Thomas Hart, C. Shepherd, and John Morris.

None of these prints bears any real resemblance to its subject, despite the publishers’ effort to persuade customers that they were authentic likenesses. The print of Hancock, the legend says, was based on a portrait by an artist named Littleford, though no artist named Littleford is otherwise associated with Hancock. The legends on the prints of Washington claims they were based on a portrait “Drawn from the life by Alexr. Campbell of Williamsburgh in Virginia.” Joseph Reed sent one of the prints to Martha Washington. It amused the general, who wrote that the artist, whoever he was, had “made a very formidable figure of the Commander-in-Chief, giving him a sufficient portion of terror in his countenance.” Alas, Washington pointed out, he had never met Mr. Campbell of Williamsburg. No artist of that name is known to have worked in Virginia.

The portraits were mostly fraudulent, turned out quickly to meet public demand for images of the leaders of the American rebellion. All of the prints may, in fact, have been produced for the London market in Augsburg, a German city that was a center of commercial print production. Their style—the markedly heavy features, large eyes, dark shadows, and treatment of details of clothing and accoutrements—is characteristic of Augsburg engravings.

Even more curious, the names of Thomas Hart, C. Shepherd, and John Morris seem to be fictitious as well. With one exception, their names are not associated with any other prints. The only plausible explanation for the use of these fictitious names is that the true publishers wanted to profit by selling images of the American Revolutionaries but preferred not to be closely associated with these products, which were, after all, heroic images of traitors who had taken up arms against the king.

The Hero returned from Boston is the outlier among the odd prints published by the fictitious Thomas Hart. It is the only etching, with aquatint or otherwise, associated with Hart’s name. The Hero returned from Boston is also the only one of the Hart prints in which the subjects are not named. Who is the hero returned from Boston? And who is the woman clinging so provocatively to him?

Since Hart’s name was associated with prints of American rebels we might jump to the conclusion that the hero is George Washington and the scantily clad woman is Martha, welcoming the general home from his victory in the Siege of Boston, and that the print was intended to mock the American rebel chieftain. Entertaining as that solution might be, evidence suggests the leering hero and his bare-breasted companion are another couple.

The man in the print bears a casual resemblance to General Thomas Gage as portrayed by John Singleton Copley in 1768. Gage had commissioned the portrait and when it was complete, sent it home to England. “The Generals Picture was received at home with universal applause,” one of Gage’s aides reported to Copley in 1770, “and Looked on by real good Judges as a Masterly performance. It is placed in one of the Capital Apartments of Lord Gage’s house in Arlington Street.”

John Singleton Copley painted this portrait of General Thomas Gage in 1768.

John Singleton Copley began his portrait of Thomas Gage in the fall of 1768, when the general traveled to Boston to oversee the occupation of the city by British Regulars (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

We remember Gage as the first British general whose career was wrecked by the American Revolutionary War, which would ruin the careers of William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton, each in turn. Of the principle British commanders in America, only Charles, Lord Cornwallis—humiliated at Yorktown—salvaged his career. A successful governor-general of India, he lies in a monumental tomb overlooking the Ganges and is memorialized in Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

None of the four equaled the rise of Thomas Gage. He came to America as a lieutenant colonel under Gen. Edward Braddock. He distinguished himself in Braddock’s disastrous expedition against Fort Duquesne and thereafter rose through the senior ranks of the army. He was promoted to colonel in 1758. That same year he married Margaret Kemble, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy New Jersey merchant. Gage served in Jeffrey Amherst’s operations against Montreal and was then appointed governor of Montreal. A major general by 1761, Gage became acting commander in chief of British forces in North America in 1763 and officially succeeded Amherst in that role in 1764.

As His Majesty’s commander in chief Gage was responsible for disseminating information and instructions from London, enforcing acts of Parliament, settling disputes between the fractious colonial governments, policing the frontier, managing relations with the Indians, maintaining dozens of forts, defending imperial posts, and coordinating colonial defenses. Gage maintained communications with the governors of every colony in North America and several West Indian islands.

He handled his vast and varied administrative responsibilities with skill, even as relations between Britain and the colonies deteriorated. In 1770 he was promoted to lieutenant general. He was widely admired—a hero, even—on both sides of the Atlantic. Many Americans regarded him as one of their own. He purchased thousands of acres in upstate New York and in what became New Brunswick to leave to his growing family. When Gage went to England on a leave of absence in the spring of 1773, dozens of American leaders, including George Washington, gathered at a party in New York to see him off.

During the year that Gage was in England, American affairs reached a crisis. The Crown sent him back to America not only as commander in chief but also as royal governor of Massachusetts charged with implementing Parliament’s punitive measures against that colony.

Within a year his career unraveled. The military occupation of Boston infuriated the colonists and fueled resistance. Gage’s military force was wholly inadequate to suppress the insurrection. It never controlled more than the ground on which it stood and often not even that much. A force he sent to Concord in April to seize weapons stockpiled by the resistance was mauled by militia. Nine weeks later he lost hundreds more soldiers in an assault on rebel militia on the Charlestown Neck in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Gage received orders recalling him to London on September 26, turned his command over to General Sir William Howe on October 10, and arrived in London on November 14. The next day he met privately with the king, who showed no inclination to blame Gage for what had happened in America. It was hardly a hero’s return.

The resemblance of the man in The Hero returned from Boston to Copley’s portrait of Thomas Gage is superficial at best, but the resemblance of the woman to Copley’s portrait of Gage’s wife, Margaret Kemble Gage, is striking. The Hero returned from Boston is a commentary about husband and wife.

