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Lost Hero of Yorktown

The marquis de Saint-Simon was the lost hero of Yorktown.

The British surrender at Yorktown is remembered as a triumph for George Washington and the comte de Rochambeau. Students of the siege know that Admiral de Grasse played a central role in the allied victory, Alexander Hamilton distinguished himself in a daring attack on the British lines, and Henry Knox directed the artillery bombardment that compelled the British surrender. But Claude-Anne de Rouvroy, marquis de Saint-Simon-Montbléru, is not much remembered. He should be.

When Admiral de Grasse and his French fleet arrived off the Virginia coast on August 29, 1781, they did more than block the British Royal Navy from rescuing the army of Lord Cornwallis. On September 2 they landed some 3,300 French soldiers under the command of Saint-Simon, a career military officer who had long looked forward to joining the fight for American independence. “I would be very glad to be under your orders,” Saint-Simon had written to Rochambeau on January 7, 1781, from Martinique, where he was waiting to cooperate with the Spanish in a campaign against British colonies in the Caribbean. “I believe your campaign will be warmer than ours,” he added. In May Rochambeau appealed to de Grasse to sail north, and bring with him Saint-Simon and his men.

Saint-Simon and his command disembarked at Jamestown—the site of the original English settlement in Virginia—and marched across the peninsula between the James and York rivers, through Williamsburg, to join American troops under the command of the marquis de Lafayette. Together Lafayette and Saint-Simon blocked the roads leading out of Yorktown, pinning the British army in its fortified lines until Washington and Rochambeau arrived weeks later to lay siege to the enemy. Cornwallis pretended to despise what he called “Saint-Simon’s raw and sickly troops,” adding that they were nothing more than “undisciplined vagabonds collected in the West Indies.”

In fact Saint-Simon commanded an outstanding corps of French troops, consisting of the regiments of Gâtinais, Agenais and Touraine. Writing in the Pennsylvania Packet on September 18, 1781, a correspondent reported from outside Yorktown: “Let me make you acquainted with Major-General the Marquis of Saint-Simon, and the French Army: you have not seen troops as universally well-made, so robust, or of such appearance as those General Saint-Simon has brought to our assistance . . . . I do not pretend to know the secrets of our commander, or I would tell you what is to be done; I pretend, however, to see a great general in the Marquis de Saint-Simon, an affectionate politeness in his officers towards ours, and generation impatience in the French Army to complete the Gordian knot in which our second Fabius, Lafayette, has been entangling his lordship.”

Shortly after landing in Virginia, Saint-Simon fell ill with a fever and remained in Williamsburg while his men took up a position on the road between Williamsburg and Yorktown. When Washington and Rochambeau arrived on the scene, Saint-Simon left Williamsburg and rejoined his men. Saint-Simon was assigned to command the allied left and given responsibility for holding the road between Williamsburg and Yorktown—a critical point in the line. If Cornwallis had decided to fight his way out of Yorktown, he would have had to drive through Saint-Simon.

With the other senior allied generals, Saint-Simon took his turns commanding the day’s operations all along the lines. On October 8-9 he directed artillery fire that drove British warships to flee across the York to Gloucester. On October 12-13 he oversaw the construction of the second parallel and associated redoubts and communications trenches. Finally, on October 16-17, he commanded the lines as the two sides exchanged constant fire. An exploding British shell wounded his ankle on October 16, but he refused to leave the lines until the exhausted and beaten British posted a white flag and asked for a parley to discuss surrender.

With difficulty, Saint-Simon mounted his horse to take part in the surrender ceremonies. Shortly thereafter, he sailed back to the West Indies with the French navy. Saint-Simon took with him the gratitude of George Washington, who wrote to the marquis on October 24, 1781, shortly before he departed:

I cannot suffer you to leave this Country, without testifying my sense of the distinguished services which you have rendered the Allies during your stay.

The Division which you command, animated by your orders and deriving every advantage from your dispositions, executed their debarkation and junction with the American troops, with a promptness and security which were essential to that interesting operation.

The military ardour and perfect discipline for which they have been conspicuous in the seperate Attack and during the other operations of the Siege, and your measures, as judicious and vigorous on all occasions, have secured you the esteem of this country; they will at all times claim my particular applause, and I entreat you to accept my warmest acknowledgements.

The wound he sustained at Yorktown grew infected and healed very slowly. After returning to France, he wrote to the marquis de Castries from Paris on May 27, 1782, that “my wounds are beginning to heal, and I am permitted to go out a little.”

Saint-Simon had earned what Washington called “the esteem of this country,” but Americans quickly forgot about him. Mention Saint-Simon and even people who know a good deal about the American Revolution will ask “who?”

Saint-Simon was born in 1743 at the Château de la Faye in southwest France. Trained in the military academy at Strasbourg, he rose through the officer corps to command of the Poitou Regiment by 1771 and to marechal de camp (the equivalent of a brigadier general) in 1780, when he was dispatched to the West Indies in command of the three regiments he would lead at Yorktown. His assignment was to cooperate with the Spanish army in an attack on British possessions in the Caribbean. Recognizing the potential for decisive action in North America, he seized the opportunity to join de Grasse when he sailed for Virginia in August 1781.

After returning home in 1783, Saint-Simon joined the Society of the Cincinnati and was appointed governor of Saint Jean Pied de Port on the Spanish border. In 1789 he was elected as a deputy of the nobility to the Estates General, in which he was a determined defender of the monarchy and the nobility. As chaos spread in 1791, he emigrated to Spain, where he raised a legion of émigrés and led it against the French revolutionary forces in the Pyrenees.

In 1793, when Spain went to war with France, Saint-Simon was appointed a general in the Spanish army. He remained in the service of Spain for the remainder of his military career. Wounded several times, he remained in the field almost continuously for fifteen years. In 1803, King Charles IV made him a grandee of Spain of the first class, the highest rank in the Spanish nobility.

His standing with the Spanish crown was of no consequence to the French Empire, which regarded him as a criminal. Wounded and captured while defending Madrid in 1808, he was sentenced to death for treason. Before the sentence was carried out, Saint-Simon’s daughter begged Napoleon for mercy. The emperor commuted Saint-Simon’s sentence to life imprisonment, from which Saint-Simon was released in 1814 when Napoleon fell from power. Ferdinand VII, the restored king of Spain, made him a duke and promoted him to capitán general, the highest rank in the Spanish army.

He was then seventy-one years old. He had spent more than fifty years in the army, most of it in active service, had been wounded at least four times, and had been imprisoned for six years. His French estates long since confiscated and sold, he retired to Spain, where he lived for the remainder of his life in Madrid, where he died in 1819. Americans took no note of his passing, though the old general remembered his service at Yorktown and his membership in the Society of the Cincinnati with pride.

Sometime between 1815 and 1818 he sat for Vicente López y Portaña, the greatest Spanish portrait painter of the early nineteenth century. López portrayed Saint-Simon in uniform, wearing the blue-and-white sash and cross of the Order of Charles III, Spain’s highest military decoration, and a gold-and-silver medal, suspended from a yellow ribbon with green stripes—the “Medalla por Sufrimiento por la Patria,” created by King Ferdinand VII in 1815 and bestowed on soldiers imprisoned by the enemy. Along with these trappings of monarchical authority, Saint-Simon wears the Eagle of the Society of the Cincinnati.

This seems to be the only portrait of Saint-Simon, and it was wholly unknown in the United States until three years ago. It had been in private hands for two hundred years. It was displayed at the Prado in 1902 but hadn’t been seen in public since. During the Spanish Civil War the portrait was stored at the Prado, and by the time it was returned to the owners, no one could remember the name of the sitter.

Our staff started searching for a portrait of Saint-Simon more than a decade ago, while planning an exhibition on the Yorktown campaign. An old and not very good engraving in a mid-nineteenth-century book suggested that there was a portrait, but it seemed to be irretrievably lost. Then in the fall of 2017 a Madrid art dealer contacted us about a mysterious portrait on consignment from a Spanish family. The sitter, the dealer explained, was wearing the insignia of the Society.

After several weeks of negotiating, the portrait was on its way from Madrid to Anderson House, where it was removed from its crate on January 29, 2018, and put on display in the Original Library, where it joins portraits of other heroes of the Revolutionary War, and where General Saint-Simon’s service in our War for Independence is finally honored and appreciated.

 

To see where Saint-Simon’s troops were stationed during the decisive Siege of Yorktown, have a look at another great rarity in the Institute’s collections: Major Sebastian Bauman’s map of the Siege of Yorktown. Saint-Simon was stationed on the allied left.  Zoom in on the upper left hand corner of the map to see the location of Saint-Simon’s headquarters tent.

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.

