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, twenty-five 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 sto 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.






The Fatal Flaw of the 1619 Project Curriculum

In this watercolor, two female slaves work with hoes while a white oveseer watches. This painting invites a more nuanced interpretation than the 1619 Project curriculum would facilitate.

As teachers get ready for the fall, thousands will be tempted to make use of the 1619 Project curriculum offered online by the Pulitzer Center, which has formed a partnership with the New York Times to distribute lesson plans built around the essays in the 1619 Project, which were originally published in the New York Times Magazine in August 2019. Teachers and school administrators should resist this temptation, since academic reviewers, including some of the nation’s leading historians, have been unyielding in their criticism of the 1619 Project, pointing to numerous errors of fact and interpretation and rejecting its fundamental claim that the nation is defined by racism and was conceived in oppression.  There are better ways to teach students about the history and ordeal of slavery—an important subject that deserves our finest efforts.

Those same academic critics, unfortunately, have not turned their attention to the 1619 Project curriculum, which is the means by which the poisonous errors and coarse misinterpretations of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues will be transmitted, like a disease, to young Americans. Having issued their learned responses in the pages of the Atlantic or the Wall Street Journal, they may find it sufficient that the 1619 Project curriculum is the fruit of a poison tree, and not bother to examine it.

That’s not a wise position to take. The radical ideologues promoting Nikole Hannah-Jones’ grotesque view of America aren’t after the mature readers of the Atlantic or the Wall Street Journal. Despite their recent, rapid gains, they’re sticking to the long game they’ve been playing for decades, going after young, impressionable minds. Their method is not to persuade. It is to propagandize.

Their method has been working for some forty years. Their patron saint, the late Howard Zinn, aimed his subversive, error-packed People’s History of the United States at teenagers, most of them ill-equipped to see through his irrationality, misuse of sources, and politicized misinterpretations. Indeed Zinn never tried to disguise his aims when addressing mature audiences, to which he said many times that objective truth does not exist and that teaching history is nothing more than a means to advance a political agenda by confecting and presenting interpretations to support it.

The simplicity of the radical dialectic—a bipolar world of oppressors and oppressed, without the complexity or confusing contradictions of a more nuanced, realistic, view of the past—appeals to many young people. It also simplifies the task of overburdened teachers faced with the challenge of equipping students to interpret a complex and confusing world. The radical history of Howard Zinn and Nikole Hannah-Jones addresses present-day dilemmas, and seems more relevant, and certainly more accessible, than the nuanced history writing of serious scholars like Gordon Wood, Mary Beth Norton, Sean Wilentz, and James McPherson. But the fact remains that history is complicated and requires patient study, a willingness to weigh and assess confusing, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory evidence, and the sophistication to understand that historical events and actors are shaped by many factors, of which race, while often important, is only one. Students really ought to be taught to emulate scholars who understand this, rather than to follow a venomous twenty-first-century Madame Defarge intent on reducing American history to a dismal story of racists and their victims.

The 1619 Project curriculum is actually worse than the dishonest and deceptive material on which it is based. A mature adult reader of the 1619 Project may be equipped to apply critical reasoning to its claims—particularly Hannah-Jones’ claim that the purpose of the American Revolution was to perpetuate slavery. We cannot reasonably expect middle school and high school students, to whom we ought to be teaching critical reasoning skills, to bring the same kind of skepticism to their reading of works we assign them. The 1619 Project curriculum goes out of its way to avoid a critical reading of Hannah-Jones central claims. It expects student to accept her conclusions about the nature of American history and culture without critical inquiry and asks them to regard the world around them from Hannah-Jones’ perspective, rather than treat Hannah-Jones as one of many interpreters, much less recognize her as a journalist with no credentials or standing as an historian.

The premise of the curriculum is that Nikole Hannah-Jones has discovered a fundamental truth about American history that has eluded the historical profession: that the central, defining feature of American history and culture is racism. The exercises that make up this curriculum are all based on this premise.

