Tag Archives: American Revolution

A few historic highlights in the Big Apple

We didn’t focus as strictly on historic sites in New York as we did in Boston, but we did manage to do a little heritage touring on our last day in the Big Apple.  We made a point of visiting Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, site of the nation’s first Capitol and George Washington’s first inauguration.  The original building is gone, but today an impressive classical structure and a statue of Washington mark the spot.

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Inside the building is an exhibit on the trial of colonial printer John Peter Zenger, arrested for publishing articles critical of New York’s royal governor.  Zenger’s 1735 trial for seditious libel in the original Federal Hall—at that time it was New York’s City Hall—proved to be a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press.  His lawyer argued that demonstrably factual statements cannot be considered libelous, the jury agreed, and Zenger walked away a free man.

You’ll also find Washington’s inaugural Bible inside, on loan from St. John’s Lodge…

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…and the stone on which he stood while taking the oath of office.

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After the inaugural ceremony, Washington attended a service at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.  He continued to worship there while the capital remained in New York, and you can still see his pew, right underneath an oil painting of the Great Seal of the U.S.

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On the east side of the church is a memorial to Gen. Richard Montgomery, killed while leading the attack on Quebec at the end of 1775.  Montgomery’s remains were moved to St. Paul’s with a great deal of fanfare in 1818.

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Unlike its mother church, St. Paul’s Chapel made it through the great New York fire of ’76 and is now the oldest church building in the city.  In fact, surviving catastrophes has been something of a hallmark of St. Paul’s.  It’s right next to the World Trade Center site, but miraculously came through the 9/11 attacks without any major damage.  Visitors left thousands of stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and other memorials around the church after the attacks, and some of these mementoes are on exhibit inside the sanctuary.  (You can see a few of them in the photo of Washington’s pew.)  Emergency personnel working at the WTC site stayed at St. Paul’s during the recovery effort.  And the building is still there, a dozen years after that awful September morning and more than two centuries since Washington stepped inside on the very day American government opened for business.

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One town, two presidents, three houses, four generations

Ryan and I got a firsthand look at the revival of popular interest in John Adams when we tried to schedule a visit to Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, MA.  We’d planned on an afternoon visit, but since tour tickets are limited and on a first-come, first-served basis we decided to call first.  It’s a good thing we did, because every single tour for the day was already full, and we’d called not long after lunch.  Capacity crowds aren’t unusual at the site.  From what the staff told me, ANHP has been doing a brisk business in ticket sales for some time, ever since David McCullough and HBO made John Adams fun again.

Or perhaps I should say they introduced us to a man who had always been fun.   Adams had such a vivid personality, and expressed that personality so fully in his writing, that he’s the most flesh-and-blood of all the Revolutionary demigods.  When you read John Adams, there’s no Washingtonian marble exterior to crack, no haze of Jeffersonian contradiction to penetrate.  He jumps right down off his pedestal, pokes his finger in your chest, and spouts whatever’s on his mind.  Irritating but engaging, stubborn but fiercely loyal and determined, he has all the makings of a great TV character.  No wonder people flock to the places he lived.

Anyway, we picked another day to visit and headed out early.  It was worth the effort, because there aren’t many places where you can see two presidential birthplaces for the price of one, just as there aren’t many historic sites interpreted as well as this one.

As of this writing, the visitor center is located at the Presidents Place Galleria, a sort of office/retail building in Quincy.  I think ANHP is in the process of moving to new digs, but until then you won’t find much in the way of an exhibit.  What you will find is an excellent film narrated by Laura Linney, which offers an overview of four generations of Adams family history, from the American Revolution all the way to the Gilded Age of Henry and Brooks Adams.

The park has its own trolley service to conduct visitors to the three historic homes.  The first two homes are right next to each other, both of them constructed in the distinctive New England “salt-box” style.  The first is the house where John Adams was born in 1735.  (Tourist with sailor hat not included.)

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Just across the lawn sits the house where John and Abigail set up housekeeping and where John started his law practice, made a political name for himself as America and England headed toward war, and wrote the Massachusetts Constitution.  Their son John Quincy was born here, too, so you’ve got two presidential birthplaces less than eighty feet apart.

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The third home, and the focus of the tour, reflects the elevated stature the Adamses enjoyed due to John’s public service in the Revolution.  Peacefield, or the “Old House,” is the home John and Abigail bought while overseas, and served as the family seat until 1927.

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The house still has many original furnishings, and each room boasts a mixture of items from all four famous generations of the Adams family.  Some of these items are priceless.  I was especially excited to see the desk where John Adams wrote the letter that mended his relationship with Thomas Jefferson, initiating one of the most remarkable bodies of correspondence in American history.