 

Benjamin Lincoln’s Fireside

Benjamin Lincoln went home to Hingham a few months after this engraved portrait was published in 1782

With the Revolutionary War finally over, Benjamin Lincoln returned home to Hingham, Massachusetts. He had left in 1776, a stout and sturdy farmer of forty-three, respected in his community but little known beyond. He returned a major general. He had helped force the surrender of one army, surrendered one himself, and accepted the surrender of another, and had served the new nation as secretary at war. He walked into his home in November 1783—a house that had sheltered three generations of Lincolns before him—with a permanent, painful limp from an ankle shattered in combat. He was fifty years old, and one of the most famous men in America.

Charles van Hogendorp, a young nobleman attached to the Dutch ambassador, visited Lincoln and his wife, Mary, a month later. “Imagine the effect on me of his noble simplicity,” the young man wrote, “when, during the evening, sitting in front of the fire, Lincoln spoke to us, smiling all the while, ‘I lived here for twenty years after my marriage and never dreamed of war. Here is my place, and here is that of Mrs. Lincoln’s, and it’s here that we pass our evenings talking together.”

At his fireside, Benjamin Lincoln considered the fate of the republican experiment for which he had sacrificed and suffered. He was a moderate in an age of passion and ideological tension—a thoughtful revolutionary, devoted to the cause of independence, republican government, and the ideals of liberty, equality and citizenship. He found these values expressed in the everyday life of his community. He had fought for the independence of the United States, but it was personal independence and the independence of his community that he most cherished. He had risked his life to defend republican governments in the independent states, but it was the little commonwealth of family, town and region that mattered most to him. A hero of the Revolution, he preferred his fireside to public life.

 

Benjamin Lincoln was, in many ways, an improbable sort of Revolutionary hero. The most remarkable thing about his life before the Revolution was how ordinary it was—how it fell into the pattern of provincial New England life that was already more than a century old when Lincoln was born. Lincoln’s father, the elder Benjamin, was one of Hingham’s leading men—colonel of the local militia and a member of the governor’s council. The younger Benjamin was an adjutant in his father’s regiment, town clerk, and from 1765, a town selectman. His father died in 1771, and the next year the younger Benjamin was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the regiment and elected to the colonial assembly.

There he reflected the stubborn independence of provincial New England. For all their conventional expressions of respect for the king, Lincoln and the Massachusetts men and women of his generation were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of religious radicals who had very deliberately placed an ocean between themselves and Old England. They were proud of their autonomy—their independence within the British Empire—and when the king’s ministers sent an army to occupy Boston and compel obedience to the crown, their outward respect for the king and his ministers disappeared very quickly. The old radical spirit of Puritan dissent, partly secularized but no less fierce and unyielding, resurfaced.

When Gov. Thomas Gage dissolved the assembly in 1774, Lincoln was elected to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and led preparations for war. After Lexington and Concord he was elected to the executive council, which exercised government authority outside British-held Boston. Although he had no experience commanding men in the field, he was promoted to major general of the Massachusetts militia in January 1776 and went to work organizing coastal defenses, preparing for the possibility of British raids on exposed ports. In September 1776 he was given command of a militia brigade sent to join Washington’s army at New York. At Washington’s urging, Congress appointed Lincoln a major general in the Continental Army in February 1777.

In the course of something like thirty months, he had gone from being a prosperous, solid, unassuming Hingham farmer to a leader in a continental war against Britain for the independence of the United States of America. The war found him, and revealed a reservoir of skills, strength and courage few people—perhaps even Lincoln himself—imagined he possessed. He joined Washington’s army in New Jersey and was a calm, methodical and tireless organizer in an army in constant need of such skills. He also proved fearless under fire, a quality Washington valued.

In the summer Washington sent him north to the army facing Burgoyne’s march toward Albany, expecting Lincoln’s presence to stiffen the resolve of Massachusetts militia. Given a largely independent command threatening Burgoyne’s left, Lincoln contained the British from the east side of the Hudson while the climactic battles of the Saratoga campaign were fought across the river. As the Americans pulled the net tight around Burgoyne’s army, Lincoln was wounded—his ankle shattered by a British musket ball. Doctors saved his leg, but it was two inches shorter than the other and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

After months of painful recovery, Lincoln rejoined Washington’s army in August 1778. He certainly didn’t have to. Officers had retired with far less debilitating injuries, but Lincoln was not like them. He had made a commitment to himself, if not to his God and to the republic, to see the war through. When he arrived at Valley Forge, the commander-in-chief administered the oath of allegiance to the United States that Congress had prescribed months earlier, when Lincoln was recovering. He was the last of Washington’s generals to sign the oath, and we can be certain Washington witnessed Lincoln’s signature with admiration.

Benjamin Lincoln's Oath of Allegiance testified to his loyalty to the American cause.

Each officer signed two copies of the oath of allegiance, one of which was sent to Congress. The other was retained by the signer. The copies sent to Congress are now in the National Archives. Lincoln’s retained copy, seen here, is in a private collection. The Institute collections include a rare blank form with the oath printed twice.

American national identity was forged in moments like that one, as men of different backgrounds, regions, and experiences—men who, in the absence of that war, would never have met nor had any reason to admire one another, much less to become friends—demonstrated their commitment to a common cause.

Two months later Congress ordered Lincoln to take command of operations in the Carolinas and Georgia. Lincoln’s modern biographer, David Mattern, compares the decision to the appointment of Washington, a Virginian, to command the army outside Boston in 1775—sending a New England general to the South signaled that its defense was a continental, and not just a regional, concern. Lincoln had a reputation as an effective organizer, able to manage difficult situations and people with tact. He had earned a share of the credit for Saratoga but had played no part in the unseemly maneuvers of Horatio Gates and his allies to displace Washington in the afterglow of that victory. He had organized coastal defenses in Massachusetts, experience relevant to the exposed situation of the Georgia and Carolina coasts. Despite his limited experience in combat, he was a logical choice for the assignment.

Almost no one was expecting a major British invasion of the region. Indeed Congress directed Lincoln, if it proved practical, to invade East Florida and take British-held St. Augustine—a suggestion Lincoln soon discovered was based on a total misunderstanding of the situation. There were fewer men available for service in the region than Congress believed. Supplies and money were inadequate to mount an effective defense, and when the British struck—first Savannah, then Charleston—Lincoln’s army was inadequate to meet the challenge. In 1780 his army—2,200 Continentals and some 500 militia—was trapped in fortified lines in Charleston, South Carolina, and forced to surrender. He had mounted what Abigail Adams called “a gallant defence” and had earned the gratitude of South Carolina’s civilian authorities, but the outcome of the campaign was humiliating.

Lincoln was paroled and reported to Congress in Philadelphia, then returned home to Hingham after two years’ absence. His children were growing up without the daily presence of a father, and Mary was struggling to run the farm alone. He devoted most of that winter and spring to his home and family, but as soon as he was exchanged Lincoln returned to Washington’s army. In July 1781, barely two weeks after reporting to camp, Lincoln led eight hundred men on an expedition to probe British defenses on Manhattan. The defeat at Charleston had not shaken Washington’s confidence in Lincoln.

A few weeks later Washington chose Lincoln to lead the army south to attack Cornwallis at Yorktown. “The success of our enterprize depends upon the celerity of our Movements,” Washington wrote, warning against delay. Any number of things might have gone wrong. None of them did, largely because Benjamin Lincoln managed the movement, ensuring that the men had proper camps and sufficient food, that straggling was discouraged and the army maintained a rapid pace. Washington met Lincoln near Williamsburg, Virginia, on September 23, and expressed his pleasure at finding the troops “in much better condition and with much less loss than could be expected.”

In the siege that followed, Lincoln held a post of honor, and personally led the men who opened the first parallel on the night of October 7, 1781. Ten days later the British asked for surrender terms, and on October 19 the British army marched out to lay down their arms. Cornwallis feigned illness and sent his second-in-command, Charles O’Hara, to relinquish his sword. Washington directed O’Hara to his own second-in-command, Benjamin Lincoln, who received the surrender and directed the British troops to an open field, where they grounded their arms and turned over their battle flags.

After Yorktown, Congress called on Lincoln to serve as the first “secretary at war.” Congress had finally concluded that congressional committees were wholly inadequate to carry out the executive responsibilities involved in supporting an army in the field. The choice fell on Lincoln, not because he was brilliant or politically connected, but because he was orderly, industrious and incorruptible. He respected the subordination of the army to civilian control and was highly regarded in the army and above all, by the commander-in-chief. For the next two years he worked to keep the army properly fed, supplied, and whenever possible, paid. He brought order and regularity to military administration, working to keep an army in the field and pressure on the British to end the war. It was thankless work and little remembered today, but it was essential work and Lincoln did it well.