Copley painted Mrs. Gage in 1771 in a languid pose wear wearing an iridescent Turkish style caftan over a lace trimmed chemise with an embroidered belt at her waist. Pearls and a turban-like swath of drapery adorn her hair. This style, known as turquerie, was the height of fashion for masquerade balls in Europe, but was largely unknown in British America, where women had no opportunity to wear such attire, which was intended to suggest the costumes worn by Turkish women in the Ottoman court. It was a style western Europeans imagined was fashionable in the sultan’s harem, a symbol of Oriental luxury and vice. Most western European turquerie bore only a slight resemblance to Ottoman costume, but it symbolized what western Europeans imagined the Turkish court was like—a mysterious place where powerful men kept women for pleasure and where exceptional women used their physical charms to dominate and control men.

Margaret Kemble Gage, portrayed here by John Singleton Copley, relaxes in faux Turkish garb. Copley traveled to New York to paint the portrait.

John Singleton Copley portrayed Margaret Kemble Gage in exotic attire inspired by the Turkish court (Timken Museum of Art).

Part of the attraction of turquerie was that it was sexually suggestive without being lewd. In Copley’s portrait Mrs. Gage is not wearing a corset and reclines in her loose fitting clothes. Copley called it “beyond Compare the best Lady’s portrait I ever Drew.” Proud of the portrait, the Gages packed it off to London, where it created a mild sensation when it was displayed.

Copley played on the fact that Margaret was known as a touch exotic. She was one quarter English, one quarter Greek, one quarter Dutch, and one quarter French. Her father, Peter Kemble, was the son of an English merchant who traded with Ottoman Empire. Peter was born in Smyrna, a Greek enclave on the Turkish coast. His mother—Margaret’s grandmother—was a Greek woman from the nearby island of Chios. Peter arrived in New York around 1730 and settled in New Jersey, where he quickly established himself as a merchant and became the largest landowner in Morris County. His first wife, Getrude Bayard—Margaret’s mother—made Margaret a cousin to the de Lanceys, van Courtlands and other prominent New York families.

Peter Kemble was proud of his Greek background. So was his daughter, who was recognized in New York society for her unusual beauty and self-assurance. Through most of Gage’s service as commander in chief he made his headquarters in New York City, where Margaret—attractive, vivacious, outgoing, and well connected—was the perfect wife for an ambitious, rising general. Her husband’s military subordinates referred to her as “the dutchess.” She was a talented hostess and bright conversationalist. The general and his wife were rarely apart.

Margaret returned to America with her husband in 1774, but circumstances had changed. The general made his headquarters in Massachusetts, where she had few acquaintances. As relations between the colonists and the army degenerated some of her husband’s British subordinates found her American birth, self-confident manner, and intimate relationship with their commander had become reasons to distrust her. So did many Massachusetts loyalists, to whom she was an exotic stranger. She was connected to all the best families in New York and navigated among them with skill and grace, but this meant little to the clannish loyalists of eastern Massachusetts. She was not one of them.

Rumors went around that Margaret Gage was sympathetic to the rebellion, despite the fact that her father was a loyalist, her brother was a major in the British army and deputy adjutant general, and her husband was commander in chief of the king’s forces in North America. The displaced governor, Thomas Hutchinson, noted that she had once said to him that “she hoped her husband would never be the instrument of sacrificing the lives of her countrymen,” but her husband probably shared that sentiment. The war was a tragedy for their family as it was for the empire.

The rumors had no foundation, but the idea that the army’s secrets were being betrayed by someone close to the general offered an explanation for what seemed so inexplicable: British soldiers cut down by colonial militia, trapped in Boston by provincials, impotent to suppress a colonial rebellion led by farmers.

With Boston under siege, beset by food shortages and disease and filled with hundreds of wounded soldiers mangled in battle, Gage put Margaret on a ship bound for England in August 1775. The vessel was filled with women, children, and scores of wounded British soldiers. The voyage was miserable. When the ship reached Plymouth, a witness recorded that “a few of the men came on shore, when never hardly were seen such objects! Some without legs, and others without arms; and their cloaths hanging on them like a loose morning gown, so much were they fallen away by sickness and want of proper nourishment … the vessel itself, though very large, was almost intolerable, from the stench arising from the sick and wounded.”

Rumors of veiled disloyalty preceded Margaret Gage to London and were current when she and her husband were reunited in November. The general, his critics implied, was uxorious, a word not much used today, but which Dr. Johnson’s eighteenth-century dictionary defines as “submissively fond of a wife; infected with connubial dotage.” The rumors served to explain how the American rabble had repulsed the flower of the king’s army and trapped it in Boston.

The Hero returned from Boston plays on the theme of Oriental seduction. The woman, who is clearly Margaret Gage, stands up from the upholstered couch on which Copley had placed her. Her belt is discarded and the Turkish caftan has slipped from her shoulder as she wraps herself around the general, taking control, the embodiment of vice and corruption. The reunion of husband and wife reveals Gage’s weakness and explains his failure and the army’s humiliation. “Gage poor wretch is scarcely thought of,” an artillery officer wrote, “he is below contempt.”

For more on Margaret Gage, we recommend Boston historian J.L. Bell’s blog, Boston 1775, which includes a thoughtful examination of the charge that she betrayed her husband’s confidence and passed military secrets to Joseph Warren. J.L. Bell finds the charge implausible. We are indebted to him for identifying an error in an earlier version of this essay.

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family, and colleagues so they can read it, too.

