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The People’s Revolution

Margaret Corbin, portrayed in this sculpture by Tracy H. Sugg, was a heroine of the people's revolution.

How will we understand the American Revolution in the future we are making?

For more than two hundred years the American Revolution defined our nation and the ideals to which it is dedicated. For most of that time the heroes of the American Revolution were the cherished heroes of our nation. But in the last generation many Americans have turned away, suspecting at first and then in greater numbers believing that the Revolutionaries do not embody ideals we cherish, touching off a debate about the nature and meaning of our Revolution that will go far in shaping our national identity and the ideals that shape our conduct. Much more is at stake in this debate than the fate of monuments and memorials.

On the one hand are those—their voices have been particularly loud in the last year—who argue that the Revolutionaries did not go far enough or fast enough to fulfill the ideal of equality. Some go much further and argue that the Revolutionaries did not believe in equality, and simply used the rhetoric of universal natural rights to justify a political movement intended to impose deeper and more lasting forms of inequality.

On the other hand are those who insist that the Revolutionaries created a remarkable political and constitutional order which has facilitated the development of a free, wealthy, and powerful nation  which has, through gradual and at times dramatic moments of reform, provided for equality before the law and equality of opportunity for its citizens. While acknowledging that the men they admiringly refer to as the Founding Fathers were imperfect, they insist that we judge them in “the context of their time”—a time in which inequalities were commonplace. Their opponents are equally determined to stand in judgement of those same Founders, finding them wholly unworthy of admiration because they did not live according to standards of our time.

Although they have little in common otherwise, people on both extremes look on the Revolution as a political, legal, and constitutional event, and pay little attention to the Revolution as a social and cultural one. As a consequence people on both sides, and many in between, misunderstand the American Revolution.

 

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To understand our Revolution, there are few better places to begin that with the view of John Adams, a thoughtful revolutionary if ever there was one, who lived long enough to have historical perspective on the events through with he had live and in which he played such a prominent role. For Adams, the American Revolution began at the end of the French & Indian War, when the British began asserting themselves as never before in colonial affairs, and extended through the Declaration of Independence. Adams regarded the Revolution as a change in the sentiments of the American people, involving alienation from the British monarchy and the adoption of republican ideas about government, which he said had occurred before the war began. This was, for Adams, the real American Revolution.

Although it’s far from the way most modern Americans understand the Revolution, this view has some merit. The rejection of monarchy in favor of an experiment in self-government made the American Revolution an extraordinary event. In 1776 nearly everyone on Earth was the subject of a monarch. True self-government existed only in the theoretical speculations of philosophers and the conversations of coffeehouse radicals.

Few of us, however, share Adams’ view that the American Revolution was almost over before the war began. This is, at least in part, because our generation doesn’t readily grasp how radical the rejection of monarchy was in 1776. We live in a world in which most  governments are, at least nominally, republican—including governments, like that of the People’s Republic of China, that share few of the characteristics we associate with republics, and governments of constitutional monarchies, like that of Great Britain, that are republican in practice.

The success of our Revolution and the republic we created encouraged the world to follow our example. Much of the world did, and now what we accomplished no longer seems particularly radical. In this sense, the American Revolution succeeded beyond the expectations of its most enthusiastic supporters—except that, as we all know, many of the self-described republics of modern times are in fact some of history’s most vicious and sordid tyrannies. The idea that humankind should be governed by republic principles has triumphed, but the reality remains much as it was Rousseau challenged the world: mankind was made to be free, but is everywhere in chains. If understanding the fundamental ideals of our Revolution ever mattered, it matters now, when tyrants stalk the world falsely claiming to represent sovereign people—people they routinely oppress and brutalize.

John Adams was right that the American commitment to self-government was at the heart of our Revolution.  He simply underestimated the revolutionary consequences of the war in making it so. For him it was the war that followed the Revolution. In fact, the war was an intrinsic part of the Revolution.

This has been less and less appreciated, in the popular mind, in recent decades. The Revolutionary War now occupies little time in our history classrooms, where the focus is on political and constitutional events—chiefly the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federal Constitution—and the statesmen who shaped them.  The Revolutionary War is dealt with in a few broad strokes.  It seems small to many Americans, at least when compared to later wars. Its battles seem like mere skirmishes, its death toll paltry, its suffering minor, its sacrifices modest.

We are easily deceived by the war’s scale. It was, in fact, until the interminable, undeclared foreign wars of modern times, the longest war in American history. It touched every part of the new nation, from Maine to Florida, and westward to the Mississippi. It touched every community and brought sorrow and loss to many thousands of families. In proportion to the population, it took the lives of more Americans than any other war in our history except the Civil War. The Revolutionary War was itself a civil war that degenerated into a brutal partisan conflict between loyalists and patriots. It was a traumatic event punctuated by episodes of extraordinary courage and of remarkable brutality.