When his services were no longer needed he resigned in relief and rode for home. He reached Hingham in early November. The family farm, despite Mary’s best efforts, was neglected and unproductive. Unable to walk without pain in an ankle that had never properly healed, he knew that returning to the life of a plain New England farmer was out of the question. The war had simultaneously made him one of the leading men in the country and deprived him of the ability he had long relied on to support himself and his family.

Like most veterans of the Revolutionary War, Lincoln returned home with little more than promises. His back pay had been tendered to him in Continental securities—wartime bonds that were circulating at less than a third of their face value. He could sell them, he knew, but at what he called “their present depreciated value” his losses would be catastrophic, and he would be left to “wade through the remainder of life with accumulated distresses.” Most veterans had no option, and sold their securities for what they would bring.

Lincoln had the advantage of having made wealthy acquaintances during the war, from whom he borrowed enough to make a new start. He mortgaged his real estate, built a flour mill on the eastern edge of Hingham, and was soon selling his flour in Boston. He expanded his operation, buying sloops to carry lumber to Virginia. With the proceeds he bought wheat grown on Virginia and Maryland farms and milled it into flour in Hingham. He added new land to his farm and invested in land in Maine—then the frontier of Massachusetts. Applying the management skills he had developed as a general and secretary at war to business, he made the commercial firm of Lincoln and Sons a modest success.

Reflecting on the world beyond his comfortable fireside, Lincoln believed that the political unity required to sustain a republic need not extend beyond the various regions. “The United States, as they are called,” he wrote, “seem to be little more than a name. They are not really embarked in the same bottom,” he added, using a ship owner’s metaphor. He doubted that “these States will, or ever can, be governed, and all enjoy equal advantages, by laws which have a general operation” and he doubted that such a government could be republican in character. He believed the sort of coercive power that Congress needed to address the nation’s economic problems and ensure its defense in a world of predatory powers would inevitably endanger “our republic ideas” by producing a centralized state in which power would be wielded by a distant national government, unaware of, and unresponsive to, the needs Lincoln saw in his own community.

Although he had seen the weakness of the Continental government up close as secretary at war, Lincoln was prepared to accept an even looser confederation in order to preserve the republican character of Hingham and of New England that he so cherished. The clashing interests and discordant nature of the different parts of the country weighed on him. The presence of slavery, in particular, seemed to him an insurmountable difference between the regions. Lincoln had enslaved a few people before the war, managing them much as he managed his white farmhands and domestic servants, but he had been shocked by the treatment of slaves in South Carolina and Georgia, leading him to utterly renounce what he called “the unjustifiable and wicked practice” of slavery. By 1783 the only enslaved person in his household was a woman named Flora, who was then in her eighties and incapable of supporting herself by her own labor. She died in 1789.

Slavery, Lincoln believed, made the South “feeble and defenseless,” because it made it a region of large plantations rather than of farms owned and worked by yeoman farmers, depriving the southern states of the kind of independent freeholders who had a stake in the independent, republican character of New England. The interests of the regions would inevitably clash, he thought, because “of our difference of climate, Productions, views &c.”

Lincoln concluded that the only feasible way to preserve the republican character of his own community was by breaking the continental Confederation into regional ones joined by alliances for common defense but otherwise independently governed. A truly national government, he was convinced, would have to have the power to tax and the power to compel obedience. The resulting government would involve a standing national army, national laws and national courts, and a growing class of national office holders loyal to the central government and intent on increasing its power.

In February 1784 Lincoln rode to Boston to preside over the first meeting of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. He had been elected president by a meeting of officers held in the Continental Army camp in New York in the summer of 1783, before they dispersed. The Massachusetts Society was the largest of the thirteen state organizations that constituted the Society of the Cincinnati. The state societies were bound together in a confederation of fellowship and shared principles rather than by national power. For Lincoln, who remained president of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati for the rest of his life, the Society reflected the ideals for which he had fought—personal independence, local and regional autonomy and shared republican principles, along with a determination to cherish and promote the memory of the Revolutionary accomplishment.

Lincoln’s reflections were disturbed by the consequences of the severe economic downturn that gripped New England in 1786. Farm prices dropped and the credit upon which the post-war revival in farming and trade were built dried up. “We are drained of our cash,” he wrote, “our trade is embarrassed and our finances deranged.” Boston merchants and other large-scale creditors with their own notes coming due pressed their borrowers for payments, who in turn pressed small-scale borrowers among farmers and small tradesmen for payments they could not make—a financial crisis made worse by Massachusetts taxes levied to pay off the state’s war debts. Lincoln’s business was hit as well. Men not as well off, particularly in the western part of Massachusetts, faced foreclosures and imprisonment for debt. That summer farmers—many of them veterans—rioted and forced courts to close at gunpoint.

Lincoln was caught in the same economic vise of falling prices, weakening trade, high taxes and vanishing credit. He nonetheless had no sympathy for the view that their grievances were comparable to those that had fueled resistance to royal government a decade earlier. Massachusetts was no longer ruled by a distant king, a hostile Parliament and a corrupt ministry. It was a republic, governed by elected officials empowered by a state constitution ratified by the people’s representatives. Citizens, he believed, owed the republic their loyalty and obedience to law. The future of the republic, he reflected, was at risk because “there doth not appear to be virtue enough among the people to preserve a perfect republican government.”

The crisis shook his confidence in the idea that a confederation of small republics could endure. Perhaps only a continental republic, possessed of sufficient strength to secure compliance with the law, could survive. As the summer of 1786 turned to fall, Lincoln exchanged letters about the crisis with his old commander. Washington wanted intelligent men to investigate the grievances that had sparked the protest, and redress them if possible. But he would not see rioters destroy the work of the Revolution. “Are we to have the goodly fabric,” he asked Lincoln, “that eight years were spent in raising, pulled over our head?”

A heavy snow in December trapped Lincoln in his house with his thoughts and his pen. The independent states, it seemed—even Massachusetts—could not endure as separate republics. “The injured state of our commerce,” he reflected, as well as “our ruined credit . . . and the contemptible figure we make among the nations of Europe, are the natural consequences and the most conclusive evidences of the want of a federal head.” As the snow piled up, he concluded that the “wellbeing, if not the very being, of the different States depend on a firm union, and a Controuling power at the head of it.”

A thoughtful man, Lincoln had, under the pressure of events, reasoned himself out of republican idealism focused exclusively on the household, town and state, and into a conviction that an effective union of the states with a federal government endowed with sufficient power was essential to preserve the rule of law—law made, not in London, but by the people’s representatives in America. He realized that this involved risks inherent in centralized authority, but the alternative seemed to be anarchy and the end of the republican experiment. Lincoln never abandoned his attachment to the small republic that began at his own fireside, and extended from town to commonwealth. He finally embraced the idea of a continental republic to protect the small republic from degenerating into lawlessness.

Lincoln considered these matters at home that winter, knowing that he would be called upon, as the senior major general of the Massachusetts militia, to lead men into western Massachusetts to maintain order and suppress armed resistance to the law. “A government which has no other basis than the point of a bayonet” was not what they had fought for, he wrote to Washington. It would be “very painful,” Washington acknowledged, for Lincoln to “march against those men whom he had heretofore looked upon as his fellow citizens and some of whom perhaps been his companions in the field.” Yet the alternative, both men knew, was abandoning the rule of law upon which republics must be built.

On January 20, 1787, Lincoln led a volunteer force of three thousand men out of Boston toward the western part of the state to restore the rule of law at the point of a bayonet. That same day, insurgents surrounded Springfield and its federal arsenal. When Lincoln arrived on the scene, he found that Daniel Shays, the leader of the insurgent farmers, had attacked the arsenal but had been beaten back by cannon loaded with grapeshot, leaving four men dead and at least twenty wounded.

Lincoln lost no time in crossing the Connecticut River and forcing the insurgents out of West Springfield. He then turned north and chased Shays and his men to Petersham, close to the northern border of the state. Determined not to give Shays a moment to gather strength, Lincoln led a night march through driving snow and attacked the rebels in Petersham on the morning of February 4. Lincoln captured 150 of the rebels. The rest fled, never to gather in force again.

Lincoln divided his men and occupied towns in Berkshire, Hampshire and Worcester counties where resistance to the law was most troubling. Roving groups of lawless insurgents raided farms and businesses, degenerating into bandits. Lincoln’s scattered troops did their best to stamp out the embers of the rebellion during the spring. The experience was deeply disturbing to Lincoln. “There is a frenzy among these people,” he wrote, “which greatly exceeds what I had any idea to find.”