If you share our view that fine and graphic arts offer special insights into how contemporaries understood the American Revolution, you will probably enjoy Ten Great Revolutionary War Paintings, 1775-1790, in our series Treasures of the America Revolution.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.

The People’s Constitution

The moral sense philiosophy was important to the establishment of popular sovereignty as the foundation of the Constitution proposed by the Federal Convention of 1787, depicted in this print in 1823.

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson was in Paris, wasting his time as ambassador from a government that had so little authority that the French government could safely ignore it.

Many of Jefferson’s American friends, including James Madison, were deeply concerned about violent unrest driven by high taxes and the burden of debts compounded by deflation. In Massachusetts those toxic conditions drove thousands of farmers to take up arms to stop debt collection, leading the state government—inexperienced, insecure, and imperious—to impose order at the point of a bayonet.

Jefferson was not deeply concerned about the unrest in Massachusetts, known then and since as Shays’ Rebellion. He agreed with Madison that the insurgents had committed “absolutely unjustifiable” acts, but he thought “they were founded in ignorance, not in wickedness.” The insurgents did not understand that their distress was the result of economic conditions the government was incapable of addressing.

Although the people were sovereign, Jefferson wrote, they would not always be right. “The people can not be all,” he wrote, “and always, well informed.” In a government in which the people have a just degree of influence a certain amount of what Jefferson called “turbulence” was inevitable. But Jefferson was concerned that the unrest might lead reformers to conclude “that nature has formed man insusceptible of any other government but that of force, a conclusion not founded in truth, nor experience.” A government based on force—including monarchy in all its forms—was inherently unjust. “It is a government of wolves over sheep.”

The people of the world have been governed, for most of history, by wolves. Jefferson had confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to govern themselves.

So did Madison, who spent that summer at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia, shut up through the unforgiving summer heat in the Pennsylvania State House with the windows closed to prevent anyone from eavesdropping. Madison and the other leading delegate, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, were intent on creating a new kind of government—republican in form and spirit, national in scope, and endowed with authority that would enable it to protect the interests of Americans in a world of predatory imperial powers.

Lesser and less thoughtful men might have done what Jefferson feared and imposed an authoritarian government—a government of wolves over sheep—as lesser and less thoughtful leaders have done before and since. The delegates to the Federal Convention, guided by Madison and Wilson, did precisely the opposite. They built their proposed frame of government on the sovereignty of the people.

At the heart of their plan was a bicameral legislature consisting of a larger lower house and a smaller upper house—later the convention would decide to call them the House of Representatives and the Senate—that would have the power to tax, regulate commerce, impose tariffs, coin money, and make laws governing all matters not delegated to the states. Members of the lower house would be elected by the people in direct proportion to the population, each member representing an equal number of citizens.

This proposal, which gave substance to the abstract principle of popular sovereignty, was extraordinary. It has since become commonplace, but at the end of the eighteenth century no national legislature had ever been constituted in this way. The British House of Commons, in which members were elected to represent constituencies that varied in size from a few people to thousands and in which many thousands of people went unrepresented, was archaic by comparison.

A government that aims at the public good must begin by finding out the people’s numbers. Hard as it may now be to imagine, eighteenth-century governments did not know with any degree of certainty how many people they governed or where they lived. To the extent they felt any need to know, they relied on estimates and guesswork. To elect a national legislature based on population required counting every American and repeating the process periodically to keep representation in balance with a growing and moving population. The effort to do so reflects the confidence of the Enlightenment in the potential of governments based on rational principles to serve their people rather than subjugate them and the faith of the Enlightenment in the fundamental equality of people.

Many of the delegates had misgivings about what Madison and Wilson proposed, because many of the problems of the moment seemed to flow from what they regarded as the errors of popularly elected state legislatures. “The people,” Roger Sherman said, “should have as little to do as may be about the government” because “they want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” Vesting the people with sovereign power, skeptical delegates believed, was the problem.

Madison and Wilson argued that vesting the people with sovereign power was the solution. While acknowledging that democratically elected state legislatures were acting unwisely, they held the real problem was that no government possessed sufficient authority to address the nation’s ills.

Madison credited James Wilson with making the strongest case “for drawing the most numerous branch of the Legislature immediately from the people. He was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible. “No government,” Wilson said, “could long subsist without the confidence of the people. In a republican Government this confidence was peculiarly essential.” Confidence would come, Wilson contended, from a legislature that was “the most exact transcript of the whole Society.”

We look on their work today with the detachment that comes from knowing how the story came out. They managed to draft a constitution that became what is now the world’s oldest continuously functioning written frame of government. We live with its peculiarities and its compromises and imperfections while giving insufficient attention to the magnitude of their achievement and the living ideal on which it is ultimately based—the source of their conviction that the people, though they might not always be well informed, would ultimately choose well.

Madison and Wilson, along with the absent Jefferson, were trained in the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment. They were convinced by the writings of Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and other Scottish thinkers that people possess a natural moral sense that guides them and allows them to make judgements quickly and intuitively, without close study or the application of acquired learning.

In the summer of 1787, Jefferson explained the moral sense in a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, a student at the College of William and Mary, advising him to skip lectures on moral philosophy:

I think it lost time to attend lectures in this branch. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality therefore was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality . . . The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules.

This optimistic view of the capacity of ordinary people to make good moral and ethical judgements is the most important justification of popular sovereignty—the defining ideal of the Federal Constitution—and remains the ultimate foundation of American democracy.