The war mobilized an extraordinary number of Americans—as soldiers, of course, but many more as laborers, sailors, and craftsmen. It had a dramatic effect on the lives of women—many of whom lost husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers, many more who were forced to manage for themselves and do work that they would never had had to do in peacetime, and some of whom followed the army on the march, in camp, and a few even to the battlefield. It also had an enormous effect on the lives of the enslaved. Many of them took advantage of the war to free themselves—running away, serving in or with the army as soldiers, laborers, or servants, bringing suit for their freedom, and taking advantage of the first statutes abolishing slavery ever adopted in the history of the world.

Little of this would have happened if the Revolutionary War had been brief—if, as many patriots hoped, the war had ended when the British evacuated Boston in the spring of 1776. But that didn’t happen. When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in June 1775 he had implied to his wife, Martha, that he would be home by Christmas. That was undoubtedly wishful thinking, but he never imagined that eight Christmases would come and go before he returned to Mount Vernon.

A war of that scale, fought in every part of the country, over such an extended period of time, was bound to transform peoples’ lives. To understand how deeply it effected people’s lives we have only to read some of the thousands of pension declarations veterans made fifty years and more after the war ended. For most of them, the war had been the singular event in their lives, never to be forgotten. Many bore physical scars from the war and for many more, the war was an upheaval that lifted their lives out of the course it would otherwise have followed and set them on an entirely new path. We will never understand the Revolution until we understand it in these terms.

The pension file of Jesse Stout, a New Jersey farmer, tells us that he served for most of the war. He was shot through the shoulder in 1777 and after recuperating, he returned to service. When the war was over he moved to Pennsylvania, then back to New Jersey, then in 1795 to Ohio, then seven years in Indiana, before settling finally in west central Illinois. Such an odyssey would have been unimaginable before the Revolution. But it was far from unusual. Thousands of Revolutionary War veterans moved west or south or north after the war—the population seemed at times to be charged with a restless energy. When the American Revolution began, the colonists nearly all lived with two hundred miles of the ocean, and most lived within fifty, as earlier generations had done.

The Revolution changed that forever. The graves of the men and women of the American Revolution are scattered over nearly half of the continent, and are found as far away as Missouri and Illinois. John Abstom of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, fought at Kings Mountain when he was nineteen, moved to Kentucky after the war, and settled finally in Texas. Charles Polk of Mecklenburg County was a teenager when he served in the defense of Fort Moultrie in 1776. He survived the war, married and settled in Tennessee, before he moved to Texas. Stephen Taylor served for three years in the Massachusetts Continental Line, moved around upstate New York, and lived for the last years of his life in the Minnesota Territory, a region barely mapped when the Revolutionary War began.

The war was a defining experience for those who never strayed far from the home. Marmaduke Maples enlisted in the North Carolina Continental Line in January 1777 and later signed up to serve for the duration of the war. He fought with Washington’s army at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, was captured when Charleston capitulated in June 1780. He was imprisoned for some two years, much of it on a prison hulk moored in the harbor, where the suffering prefigured Andersonville, except the prisoners packed in the hulks starved within sight of a city where food was abundant, their miserable lives punctuated by the daily ritual, in summer’s heat and winter’s cold, of burying their dead comrades in shallow graves scooped from the mud near the ship.

Most of the men Maples served with died on the prison hulks or agreed to enlist with the British as their only means of escape. Maples refused to join the British army. Malnourished and sick, he survived until he was exchanged in 1782, when he was loaded on a British transport and dumped at Jamestown, Virginia. Maples and the remaining North Carolinians marched to Hillsborough where they were captured by raiding loyalists in September 1782. Maples was so close to death that the loyalists paroled him. He was still on parole in early 1783, when he mustered at Cross Creek, (now Fayetteville) expecting to rejoin the army.

At several points in this odyssey Maples could have escaped the army, but he kept returning to service, and it seems unlikely that he did so simply to obtain bounties that went constantly unpaid. The inescapable conclusion is that he was committed to the cause. After the war he went home to Lincoln County, where he taught school. He lived for another sixty years, and when he was too old and broken down to support himself any longer and applied for a veterans pension, his neighbors testified that it was well known that he had been soldier of the Revolution and shared in many of its greatest battles.

The remarkable thing about his story is how unremarkable it was. The story of David Dorrance, a Connecticut captain, is much the same—he joined the army right after Bunker Hill, fought in its great battles and was shot through the right hip by Tories while leading a raid in Westchester County, New York, in 1781. It took him more than a year to recover, but he, too, returned to the army, despite being disabled. He carried the musket ball for decades, and in the last years of his life he could barely walk.