Some of ANHP’s most valuable assets aren’t in the collection at all, but walking around in uniform.  The guides are some of the best interpreters working at any historic site I’ve ever visited; their knowledge is encyclopedic and their delivery is polished and engaging.  I’d venture to say that our tour of Peacefield was probably the finest historic house tour I’ve ever taken.  The ranger was in total command of his subject matter and his audience.  It’s no small thing to master the history of an entire family when the family in question produced two presidents, some accomplished diplomats, and one of the country’s most distinguished men of letters.

There are a couple of other neat Adams-related things to see in Quincy.  A nice statue of Abigail and a young John Quincy stands not far from the visitor center.

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And you’ll definitely want to set aside some time for a tour of United First Parish Church, which is just across the street. Established as a Puritan church in the 1630′s, it became a Unitarian congregation in the 1700′s.  The current building, with its columned portico and a sanctuary with a beautifully carved ceiling, dates from 1828.  John, Abigail, John Quincy, and Louisa Catherine Adams are all laid to rest in the crypt.

Our tour guide took us inside the burial chamber, a small, stone room with a low ceiling whitewashed walls.  It’s about as intimate an experience with history as you can have.  I should’ve taken a picture, but it just didn’t seem right to dig my camera out with two sets of presidents and first ladies lying there.

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“…if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

I think I was even more psyched about visiting Lexington and Concord than doing the Freedom Trail.  It’s a must-see for anybody interested in the Revolution, and Paul Revere’s Ride was one of the first books I read after I switched my major to history in college.

Minute Man National Historical Park holds much of the important real estate involved in the Revolution’s first fight, although Lexington Common is town property and therefore outside the park’s bounds.

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The common is probably the most well-groomed battlefield I’ve ever visited, and for one of the most important pieces of turf in the world, it’s also relatively unadorned.  Just a few monuments, including the “Revolutionary Monument” set up in 1799…

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a rock inscribed with Capt. John Parker’s instructions to his men…

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…and the iconic statue of a militiaman.

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The Lexington Historical Society operates three historic buildings in the town as museums.  We took a tour of Buckman Tavern, which is right beside the green.  In the wee hours of the morning on April 19, 1775 the town’s minutemen awaited the arrival of the British here.  It’s one of the best historic building tours I’ve ever enjoyed; the tavern is beautifully restored, and our guide was outstanding.

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Heading west from Lexington brings you to Minute Man Visitor Center near the eastern entrance to MMNHP.  Here you’ll find a small exhibit on some of the battle’s participants and an innovative multimedia presentation that gives you a great overview of the Revolutionary War’s beginnings.  It’s similar to some of the shows at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, and very engaging.

This is one of those parks you can see in a few hours or a lifetime, depending on how much time and interest you have.  I should note that MMNHP also boasts a couple of really important literary sites, including a home owned by both Louisa May Alcott’s family and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as another home inhabited by Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The NPS was renovating one of these buildings and the other closed before we arrived, but we hadn’t really planned on touring them, so no big deal.  (I wanted to maximize my time at the Rev War sites anyway, and I’ve always thought the Transcendentalists were a bunch of insufferably self-righteous navel-gazers.)

There’s a five-mile trail tracing part of the route of the running battle between the militia and the British regulars with stops at a few key points, like the Revere capture site.

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The park has another visitor center near Concord’s North Bridge.  Among the artifacts displayed here is “the Hancock,” one of the cannons stashed away in Concord that the British hoped to recover on their ill-fated mission.

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A short walk downhill from the visitor center is the most famous bridge in American military history this side of Antietam—or a replicated version, anyway.  (The town of Concord dismantled the original North Bridge in 1793.)

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There are three monuments worth noting near the bridge.  Emerson’s famous Concord Hymn was written for the dedication of the first one, an obelisk erected in 1836.

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Daniel Chester French’s impressive statue of a militiaman was cast from seven Civil War cannons.

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Finally—and the most impressive one to me—is the grave marker for two of the British soldiers killed at the bridge fight.

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My Boston marathon

I’ve been back home long enough to recuperate from two weeks of sightseeing, so it’s time for that most venerable of all end-of-vacation traditions: forcing a captive audience to look at your photos.

We’ll start with some highlights from the Boston Freedom Trail.  As I said a few days ago, it’s a remarkable experience for any enthusiast of early American history.  I don’t think there’s any other place where you can see so many important American Revolution sites in such close proximity to each other, except maybe Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.  (I’ll be posting some stuff about INHP eventually, too; it was a long trip.)

My friend Ryan and I set out on the Freedom Trail about 2:00 in the afternoon.  Because there’s so much to see between the starting point on Boston Common and the end point at Bunker Hill, and because it was already so late in the day, I  had told Ryan that we’d never be able to do the whole thing that afternoon, and that we should plan on picking up where we left off the next day.  Thing is, Ryan played basketball and tennis in high school and has never lost his competitive streak.  Apparently in an effort to set some sort of record, he announced that we were going to stand on Bunker Hill that very day, come hell or high water.