The practical implementation of a theory of popular sovereignty on a national scale was so new that it baffled many of the delegate who gathered in Philadelphia for the Federal Convention. Their anxieties obscured their ability to imagine the future of democratic government. None approached that future with as much confidence as James Wilson, who imagined, he said, “the influence which the Government we are to form will have, not only on our people and their multiplied posterity, but on the whole Globe.” He was, Wilson admitted, “lost in the magnitude of the object.”

The future of the Constitution depends on the people, who should remember Jefferson’s admonition that the moral sense needs to be exercised. Above all things,” Jefferson concluded,

lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous etc. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties, and increase your worth.

No better advice can be offered to people determined to preserve their freedom.


Above: George Washington presides over the Federal Convention in this engraving from A History of the United States of America, by Charles Goodrich, a pioneering American history textbook published in 1823.

To learn more about the moral sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, explore Francis Hutcheson’s An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. The Inquiry introduced Hutcheson’s ideas about the moral sense and established his reputation as a philosopher. James Madison, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson were all familiar with Hutcheson’s work and drew their ideas about the moral sense from it.

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family, and colleagues so they can read it, too.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.

Richard Henry Lee: Gentleman Revolutionary

The American Revolution was a peculiar sort of revolution, and not least because it was led by men we find it hard to imagine as revolutionaries. George Washington, George Mason, and John Hancock were respected and wealthy members of the gentry. They had everything to lose and apparently little to gain from revolution. They were certainly nothing like the revolutionary leaders of the last century. As a consequence we tend to underestimate the revolutionary implications of their ideas and the revolutionary consequences of their actions. We conclude that there was nothing very revolutionary about their revolution and look elsewhere for the fundamental transforming events of American history—to the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the civil rights movement.

Perhaps it is a testament to the overwhelming impact of their revolution that we can scarcely imagine what the country was like before it, and conclude erroneously that their revolution was simply a colonial rebellion that shifted political power from London to America, trading one group of political grandees for another.

No conclusion could be more wrong. The American Revolution swept away the social hierarchies of the old order. It transferred sovereignty to the people at large, launching an era of increasingly democratic politics. It accelerated the economic transformation of the former colonies and led to the creation of a continental nation unlike any the world had seen.

Few Americans embodied the unique revolutionary character of the period more completely than Richard Henry Lee. He was a member of one of Virginia’s first families. The Lee name was synonymous with wealth, land ownership, and influence. Like his forebears, he dedicated much of his life to public service.

Unlike them, he became one of the most determined radicals of his time-—a leader of the opposition to British taxation and intrusive regulation and an early and important advocate of American independence and republican government. Lee looked for independence to reshape Virginia society—to make Virginians more self-sufficient and virtuous. Yet, like most of the patriot leaders of his generation, he did not anticipate the unintended consequences of his revolution.

Lee was born at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County on Jan. 20, 1732—just four weeks before George Washington was born a few miles away. Like Washington, he was a younger son and did not stand to inherit the great plantation where he was born. After education in England, he built his own plantation house, Chantilly, on land he acquired from his brother.

Younger son or not, he was still a Lee, and an heir to one of Virginia’s great family traditions. Groping for a way to explain the distinctive culture of the Northern Neck, a Loyalist minister traced it to the attributes of the leading gentry families, “the Fitzhughs, the Randolphs, Washingtons, Carys, Grimeses, or Thorntons” whose “character both of body and mind may be traced through many generations: as for instance, every Fitzhugh has bad eyes, every Thornton hears badly, Carters are proud and imperious, and Taliaferros mean and avaricious, and Fowkeses cruel.”

“Lees,” he added, “talk well.”

Richard Henry Lee entered the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758, and was immediately recognized as the most talented speaker in that body. But he was, despite his name and family connections, something of an outsider.

The House was dominated by a political faction associated with the Randolphs and their network of clients and kin. House Speaker John Robinson was a part of this group. He was also the colony’s treasurer. Shortly after taking his seat, the young Lee demanded an investigation of Robinson’s management of the treasury. It was soon found that Robinson had loaned large sums to prominent families associated with his faction. Lee’s Northern Neck neighbors applauded him as a reformer, but the Robinson-Randolph faction never forgave him.

Lee reminded many of his contemporaries of a character from Roman history, or, as one remarked, “one of Plutarch’s men.” He was tall and spare, with a long nose-—a Roman profile—and reddish-brown hair. His manners were stiff and formal and he seemed to always be striking a pose. Even his private letters read as if he intended them for publication. But the stiffness did not diminish the admiration that others had for him. Quite the contrary—he seemed the ideal eighteenth-century gentleman. “If elegance had been personified,” a contemporary wrote, “the person of Lee would have been chosen.”

But he was unlike other gentry leaders. He owned a plantation, but expressed no interest in agricultural innovations of the sort that relieved the routine boredom of farming for Washington and Jefferson. Nor did he use the pose of gentleman-farmer, as Washington did, to cloak his public life in the garb of a reluctant (and therefore deserving) hero called from the plow.

Lee called politics the “science of fraud,” yet he never had any real profession other than politics. In addition to his oratorical skills, he excelled in cloakroom maneuvering, what eighteenth-century politicians referred to as “composing the business” or working “out of doors.” He angled constantly for higher and better-paid offices. He was, in fact, one of Virginia’s first professional politicians, at a time when few Virginians would have recognized politics as an occupation.

A patrician master of the conventions of gentry politics, Lee was adept at mobilizing popular sentiment as well. But he was not a populist leader or a democrat in the modern sense. He expected the republic he worked to create would embrace the leadership of gentlemen like himself. Yet his radical politics tended to undermine gentry leadership and helped usher in a new and unexpected era of popular democratic politicians.