The early republic was filled with men with stories like these. “At the close of that struggle,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “nearly every adult male had been a participator in … its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or brother, a living history was to be found in every family—a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related—a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned.” At Gettysburg, when Lincoln referred to “our fathers,” who “brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation,” he meant the ordinary men—the fathers of his own generation—who had won the war.

The war made the American Revolution a people’s revolution. We don’t see that as clearly as we should, and that in the future we must. We have a tendency to think of our Revolution as an event dominated and driven by a group of people we call the Founding Fathers or sometimes even more simply, the Founders. This is a group of men, all of them white, and most of them wealthy, who were most active in the creative state building of the Revolution. They were mostly very conscious that they were participating in one of the great moments in world history and many cultivated reputations for unselfish public service. Some of them—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams most clearly—recognized that they were historic figures and saved their papers for us to read. They wanted us to remember them, and we do.

We don’t see the other Revolutionaries—the ordinary men and women for whom the Revolution became a transcendent and transforming cause—as clearly. Their Revolution was one of the defining events of modernity but it was over a few decades before the invention of photography—one of the defining technical achievements of modern times—which makes it possible for us to see the faces of the ordinary people who fought our Civil War, who protested for women’s rights, who suffered in the mines and the slums, who labored in the mills and who bore the scars of slavery. We can see their faces and easily imagine them as men and women like us.

Nor did the ordinary men and women of the Revolution leave us a large body of personal writings to make up for this deficiency. They weren’t Romantics. They didn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about themselves. They wrote some about their experiences but rarely about themselves—occasionally they share ideas but not often their feelings. Their diaries are too often spare and unrevealing. Their personal letters are not much better.

Just occasionally we get a glimpse of their emotional lives through the veil of reserve that they maintained. Acquilla Cleaveland was a young private in a New Hampshire ranger company, when he wrote to his wife, Mercy, on June 10, 1777. His company had been patrolling the west shore of Lake Champlain for sixty miles north of Fort Ticonderoga, but had seen only one Indian scouting party. They had no reports of British movements to the north. “By what we herd they will not trouble us here this summer.” He had no idea that a British army was descending on them. He was more worried about smallpox, which he said loyalists were trying to spread to American troops. Food was expensive, he wrote, and promised recruitment bounties remained unpaid—all in the workaday prose of an ordinary soldier. Then he closed:

My Dear wife after my regards to you, I don’t know when I shall see you, but would have you do as well as you can. Remember that God is as able to support you now as ever, if you trust in Him. I shall come home as soon as I can get a chance. And so I remain your loving husband till Death.

A week later, on June 17, Acquila Cleaveland was killed by a party of Mohawks sent south by the British in advance of Burgoyne’s army.

 

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Why did they do it?  Why did they risk their lives, and give their lives, in the American Revolution?  These are essential questions, and one of the basic flaws of the present, overheated public dialogue about the Revolution, is that the participants aren’t asking them.

At the level we need to be asking these questions, the documents often fail to give us clear answers, but the record is far from silent. Margaret Corbin was young and recently married when the war began. She lived in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in the wooded hills west of Gettysburg, though that town was not founded until she was ten and its terrible moment was near a century away. When Margaret was small her a party of Indians killed her father and carried off her mother, who was never to be heard from again. At twenty-one Margaret married a local farmer, John Corbin, and when the war began he enlisted in the First Company of Pennsylvania Artillery.

Men like John Corbin did not read treatises on natural rights or political economy like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson did. Women like Margaret Corbin certainly did not. Few of them ever heard of John Locke or Baron Montesquieu or ancients like Cicero. Taxes on paint, paper, lead, tea and glass—the Townshend Duties that so angered colonial merchants, didn’t touch people like John and Margaret Corbin, who didn’t buy paint or drink tea, who didn’t use much paper, and for whom lead was something cast into musket balls rather than used to hold window glass in place.

Men and women who lived in the colonial backcountry valued their independence. They had little property. In the Corbins’ Pennsylvania, where the law was more generous to squatters than elsewhere, many lived on land to which they had no clear title. What little they had—a bedstead, a few pots, a gun—belonged to them, and there was no squire to whom they owed obedience or to whom they paid rent. And if they liked they could go, joining the constant movement southward through the valley, or press westward, toward the Appalachia frontier, where the British had drawn a line forbidding settlement—a symbol of their intention, or so it seemed to Americans across the colonies and up and down the social scale, to impose much tighter control on their restless, unruly subjects.

These were people to whom independence was not a philosophical abstraction. It was a personal cause, and when they spoke of independence they meant personal independence as much or more than they meant national independence.