Lincoln returned to Hingham, never to take up his sword again. He served a term as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had the pleasure of representing Hingham at the convention that ratified the Federal Constitution, and served for nearly twenty years as collector of the port of Boston, a lucrative post to which George Washington appointed him in August 1789. Some of his friends suggested the position was not important enough, but they need not have troubled themselves. Although the work required him to spend much of his time in Boston, it rarely took him far from home. Each winter he returned to Hingham and the pleasures of his own fireside.

 

Above: This simple print by John Norman, which appeared in James Murray’s pioneering book, An Impartial History of the War in America between Great Britain and the United States (Boston: Nathaniel Coverly and Robert Hodge, 1782), was the first published portrait of Benjamin Lincoln.

Learn about the work of the Hingham Historical Society to preserve the Benjamin Lincoln House and celebrate Lincoln’s life and legacy.

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.

The President’s Illness

This bust of George Washington by Houdon was completed five years before the president's illness nearly cost him his life.

The president’s illness is not unprecedented. Indeed the presidency was less than two years old when the first president of the United States, George Washington, nearly died in one of the worst influenza epidemics of the eighteenth century.

A dangerous strain of influenza began spreading through the new nation in the fall of 1789. No one then understood the sources of epidemic disease. Noah Webster associated the epidemic with an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. “Such disorders in the elements,” he wrote, “never fail to produce epidemic diseases.” The eruption, he explained, was the herald “of the most severe period of sickness that has occurred in the United States in thirty years.”

Dr. Benjamin Rush, the leading physician in Philadelphia, told Webster that members of Congress had carried the epidemic from New York City, then the capital of the United States, to Philadelphia, where they had infected others. Webster didn’t believe it. “The opinion of its propagation by infection,” Webster wrote, “is very fallacious, as I know by repeated observations.” He thought the spread of the epidemic “depends almost entirely on the insensible qualities of the atmosphere.”

Whether or not the epidemic was caused by the rumblings of a volcano four thousand miles away or not, Webster tracked its spread. It soon “pervaded the wilderness and seized the Indians,” he wrote, and “overspread America, from the fifteenth to the forty-fifth degree of latitude in about six or eight weeks.” Webster detected a second wave of the epidemic beginning in March 1790. It was in Albany in early March, and central Connecticut about the middle of April. He thought it spread from there through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and moved on to the South.

New York City was particularly hard hit. In early May, Senator William Maclay reported that “the whole Town, or nearly so, is sick and many die daily.” Richard Henry Lee, another member of the Senate, described the city as “a perfect Hospital—few are well & many very sick.”

The president made no special effort to avoid the illness—the  mechanics of disease transmission were not understood, so any precautions he took would probably have done no good. As a general proposition, Washington interacted relatively little with people outside his immediate household and was rarely in a crowd, where the risk of contracting an infection was greatest.

There was one exception. A year earlier—shortly after taking office—Washington had started the custom of holding weekly levees, at which any respectable person with business to discuss with the president could present himself at the president’s home, where they were conducted to a room set aside for this purpose. At the appointed time, a few minutes past three in the afternoon, Washington appeared and made his way around the room, conversing briefly with each person. The practice of setting aside a little time each week in this way was more efficient that indulging constant interruptions to meet with people, but in a city in the grips of an epidemic, these levees exposed the president to considerable risk of infection.

Washington apparently contracted influenza around the beginning of April. On April 6 Congressman Richard Bland Lee wrote that  “the President has been unwell for a few days past.”  Washington firmly believed that being tied to a desk was wrecking his health, and was sure that exercise was the best way to beat the illness. He set off on a riding tour of Long Island in the third week of April. Abigail Adams reported that Washington “has been very unwell through all the Spring, labouring with a villious disorder but thought, contrary to the advise of his Friends that he should excercise away without medical assistance; he made a Tour upon Long Island of eight or ten days which was a temporary relief.”

Despite his optimistic faith in exercise, Washington’s condition deteriorated. On May 7, Senator Maclay reported to Dr. Rush that the president had “nearly lost his hearing.” Members of Congress began to consider what might be done to deal with the president’s illness. Although the idea of the president temporarily transferring his powers to the vice president—now embodied in the Twenty-Fifth Amendment—had no legal foundation, congressmen suggested it. Abraham Baldwin of Georgia wrote that “Our great and good man has been unwell again this spring. I never saw him more emaciated . . . . If his health should not get confirmed soon, we must send him out to mount Vernon to farm a-while, and let the Vice manage here; his habits require so much exercise, and he is so fond of his plantation, that I have no doubt it would soon restore him. It is so important to us to keep him alive as long as he can live, that we must let him exercise as he pleases, if he will only live and let us know it. His name is always of vast importance, but any body can do the greater part of the work, that is to be done at present, he has got us well launched in the new ship.”

On Sunday, May 9, the president recorded in his diary that he was “Indisposed with a bad cold,” not imagining the ordeal ahead. He noted staying “home all day writing letters on private business. The president’s illness grew worse during the night, and the next day he was confined to bed, apparently suffering from a bad case of influenza that quickly led to pneumonia. Washington later described it as “a severe attack of the peripneumony kind.” James Madison, who had just recovered when the president was stricken, described Washington’s illness as “peripneumony, united probably with the Influenza.” Maryland congressman Michael Jenifer Stone described the illness as “Influenza Pleurisy and Peripneumony all at Once.”

Washington’s secretary, William Jackson, sent for Dr. Samuel Bard. one of the most prominent physicians in New York City. Bard had studied medicine in London and Edinburgh and returned to establish an extensive practice. He had stayed in the city through the British occupation during the war—a decision that led some to accuse him of loyalist views, but this did not hamper his practice. Bard had attended Washington the year before, when he operated (without anesthesia) to cut a tumor out of the president’s thigh.

At first Bard did not regard the president’s illness as life-threatening. On May 12, Martha Washington reported to Abigail Adams that “the President is a little better today than he was yesterday.” But as a precaution, Bard and Jackson sent a messenger to Philadelphia for Dr. John Jones, a highly regarded physician who had cared for Benjamin Franklin in his final illness. Benjamin Rush regarded Jones as the finest surgeon in the country. The message reached Jones at ten-thirty that morning. He was in New York by nightfall. Bard also called in two New York doctors, John Charlton and Charles McKnight, to consult on the president’s case. Charleton was an English surgeon who had come to New York as a surgeon in the British army and never left. McKnight had been a surgeon in Washington’s army.

We don’t know much about the treatments these doctors prescribed. Washington believed in the value of therapeutic bleeding to reduce fevers, and was bled repeatedly during his fatal illness in December 1799. But in the spring of 1790 his doctors seem to have relied on James’s Powder, a preparation introduced by an English physician, Richard James, in 1746. A patented combination of calcium pyrophosphate and antimony, its inventor claimed that the powder cured fevers and that it was also effective in reducing inflammation caused by gout. He said it even cured distemper in cattle. James’s Powder was prescribed for fevers into the twentieth century—a tremendous run for a quack remedy of no proven therapeutic value. Congressman Henry Wynkoop wisely suggested that Washington’s eventual recovery was “owing . . . more to the natural strength of his Constitution than the Aid of Medicine.”

The four physicians and those closest to Washington tried to keep details of the president’s illness from the public. “It was thought prudent,” Abigail Adams explained, “to say very little upon the Subject as a general allarm may have proved injurious to the present State of the government.”

The president’s illness grew worse on May 14 and 15, when his condition reached a crisis. Maclay—who was sick himself—went to the president’s house on the afternoon of May 15 and found the it crowded, and “every Eye full of Tears.” Dr. McKnight told Maclay that there was no longer reason for optimism, and that he “would Triffle neither with his own Character nor the public Expectation” by suggesting otherwise. McKnight warned that “danger was iminent, and every reason to expect, that the Event of his disorder would be unfortunate.”  About five that evening, the physicians reported to Mrs. Washington and the president’s household that they expected the president to die.

The president, newspaper publisher John Fennon wrote, “expectorates blood & has a very high fever.” He was “Seazd with Hicups & rattling in the Throat,” said Abigail Adams, “so that Mrs Washington left his room thinking him dying.”

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson—ever the scientist—described what happened next in clinical terms. “In the evening a copious sweat came on, his expectoration, which had been thin and ichorous, began to assume a well digested form, his articulation became distinct, and in the course of two hours it was evident he had gone thro’ a favorable crisis.” On May 16, Jefferson wrote to his daughter that the president’s illness was abating. “He continues mending to-day, and from total despair we are now in good hopes of him.” Jefferson didn’t say why he thought Washington had survived the crisis, but Abigail Adams credited James’s Powder, which she said “produced a happy Effect by a profuse perspiration which reliefd his cough & Breathing.”