One of the first things you see on the trail relates to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary one.  It’s one of my favorite works of commemorative sculpture, the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts on Boston Common, right across from the State House.

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Boston seems to be embracing the history of abolitionism pretty enthusiastically.  I’m not familiar enough with abolitionism to know how widespread serious anti-slavery sentiment in the city actually was, but I suppose it’s a handy way to embrace the legacy of the Civil War when most of the actual fighting took place hundreds of miles away.

And speaking of the history of abolitionism, just a stone’s throw from the Shaw Monument is Park Street Church, where William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech in 1829.

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Step over to the other side of the church, and you’re also stepping back in time—two hundred years before the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact.  Granary Burying Ground dates all the way back to 1660.  Its age is apparent from the winged skulls carved on some of the tombstones, a very old motif that’s characteristic of early American grave markers.  Again, bear in mind that I’m used to touring regions where “old” means 1790-ish.

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There are more important figures from early American history buried here than you can shake a stick at: Benjamin Franklin’s parents…

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John Hancock…

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James Otis…

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Sam Adams…

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Paul Revere…

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…and the victims of the Boston Massacre.  All in the same graveyard!

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The Old South Meeting House is probably best known as the launching pad for the Boston Tea Party, but that was just one of many highlights in this building’s long history of playing host to protest and dissent.  An exhibit inside the sanctuary details this history, from the imperial controversy to abolitionism, female suffrage, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.

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British troops used the church as a riding stable during the occupation of Boston, but it doesn’t look any worse for wear.

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To me, a big highlight of the trail is the Old State House, seat of government in Massachusetts from 1713 to 1798 and now home to a museum that explores politics and public life in the Bay State from the colonial era through the nineteenth century.

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You can’t beat the Old State House exhibit for fantastic artifacts, including a coat and other items belonging to John Hancock…

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some Stamp Act material…

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…and the cane Preston Brooks used to wallop Charles Sumner on the Senate floor.

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You’ll also find Indian treaty belts, rare documents, and artifacts from Bunker Hill on display here.  Great stuff.  If you’re rushed for time on the Freedom Trail and you’ve only got time to tour one building interior, my personal opinion is that you should do this one.

Right outside the State House is a circle of bricks marking the site of the Boston Massacre.  This seems to be the popular spot for tourists to take their “Look-Ma-we’re-doing-the-Freedom-Trail” photos, with their arms spread wide and big grins on their faces.  I’m not sure how I feel about this; 1770 was a long time ago, but geez, five guys did die here.

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Next stop is Faneuil Hall, a most appropriate place for a statue of Sam Adams.  The marketplace in and around this site is a great place to pick up souvenirs.

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Paul Revere’s house would be a neat thing to see anyway, but it’s of significant architectural interest even without the celebrity name recognition.  Built around 1680 on the site of Increase Mather’s parsonage, it was already old by the time Revere bought it.  It’s pretty small, so the self-guided tour doesn’t take very long.

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Not far from the house is another structure inextricably linked to Revere: Old North Church.

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There are quite a few historic churches on the trail, and in fact I haven’t even included them all here, but I think Old North has the most beautiful interior of all of them.  (Sorry about the lousy picture focus; I was trying not to use a flash.)

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Among those buried in the crypt is Maj. John Pitcairn, who received a mortal wound at Bunker Hill.

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There’s an equestrian statue of Revere in a kind of courtyard outside the church.  I highly recommend making an effort to visit this spot at night, with the courtyard dark and the steeple illuminated behind it.

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The cemetery on Copp’s Hill doesn’t have as many notable residents as Old Granary, but it’s still worth a visit.  Increase and Cotton Mather are both buried here.

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Most of the sites on the trail are in pretty close proximity to each other, but getting to Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if you insist on geographical precision) requires a good bit of walking.  I hadn’t been to many urbanized battlefields before this one, and it was hard to orient myself with all the buildings around.  The monument is a lot more impressive in person than I’d expected; you can see it from quite a distance.

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Here’s one final recommendation.  If you’re going to do the Freedom Trail, you should grab something to eat at the Green Dragon Tavern in the North End, not far from Revere’s house.  Despite what their advertising implies, it’s not the same place where Joseph Warren, Paul Revere, and their buddies used to hang out, but the steak tips are still pretty darn good.

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Long story short, you can do the Freedom Trail in half a day, but you’d better be ready to do some serious huffing and puffing.  The Constitution was closed that day, too, so that helped us shave off some time.  There are a number of guidebooks and audio tours available; we used the Freedom Trail Foundation’s official guide, which was excellent.  A lot of the sites along the way are either free or accept donations, but you can get a combination ticket for Old South Meeting House, the Old State House, and Paul Revere’s house at the small visitor center on Boston Common.