When John Corbin went off to war Margaret went with him and supported herself doing laundry, mending clothes, cooking, and nursing the sick. George Washington didn’t like the practice, but grudgingly accepted it, and at nearly every moment of the war, women were present. On November 16, 1776, John Corbin’s battery was stationed on a ridge on the northern end of Manhattan, which the British and Hessians had to take before approaching Fort Washington—the last American stronghold on the island. John Corbin was killed Margaret was nearby and took his place on the gun crew. She fell hideously wounded as the battery was overrun, hit in her left shoulder and arm, jaw, and left breast. She was captured, though in so much pain, if she was conscious, that she can hardly have cared about falling into the hands of the enemy. Released, she was taken by wagon to Philadelphia, where she languished for months.

Margaret’s story reminds us—and we clearly need reminding these days—of the extraordinary lengths to which the men and women of the revolutionary generation went to establish their independence. Perhaps if we had her photograph we would not be so quick to abandon the memory of her generation, but we don’t. Forgetting, Americans turned her sacrifice and that of other women like her into the genteel fantasy of Molly Pitcher, which our generation—so certain of its sophistication, so cynical—dismisses as a myth. If we had her photograph we would know her as a disfigured and scarred young woman who lived on, permanently disabled, drawing rations at West Point for the rest of her life, finally buried when she died at forty-eight in a grave that has been lost to memory. She paid the cost of liberty, and in doing so lost the personal independence she was probably fighting to maintain, or secure for herself, her husband, and for the family she never had.

We can, and often do, tie ourselves in knots trying to understand the Original Intent of the Revolutionaries who drafted our first constitutions and the laws under which we live. There are indeed many insights to be gleaned from the reflections of John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay, who all left their papers for us to read. But at its most fundamental, the American Revolution was a struggle for self-government—to vindicate the right of ordinary people to manage their own affairs—and the theoretical speculations of the most sophisticated founders tells us little that we cannot learn from the simple explanation of Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts, who explained decades after the war that “what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”

This same intent—independence defined as autonomy—self-government as a people and as individuals—is woven through the words and deeds of innumerable ordinary people who lived through our Revolution. Among them was Jeffrey Brace—a native of Mali, enslaved as a teenager, beaten and abused by a succession of masters in the Caribbean and later in Connecticut, who enlisted in the Continental Army with a promise of freedom at the end of his service. When he was finally discharged in the summer of 1783, he was awarded the badge of merit. “Thus was I,” he remembered, “a slave, for five years fighting for liberty.” We can know his story because almost thirty years after the war he told it to a young lawyer who wrote in all down. Like so many others, he had fought for personal independence. “The first time I made a bargain as a freeman for labor” after the war was one of the most memorable days of his life. “I enjoyed the pleasures of a freeman; my food was sweet, my labor pleasure: and one bright gleam of life seemed to shine upon me.”

The achievements of the American Revolution were not the achievements of a small group of men we call the Founding Fathers. They were thinkers and leaders, creative statesmen to be sure, but the achievements of the American Revolution are the common achievements of thousands of people. The leaders we remember most clearly played essential roles, but often that role was to articulate, in declarations, constitutions, bills of rights, laws, learned essays, and popular polemics, ideas that were being expressed in varying ways and to various degrees of precision, by thousands of people.

Leaders have to lead, and the essence of leadership is a balance between fulfilling the ideas and expectations of the people led and expressing new ideas and translating those ideas into action. The first is critical, because the hope of seeing their ideas and expectations fulfilled is the reason people embrace leaders, and a leader without followers is just someone taking a walk. Philosophers had been talking about natural rights and what we have come to call civil rights for more than a century when the Revolutionary War began. Political thinkers had concluded, in weighty books circulated among themselves, that a republic was, in theory at least, the best sort of government. Thomas Jefferson didn’t vindicate our natural rights. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton didn’t give us our republic.

They were taken for us by Charles Polk and Acquilla Cleaveland, and by Margaret Corbin and Jeffrey Brace.  They were taken for us by the officers and men of the Continental Army, who scorned a military takeover at the end of the war. They were taken for us by thousands of ordinary Americans who became our first veterans, who went home at the end of eight years unpaid, with promises made to them by government unfulfilled, mostly penniless, many in rags, but conscious of duty faithfully performed in a war of liberation that had made possible, for the first time, governments based on the principle of popular sovereignty and limited by devotion to the rule of law and limited, by constitutional principle, to prevent governments from invading the legitimate rights of the people.

Thomas Paine had told them to expect independence to come at a high price. “What we obtain too cheap,” Paine wrote in Common Sense, “we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.”

