American Revolution Handbook

The “sidebars” in The American Revolution Handbook provided an opportunity to write short, but more expansive interpretive stories than possible in exhibits.

Silken Slippers and Wooden Shoes

French philosopher Voltaire observed that “history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.” Usually, however, history reveals more about the owner of the slippers and little about the servant clad in wooden shoes.  We know volumes about George Washington, but much less about Thomas Stone (a signer of the Declaration). We know little about Stone’s wife, and virtually nothing about those enslaved on Stone’s plantation.

But there are ways to sidestep preservation biases. At national parks, history often is preserved in building fabric—scholars use house inventories, written accounts, land surveys, archeological, and architectural evidence for reconstruction and refurnishing. Morristown’s Ford Mansion reveals as much about Theodosia Ford, her children, and servants as it does about her wartime tenants—George Washington and his “family” of aides. The cabins at Morristown and Valley Forge reflect the lives of soldiers. Signers’ homes—Adams, Stone, Floyd, Pinckney—or the room where Jefferson wrote the Declaration, place the famous in parlors, bedrooms, and kitchens. Birthplaces—Adams and Washington—suggest influences on adult attitudes.

Many park collections include documents that widen perspectives on events—political cartoons, petitions, broadsides, and first person observations like the Spanish commander’s account of the British attack on Arkansas Post or the journals of the Baroness von Riedesel, wife of the commander of Germans fighting for the British. Personal diaries and letters of everyday people provide details of individual lives. Eighteenth-century newspapers overflow with information—what was for sale or who was in business. Notices describing runaway slaves or servants help document the extent and nature of American servitude. Oral traditions fill gaps in written records. Artifacts—like wooden shoes—illustrate the lives of servants, women, and children.

In a publication like the handbook, even the captions for book illustrations can, and should, be interpretive.

In 1770, when King George III posed with Queen Charlotte and their six children (above), the royal family of colonies already showed signs of estrangement.  Disagreements over the exercise of authority, arguments over finances, and distance each played a role in growing imperial tension.  Between 1762 and 1783, while George III fathered 15 children, his paternalistic attitudes helped lose the American colonies.  “I wish nothing but good,” he said, but “everyone who does not agree is a traitor or a scoundrel.”

Like the members of Congress, the furnishings in Independence Hall’s Assembly (far above) ranged from modest to flamboyant.  Uncarpeted wood floors and simple green table covers contrast with the elegant silver inkstand made by Philip Syng (above) probably used to sign the Declaration.

Washington (above) fought from beginning to end.  From the day the Second Continental Congress chose him to command the Continental Army in 1775, until the day he resigned his commission in 1783, Washington built an impressive record for military resilience.  He not only survived battle, he outlasted political intrigue and the jealousy of rivals.  At war’s end, he even survived success, choosing to retire voluntarily to Mount Vernon.

Ron prepared a similar series of captions and sidebar essays for a handbook about the War of 1812.

Governing can be contentious. As political factions formed, Federalist Roger Griswold and Democratic-Republican Matthew Lyon fought with cane and fire tongs on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Teyoninhokovrawen, Major John Norton, lived in multiple worlds. Born in Scotland, he joined the British Army, moved to Canada, was adopted by the Mohawk community, and defended Canada against American invasion.

Battle art often contains fact and fiction. Romanticized 19th- and early 20th- century images rarely showed the full composition of Jackson’s New Orleans army–regulars, militia, Choctaw Indians, and free men of color.

Hiram Cronk:  Icon of an Era

Hiram Cronk belonged to an elite fraternity of sorts, a small group who not only survived bloody conflict but who outlived all their fellow comrades in arms.

Men like: Jonathan Benjamin, the last veteran of the French and Indian War; Lemuel Cook, the oldest official veteran of the American Revolution; and Owen Thomas Edgar, the final survivor of the Mexican American War.  History remembers these veterans not for battlefield exploits, but because each lived long enough to become an icon.  As each passed, another era seemed to end.  “A time always comes,” observed a New York Times reporter, “when the very last veterans of a war pass away.”  At that moment, we “relegate the cataclysm they saw with their own eyes to the bloodless abstraction of recorded history.”

Cronk illustrates this inevitable reality.  As a teenager, he enlisted in the New York militia that defended the shipyard at Sackets Harbor in 1814.  He served perhaps 100 days.  Yet when he died at the age of 105, in 1905, the West

Virginia Bluefield Daily Telegraph, anointed him as “the last link connecting the simplicity of Jefferson’s day with the strenuous complexity of the present.”

Thousands lined the streets of New York City as his funeral cortege, “an imposing and unusual spectacle,” passed by.  Police, military units, and city officials, including the mayor, joined the procession.  Cronk lay in state in City Hall before burial in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hill Cemetery.

Another chapter closed and the War of 1812 slipped from living memory.

Presidentess

Although some dubbed the War of 1812 “Mr. Madison’s War,” it was Mrs. Madison—Dolley Madison—who burnished her reputation with wartime grit.

Even 200 years later, history books retell how Mrs. Madison saved George Washington’s portrait.  As British invaders approached, Dolley directed White House slaves to break the portrait’s frame, remove the canvas, and rescue it from capture or incineration.

Mrs. Madison’s fame, however, rested on a lifetime of accomplishment not one event.  Born into a Quaker family, Dolley met James Madison in Philadelphia after the death of her first husband John Todd.  She occasionally served as widower Thomas Jefferson’s White House hostess.  But her real contribution can be traced to her own tenure as “presidentess.”

Biographer Catherine Allgor argues that Dolley’s social activities and her ability to build bipartisan bridges “legitimized her husband’s administration to the nation and the world and went a long way to establishing Washington City as a capital.”  She masterfully used “conciliation to disarm and defuse a violent political culture.”

Only after Mrs. Madison brought her blend of intelligence and charm to the White House did an enduring role for the president’s spouse emerge.  Her parties delighted guests with surprises, perhaps apocryphal, like a “magnificent pink dome of ice cream.”  Her open houses added a sparkle of the ceremonial to the democratic, and a dose of the resolute in time of crisis.

Thankfully, President Zachary Taylor takes credit for retiring the title “presidentess” by using of the term “first lady” for the first time, at Dolley Madison’s 1849 funeral.

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