The American Revolution brought to the fore a new kind of popular radicalism, most closely associated with the insurgent organization forged by Boston’s Samuel Adams, who employed an array of weapons that later became a standard repertoire of urban revolutionaries—street theater, surgical rioting, show trials, strategically leaked documents, staged debates, and managed news.

Richard Henry Lee was a part of Adams’ network, and employed the same sort of tactics against the Stamp Act in the 1760s. In September 1765 he dressed his slaves up in “Wilkes costume” and marched them to Montross for a staged ceremony in which the stamp collector was hanged in effigy. Lee himself played the role of the condemned man, and read the “confession” of the accused before the dummy representing the collector was strung up.

A few months later, he used his militia to harass an uncooperative merchant, Archibald Richie of Leedstown, who vowed to use the hated tax stamps. Working with Richard Parker and Samuel Washington (the future general’s younger brother), Lee orchestrated a march on Ritchie’s home, where the mob forced the merchant to renounce the Stamp Act.

Lee made his first appearance on the national stage as a radical. In the First Continental Congress, he was allied with Patrick Henry, Virginia’s most vocal firebrand, and was far in the lead of more conservative Virginia delegates, including Peyton Randolph and Benjamin Harrison.

Men like Randolph and Harrison were not the sort to engage in back room maneuvers. But Lee was in his element. He was tied by marriage to some of the leading Philadelphia families and had cultivated contacts in New England. His speaking ability—which led more than one congressman to refer to him as the “American Cicero”—made him a major force in debate. But behind the scenes, he was even more effective in persuading his reluctant colleagues to break with Britain.

Working closely with John Adams, Lee introduced the resolutions that led to American independence. He made three different motions. We tend to remember only the first: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally dissolved.”

This was bold language, simple and forthright. In time, Americans came to regard it as a prologue to the Declaration of Independence, the political backdrop for Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence. But we have it backward. The Declaration was an explanation of the measure Lee proposed. John Adams understood this when he predicted that Americans would henceforth celebrate July 2—the day Lee’s resolutions were adopted—as the anniversary of American Independence.

The other resolutions Lee offered were nearly as important: “That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances,” and “That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

Lee was astute enough to recognize that the chance of securing military aid from France was the real selling point for the resolution on independence, that it was the only practical way to sell congressional moderates on the idea. His efforts to establish a lasting confederation between the independent states, embodied in the Articles of Confederation, helped build the foundation for a continental republic.

Unlike some of the other congressmen, Lee relied on his small congressional salary for a living. Payment was irregular and he was often in financial distress. For a few weeks in 1777, he lived mainly on wild pigeons, which were sold for a few cents per dozen, though he commented that they “afforded but a scanty fare.”

Lee’s revolutionary ideas were not limited to independence, foreign alliances, and a continental confederation. He expressed support for the idea of allowing women who owned property to vote, opposed secret legislative sessions, and demanded a bill of rights be attached to the Federal Constitution. These were, for him, natural consequences of the revolutionary commitment to equality.

Lee’s commitment to the principle of equality was in conflict with his dependence on enslaved people. He saw that the logic of the Revolution underscored the injustice of slavery. African-Americans, he wrote, were “fellow creatures created as ourselves, and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature.” Moreover, they would eventually be driven to rebellion when they “observed their masters possessed of a liberty denied to them.” Yet through most of his adult life, he realized much of his income from renting his slaves to other planters. As a member of the House of Burgesses, he advocated taxing new imports of slaves and other restrictions on the slave trade, but this may have been as much to drive up the price of his own slaves as it was a humanitarian effort. Lee recognized the inconsistency of it all, but in the end he could see no other way: “I do not see how I could in justice to my family refuse any advantages that might arise from the selling of them.”

Richard Henry Lee was a radical revolutionary without being a democrat. He believed in popular sovereignty but he was certain that the people would be best served by deferring to gentlemen like himself. In 1788 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he championed a resolution to endow federal officials with aristocratic-sounding titles. It was an effort to defend the tradition of deferential politics and gentry rule that he believed was essential for the survival of republican government.

The House of Representatives rejected the idea. A revolutionary republic established on the foundation of popular sovereignty ultimately had little use for titles or patrician leaders. The Revolution Richard Henry Lee did so much to foment and to lead ended by discarding the leadership of gentlemen revolutionaries like him in favor of a new kind of democratic politician, often common in background and lacking the classical education and aspirations that distinguished Lee and his peers. The Northern Neck of Virginia never produced another American Cicero.

Lee did not live to see the Virginia that his revolution produced. In ill health, he resigned from the Senate in 1792. He died at Chantilly, his home in Westmoreland County, in 1794. The democratic culture that flowed from Lee’s revolution ensured that there would never be another leader like him.

That revolution also accelerated the process that turned the Northern Neck, one of the most important and distinctive regions in eighteenth-century British America, into an economic and political backwater. The fortunes of the great planter families continued to fade as agriculture productivity declined and capital was drawn away from the Chesapeake region toward the new states and territories to the west and into new commercial enterprises.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, the distinctive plantation culture of the Northern Neck was gone, and with it the gentry that had produced leaders like Lee. Stratford Hall’s ceilings were falling in, its fields uncultivated. A traveler found nothing left of Chantilly but a crumbling chimney. “Lee is gone, his house is in the dust, his garden a wild.”


Above: Charles Willson Peale painted this portrait of Lee in profile around 1794, emphasizing the classical features that led contemporaries to compare Lee to a senator of the Roman Republic (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.).