The household remained on edge but by the morning of May 17 improvement was clear. That evening, William Jackson wrote that “the President is much better, and, I trust, out of all danger.” By May 20 Washington was sufficiently recovered for Jackson to report to a Philadelphian that “the President’s recovery is now certain—the fever has entirely left him, and there is the best prospect of a perfect restoration of his health.” Richard Henry Lee was allowed into see Washington on May 22, and found the president sitting up in an easy chair. “The President is again on his legs,” Senator Philip Schuyler wrote on May 23. “He was yesterday able to traverse his room a dozen times.” James Madison recorded on May 25 that Washington was “so far advanced in his recovery” that he took a brief ride in his carriage.

As news of his recovery spread, expressions of relief were universal. American diplomat William Short wrote from Paris that reports of Washington’s “narrow escape affected sincerely all the friends to America here. His re-establishment gives great pleasure.” Martha Washington wrote appreciatively to Mercy Otis Warren about this outpouring of public concern: “During the President’s sickness, the kindness which everybody manifested, and the interest which was universally taken in his fate, were really very affecting to me. He seemed less concerned himself as to the event, than perhaps any other person in the United states. Happily he is now perfectly recovered, and I am restored to my ordinary state of tranquility, and usually good flow of spirits.”

The president’s illness left the fifty-eight-year-old Washington in what he called “a convalescent state for several weeks after the violence of it had passed,” with what he privately confessed was “little inclination to do more than what duty to the public required.” He wrote to Lafayette on June 3 that he had recovered “except in point of strength,” but in mid-June he was still experiencing chest pain, coughing, and shortness of breath. Washington’s doctors advised him to exercise more and devote less energy to public business. The president found this hard advice to follow, but as soon as he was able, he resumed exercising. He took a three-day fishing trip off Sandy Hook in June, and made plans for a trip to Rhode Island, which had recently ratified the Federal Constitution, becoming the thirteenth state.

George Washington knew that he was fortunate to have survived. Reflecting the common belief that each bout with disease used up the body’s ability to withstand future attacks, the president confided to his friend David Stuart that his next serious illness would “put me to sleep with my fathers.”

In our own time of troubles, the story of the first president’s illness offers this consolation: what seems so new to us is not so new. We have faced many dark nights when nothing but our ideals and our hope sustained us. We have a rich history of progress, ingenuity, determination, and experience. We have not simply endured. We have triumphed. We will again.

 

Above: Jean-Antoine Houdon sculpted this portrait bust of George Washington from life a few years before the general answered the call of his country to become the first president of the United States (Courtesy the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union).

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.

For more on epidemics in Revolutionary America, read Lessons from a Revolutionary Epidemic.

 

The Heroic Jeffrey Brace

No portrait of Jeffrey Brace is known, but this sculpture of a proposed figure for the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial honors his service.

We have no portrait of Private Jeffrey Brace, and no more than a hint of a description of him. The records of his service in the Revolutionary War, like those of thousands of other black soldiers who fought for independence, are scattered, fragmentary, and confused. Assembling and assessing what remains rewards us with a rich narrative of one man’s brave struggle to be free and of the new nation’s painful progress in realizing the ideal of equality on which the Revolution was based. Jeffrey Brace has much to teach us.

That we know anything at all about him is due almost entirely to an extraordinary little book published in St. Albans, Vermont, in 1810, called The Blind African Slave, Or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace. The book was written by an idealistic young lawyer named Benjamin Prentiss and published by Harry Whitney, the twenty-two-year-old editor of a short-lived newspaper, the Franklin County Advertiser, which closed down the week the book was released. The original edition is now one of the rarest published accounts of service in the Revolutionary War.

Brace was nearing seventy when Benjamin Prentiss recorded his story. Prentiss is even more obscure than his subject, and we don’t know how he came to know Brace. Prentiss was plainly motivated by the ideals of the American Revolution and determined to see the nation fulfill their promise. “In America,” Prentiss wrote, “that spirit of liberty, which stimulated us to shake off a foreign yoke and become an independent nation, has caused the New-England states to emancipate their slaves, and there is but one blot to tarnish the lustre of the American name, which is permitting slavery under a constitution, which declares that ‘all mankind are naturally and of right ought to be free.’ Whoever wishes to preserve the constitution of our general government, to keep sacred the enviable and inestimable principles, by which we are governed, and to enjoy the natural liberty of man, must embark in the great work of extirminating slavery and promoting general emancipation.”

The Blind African Slave was the product of a collaboration between the idealistic young lawyer and the elderly man who told him his life story. That story was shocking in 1810 and it remains so today. It is a story worth grappling with—a raw account of the inhumane brutality of enslavement, of a fight for personal independence, and of endurance despite the crushing weight of racial injustice, recorded by two men who challenge us to live up to the ideals of the Revolution.

Jeffrey Brace was born Boyrereau Brinch—or at least that was how Prentiss rendered the name the old man spoke in his native language. He had been born about 1742 in the Niger River basin, apparently in what is now southern Mali, in a place Prentiss called the kingdom of Bow-woo. Prentiss cobbled together a fanciful description of the place from travelogues and geography books. Brace’s voice does not come through clearly until the moment he is captured by slave traders. He was then about sixteen.

What follow is a gruesome, detailed account of being bound, chained, and crowded onto a slave ship bound for the Caribbean, and of brutality, starvation, and death on the Middle Passage. The savage cruelty inflicted on the enslaved did not end when they arrived at their destination. When the vessel arrived in Barbados, the Africans were herded into a warehouse—Brace called it a “house of subjection,” where they were beaten and starved to break their will, because to make a docile slave, “the thought of liberty must never be suffered to contaminate itself in a negro’s mind.”

The thought of liberty never left Brace’s mind. After months of this inhuman treatment, the young African was sold to a New England merchant captain named Isaac Mills whose ship was fitted out as privateer. He spent the next two years at war. In a fight with a Spanish ship, he remained on deck and was shot in the hip and through the ankle. Mills then gave him the name “Jeffrey,” after British General Jeffery Amherst—more daring than prudent. He bore the name for the rest of his life. When the French and Indian War ended, Mills had no more need of Jeffrey, and sold him to John Burwell of Milford, Connecticut.

Brace’s account of his first years as a slave in New England is at odds with the common notion that New England slavery was gentler than enslavement in the South. Burwell was a sadist who beat Jeffrey without mercy, fed him no more than six ounces of coarse food a day, forced him to work outside in winter with neither coat nor shoes, and left him to sleep on a cold hearth with nothing but his ragged clothes to cover him. Burwell’s treatment was so inhumane that a neighbor, Samuel Eals, intervened and took Jeffrey in, threatening to lodge a legal complaint against Burwell.

Eals cared for Jeffrey until his wounds healed and his health improved, then passed him on to Peter Prudden, who must have paid Burwell for the young man. Prudden whipped him severely on five occasions over two months before trading him for some old horses to a merchant named John Gibbs, who beat him daily for four months before selling him to Phineas Baldwin, the father-in-law of Captain Mills. Baldwin sent Jeffrey to live with his son, Phineas, whose small children Jeffrey tended for several months. The Baldwins apparently didn’t beat Jeffrey, but his next owner, merchant Jonas Green of Milford, whipped him about twice a week before hiring Jeffrey out to a local tanner.

In the fall of 1768 Green sold Jeffrey to Mary Stiles, a seventy-three-year-old widow who lived in Woodbury, thirty miles to the north, beginning what Brace remembered as “a glorious era in my life, as widow Stiles was one of the finest women in the world; she possessed every christian virtue.” The widow taught Jeffrey to read and improved the broken, rudimentary English he had picked up. Under her instruction, Jeffrey learned to read the Bible.

When Mary Stiles died in 1774, Jeffrey—then known as Jeffrey Stiles—became the property of her son Benjamin. Jeffrey had been in New England a decade, but his memoir makes no mention of resistance to British taxation, the military occupation of Boston, nor any of the other familiar events leading to the war for independence. Yet when the opportunity presented itself, and with Benjamin Stiles’ permission, Jeffrey enlisted in the army. In his words, he “entered the banners of freedom. Alas! Poor African Slave, to liberate freemen, my tyrants.”

Why did he enlist?  He does not say, but we can infer that Benjamin Stiles agreed to manumit him in return. Two of Stiles’ three sons served in the militia, but there is no record of the middle son doing so. Perhaps Jeffrey first entered the service as a substitute. Some Connecticut masters agreed to manumit their slaves in exchange for all or part of their military wages—essentially permitting the enslaved to purchase their freedom. Others agreed to free slaves who entered the army as a contribution to the Revolutionary cause. Still others did so because they realized that slavery was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution. Abijah Holbrook of Torrington explained that “all mankind are by nature entitled to equal liberty and freedom” when he freed his slave. Rachel Johnson of Wallingford freed a slave in 1778, insisting that “I believe all mankind should be free.”

