Category Archives: American Revolution

Emily Blunt’s reluctant American Revolution

The last time I went to Colonial Williamsburg, I was sitting in the capitol’s courtroom and listening to the guide give his spiel on eighteenth-century trials, when it suddenly hit me: Americans lived under a monarch before the Revolution.  I don’t mean that I didn’t know this before, of course; I mean that it hit me viscerally for the first time.

I’d never felt so distant from the inhabitants of eighteenth-century America as I did at that moment, sitting in that reconstructed courtroom where men—where subjects—dispensed justice under the aegis of a crown on the far side of the Atlantic.

Gordon Wood describes the colonists’ monarchical world in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (p. 11-12):

This was no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural, and even psychological implications.  As clarified by Sir Edward Coke and other jurists in the seventeenth century, the allegiance the English subject owed his monarch was a personal and individual matter.  Diverse persons related to each other only through their common tie to the king, much as children became brothers and sisters only through their common parentage.  Since the king, said William Blackstone, was the “pater familias of the nation,” to be a subject was to be a kind of child, to be personally subordinated to a paternal dominion.…The whole community, said Benjamin Franklin in 1763, is regulated by the example of the king.

The colonial past, in short, is a foreign country.  Or at least it is here in America, where we don’t much stock in personal ties to a monarch anymore.

Americans pull down an image of George III on Bowling Green in New York, July 1776. By Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (original uploader was Shoreranger at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This brings us to the current brouhaha over British actress Emily Blunt’s reaction to becoming an American citizen.  While folks here in the U.S. took offense at her off-hand joke about the Republican presidential debate,* what interested me about her remarks was her distress at getting drafted into her own personal American Revolution:

One part of the process that was particularly concerning for Blunt was renouncing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.

“I had to renounce my Queen!” Blunt said.

“The thing that’s weird is I do get to keep both my British citizenship and this, but you have to renounce her. But it’s kind of typically American – not to be rude. I had to renounce her in the room but I don’t actually technically renounce her. They were like, ‘just say it, you don’t have to mean it but just say it.'”

This emotional and personal sense of investment in a monarch is something that seems strange to Americans, but would’ve been familiar to our colonial predecessors.  Blunt’s vexation over having to renounce her queen might help us understand why so many Americans hesitated to take that last, fateful step toward independence—and why some of them refused to take it at all, deciding instead to fight, go into exile, and perhaps die for their commitment to their king.  Renouncing Parliament was one thing; renouncing the monarch was something else altogether.

Oh, and as long as I’m on the subject of Emily Blunt and the British monarchy, let me recommend the 2009 film The Young Victoria.  It’s a very good movie, and Blunt is outstanding in the title role.

*Honestly, though, if your first taste of American citizenship was Trump’s hair on TV, wouldn’t you be having second thoughts too?

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It’s going to be a John Sevier September at Marble Springs!

This month will mark 200 years since John Sevier’s death, and we’ve got a whole slew of things going on at Marble Springs State Historic Site.

Sept. 19-20 is our annual living history weekend, John Sevier Days.  This is one of our most popular events, with reenacting, period demonstrations, interpretation at our historic buildings, and more.

Sept. 19th is also the night of our third Sevier Soirée, the annual fundraising dinner and silent auction that I posted about not too long ago.  Tickets are $50.00 per person, and include open-hearth appetizers, a Southern-style dinner, and live music by Guy Marshall.  Reserve seats by Sept. 14th, either via snail mail or online.

On Sept. 24th, the actual anniversary of Sevier’s death, we’ll have a special one-time commemorative event.  At 2:00 P.M. we’ll be doing a wreath-laying ceremony at Sevier’s grave on the lawn of the Old Knox County Courthouse in downtown Knoxville.  Thanks to a generous benefactor, we’ll also be hosting a cocktail event at Marble Springs at 7:00 that evening, followed by dinner.

This will be a very special month for aficionados of Tennessee history, historic sites, the American Revolution, the early frontier, good food, and good music.  Hope to see some of you there!

200 Sevier Poster

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Founders on Broadway

Everybody loves the new musical about Alexander Hamilton, including a lot of prominent historians.

If Hamilton seems an unlikely subject for a musical, keep in mind that this isn’t the first time somebody has set the Founders to music and put them on a stage.  One of the all-time best films about the Revolution originated as a Broadway show.

The first time I saw the movie version of 1776, it was totally by accident.  This was back when I was a teenager, before I’d developed any kind of serious interest in history.  In the summer I used to stay up to watch Letterman and the other talk shows, and then I’d flip through the channels for a while before dozing off.  One night (or in the wee hours of the morning, I suppose) I happened to land on a movie channel right before 1776 came on.

Next thing I knew the stodgy figures from all those old paintings were alive—bickering about the heat, swapping insults, longing for their wives, and occasionally bursting out in song.  It humanized the Founders without diminishing their achievement, it was hilarious without trivializing the events it depicted, and it somehow made the unfolding of history seem contingent and uncertain.