None of those exercises invite students to challenge the premise. Every exercise involves asking students a loaded question—a question that presupposes the relevant facts and serves the questioner’s agenda. The effect is the same as asking an innocent man if he has stopped beating his wife. The only sensible response is to dispute the premise by saying “I have never beaten my wife.” But students are rarely welcome to dispute the premise of their teachers’ questions.

Indeed in the current cultural climate, a student brave enough to challenge the Hannah-Jones premise is quite likely to be accused of being a racist—the fastest route to such a charge at this time being to challenge the thesis that something called “systemic racism” is the defining characteristic of American history and culture. The truth of this thesis has quite suddenly become an article of faith, not subject to scrutiny or consideration using the traditional canons of evidence. The Pulitzer Center’s curriculum is not a tool for intellectual exploration or discovery. It is a catechism.

Like a catechism, it presupposes the articles of the faith—one of which is irrational and indefensible absurdity that the American Revolution was conducted to perpetuate slavery. This is, in fact, the main pillar of the faith. If, as a generation of historians from Edmund S. Morgan and Bernard Bailyn, to Gordon S. Wood have made clear, the American Revolution was a pivotal moment in the development of human freedom, the central premise of the 1619 Project is revealed as pernicious nonsense.

Under no circumstances do the creators of the 1619 Project curriculum suggest students entertain this possibility. There is no room for questioning the new revelation. This is nowhere clearer than in the centerpiece of the 1619 Project curriculum, a lesson entitled “Exploring ‘The Idea of America’ by Nikole Hannah-Jones.”  In it, students are asked to read Hannah-Jones’ error-choked essay and then respond to a series of questions based on the assumption that Hannah-Jones’ claims are fact and that any assertion to the contrary is, by definition, racist.

“What examples of hypocrisy in the founding of the United States does Hannah-Jones supply?” is the lead—and leading—question. That the founding of the United States was an exercise in hypocrisy is taken for granted—because Hannah-Jones says so. The follow-up question is contorted to require students to recapitulate Hannah-Jones’ errors about the Revolution as if they were facts: “What evidence can you see for how ‘some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slaveocracy’?”

At no point in the lesson are students asked to weigh the validity of what Hannah-Jones says about the American Revolution, nor to judge the evidence she presents, because a perceptive student would recognize that she presents no evidence at all. Neither here nor anywhere else in this so-called curriculum are students asked to read and consider any of the several carefully reasoned critiques of “The Idea of America,” including those written by important historians and published in major magazines, like the one by Sean Wilentz in the Atlantic.

“What picture does Hannah-Jones paint of the major figures in classical U.S. history such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln?” ‘Jefferson and Lincoln were racists’ is the answer programmed into this catechism—students need only refer to “The Idea of America” to validate that claim. “Did you learn new information about them from her essay?”  ‘Yes,’ the student is led to answer, followed by something like ‘I learned how despicable they truly are.’  And since you learned this new information, the catechist concludes, “why do you think this information wasn’t included in other resources from which you have learned about U.S. history?”

You get the idea. Susan or Johnny are supposed to respond ‘because the history books from which I’ve learned about U.S. history were written by systemic racists,’ and gets extra credit for blessing Nikole Hannah-Jones for opening their eyes to the true faith. Woe unto the student who responds ‘I don’t think I learned that Jefferson and Lincoln were despicable from the books I’ve read because they were written by distinguished historians who devoted many years to research, carefully documented their assertions, and faced the scrutiny of professional peer review. They don’t think what Nikole Hannah-Jones has written is correct. In fact, with respect to Jefferson and Lincoln, the preeminent authorities think she’s totally wrong.’

Few sixteen- and seventeen-year-old U.S. history students are prepared to serve up that answer, and a teacher who’s embraced the 1619 Project curriculum with the zeal of a convert is not likely to respond favorably to those who can. Such a teacher might be prepared to quote Ms. Hannah-Jones, who disdains her critics as “old, white male historians” and sneers, for example, at James McPherson, the most respected Civil War historian of our time. “Who considers him preeminent?” Hannah-Jones asks. “I don’t.”