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Boston’s local history is everybody’s history

I noticed something while browsing around in Boston’s museum gift shops. They didn’t stock too many local history books. They sold a lot of books on Boston’s history, mind you, but they were mostly books published by major presses rather than works by local authors published by smaller regional presses. The exceptions were walking guides and material of that sort. When I go to museums and sites in other parts of the country, I tend to find books of both kinds on the shelves, but in Boston it was mostly the big commercial and academic publishers represented. I wonder if it’s because the local history of Boston in the American Revolution is so much a part of the national story as a whole.

I found more books of a strictly local orientation at gift shops in Lexington, Concord, and Salem, but still not as many as I’ve seen at gift shops in the South and the West.

I’m not sure if these casual observations reflect anybody else’s experience. Feel free to chime in below. As for me, I’m in New York and I’m going to the AMNH to see some dinos.

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A few thoughts from the end of the Freedom Trail

Walked the Freedom Trail yesterday, and got back to the hotel exhausted but euphoric. The density of Revolution-related sites in Boston is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Usually, when I take a Rev War road trip, I’ll have two or three things I really want to see, I’ll have to drive quite a few miles to get from one to the other, and I try to read every wayside marker and exhibit label I can find.

Doing Boston is different. Here you can walk a couple of miles and hit more than a dozen sites, and each one of them is a headliner. There’s no way you can thoroughly cover it all. It’s like visiting a buffet where you want to eat everything, so you just pile your plate with as much as it’ll hold and start cramming your face until you’re stuffed.

Another thing that strikes me is the antiquity of what you can see. In my neck of the woods, seeing a building from the early nineteenth century is a treat, and getting to see one from the late eighteenth is worth a two-hour drive. Here, though, running across a material remnant of the seventeenth century isn’t unheard of. Yesterday I saw tombstones that had been sitting there a century before Tennessee became a state.

It’s historic sightseeing of a totally different order. And that’ll have to do it for now; I’m off to Lexington and Concord.

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Edmund Morgan, 1916-2013

We lost a giant yesterday.  Morgan was an incisive interpreter of the past, a profound thinker who grappled with great questions, and a wonderfully engaging and witty writer.  I don’t think we’ll see his equal anytime soon.

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“We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings…”

As we recover from all the Gettysburg and Vicksburg festivities, The Connectivist gives us something else to argue about with a list of the TV characters who most closely resemble figures from the American Revolution.

They’ve matched George III up with Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones, which seems…well, pretty darned unfair to George III, when you get right down to it.

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Early South Carolina graveyard desecrated

Graves opened and stones broken at a cemetery in York County, SC.  Some of the burials date back to the eighteenth century.

I was just reading about the Rev War skirmishes in and around York County before turning in last night.  Hope they catch the lowlife who did this.

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Did conservatives save the American Revolution, and were they “conservatives” in the modern sense?

David Lefer appeared on the Lou Dobbs show a few days ago to talk about his new book, The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution. Here’s part of the jacket copy:

According to most narratives of the American Revolution, the founders were united in their quest for independence and steadfast in their efforts to create a stable, effective government. But the birth of our republic was far more complicated than many realize. The Revolution was nearly derailed by extremists who wanted to do too much, too quickly and who refused to rest until they had remade American society. If not for a small circle of conservatives who kept radicalism in check and promoted capitalism, a strong military, and the preservation of tradition, our country would be vastly different today.

In the first book to chronicle the critical role these men played in securing our freedom, David Lefer provides an insightful and gripping account of the birth of modern American conservatism and its impact on the earliest days of our nation.

To say that extremists nearly derailed the Revolution seems rather ahistorical to me; it assumes that there was a “right” outcome to the struggle all along. There were many constituencies involved in the Revolution, and each one had its own hopes and aims for the outcome. It’s good that Lefer recognizes this, and maybe his book will help readers understand that the American Revolution was not just about Americans/Whigs vs. British/Tories and that there was a contest to determine what the Revolution meant and how radical its implications should be.

But who are we to say which constituency was conducting the “real” Revolution, or that the eventual outcome was the “right” one? From a conservative standpoint, perhaps it does appear “right,” but if your inclinations are more liberal, maybe the “settlements” which resolved these struggles among the revolutionaries look more like lost opportunities than happy endings. Indeed, from the perspective of the Anti-Federalists, or of the radical or populist groups, the “heroes” were actually the ones who hijacked the Revolution. We understand the past by looking backward, but we have to keep in mind that at the time, people were living it forward and without benefit of hindsight.

I’m also unsure what to make of Lefer’s claim that modern American conservatism can trace its ancestry back to the American Revolution. If you define conservatism as opposition to radical change, then the label fits somebody like John Dickinson. But if we’re going to associate conservatism with decentralized government, it seems odd to refer to a guy like Robert Morris as a conservative. Modern political concepts just don’t transfer smoothly from one century to another.

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