The eldest of twelve children, Sybil Ludington grew up in a household of ardent patriots, her father being the commander of the local militia in Duchess County New York. On April 26, 1777 she became, at age 16, a heroine of the Revolution when she rode forty miles to her father’s militia encampment at night on her horse Star to spread the alarm that the British were moving on Danbury Connecticut. During her ride she successfully defended herself against a highwayman using a long stick. She used the same stick to bang on the door of houses along the way to let the occupants know that the British were on the march, Thanks to her, her father Colonel Henry Ludington chased after the British with 400 of his militia. They were unable to intercept the British before their attack on Danbury, but they, along with other militia units, harassed the British as they retreated to New York. The campaign is considered a turning point that helped ensure firm patriot control in Connecticut. Sybil received the personal thanks of George Washington. (more…)
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1837) (more…)
“The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter.”
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, March 1763, in his speech against warrantless searches allowed under the proposed Excise Bill before the British Parliament.
James Otis had a glittering career ahead of him. At the age of 35 in 1760 he was Advocate General for the Admiralty Court in Boston. His wife Ruth was heiress to a fortune worth ten thousand pounds. He threw it all away and resigned his post to represent pro bono, he refused the fee they wished to pay him saying that in such a great cause he despised all fees, colonial merchants subject to writs of assistance. A writ of assistance was a court order that allowed British officials to search at whim houses and businesses of those suspected of smuggling without obtaining a search warrant. These writs were in effect for the lifetime of the King during whose reign the writ was issued. Bearers of writs of assistance were not responsible for any damage caused by their searches. Otis viewed the writs to be a violation of Magna Carta, English case law and the traditional English legal doctrine that an Englishman’s home was his castle.
In a five hour address that captivated listeners at the Boston State House on February 24, 1761, James Otis denounced the writs of assistance:
Your Honors will find in the old books concerning the office of a justice of the peace precedents of general warrants to search suspected houses. But in more modern books you will find only special warrants to search such and such houses, specially named, in which the complainant has before sworn that he suspects his goods are concealed; and will find it adjudged that special warrants only are legal. In the same manner I rely on it, that the writ prayed for in this petition, being general, is illegal. It is a power that places the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer. I say I admit that special Writs of Assistance, to search special places, may be granted to certain persons on oath; but I deny that the writ now prayed for can be granted, for I beg leave to make some observations on the writ itself, before I proceed to other Acts of Parliament.
In the first place, the writ is universal, being directed “to all and singular justices, sheriffs, constables, and all other officers and subjects”; so that, in short, it is directed to every subject in the King’s dominions. Every one with this writ may be a tyrant; if this commission be legal, a tyrant in a legal manner, also, may control, imprison, or murder any one within the realm. In the next place, it is perpetual; there is no return. A man is accountable to no person for his doings. Every man may reign secure in his petty tyranny, and spread terror and desolation around him, until the trump of the Archangel shall excite different emotions in his soul. In the third place, a person with this writ, in the daytime, may enter all houses, shops, etc., at will, and command all to assist him. Fourthly, by this writ not only deputies, etc., but even their menial servants, are allowed to lord it over us. What is this but to have the curse of Canaan with a witness on us: to be the servants of servants, the most despicable of God’s creation?
Now, one of the most essential branches of English liberty is the freedom of one’s house. A man’s house is his castle; and whilst he is quiet, he is as well guarded as a prince in his castle. This writ, if it should be declared legal, would totally annihilate this privilege. Custom-house officers may enter our houses when they please; we are commanded to permit their entry. Their menial servants may enter, may break locks, bars, and everything in their way; and whether they break through malice or revenge, no man, no court can inquire. Bare suspicion without oath is sufficient.
Otis lost the case, but his bold stand was considered the start of the American independence movement. John Adams was present during the speech and later wrote:
“The child independence was then and there born,[for] every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.”
In the years to come he helped popularize the phrase, “No taxation without representation.” Mental illness cut short his services to the American cause, illness exacerbated by his receiving a blow to his head from a British customs inspector in 1769. In years to come he would have alternating periods of madness and lucidity. His wife Ruth, although her personal political sympathies were Tory, loyally stood by her husband and cared for him.