Independence—the accomplishment of eight years of desperate war, the shared accomplishment of thousands of ordinary Americans—made possible all that we have become. Independence led, despite the misgivings of the Founding Fathers about democracy, to the development of a liberal democracy in which ordinary people participated to a degree the Founders never imagined or foresaw—the people’s revolution, you see, confounded their expectations—and left us with a government republican in form but popular in practice, with constitutional boundaries preventing the popular will from invading individual rights—the very individual autonomy so many of the Revolutionaries had fought to achieve.

The war created a nation where none had existed before—a nation based, not on ethnicity, religion, or ancient traditions, but on shared principles and shared history—a shared history that involved heroic leader like Washington but also heroes fit for a democratic republic like Sergeant Jasper and Peter Francisco, along with eighteenth century gentry like Francis Marion and Benjamin Franklin, made over into Everyman heroes. The war gave us the opportunity to establish the modern world’s first great republic, and to begin the difficult work of fulfilling the ideals upon which that republic was founded—liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and the privileges—and obligations—of citizenship under the rule of law.

Embracing the idea that the American Revolution was a people’s revolution compels us to consider the varied ideas, hopes, and motivations of an enormous range of Americans from all walks of life. And it does something equally important: it forces us to view the Revolution, not from the perspective of the present, but in relation to what came before—the conditions of life before America was, in any meaningful sense, free. It leads us to judge the people of the Revolution not by our standards alone, nor by what we call “the context of their time,” as if that was static and immovable. It leads us to judge them by how far their energy and daring changed the world in which they lived for the better—a fair and just standard against which all should be judged.

“Posterity!” John Adams admonished us in the spring of 1777. “You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it.” Our task is to make sure posterity does know how much it cost the revolutionary generation to establish our freedom, and makes good use of it.

Jack D. Warren, Jr.

 

Above: This extraordinary modern sculpture of Margaret Corbin by Tracy H. Sugg pays tribute to a heroic woman whose sacrifice embodies the commitment that made the American Revolution a people’s Revolution (image of the original clay sculpture prior to bronze casting, used by permission of the artist—www.tracyhsugg.com).

The People’s Revolution was presented, under the title The Future of the American Revolution, as the 2021 American Revolution Lecture at the North Carolina Museum of History, an annual series sponsored by the North Carolina Society of the Cincinnati.  Watch the lecture online at The Future of the American Revolution.

For more on the ordinary men and women whose drive for personal independence defines the American Revolution, read Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary and The Heroic Jeffrey Brace.

On the basic achievements of the American Revolution, read Why the American Revolution Matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fruit Seller’s Portrait

Bryan Rossiter was a New York City fruit seller and sergeant at arms of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati when John Trumbull painted this portrait of him.

Among the treasures in the care of the American Revolution Institute—owned for nearly two hundred years by the New York State Society of the Cincinnati—is an enigmatic portrait painted by John Trumbull at the height of his career. The sitter, Bryan Rossiter, is a handsome man in middle age, in what appears to be a military uniform, wearing a bicorn hat.

The portrait presents a mystery. Trumbull painted and drew hundreds of portraits, but nearly all of them were either commissioned or they were executed as sources for his historical paintings. Trumbull’s portrait of Bryan Rossiter doesn’t seem to fall into either category. It appears to be an outlier, which is one of several things that makes it intriguing.

Although he had been a soldier in the Revolutionary War, Bryan Rossiter was not a participant in any of the historical scenes Trumbull painted. He wasn’t present at the British surrender at Saratoga or Yorktown or the Hessian surrender at Trenton. He didn’t fight in the battles of Bunker Hill, Quebec or Princeton, and he wasn’t a face in the crowd at the presentation of the Declaration of Independence or in Annapolis when Washington resigned his commission. Trumbull painted preparatory portraits for his historical paintings of people he ultimately left out, but there’s no reason to suspect Rossiter was one of them.

There was nothing unusual about Rossiter’s Revolutionary War service. A native of Durham, Connecticut, he joined the Connecticut State Troops in 1776, when he was just sixteen. The next year he enlisted in the Continental Army. For most of his tenure he served in the Sixth Connecticut. He was promoted to sergeant in October 1780 and furloughed in June 1783, and was awarded the army’s Badge of Merit for his faithful service. This honor is reflected in the two stripes on Rossiter’s left sleeve in the Trumbull portrait.

Rossiter was twenty-three when the war ended. Like most veterans of the Continental Army, he was owed back pay. Rossiter was also owed a bonus of eighty dollars and a warrant for one hundred acres of land, but he would wait many years for the government to make good on these promises. In the meantime, he made his start in civilian life. He married in January 1784 and he and his wife had a son, named Asher.

Unfortunately we lose sight of Rossiter for most of the next twelve years. There’s a Bryant Rosseter in the 1790 census of Westchester County, New York, that might be him. At some point he moved into New York City—one of tens of thousands drawn into the city, which grew at an astonishing rate, from 30,000 in 1790 to 60,000 in 1800 to 202,000 in 1830.