Jeffrey seems to have enlisted in early 1777, when he was around thirty-five. According to his memoir, he was under fire in April, when the British army mounted a raid on the Continental Army supply depot in Danbury, Connecticut. The Royal Navy landed a force of some 1,900 British regulars and loyalists near Westport on April 25. The troops marched north for Danbury, forty miles distant, and the next day burned several thousand barrels of beef, pork, and flour, along with thousands of shoes, tents, and other supplies.

Continental troops and Connecticut militia were caught unprepared, but gathered in sufficient force to harass the British troops on their return march to the coast the next day. “General Worcester,” Jeffrey told Prentiss (who misspelled the name of David Wooster) was in command. “We beat them back,” Jeffrey said. “The fight was continued all day, and the victory was sometimes doubtful.” This was the Battle of Ridgefield, a moving fight that began with Wooster’s attack on the British rear guard three miles north of the town. Wooster attacked again an hour later and was mortally wounded. The running battle continued for the rest of that day and into the next along the British line of march, with Continentals and militia firing on the marching column, retreating, and reforming to attack again down the road. The British managed to escape to their transports, but never attempted another inland raid of the kind. Jeffrey was one of the few men in action that day who had experience under fire, and he undoubtedly acquitted himself well.

While the records are confused, Jeffrey seems to have enlisted in the Sixth Regiment of the Connecticut Continental Line in June 1777, under the name “Pomp London.” Shortly thereafter he was assigned to the regiment’s light infantry company, a select group of skilled soldiers distinguished for their height (“I then wanted but a quarter of an inch of being six feet three inches”) and athletic ability. The light infantry wore distinctive leather helmets and were sometimes referred to, as they are in Jeffrey’s memoir, as “leather caps.” He remained in the light infantry for the rest of the war.

The account of Jeffrey’s wartime service in The Blind African Slave is jumbled by his own hazy recollections and by Prentiss’s inability to make sense of what Jeffrey told him. Prentiss had a weak understanding of the war’s chronology, and misinterpreted Jeffrey’s account, placing him at the Siege of Boston, the defense of New York City, and the battles of White Plains and Princeton, all of which occurred before Jeffrey enlisted.

Jeffrey’s regiment was assigned to the Hudson Highlands south of West Point, where he spent the winter of 1777-1778. The next spring he marched to the Hackensack Valley of New Jersey, where his company skirmished with British foraging parties sent out from New York City. Jeffrey offers a vivid account of pursuing British raiders who were driving a herd of cattle back to New York. Caught alone when while standing watch in the rear of a scouting party, he was attacked by a British light horseman who demanded his surrender:

“I then plainly told him that him nor his King’s majesty would get my arms unless he took them by force. He immediately cocked his pistol and fired; I fell flat upon the ground in order dodge his ball, and effectually do it that he missed me. I rose, he drew his sword and rode up to me so quick that I had no time to take aim before he struck my gun barrel with cutlass . . . also cut off the bone of my middle finger on my hand. As he struck the horse jumped before he could wheel upon me again. . . . I fired and killed him.”

Jeffrey mounted the dead man’s horse just as four other British cavalrymen, drawn to the sound of gunfire, bore down on him. They were quickly joined by others. Jeffrey galloped toward the American lines, “but not being a good horseman they gained upon me.” His pursuers were “within two or three jumps of me,” he remembered, when his captain caught sight of him and ordered a volley that killed four of the British cavalrymen and scattered the rest.

Only when he dismounted did Jeffrey realize he had lost part of a finger: “I found I could not open my hand which was the first time that I discovered that I was wounded.” The injury kept him out of combat for three months. Reflecting on why the pursuing cavalry didn’t shoot at him, Jeffrey speculated that they expected that he was more valuable alive—that he would either “acquaint them with the state of our army” more readily that a white soldier, or that he might “be sold by them and enrich their coffers.”

As a light infantryman, Jeffrey probably fought under Anthony Wayne in the successful attack on Stony Point in 1779. His regiment endured the winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, in 1779-1780 and spent the remainder of the war sparring with British foraging parties, maintaining pressure on the British lines around New York City, hemming the enemy in and forcing the British army to rely on supplies brought from overseas—an expensive and exposed line of supply continuously attacked by American privateers and French warships.

Jeffrey served in the Continental Army for more than five years, and when he was finally discharged in the summer of 1783, he was awarded the badge of merit, which had been devised by George Washington to honor the service of the most loyal soldiers. “Thus was I,” Jeffrey concluded, “a slave, for five years fighting for liberty.”

He had fought for his own liberty as well as that of the United States. He returned to Benjamin Stiles’ home in Woodbury for a year. He recorded with pleasure that “my services in the American war having emancipated me from further slavery and from being bartered or sold.”  Jeffrey explained that he had “heard flattering accounts of the new state of Vermont,” and decided to settle there. Vermont had adopted a constitution in 1777 providing for the gradual abolition of slavery, and the “flattering accounts” Jeffrey had heard undoubtedly gave him confidence that he could escape further enslavement there.

He moved to Lenox, Massachusetts, and hired himself out as a laborer—“the first time I made a bargain as a freeman for labor.” He made a little traveling money and moved on to Poultney, a town in southwest Vermont, where he hired himself out as a laborer again. The experience was a delight. “I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman,” he told Prentiss, “my food was sweet, my labor pleasure: and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.” He found a twenty-five acre tract of woodland to buy for $250 and worked off the purchase price, planning to clear and farm the land. He married a widow who, like himself, had been born in Africa and endured the horrors of enslavement.

During his first years as a free man he began calling himself Jeffrey Brace—adopting an Anglicized version of his African surname. He and his wife Susannah apparently had three children—they were living together on his Poultney land, partly cleared and planted in wheat and corn, when the census of 1790 was taken.

Their life in Poultney was troubled. A white neighbor with designs on the Brace farm pulled down their fence and allowed his cattle to ruin Jeffrey’s crops, and later as an act of revenge for an imagined slight he tried to get the Brace children taken away and indentured on the grounds that Jeffrey and Susannah were not fit to raise them. In 1802, when Jeffrey was about sixty, they sold the farm and moved to Sheldon, Vermont, where the family lived for a few years before moving on to Georgia, a farming community on the shores of Lake Champlain just south of St. Albans. Brace and his son-in-law cleared a farm and prospered for a few years, but misfortune overtook him again. Susannah died in 1807. Jeffrey lost his sight about the same time.

Shortly thereafter, we can assume, he met Benjamin Prentiss, who recorded his story. Their collaboration reminds us of the suffering men and women endured in slavery, of the heroics of ordinary men, black and white, in our war for independence, and of the better world the Revolution still calls on us to create for all Americans. Jeffrey Brace was enslaved, but his spirit was never broken. He held out hope for a society in which all might enjoy freedom, which he said “all mankind have equal right to possess.” In a world where so many suffer injustice, his hope should be our own.

 

Above: This preliminary figure for the proposed—and long overdue—Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial in Washington, D.C., was sculpted by Ed Dwight in 1992 and is in the museum collections of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati. The memorial would honor Jeffrey Brace and the thousands of other black soldiers and sailors who served in our struggle for independence.

Read a complete transcript of The Blind African Slave digitized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Read about another black soldier of the Revolutionary War in The Elusive Peter Hunter.

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.

Plunkett Fleeson, Revolutionary Upholsterer

Plunkett Fleeson upholstered this elaborate easy chair a few years before the Revolutionary War.

A prosperous craftsman whose trade serves the very wealthy is an unlikely sort of revolutionary. He has too much invested in stability to welcome economic upheaval, and too much invested in relationships with customers, suppliers and peers to welcome revolutionary change—or so it would seem. Yet such craftsmen were among the active supporters of American resistance to British policies in the 1760s and political revolution in the 1770s. Paul Revere is the best known, but he was one of many, including the curiously named Plunkett Fleeson, the most successful upholsterer in eighteenth-century Philadelphia.

Why did they do it?  They weren’t simply following their wealthy patrons. In most cases their customers were divided about resistance and revolution, and ultimately between patriots and loyalists.

No single or simple answer will suffice. Great movements are rarely shaped by simple motives and single causes. Revolutions occur when the aspirations and anxieties of a wide variety of people collide and find common expression in a movement larger than any of them. People had many and varied reasons for embracing the cause of resistance to the impositions of the British government in the 1760s and early 1770s, and those who followed the logic of their resistance into revolution, as many did, had their own reasons for doing so.

We can only understand the Revolution by exploring those reasons, rather than assuming participants all fit into neat patterns aligned with occupation, wealth, ethnicity, religion or region. Such patterns are suggestive, but they often do not explain the positions historical actors adopted or the actions they took, which were often contingent on circumstances that are not apparent at the broad level of social identity.