Otis did not let his madness stop him from bearing arms. Hearing the artillery bombardment preparatory to the battle of Bunker Hill, he snuck out of his house, got a rifle, and joined the American troops on Breed’s Hill. After the battle he walked home. (more…)
On March 14, 1776, that sea going Catholic son of Ireland John Barry, received his commission as a Captain in the Continental Navy. He wasted no time making his mark.
Barry was placed in command of the USS Lexington, 14 guns, on December 7, 1775. Captain Barry took the Lexington on its maiden voyage on March 26, 1776. On April 7, 1776, Barry had his initial victory of the war, taking H.M.S. sloop Edward after a short but fierce engagement. This was the first naval victory of the new Continental Navy and the first British warship captured by the Americans. Barry had begun his victorious military career and started to earn the proud title of Father of the American Navy.
Congress on April 3, 1776 formally authorized American privateers to raid British merchant ships. In this Congress was merely recognizing what was already well under way, the patriot governments of the various colonies having issued letters of marque and reprisal since the beginning of hostilities. The British parliament would authorize privateers against American merchant ships in December 1776.
Privateers were a traditional part of European naval war which fitted in well with the American national character. Private operations, a common seamen on board a privateer after a successful cruise of capturing several British ships, could come back home with a small fortune in his pocket, often enough to purchase a small farm, or an inn, or set himself up in trade. Privateers led by more daring commanders would even make prizes of several smaller ships of the Royal Navy. Of course the risks were commensurate with the rewards, with death by sinking, or the slow death of rotting away in a British prison hulk if a crew was captured, ever a possibility. Most American sailors were eager to take the risk, so many that the Continental Navy often found it difficult to man its ships. (more…)
Something for the weekend. Maryland, my Maryland. Written by James Ryder Randall in white heat in 1861 after he learned that his friend Francis X. Ward had been killed by soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts in the Baltimore riot of 1861. A heart felt plea for his native state to join the Confederacy, set to the tune of O’Tannenbaum it became one of the more popular songs in the Confederacy. Tuberculosis prevented Randall from serving in the Confederate Army, so he joined the Confederate Navy. After the War he was commonly referred to as the poet laureate of the lost cause. A Catholic, his later in life poems were usually religious in nature.
Although the Civil War brought forth Maryland my Maryland, there are many references to Maryland’s proud Revolutionary history:
Thou wilt not cower in the dust,
Thy beaming sword shall never rust,
Remember Carroll’s sacred trust,
Remember Howard’s warlike thrust,-
And all thy slumberers with the just,
Maryland! My Maryland! (more…)
“The rebels have done more in one night than my whole army would have done in a month.”
On August 10, 1815, Thomas Jefferson set pen to paper to respond to John Adams’ letter to him of July 30, 1815. Go here to read that letter. Jefferson was no more optimistic than Adams that a true history of the American Revolution could be written:
On the subject of the history of the American revolution, you ask Who shall write it? who can write it? and who ever will be able to write it? nobody; except merely it’s external facts. all it’s councils, designs and discussions, having been conducted by Congress with closed doors, and no member, as far as I know, having even made notes of them. these, which are the life and soul of history must for ever be unknown. Botta, as you observe, has put his own speculations and reasonings into the mouths of persons whom he names, but who, you & I know, never made such speeches. in this he has followed the example of the antients, who made their great men deliver long speeches, all of them in the same style, and in that of the author himself. the work is nevertheless a good one, more judicious, more chaste, more classical, and more true than the party diatribe of Marshall. it’s greatest fault is in having taken too much from him. I possessed the work, and often recurred to considerable portions of it, altho’ I never read it through. but a very judicious and well informed neighbor of mine went thro’ it with great attention, and spoke very highly of it. I have said that no member of the old Congress, as far as I knew, made notes of the discussions. I did not know of the speeches you mention of Dickinson and Witherspoon. but on the questions of Independance and on the two articles of Confederation respecting taxes & voting I took minutes of the heads of the arguments. on the first I threw all into one mass, without ascribing to the speakers their respective arguments; pretty much in the manner of Hume’s summary digests of the reasonings in parliament for and against a measure. on the last I stated the heads of arguments used by each speaker. but the whole of my notes on the question of independance does not occupy more than 5. pages, such as of this letter: and on the other questions two such sheets. they have never been communicated to any one. do you know that there exists in MS. the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the Constitutional convention of Philadelphia in 1788.? the whole of every thing said and done there was taken down by mr Madison, with a labor and exactness beyond comprehension. I presume that our correspondence has been observed at the post offices, and thus has attracted notice. would you believe that a printer has had the effrontery to propose to me the letting him publish it? these people think they have a right to every thing however secret or sacred.