Rossiter shows up in city directories beginning in 1796, driving a delivery wagon. After 1800, the city directories identify him as a fruit seller, which probably means he operated a stall in one of the city markets, probably at the Catherine Market, which was beside the East River close to his home. In the 1810s, that market—located near what is now the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge—was one of the city’s most important purveyors of food, serving at least twenty-five thousand residents of surrounding neighborhoods, between two thousand and five thousand of whom visited the market each day. The market arcade housed between forty and fifty butchers, around twenty fishmongers, as well as vendors selling vegetables and fruits. Much of what was sold at the Catherine Market came across the East River by boat from farms, dairies and orchards on Long Island. Farmers came to the market to sell their own produce, often selling from makeshift stands and wagons on the adjacent streets.

This nineteenth century view of a New York City market depicts the kind of market where Bryan Rossiter, the subject of Trumbull's portrait, set up his fruit seller's stand.

William P. Chappel painted this view of the Fly Market—similar to the Catherine Market where Bryan Rossiter probably sold his fruit—as it appeared in 1808. The butchers occupied the stalls inside the arcade. Fruits and vegetables were sold from stalls flanking the outer walls (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Since Rossiter sold fruit, he probably had regular suppliers on Long Island or Westchester County. Vendors set out for the market in the middle of the night. Most of the market business was finished by ten in the morning, although stands might remain open until early afternoon to sell the last of their picked-over goods. The market was open six days a week; fishmongers and some other vendors were permitted to sell on Sunday. This went on year round. From 1801 there was a vendor in the market who sold coffee and hot chocolate by the cup. We can imagine Bryan Rossiter warming himself with a cup after setting up his fruit stand for the morning. This humble, honest occupation was sufficient for Rossiter to support his little family in a simple way, but he was never prosperous. In this respect his life was probably much like that of thousands of other Revolutionary War veterans in New York City. He lived in New York City for many years before he could afford to buy a simple home. He certainly could not have afforded to commission John Trumbull to paint his portrait.

What set Rossiter apart from other veteran enlisted men in the city is that in 1801, the New York State Society of the Cincinnati hired him to serve as its sergeant at arms. The New York State Society was one of the most active state organizations in the Society of the Cincinnati. Its members enjoyed socializing, usually at a tavern, maintaining the “cordial affection,” as the Society’s Institution called it, of their war days. As a veteran enlisted man, Rossiter was not eligible for membership, which was restricted to commissioned officers. His role involved making the practical arrangements for Society events—informing members about gatherings, ensuring a supply of food and drink was on hand, making sure bills were paid, and carrying out other administrative tasks. The New York State Society paid Rossiter $2.50 to $5 for officiating at events.

Rossiter also played a ceremonial role. The New York State Society was much given to ritual. General Steuben, one of its most active members in its first years, enjoyed the theatrics of aristocratic society and introduced pomp and ceremony into the life of the organization. The flag of the Society of the Cincinnati, still in use, was first used by the New York State Society.

To carry out his ceremonial role, the New York State Society supplied Rossiter with a military-style uniform. This is the uniform he is wearing in the Trumbull portrait. The dark blue coat with red facings bears a superficial resemblance to a Continental Army uniform, but the details, including the silver epaulettes, are particular to this costume, which seems to have been designed especially for the Cincinnati’s sergeant at arms. Those details bring us closer to unravelling the mystery posed by the portrait.

Bryan Rossiter and John Trumbull were both Connecticut men, and about the same age—Trumbull was just four years older—but there is no reason to believe they knew one another before Trumbull arrived in New York in the early summer of 1804. Trumbull had grown up in Lebanon, Connecticut. He had served briefly as adjutant of Connecticut troops in 1775 and thereafter was an aide to George Washington until 1777, when he resigned his commission. He returned to service in the winter of 1782-1783, working for his brother as a supply officer. Although Trumbull and Rossiter were both from Connecticut, their wartime service barely overlapped. There is no reason to imagine they were friends or even encountered one another during the war.

During the years after the Revolutionary War, Trumbull divided his time between Britain and America, learning the painter’s art and establishing himself as an artist in America. He arrived in New York City on June 27, 1804, after spending ten years in Europe. We can be reasonably sure that Bryan Rossiter and John Trumbull met a week later on July 4, when Trumbull attended a meeting of the New York State Society.

The meeting began by transacting a little formal business, in which Alexander Hamilton, who had been president general of the Society of the Cincinnati since George Washington’s death in 1799, made a motion about membership that was adopted. Then the group, or at least most of it, turned to its usual mirth and good cheer. Trumbull described the occasion in his autobiography:

On the 4th of July, I dined with the society of the Cincinnati, my old military comrades, and then met, Gen. Hamilton and Col. Burr. The singularity of their manner was observed by all, but few had any suspicion of the cause. Burr, contrary to his wont, was silent, gloomy, sour; while Hamilton entered with glee into all the gaiety of a convivial party, and even sung an old military song.