Discerning why Plunkett Fleeson embraced the Revolution and what it meant to him is hampered by the fact that he did not leave us many letters and papers recording his thoughts or justifying his actions. We have the records of what he did, spread out in fugitive invoices, newspaper advertisements and entries in the surviving ledgers and correspondence of the people with whom he did business. We also have the material remains of the work he did and contemporary descriptions of that work. Fleeson’s craft and the business he built around it consumed most of his life. If we are to understand why he became a revolutionary, and what the Revolution meant to him, we must begin with upholstery, however remote that may seem from the business of revolution.

Plunkett Fleeson lived most of his long and successful life as a colonial subject of the British crown. He spent nearly all of it in Philadelphia, where he was born in 1712. The town was then thirty years old, and had a population of around three thousand people. It was an unsophisticated place, with muddy, unpaved streets joining a cluster of low, inelegant little houses, barely more than a settlement on the edge of Britain’s Atlantic empire—a place of little consequence and no pretense, culturally dominated by Quakers who expressed a preference for the plain and simple. Philadelphia offered little else.

The upholsterer was a luxury craftsman largely unknown in seventeenth-century America. The first Philadelphia craftsman identified as an upholsterer, or “upholder,” was John Budd, whose name and occupation were recorded on a 1693 tax list. Between 1700 and 1760, some eleven upholsterers worked in Philadelphia. By mid-century, the successful upholsterer was much more than a specialized craftsman in the furniture trade. He was part craftsman and part entrepreneur whose chief stock in trade—fine fabrics—was the most expensive part of fitting out a stylish house. The most successful upholsterer was an interior designer and arbiter of taste, upon whom the wealthy relied to help decorate their homes in the best English manner.

When Plunkett Fleeson opened his own upholstery shop in 1739, Philadelphia was just beginning to lift itself out of the mud and had become a town of modest consequence. Dr. Alexander Hamilton, an Englishman on a tour of the colonies in 1744, wrote that it was “much like one of our country market towns in England. When you are in it the majority of the buildings appear low and mean, the streets unpaved and therefore full of rubbish and mire.”

Unimpressive as it was, Philadelphia was the market town for a rural hinterland that stretched for many miles in all directions, with a port that conducted a lively trade, shipping foodstuffs, lumber and other raw materials up and down the Atlantic coast and to Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean, as well as with Britain itself. Philadelphia’s merchants were growing wealthy and developing a taste for better things, including upholstered furniture, curtains and mattresses tightly packed with hair and feathers rather than loosely filled with wool.

Fleeson satisfied their wishes and prospered with them, earning enough to acquire a good house at 113 Chestnut Street. Next door lived Anthony Benezet, a Quaker schoolmaster who became the first great antislavery spokesman in the Atlantic world. Benjamin Franklin, who was about Fleeson’s age, owned the lot in back. Fleeson benefited from a growing network of connections in commerce and public life, and was rewarded with highly visible public business. When the new State House (which we know as Independence Hall) was completed, Plunkett Fleeson supplied the curtains.

He was thirty-seven in 1749 when he joined the Philadelphia Associators, a private militia organized because the pacifist Quaker leaders of Pennsylvania refused to raise a militia to defend the city in time of war. He was made an ensign. As his business prospered he contributed generously to public improvements. In 1752 he was among the founders of the Hibernia Engine Company and an early contributor to the Pennsylvania Hospital, of which he served as a director. He was also proud to serve the public as a craftsman. In 1753 he reupholstered the chair used by the speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and in 1754-1756 he furnished new window curtains for the State House.

By then he was successful enough to acquire the large lot at the corner of Fourth and Chestnut, where he conducted his business at “the Sign of the Easy Chair.” Unlike many craftsmen and tradesmen, Plunkett Fleeson did not live over his shop. From the 1750s onward, he was among the richest taxpayers in the city’s prosperous Middle Ward. He generally ranked from the eighty-sixth to the ninety-fifth percentile in wealth.

By the late 1750s, Fleeson was more a businessman than a craftsman, employing seamstresses, painters and other craftspeople as well as upholsterers, commissioning work from cabinetmakers and joiners, and always buying and selling, his frequent advertisements offering “ready money for Horse hair and Cow tails” and “maple chairs as cheap as from Boston.” His reputation rested on his elaborately upholstered easy chairs, which were a symbol of refinement and elegant living only the wealthy could afford.

Fleeson succeeded in selling the trappings of eighteenth-century opulence in a city shaped by Quaker injunctions to live simply and plainly—injunctions that wealthy Quakers seemed to have honored in the breach. William Penn had railed against the folly of excessive ornamentation. “How many pieces of riband, and what feathers, lacebands and the like did Adam and Eve wear in paradise, or out of it?” Penn asked. “What rich embroidaries . . . . trimmings laced gowns, embroidered petticoats, shoes with slipslaps laced with silk or silver lace?” As late as the 1760s, Quaker tracts discouraged “all superfluity in furniture” and directed “moderation and plainness in gesture, speech, apparel, or furniture, of houses,” calling luxurious furnishings “a clog and a hindrance” to living a Godly life.

These were prescriptions, and Philadelphia’s mid-century Quakers did not adhere closely to them. Prohibitions often reflect what people do—otherwise why bother making rules? In fact, surviving decorative arts owned by eighteenth-century Philadelphia Quakers testify to their taste for the finer things. They were a temptation to which successful Philadelphians easily succumbed, and Plunkett Fleeson—an Anglican—was there to help them do it. A 1761 advertisement signaled his role as a tastemaker, offering a secondhand “Sett of yellow and a Sett of green Worsted Bed and Window Curtains, fitted in the best Taste by Mr. Fleeson.”

By then Philadelphia had become the place in British America to buy fancy goods, especially upholstered furniture. Philadelphia craftsmen set the style for the colonies: sophisticated, urbane and refined. The wealthy merchant John Brown of Providence could have ordered his furniture from craftsmen in Providence, Newport or Boston. In 1761 he turned to Fleeson to order “a Compleat Black Walnut Easy Chair with Casters to run on … with Eagles claws” upholstered in “Red Hereteen,” specifying that it “be done well … by a neet workman, and finished as soon as may be.” Fleeson charged Brown nine pounds, eighteen shillings, three pence half penny for the chair—around two thousand dollars in our money. In 1764 Fleeson charged Nicholas Brown of Providence eleven pounds, thirteen shillings, eleven pence for a similar chair.

In 1765 Fleeson offered his customers “crimson, green, blue and yellow Harrateens and Cheneys”—wool fabrics often used for bed hangings—“best Cotton Chints, Bed Patterns, with suitable Trimmings, silk Bed lace, Furniture Check, Flanders and other Bed Ticks,” as well as “a Variety of the best English Tossels.” Beds with elaborate and ingenious curtains, cornices, rods and ruffles were among the most expensive furnishings in stylish homes. Fleeson charged William Armstrong forty-five pounds, fourteen shillings, nine pence for a “full trim’d Bed” in 1762. Only two pounds eleven shillings of that was for the wooden bedstead. The rest was for a chintz, linen and silk confection including a variety of Venetian curtains, tassels, cords and pulleys, which seems likely to have been the most expensive thing in Armstrong’s home.

In the last decades of the colonial period, the colonies were becoming more English, not less—and the ways it was becoming more English included fashion, dress, gardening, architecture and interior design. It was a provincial sort of Englishness that had more in common with Bristol and Norwich than with London, but it was English nonetheless. Wealthy Americans wanted their houses built to the standards set by the latest London pattern books, their furniture in accordance with the latest prescriptions of Thomas Chippendale and his followers, their gardens designed in the relaxed style of contemporary English landscape gardeners, their tables set with the latest wares of Wedgwood and his peers, their sideboards decorated with Chinese ceramics reimported from Britain.

Plunkett Fleeson was an impresario of this cultural transformation, in which American colonists succumbed to the same consumer impulses that were reshaping British cities and towns and the country houses of the wealthy—a taste for Staffordshire creamware and brass buttons and printed fabrics, and to the lure of British commercial amusements, including traveling theater companies and ultimately, resident ones, offering up plays a season or two after their London premiers. Colonial high culture was deliberately, and proudly, imitative—identifying colonial elites and the more prosperous middling class of craftsmen and shopkeepers who served them with Britain.

Philadelphia was no longer the muddy town of Fleeson’s youth. It was, a Scottish peer, Lord Adam Gordon, opined in 1765, “one of the wonders of the world, if you consider its Size, the number of Inhabitants, the regularity of its Streets, their great breadth and length . . . one will not hesitate to call it the first Town in America, but one that bids fair to rival almost any in Europe.”  Plunkett Fleeson, through his civic-minded philanthropy but most of all with his draperies and cushioned chairs and fancy wallpaper, had helped to make it so.