The last sentence is perhaps a fitting rebuke to those of us looking over the shoulders of Jefferson and Adams as they drafted these private missives. However, History is not bound by the division of public and private, and men who are at the forefront of great events cannot expect that historians will allow good manners to overcome the necessity to ferret out all available knowledge.
John Adams often groused that the true history of the American Revolution would never be written. Considering this, it is somewhat surprising that he did not undertake the task himself. He had ample time after his Presidency, and his lively and copious correspondence indicates that age had not lessened his skill with a pen. It is possible that he simply viewed it as an impossible task, as he indicated in a letter to Thomas Jefferson on July 30, 1815:
Dear Sir Quincy July 30th 1815
Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?
The most essential documents, the debates & deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever. Mr Dickinson printed a speech, which he said he made in Congress against the Declaration of Independence; but it appeared to me very different from that, which you, and I heard. Dr Witherspoon has published speeches which he wrote beforehand, and delivered Memoriter, as he did his Sermons. But these I believe, are the only speeches ever committed to writing. The Orators, while I was in Congress from 1774 to 1778 appeared to me very universally extemporaneous, & I have never heard of any committed to writing before or after delivery.
These questions have been suggested to me, by a Review, in the Analectic Magazine for May 1815, published in Philadelphia, page 385 of the Chevalier Botta’s “Storia della Guerra Americana.” The Reviewers inform us, that it is the best history of the revolution that ever has been written. This Italian Classick has followed the example, of the Greek and Roman Historians, by composing speeches, for his Generals and Orators. The Reviewers have translated, one of Mr R H Lee, in favour of the declaration of Independence. A splendid morcell of oratory it is; how faithful, you can judge.
I wish to know your sentiments, and opinions of this publication. Some future Miss Porter, may hereafter, make as shining a romance, of what passed in Congress, while in Conclave, as her Scottish Chiefs.
Today is the 284th birthday of the Father of our Country, George Washington. The above video from the musical 1776 depicts John Adams asking the Secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson if he stands with Adams or the opponents of Independence. Thomson responds that he stands with the General, George Washington. Throughout 1776, Washington is an unseen presence but a powerful one. As Congress considers the question of Independence, Washington’s messages to Congress paint a gloomy military picture. Each member of Congress knows that if they declare Independence, only Washington and his ragtag army stand between them and a hangman’s noose.
Washington was always blunt, albeit respectful, in his messages to Congress. It was his task to somehow hold together an army paid in worthless currency, dressed in rags, often barefoot, ill-fed and hastily trained. For eight long years, while the American economy largely collapsed due to a blockade, he pulled endless rabbits out of his tri-corn hat to keep his army in being for yet another day. He did this while respecting the civilian leadership of the new nation, a leadership that often seemed feckless and impotent. He did this while confronting the mightiest empire in the world that controlled the seas and deployed a superb army.
At periods during the Revolution Washington led his army with a skill that excited the imagination of the world. After the Trenton-Princeton campaign, Frederick the Great, King of Prussia and the foremost general of his day, wrote, “The achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots between the 25th of December and the 4th of January, a space of 10 days, were the most brilliant of any recorded in the annals of military achievements.” I certainly agree with this and Washington fully earned the nicknames bestowed upon him by his British adversaries: “the fox” and “the old fox”. However, what excites my admiration most about Washington during the American Revolution was that he kept the Continental Army alive, and made it a formidable force.
In his farewell order to his victorious Continental Army George Washington wrote:
A contemplation of the compleat attainment (at a period earlier than could have been expected) of the object for which we contended against so formidable a power cannot but inspire us with astonishment and gratitude. The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten. The singular interpositions of Providence in our feeble condition were such, as could scarcely escape the attention of the most unobserving; while the unparalleled perseverence of the Armies of the U States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement for the space of eight long years, was little short of a standing miracle. (more…)