The song Hamilton sang was probably “How Stands the Glass Around,” an old military ballad associated with General James Wolfe. Its melancholy refrain:

Why, soldiers, why,
Should we be melancholy, boys?
Why, soldiers, why?
Whose business ‘tis to die!

The dinner was on a Wednesday night. The next Wednesday, Hamilton lay in anguish from a pistol ball fired by Burr that had passed through his liver and lodged near his spine. The day after that he was dead.

Hamilton’s funeral was held on Saturday, July 14. Hamilton’s coffin was taken from the home of his friend John Barker Church and carried in a procession that wound its way to Trinity Church. The procession was led by the Sixth Regiment of militia. Following the pallbearers came Hamilton’s children and relatives, then physicians, members of the bar, city officials, foreign consuls, military officers, bankers, merchants, the faculty and students of Columbia College, and members of the St. Andrew’s Society, the Tammany Society, the Mechanic Society and the Marine Society. Gouverneur Morris, who gave the eulogy when the procession reached the church, followed the pallbearers in his coach.

Behind the militia and immediately in front Hamilton’s coffin, in a place of conspicuous honor, marched the members of the Society of the Cincinnati. John Trumbull was probably among them, and they were led, no doubt, by their sergeant at arms, in his handsome dark blue and red uniform. On his hat Rossiter surely wore the prominent black cockade depicted in his portrait. The black cockade was an appropriate sign of mourning, but it was also the symbol of the Federalist party, of which Hamilton had been a national leader and to which all of his pallbearers and most of the members of the New York State Society of the Cincinnati adhered. The black cockade may have been a regular part of the sergeant at arms’ uniform—we cannot know for sure—but it took on special meaning for Hamilton’s friends on that day of mourning.

Hamilton’s sudden death was shocking to Trumbull, who wrote that dueling was “a senseless custom, which ought not to have outlived the dark ages in which it had its origins.” The tragedy also resulted in a steady income for Trumbull. The city commissioned him to paint a full-length portrait of Hamilton for city hall, which Trumbull based on the portrait of Hamilton he had painted a decade earlier. Between 1804 and 1808, while he remained in New York, Trumbull painted many more copies of the portrait for Hamilton’s admirers.

Trumbull painted Bryan Rossiter’s portrait during this period. It seems to have been a remembrance of Hamilton’s death and funeral—terrible events that weighed heavily on Trumbull as they did on many of Hamilton’s friends and admirers. Trumbull sold the Hamilton portraits, but he kept his portrait of Bryan Rossiter. Perhaps he imagined it as a study for larger work relating to Hamilton’s death that he never began, and of which no other evidence survives. Trumbull considered several historical paintings he never executed, and for which fragmentary evidence survives, including a sketch of Gen. Charles Lee drawn as a study for a painting of the heroic defense of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1776. Regardless of Trumbull’s intentions, the Rossiter portrait is a reminder of the tragic events of July 1804.

Trumbull left New York in 1808 and returned to England. That same year, Rossiter successfully petitioned for his land warrant and then sold it to supplement his income. The proceeds may have provided much of the price of the modest house Rossiter bought at 62 Hester Street, in what is now the Lower East Side, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Rossiter continued to serve the New York State Society of the Cincinnati until old age overtook him. In 1818 he was involved in organizing the Society’s role in the recovery of the remains of General Richard Montgomery from Quebec and their ceremonial reinternment in St. Paul’s Churchyard. That same year Rossiter applied for support under the Pension Act of 1818 and was awarded eight dollars a month, but he was struck from the rolls in 1820 because he had not demonstrated sufficient financial need. In 1822 the New York State Society conferred an annual salary of fifty dollars on him. When Lafayette dined with members of the Society in New York in 1824, Rossiter, in his uniform, led the former general and other Society members into the room.

In 1828, Rossiter petitioned to receive the eighty-dollar bonus Congress had promised in 1778. After waiting fifty years, he finally received the bonus owed to him. His pension was restored later that year after he was disabled by a “paralytic affliction”—probably a stroke—to which the extraordinarily labored signature he affixed to his petition is mute testimony. The New York State Society of the Cincinnati gave Rossiter an additional thirty dollars (about six hundred dollars in today’s money) in 1828, “to provide for the comfort & medical attendance of the said Sergeant, he now being dangerously ill.”

Shortly thereafter John Trumbull presented his portrait of Rossiter to the New York State Society of the Cincinnati, expressing hope that the painting would “serve to commemorate a very worthy and faithful veteran of the American revolution.” Bryan Rossiter died on Christmas Eve, 1834.