Fleeson was fifty-one years old at the end of the French and Indian War, and like many colonists he probably expected victory and peace to signal the beginning of a new era of prosperity—a time of increasing wealth that would be reflected in his ledgers by expansive orders for fine fabrics, elaborate imported wallpaper, fancy furnishings and other material manifestations of the good life in a triumphant empire of which the North American colonies were an increasingly important and valued part.

He could not have imagined that the British government would institute a program of imperial reorganization that would include imposing unprecedented taxes on the American colonies without their consent. In 1765 Fleeson’s name stood out among those of tradesmen who signed a remonstrance against the Stamp Act. It was not that the tax would impose an unacceptable burden. Fleeson was prosperous, and the tax was small. The king’s subjects in Britain had paid stamp duties for several decades without protest—but they were represented in Parliament, the colonists insisted, while the colonists were not.

The tradesmen did not ground their case on this argument. They complained instead of the consequences of the act for the highly profitable trade between Britain and the colonies. The law, they complained, “if carried into execution in this Province, will further tend to prevent our making those Remittances to Great Britain, for payment of old Debts, or purchase of more Goods, which the Faith subsisting between the Individuals trading with each other requires.” The signers sought repeal of the act, “in justice to ourselves to the Traders of Great Britain who usually give us Credit, and to the Consumers of British Manufactures in this Province.”

The British responses to the colonial protests were startling. Some government spokesmen argued that the colonists were represented in Parliament—that every member represented all of the king’s subjects. This theory of virtual representation struck many colonists as absurd—they replied that the right to consent to taxes was a fundamental right of all Englishmen to which they were as much entitled as the king’s subjects in Britain.

Government spokesmen and other commentators replied that the colonists did not enjoy the same rights as Englishmen living in the British Isles—that by leaving Britain the colonists had sacrificed many of those traditional rights. Some writers went further and argued that the colonists were not like Englishmen at all—that they were royal subjects living on the barbarous frontier of the king’s domain. The most severe of these critics wrote that the colonists were coarse, unrefined and lived like the woodland savages that surrounded them, and that such people had no claim on the rights of Englishmen. As the imperial controversy degenerated in an endless series of intemperate polemics, this argument was repeated over and over.

The imperial crisis of the 1760s led from protest to resistance to rebellion because it touched the lives of colonists from many different walks of life. Each had his or her own perspective on the crisis. To a settler in the backcountry, for whom a larger or better farm held out the prospect of a better life, the royal proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement beyond the mountains loomed large, as it did for many speculators who hoped to grow rich. For learned men, constitutional and legal arguments about parliamentary authority loomed large.

For luxury craftsmen who had prospered by bringing the most refined English tastes to Philadelphia, the British argument that they were not entitled to the same rights as other British subjects challenged the results of a lifetime of work. Colonial urban centers were provincial and their high style culture imitated London tastes, but by the 1760s the latest London fashions reached Philadelphia nearly as fast as they reached provincial centers in Britain. Fleeson and other high style craftsmen thought of themselves as an integral part of the British cultural world and were dismayed to learn that the British government regarded them as socially and culturally inferior—as less than the full participants in British cultural life that they had worked so hard to become.

The Townshend Duties hit hard at the luxury market. Taxing paint, paper, lead, tea and glass, the duties were aimed at the wealthy—Fleeson’s customers sitting in their fashionable parlors sipping tea, surrounded by walls adorned with imported paint and wallpaper, the room illuminated by natural light streaming through large, elaborate windows with glass panes fixed in place with lead.

Fleeson’s business depended heavily on imported English luxury goods, most importantly fabrics that could not be woven in the colonies, but all manner of other refined goods for which there were no substitutes produced in the colonies. Non-importation was hard on his business, but he persevered. In 1769 Fleeson offered his customers  “American Paper Hangings, manufactured in Philadelphia of all kinds and colours, and not inferior to those imported,” explaining that “there is considerable duty imposed on paper hangings imported here, and it cannot be doubted but that every one among us who wishes prosperity to America will give a preference to our own manufactures.” For Fleeson, this advertisement was a kind of declaration of independence.

Fleeson’s financial success insulated him from the business setbacks non-importation imposed on less established merchants and tradesmen. Fleeson probably had a substantial inventory of imported fabrics accumulated in his workshop at Fourth and Chestnut—enough indeed to give the “Sign of the Easy Chair” an enormous advantage over his younger, aspiring competitors. In the 1760s and 1770s Fleeson’s competitors included Samuel How, Thomas Lawrence, William Martin, John Webster and John Read—some of them craftsmen trained in London shops who advertised their sophisticated credentials in the newspapers.

Philadelphia-born Plunkett Fleeson nonetheless remained the leader, the gold standard in the trade. As the imperial controversy disrupted trade, Fleeson had considerable competitive advantages—a rich network of clients, a reputation as a craftsman of impeccable standards, and the assets to weather adversity. He had a substantial inventory of imported materials to work with and the financial asset to deal with interruptions in business. With few of these advantages, his competitors found resistance and revolution potentially devastating. Fleeson did not.

Plunkett Fleeson was also nimble enough to take advantage of the new business opportunities the crisis offered. When George Washington was in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress, he sought out Fleeson to supply the Fairfax County militia with drums and flags—and the revolutionary upholsterer was ready to oblige him. On November 29, 1774, Washington’s Philadelphia agent William Milnor reported to Washington that “Mr Fleecen assures me the Drums Coulers &c. shall be ready to come with the first Vessels & you may be assured I shall forward them with the Utmost speed.” Fleeson also provided Washington with a silk sash to go with his Virginia regimental uniform. When Washington appeared at the next spring at the Second Continental Congress in full military uniform, the sash he wore was probably the one supplied by Plunkett Fleeson.

When war finally broke out, Fleeson embraced the business opportunities it presented. In 1775 he advertised “drums, colours and other military instruments of the most approved kinds, and will endeavour to execute distant orders with the utmost despatch.” At least one of Fleeson’s “colours” survives—the regimental standard of the First Pennsylvania Batallion. On February 29, 1776, the Committee of Safety authorized payment of twenty-four pounds for “Drums, &c” supplied to the First Pennsylvania Batallion. Fleeson subcontracted this work out to a “Colonel Waine.” In a surviving invoice for his work dated August 26, 1775, Waine charged Fleeson eight pounds, five shillings for supplying “a Battan Taffaty Colour, Staff, Spear, Tassels” and four pounds, seven shillings for “a Division Colour Compleat.” In the spring of 1776, Fleeson manufactured three campaign tents for George Washington—a large marquee for dining and another for sleeping, along with a smaller baggage tent.

Plunkett Fleeson was sixty-four years old in the summer of 1776—far too old for military service—but he was widely regarded as a civic leader and embraced public service with enthusiasm. In June 1777 he was appointed a judge of the Philadelphia City Court. Like many active patriots, Fleeson left the city when the British army approached, and did not return until the British evacuated in June 1778. He kept busy that summer and into the fall administering oaths of allegiance and serving on the grand jury investigating the conduct of citizens accused of collaborating with the British during the occupation. The grand jury returned several indictments for treason—a capital offense—but ultimately only two of the convicted were executed. In 1780, “Squire Fleeson,” as he was affectionately known, was promoted to presiding judge of the city court.

In December 1783, Fleeson had the pleasure of addressing George Washington on behalf of the city government when Washington passed through Philadelphia on his way to Annapolis to resign his commission as commander-in-chief. In his address, Fleeson praised “the infinite Goodness of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe” for “raising up among us an illustrious Personage, with the most shining Abilities and conspicuous Virtues to lead, direct and animate by His Conduct and Example. Who this great Character is, shall be a Blank in our Page; being confident that every grateful Heart and generous Hand will be ready to fill it up.”

It was an apt tribute from a man who had spent much of his life filling up the blank walls and empty rooms of Philadelphia’s finest homes, for whom resistance and revolution was a declaration of cultural equality as much as political independence. Plunkett Fleeson died August 21, 1791. His body was interred in the churchyard of St. Paul’s, the elegant Anglican church completed in 1762, when he was on the vestry. The legend on his gravestone has worn to nothing, but his story survives to remind us of the complex motives that shaped our Revolution.

 

Above: Plunkett Fleeson upholstered this elaborate easy chair by cabinetmaker Thomas Affleck, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for John Cadwalader in 1770-1771.

Read about other Revolutionary Characters, including African American soldier Peter Hunter, wounded hero Margaret Corbin and homeless veteran Joseph Winter.

View the Cadwalader easy chair at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.