To put this sneer in context: James McPherson spent a distinguished career as an historian at Princeton. His book, The Struggle for Equality, is a standard work on the fight for black emancipation and empowerment in the Civil War and Reconstruction. His succeeding volume, The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP, carries the story of civil rights activism down to 1910. W.E.B. DuBois called that crusade “the finest thing in American history.”  Professor McPherson’s history of the Civil War era, Battle Cry of Freedom, put conflicting ideas about freedom, including the freedom of African-Americans, at the center of the story. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was praised by Ms. Hannah-Jones own New York Times as perhaps the best one-volume history of the Civil War ever published. His many important books include Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and Ordeal by Fire: Civil War and Reconstruction.

A student who suggested we rely on James McPherson’s view of Lincoln, elaborated in collected works spread over nearly sixty years of patient scholarship, instead of the view of Nicole Hannah-Jones, whose collected works on Lincoln fill a few skimpy paragraphs, risks being labeled a racist by the new inquisition. The 1619 Project curriculum does not admit the possibility that “other resources from which you have learned about U.S. history”—the collected works of James McPherson, perhaps—could be right and the 1619 Project wrong. That would be heresy.

The whole dismal exercise bears comparison with the work of a German pedagogue of the 1930s, Werner May, whose German National Catechism asked leading questions in the same style: “How has the Jew subjugated the peoples?” The answer: “With Money . . .Thousands and thousands of Germans have been made wretched by the Jews and been reduced to poverty.” And another: “What other guilt does the Jew bear?”  The answer: “While the German people was fighting a life and death battle during the World War, the Jew incited people at home and seduced them into treason. . . . He corrupted Germans through bad books . . . Everywhere, his influence was destructive.” The cost to a young German of challenging the premise of these questions was high, and few students dared. Most, of course, dutifully repeated the dogmas as they were told to do.

Like the grotesquely distorted view of American history and culture framed by Nikole Hannah-Jones in her essay, “The Idea of America,” the catechism devised by the Pulitzer Center is an anti-intellectual exercise, scorning historical scholarship and elevating an error-riddled newspaper essay above interpretations of the American past carefully constructed by serious scholars over more than fifty years. The 1619 Project curriculum is not an educational enterprise. It is tool of political indoctrination. No school system should endorse it. No teacher should use it. And no student should be misled by it, nor punished for rejecting its fatally flawed premise.

Jack D. Warren, Jr.


Above: Architect and artist Benjamin Henry Latrobe painted this watercolor, An Overseer Doing his Duty, in 1798. It is one of the few surviving realistic depictions of enslaved people at work in the United States from the eighteenth-century (Maryland Historical Society).

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 the story of a remarkable black soldier of the American Revolution who endured the horrors of enslavement and fought for his freedom, read The Heroic Jeffrey Brace.

For more on the misleading treatment of the American Revolution in the 1619 Project, read The Revolutionary Dishonesty of the ‘1619 Project’

Review the 1619 Project curriculum lesson on “The Idea of America”

To learn more about the irresponsible treatment of the American Revolution in the 1619 Project, read our essays outlining the project’s errors, tracing them to their discredited sources, and offering an alternative interpretation of the relationship between the Revolution, natural rights and the end of slavery:

The American Revolution and the Foundations  of Free Society

What’s Wrong with “The Idea of America”?

Slavery, Rights and the Meaning of the American Revolution

The 1619 Project distorts much more of American history than the American Revolution. For other critiques, see Eliot Kaufman, “The 1619 Project Gets Schooled,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2019, and Sean Wilentz, “A Matter of Facts,” The Atlantic, January 22, 2020.