Portraits of men who served in the enlisted ranks in our Revolutionary War are very rare. Without Trumbull’s surprising portrait, Bryan Rossiter would be little more than a name on a roster and an entry in a city directory—the ripples that common men make in the historical record. Only occasionally do we have enough to develop a more complete picture. Bryan Rossiter’s portrait reaches across more than two centuries to introduce us to an ordinary man whose life was touched by extraordinary events, and who commands our respect as one of the thousands of brave men and women who founded our nation.

 

The Trumbull portrait of Bryan Rossiter is featured in our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, which is also the theme of the new book from the American Revolution Institute.

To learn more about other great works in the Institute collections, visit Masterpieces in Detail.

If you share our concern about ensuring that all Americans understand and appreciate the constructive achievements of the American Revolution and honor its veterans, 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.

Our First Veterans

William Tylee Ranney's Veterans of 1776 honors America's First Veterans.

The American Revolution was the most deeply consequential event in our nation’s history. It secured our independence, established our republic, created our national identity, and expressed ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship that have defined our nation for nearly 250 years. The achievements of the Revolution were the work of a whole generation of Americans. We remember the statesman and the generals, but should remember as well the service and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans, without whom the American Revolution could not have succeeded. First among those are the soldiers and sailors who risked their lives, and the many who gave their lives, in our Revolutionary War. They left us extraordinary legacy.

That legacy includes our understanding that military service involves sacrifices for which free societies incur obligations that transcend the commitments they make to others in their service. Men and women in the military sacrifice their liberty, embrace discipline that deprives them of freedoms others possess, accept risks few civilians encounter, and forego opportunities and ordinary pleasures others enjoy, and which their service makes possible. Those who serve in combat endure terrors and suffering beyond the comprehension of most of their fellow citizens. Our debt to them is no ordinary debt. No financial transaction can discharge it. Our debt obliges all of us to express our respect and appreciation—to care, in Lincoln’s words, “for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves.”

Americans took a very long time to grasp these truths and honor the veterans of our Revolutionary War. In the process they redefined what it means to be a veteran, abandoning the idea that the term applies only to a limited class of long-serving, accomplished men, and attaching it to nearly all former soldiers and sailors, recognizing service rather than expertise. The experience of our first veterans transformed the way Americans understand pensions—once regarded as a tool of monarchical or aristocratic privilege used to corrupt public life and reward family, friends, and political allies at the expense of ordinary people. By the middle of the 1830s, the American pension system was operated for benefit of ordinary people, and pensions had become a way for a democratic society to recognize and reward veterans of every sort. America’s first veterans also changed the way Americans understood honor—once regarded as a quality of gentlemen of education, refinement, and high social standing. Americans redefined honor as a moral and ethical quality displayed by people at every level of society.

All of these changes were shaped by the ideals of the American Revolution, and unfolded over several decades. This experience holds an important lesson for us. Like Americans of the early nineteenth century, we do not fully grasp the revolutionary implications of our Revolution—how radically it challenged the injustice of its age, how deep and pervasive its influence has been, what it principles require from each of us now and will require of each of us in the future. We live in a nation defined and continuously transformed by our Revolution, yet we often overlook its vast importance.

It took a lifetime to work out some of the simplest implications of that vast event, yet the ideals articulated and defended by the revolutionary generation ultimately transformed, and continue to transform, the lives of everyone in the United States. Those ideals fueled the demands of ordinary people for an active role in governance, unleashed an egalitarian movement in religion that transformed the spiritual lives of millions, exposed slavery as an abomination and set it on the path to extinction, released the creative energy that transformed American business, science, literature, and education, encouraged the unfettered expression of ideas, and provided the intellectual foundations for challenging centuries of discrimination against women and all forms of oppression on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, social status, vocation, physical condition, or mental ability. We are all heirs to the American Revolution and the free society it created, and is still shaping. That free society, with all the promise it holds for the United States and the world, is the legacy of America’s first veterans.

 

Above: Detail from William Tylee Ranney, Veterans of 1776 Returning from the War, 1848, Dallas Museum of Art. View the whole painting at the museum’s website.

This is an excerpt from America’s First Veterans, published on November 11, 2020, by the American Revolution Institute. Visit America’s First Veterans to order a copy.

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 and honor its veterans, 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 Revolutionary War veterans, read Margaret Corbin, Revolutionary, The Heroic Jeffrey Brace, Joseph Winter, Lone Wanderer, and Joseph Plumb Martin, Everyman. The American Revolution Institute honors all our Revolutionary War veterans, including men (and women) of every race and background who fought for our independence.

 

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.

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