Learn about the Lees of Virginia at Stratford Hall, Richard Henry Lee’s magnificently preserved birthplace in Westmoreland County.

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family, and colleagues so they can read it, too.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.

El General Washington

This Spanish portrait of General Washington poses an unusual mystery.

What did George Washington look like? We know, or think we know, because we have seen dozens of portraits of him. We carry his image in our pockets, on our dollar bills and our loose change. And though the most familiar portraits by Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale and John Trumbull differ somewhat, most of us think we would recognize Washington if we met him in person—unexpected as that would be.

Washington is so famous that it is hard to imagine a time when Americans didn’t know what he looked like. But during the first years of the Revolutionary War, the only people who knew what Washington looked like were people who had seen him in person or had seen one of the very few painted portraits of him.

Printers tried to fill this void with imaginary portraits based on written descriptions—someone who had seen the general said he had a prominent nose, a broad forehead, a firm jaw or simply a “noble countenance”—but these portraits no more resembled Washington than they resembled any other middle-aged man in a general’s uniform.

Charles Willson Peale, the great Philadelphia portrait painter, set out to correct this. Peale had first painted Washington from life in 1772 and had seen and painted the general several times since. On October 16, 1778, Peale wrote in his diary that he “Began a Drawing in order to make a Medzo-tinto of Genl. Washington. got a Plate of Mr. Brookes and in pay I am to give him 20 of the prints in the first 100 struck.”

The plate was a small rectangle of polished copper, perfectly flat, on which Peale engraved his image of Washington. A mezzotint (from the Italian mezza tinta or “half-tone”) is a sophisticated form of intaglio (or inward cut) printing characterized by subtle gradations of tone from deep black to white produced with nothing more than black ink on paper. The shading is produced by varying the depth of the image by burnishing areas of the heavily roughened surface of the copper plate, which in turn varies the amount of ink conveyed to the paper.

Peale recorded on November 16 that he “began to print off the small plate of Genl Washington.” He presented copies of the print to several prominent people in Philadelphia, including Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress; Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the new minister from France; David Rittenhouse, a clockmaker and self-taught scientist; and Thomas Paine, the famous author of Common Sense. Peale left prints on consignment, priced at five dollars each, at local shops, including two dozen copies left with printer John Dunlap and a dozen “at Mrs. Mccallisters.”

Peale’s composition was copied by other engravers and became the most widely disseminated image of Washington during the Revolutionary War. Through the war years, this was the face of George Washington to Americans who never saw the great man in person. Yet today Peale’s original print is exceedingly rare. Only three are known. One in exceptionally fine condition is among the treasures of our own Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection. The other two are now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington and the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain.

In all, Peale’s records account for about one hundred and fifty strikes from his mezzotint plate. Why then, is it so rare?

The main reason appears to be that four dozen copies—nearly a third of Peale’s print run—were taken by Don Juan de Miralles, a Spanish agent who admired Washington. This would account for the survival of a copy in the Archives of the Indies in Seville. Miralles probably sent some, or perhaps nearly all, of the forty-eight copies to Spain before his untimely death in 1780. Ironically, Peale did not benefit from this large sale. In his accounts, Peale noted “unpaid” against Miralles’ entry.

Rare as it is, there may be a version of it that’s rarer still. Among the most recent additions to our library collections is a little print, obviously derived from the 1778 Peale mezzotint, bearing the simple legend El General Washington (the “W” in Washington printed as a double-V). This extraordinary little print does not include the name of the publisher or the engraver or even supply a date. It is an enigma.

El General Washington is among the rarest prints of George Washington.Unlike Peale’s mezzotint, this portrait was created as a line engraving (where the design is cut into a smooth plate and shading is created by hatching, cross-hatching and dots)—but who engraved it and when? No one seems to have figured this out.

El General Washington is not listed in WorldCat, a collective catalog of the world’s libraries—the largest catalog of printed materials in the world. Nor is it listed separately in the online digital catalogs of the world’s leading research libraries. The print does not appear in the catalog of the Biblioteca Nacional de Espana, the Spanish analog of the Library of Congress; the British Library; and the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Nor is it found in the extraordinary collection of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando—the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando—in Madrid, which serves as the home of the Calcografía Nacional, the world’s greatest collection of Spanish copperplate engravings. Founded by the Spanish Crown in 1789, the Calcografía Nacional gathered up an impressive number of eighteenth-century engraved plates from private publishers and those working under the patronage of the government. The collection includes some eight thousand plates, but El General Washington does not appear to be among them. A search through the catalogs of Spain’s great art collections—including the Prado, which has an impressive collection of eighteenth-century Spanish prints—yields no clue about the phantom.

Nor is the print mentioned in the important early Spanish works on Spain and the American Revolution by Manuel Serrano y Sanz, Manuel Conrotte and Juan F. Yella Utrilla, though their books were informed by deep study in the Spanish archives where a copy of this fugitive print might be hiding.

And finally—in all the voluminous literature on Washington portraits, we can find only three mentions of El General Washington. The pioneering American print collector and scholar William S. Baker, in his book The Engraved Portraits of Washington, published in 1880, does not illustrate but clearly describes this print: [after Charles Willson Peale] “El General VVashington. Bust in uniform, Head slightly to right. Circle, with border the sides partly reduced, in a square. Line,” adding “only one impression of this has come under the notice of the writer.”