The Revolutionary Dishonesty of the “1619 Project”

The New York Times is engaged in a full-scale assault on the memory of the American Revolution, alleging—without foundation and over the objections of some of the country’s leading historians—that the aim of the Revolution was to perpetuate slavery. This is a central thesis of the “1619 Project,” an interpretation of American history as an unrelieved tale of racial oppression and criminal exploitation, conceived by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a journalist who demonstrates no acquaintance with scholarship and less regard for honesty. What began as a series of essays in The New York Times Magazine has been reconfigured as a series of lessons to be distributed, free, to teachers anxious to help their students understand the protests and riots of this anxious summer. The editors of The New York Times, demonstrating no more regard for truth than Ms. Hannah-Jones, are working to make sure their pernicious falsehoods about the American Revolution get taught to students in every school in the country.

The American Revolution was not conducted to defend slavery. The Revolution secured our independence, established our republic, created our national identity and committed our nation to ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and responsible citizenship. It articulated ideals fundamentally at odds with slavery, and set that abhorrent practice on the path to extinction. Principled opposition to slavery was barely expressed prior to the American Revolution. The Revolution threw slavery on the defensive. Its commitment to universal natural rights inspired the growth of abolitionism across the Atlantic world. In fact, the British abolitionist movement took off after the American Revolution, drawing inspiration from the principles of the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery in the northern states.

Brilliant scholars—men and women of good will at the forefront of the history profession—have called on the New York Times to correct its errors. Those scholars want Americans to understand the history of slavery and racism and their influence today, but insist that the cause of social justice is not served by making false claims about the American Revolution or other periods of American history.

The New York Times has ignored them and persists in its grotesque attempt to recast the American Revolution as a sinister movement and the revolutionaries as monsters whose primary aim was to perpetuate slavery. The editors of the newspaper and their allies are now promoting lesson plans to spread their unfounded assertions, banking on the newspaper’s vast circulation and even wider reach to persuade young Americans to despise the men and women who secured our national independence and created our republic. Ms. Hannah-Jones, whose previous work includes fulsome praise of Castro’s regime in Cuba, has expressed delight at the looting and vandalism that has swept the country which she is happy to call the “1619 riots.” She’s made it clear that historical understanding is of no concern to her. Her aim is persuade Americans to hate the nation’s founders as a step toward dismantling their work.

No American—least of all teachers and their students—should embrace this crude, distorted interpretation of our shared history. The American Revolution challenged a world that was profoundly unfree. The principle of natural rights asserted by the Revolution led ultimately to the overthrow of slavery and now challenge every form of oppression, exploitation, bigotry and injustice. The ideals of the American Revolution empower us to hunt down and destroy human trafficking and every other vestige of slavery in the world today. The American Revolution was the most important moment in modern history, and its ideals are the still the last, best hope of our world, where too many are still denied their natural rights.

The New York Times asks Americans to reject the Revolution and claims that the men and women who sacrificed, struggled and died for American independence are unworthy of our respect. The American Revolution Institute asks Americans—most importantly the teachers upon whom we rely to present our history truthfully—to embrace the Revolution and its principles as the common inheritance of free people, to respect the men and women who secured our independence as our benefactors, and to recognize that the work they began is not yet done.


Above: Detail from a watercolor of four American soldiers from the diary of Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, an officer in Rochambeau’s army, painted during the Yorktown Campaign, 1781. The African American soldier is an enlisted man in the First Rhode Island Regiment. Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University.

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.

To learn more about the irresponsible treatment of the American Revolution in the “1619 Project,” read the three essays by the American Revolution Institute’s executive director outlining the project’s errors, tracing them to their discredited sources, and offering an alternative interpretation of the relationship between the Revolution, natural rights and the end of slavery, as well as a fourth essay exposing the basic flaw in the 1619 Project curriculum:

The American Revolution and the Foundations  of Free Society

What’s Wrong with “The Idea of America”?

Slavery, Rights and the Meaning of the American Revolution

The Fatal Flaw of the 1619 Project Curriculum

The “1619 Project” distorts much more of American history than the American Revolution. For other critiques, see Eliot Kaufman, “The 1619 Project Gets Schooled,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2019, and Sean Wilentz, “A Matter of Facts,” The Atlantic, January 22, 2020.