Baker’s work inspired a new generation of collectors and scholars of printed portraits of Washington. One of them, Baker’s protégé Charles Henry Hart, compiled a new and expanded Catalogue of the Engraved Portraits of Washington, which was published by the Grolier Club in 1904. Hart also listed El General Washington: “Bust, full to right, in uniform, with ribband, but without epaulettes. Circle, with border, 5/16 cut off to rectangle. Line.”

That same year, an impression of El General Washington was sold at auction by Stan V. Henkels of Philadelphia as part of a large collection of engraved portraits assembled by Philadelphia lawyer Hampton L. Carson. (Carson is acknowledged in Hart’s catalogue and it is very likely that this is the same engraving Hart—and probably Baker—had seen.) Henkels described the print as “a beautiful impression of one of the rarest and most interesting portraits of Washington,” and included an illustration of it. To add to the complexity of our story, there is another print by a Spanish printmaker, Mariano Brandi, titled El General Washington. That print, which Hart also cataloged, is a Spanish version of the portrait of Washington in profile based on a drawing by Pierre Eugène Du Simitière, and is a completely different work.

The present-day print shop from which we purchased our impression of El General Washington traced the provenance of our print to the family of Zachary Taylor Hollingsworth, another early twentieth-century connoisseur of engraved portraits who was actively collecting “portraits of Washington from all countries, with every degree of merit” at the time of the Carson sale.

Our search for any other references to this fugitive print leaves us wondering: did the Society just acquire the “one impression” Baker first documented more than 140 years ago? Is there another? The print is clearly Spanish—the title gives it away, but so does the open, woven appearance of the corners and the background, which is consistent with many Spanish prints of the late eighteenth century. But the absence of names of engraver and publisher is curious. Spanish engravers included these just as conventionally as their British, French and German counterparts. They sometimes don’t appear in the proofs struck before printing. This is an extraordinarily clear, well-struck print. Could our fugitive be a proof before printing? Or was the plate made, some proofs struck, but copies never struck for sale to the public?

And perhaps the most important question: who in Spain was interested enough in George Washington to want to see a fine portrait of him published? Washington had admirers in Spain including Miralles’ eventual replacement, Diego de Gardoqui. As a partner in the firm of José de Gardoqui e Hijos of Bilbao, he supplied the American army with 215 bronze cannon, 30,000 muskets, 30,000 bayonets, some 500,000 musket balls, 300,000 pounds of powder and other supplies during the war. After the Revolution he became Spain’s envoy to the United States. A cultured gentleman, he presented Washington with a four-volume edition of Don Quixote. He was later succeeded by a member of his staff, José de Jáudenes, who commissioned an Italian artist then living in Philadelphia, Giuseppe Perovani, to paint him a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s magnificent full-length portrait of Washington, which he sent back to Spain. The painting is now in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

Either man, or some other Spaniard with close ties to the United States, might have interested himself in publishing El General Washington—a curious, fugitive reminder of Spain’s involvement in our war for independence.

Ellen McCallister Clark
and Jack D. Warren, Jr.

El General Washington (above) was acquired for the library collections with a gift from a private foundation.


Read more about Charles Willson Peale’s First Authentic Portrait of George Washington in our series Masterpieces in Detail. You can also view Peale’s mezzotint, His Excellency Genl Washington, in our Digital Library of the American Revolution.

We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family and colleagues so they can read it, too.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.

Lessons from the Boston Massacre

The connection between the Boston Massacre and the Tiananmen Massacre, and the lessons that comparison offers, are suggested by these images.

On the night of March 5, 1770—251 years ago tonight—a party of British soldiers shot and killed five Bostonians in an event known ever since as the Boston Massacre. The killings shook the loyalty of Britain’s North American colonists to the British government. John Adams wrote that the “foundation of American independence was laid” that night.

The basic outline of what happened is well established, although the fine details are elusive. The soldiers who participated in the killings were tried for murder, and dozens of eyewitness accounts were entered into evidence at their trials. The accounts differ considerably and in some cases conflict with one another. The massacre occurred on the dark streets of an eighteenth-century city in late winter. It began with an altercation between a Bostonian and a sentry outside the customs house. Angry words were spoken, a crowd gathered, the sentry called for assistance, and a captain and six soldiers armed with loaded muskets came to his aid. The crowd grew—whether to thirty or forty or two hundred or even more is unclear—and ugly words turned to threats and taunts and then to sticks, snowballs and chunks of ice thrown at the soldiers. The captain ordered the crowd to disperse, to no effect. As the situation degenerated, one of the soldiers fired, and quickly the others joined him. Eleven civilians were shot. Three died on the scene and two others died within a few days.

These are basic facts, and they are not in dispute. But how these facts are presented in our history classrooms—and particularly the interpretative context into which they are now woven—illustrates the challenges we face in reviving understanding and appreciation of the American Revolution. For generations the Boston Massacre was presented to students as Exhibit A in the case for resistance and rebellion. The British government was so intent on imposing its will on the colonies that it sent an army of occupation to Boston, and its soldiers shot and killed unarmed civilians who confronted them.

Over the last generation, this interpretation of the Boston Massacre has been dismantled. At first this flowed from a reasonable effort to encourage students to look at events from different points of view. The sentry was obviously frightened, and so were the soldiers who came to his aid. The Bostonians in the crowd weren’t carrying placards—they were cursing the soldiers and throwing things at them. The soldiers were young men. They weren’t seasoned veterans. It was dark and they were scared the mob was going to kill them. They acted in self-defense.

These, too, are facts, and facts are stubborn things. There are two sides to the story. But today’s students aren’t likely to get both sides. The version of the Boston Massacre widely taught today could be called neo-loyalist. It takes the basic outline and embeds it in an interpretation that presents the victims as participants in a mob that got what it had coming—when the taunts turned to threats and protestors began throwing things, what did they expect? People got shot. It was inevitable. Of course it was all very unfortunate (we can hear the king’s ministers saying that in London), but that’s what happens when mobs challenge armed soldiers.

Henry Pelham's engraving of the Boston Massacre still offers us important lessons.

Henry Pelham’s The Fruits of Arbitrary Power includes a passage from the 94th Psalm—an enduring challenge to tyranny: “How long shall the wicked triumph? How long shall they utter and speak hard things? and all the workers of iniquity boast themselves?” (American Antiquarian Society).

Exhibit A in the case for the neo-loyalist version of the unfortunate events of March 5, 1770, is the Paul Revere engraving, The Bloody Massacre in King Street, Boston. Published and republished in history books for two hundred years, it’s the best known contemporary image of an event in the American Revolution. Today’s students are commonly taught that the print is pure propaganda, depicting innocent Bostonians being gunned down by evil soldiers. Nor was what happened in Boston, the neo-loyalists say, a “massacre.” Like the print, the use of the word here is pure propaganda, they say, attached to a street brawl by radical leaders like Samuel Adams to whip the colonists into a frenzy of irrational hatred of the British—who were, after all, just trying to bring order to the empire.

Let’s set aside, for a moment, the horrors perpetrated in the name of bringing order to empires. For reasons that defy rationality, the empathy today’s students are taught to feel for people under colonial rule does not extend to the king’s subjects in the thirteen colonies in North America.

There are, indeed, some things about the Revere engraving to criticize. To begin with, Revere appropriated—by our standards he stole—his view of the massacre from Henry Pelham, the young half-brother of artist John Singleton Copley, who drew the scene with the intention of producing an engraving for sale. Pelham apparently didn’t know how to prepare an engraving plate. He probably went to Revere, who was a pretty poor artist but knew how to engrave, seeking technical advice. Revere had possession of Pelham’s design for a few days and decided to copy it and issue an engraving of his own, which he did. He beat Pelham to the market with his pirated engraving, and thus the most famous view of the event is credited improperly to Revere.

Revere wasn’t the first person to call the killings a massacre, and it really was a massacre, despite what our young people may be taught. Eleven gunshot victims, three left dead at the scene and two more mortally wounded, doesn’t make a massacre—or so says the new orthodoxy. But consider this. The population of Boston in 1770 was about 15,000, so about one in 3,000 Bostonians was killed on March 5, 1770. The population of modern Washington, D.C., is about 700,000. If one in 3,000 Washingtonians was suddenly killed by an army of occupation in a single incident, the death toll would be over 200 people. Wouldn’t that be a massacre, especially if the people killed were not bearing arms?

Murder at Sharperville illustrates the commonality of massacres and underscores the lessons we can still learn from the Boston Massacre.

Murder at Sharpeville, by Godfrey Rubens, depicts the aftermath of a 1960 massacre of unarmed civilians in South Africa. The suffering and loss it expresses echoes the suffering and loss in Boston and a hundred other places where soldiers have turned on unarmed civilians (Consulate of South Africa, London).

Of course it would be. For all of their apparent inaccuracies, the Revere and Pelham engravings speak to the horror of armed soldiers killing unarmed civilians. We have seen it happen too many times in the 251 years since that night—in encounters between our army and the Indians, in Europe under the Nazis, in Soviet Russia, at My Lai and Kent State, and in the horrifying genocides of our own time—in massacres so appalling that what happened in Boston so long ago has lost the power it once had to disturb us as deeply as it should. Yet the scenes are often much the same—Revere’s King Street is Tiananmen Square in miniature, his dead are eerily like the crumpled bodies in Godfrey Rubens’ painting of the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa.

Henry Pelham wisely titled his engraving The Fruits of Arbitrary Power. By fruits he meant consequences—the results of British policy. Today the word arbitrary is often used to mean random, unpredictable or erratic. In the eighteenth century it meant ungoverned or uncontrolled. Arbitrary power is uncontrolled power.

There was nothing random or unpredictable about what had happened. In 1768 the British had landed four regiments, each of some seven hundred men—that’s one soldier for every six civilians—to occupy and impose their government’s arbitrary will on Boston. The warships that brought them entered the harbor with their gun ports open, and the occupying army entered the city with bayonets fixed in a naked display of arbitrary power. Before the massacre the force was reduced to two regiments, but Boston remained a city under armed occupation. The killings in Boston, Pelham reminds us, were entirely predictable—the natural consequences, or fruits, of a government exercising uncontrolled power over its people.

The Boston Massacre still has much to teach us. It revealed how far the British might go to impose their will. The American Revolution, we should teach our children, was about controlling the power of the state, limiting it and making government always the servant of the people and an instrument of justice, not a tool for tyrants to impose their will on others. The massacre was a warning in the night, and it will remain a warning of dangers our world has yet to master.


Above: The desperate effort of Bostonians to carry a wounded man to safety in 1770, depicted here by Paul Revere, was repeated in Tiananmen Square in 1989—and many times in between.


We encourage all our visitors to read Why the American Revolution Matters, our basic statement about the importance of the American Revolution. It outlines what every American should understand about the central event in American history. It will take you less than five minutes to read—and a few seconds to send the link to your friends, family and colleagues so they can read it, too.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution, we invite you to join our movement. Sign up for news and notices from the American Revolution Institute. It costs nothing to express your commitment to thoughtful, responsible, balanced, non-partisan history education.