I don’t know why I got such a kick out of it; I wasn’t a fan of American history or musicals at the time.  But now that I look back, seeing that movie was one of the things that got me interested in the American Revolution.  Seeing 1776 didn’t turn me into a history nut overnight, but it was definitely a step along the road to where I am now.  Maybe if I’d been in the habit of going to bed at a decent hour, I’d be in a different line of work.

On a related note, the Spanish version of Evita with Paloma San Basilio is so good it’ll knock you right on your keister.

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A visit with the Ramseys

Francis Alexander Ramsey was a Pennsylvania native who arrived in Tennessee around the end of the Revolutionary War, got involved in the Franklin movement, served as clerk of the Southwest Territory, and was a founding trustee of what eventually became the University of Tennessee.  About the same time that Tennessee became a state, he hired an English carpenter named Thomas Hope to build a fine home of pink marble and blue limestone at Swan Pond, his plantation near Knoxville at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers.  The house is still there, and a few days ago I decided it was high time I saw it in person.


Ramsey House is one of the most beautifully constructed and restored of all the historic house museums I’ve visited.  Once referred to as “the most costly and most admired building in Tennessee,” it would have been quite a bit more substantial than most of the other homes on the frontier near the turn of the nineteenth century.  The quality of Hope’s craftsmanship is evident in the limestone trim and the carved corbels underneath the roof corners.


Cabins and small homes on the early Tennessee frontier typically had kitchens that were either detached from the main house or linked to it by a covered dogtrot.  Ramsey House’s kitchen, by contrast, is attached to the main structure.  The tour guide told me this was at the insistence of Francis Ramsey’s wife.


The interior is just as impressive as the exterior, furnished with period pieces that include some Ramsey family items, like the Chippendale chairs and tea service in one of the downstairs rooms.


When Francis died in 1820, the house passed to his oldest son William, Knoxville’s first elected mayor.  William later sold the home to his brother, the eminent doctor, historian, and public works booster J.G.M. Ramsey, who in turn gave it to his son as a wedding present in 1857 and moved a short distance away to his own estate of Mecklenburg.

The house’s link to J.G.M. Ramsey was one of the main reasons I wanted to see it, since every aficionado of early Tennessee history is bound to cross paths with him sooner or later.  Although his contributions to the state’s transportation development and finance were considerable, Ramsey’s role as chronicler of Tennessee’s past was probably his most important legacy.  Some of the most prominent players in Tennessee’s formative years were guests at Ramsey House when J.G.M. was growing up, and he developed a passionate interest in the Volunteer State’s history, reflected in his massive collection of manuscripts and books.  The crowning achievement of this historical work was his massive Annals of Tennessee to the End of the Eighteenth Century, published in 1853 and still an invaluable resource for students of the early southwestern frontier.

Above all else, he was a committed believer in states’ rights and a defender of southern interests, serving as a Confederate treasury agent on the outbreak of the Civil War.  His zealous support for secession ended up taking a tremendous toll on his family.  The Union occupation of Knoxville in 1863 forced him to flee Mecklenburg, his daughter was exiled from the city, and his youngest son Arthur was one of the many Tennessee troops killed in action at Piedmont, VA in June 1864.

One wartime loss was as devastating for later Tennessee historians as it must have been to Ramsey personally—a Union arsonist put Mecklenburg to the torch, and its priceless collection of historical papers and relics went up in smoke.  Ramsey himself blamed his nemesis William Brownlow, an outspoken Unionist with whom he had been at odds since before the war, for instigating the arson.  One of the reasons Ramsey’s Annals is such an important resource is because much of the primary material that went into the work went up in flames along with his home.  (Speaking as somebody who could’ve made use of those documents, I can tell you that if I find the arsonist in the afterlife, there’s going to be trouble.)

After the war, Ramsey was able to get a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson.  The family eventually returned to Knoxville, but J.G.M.’s son sold the ancestral home in 1866.  The Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities acquired it in 1952 and furnished it to match the period of Francis Ramsey’s occupancy, using items donated by descendants and an inventory of the patriarch’s estate.

In addition to the house, the site has a small visitor center with a gift shop, an exhibit of family relics and archaeological materials excavated on the grounds, and a short film.  I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the Knoxville area; it’s an architectural gem and a fascinating glimpse into the lives of one of Tennessee’s most important families.

You might also want to visit the site of Lebanon-in-the-Fork Presbyterian Church, just a couple of miles from Ramsey House.  Rev. Samuel Carrick established Lebanon-in-the-Fork in 1791, making it the oldest Presbyterian church in Knox County.  The church building is gone, but the graveyard is well worth a look.  The grave of Carrick’s widow is Knox County’s earliest marked burial, dating to 1793.


Several generations of Ramseys are also buried here: Francis…




…and young Arthur.


Also in the Ramsey plot is a memorial for Reynolds Ramsey, father of Francis and a veteran of the Revolutionary War who was at Trenton and Princeton.  J.G.M. remembered his grandfather as a “tall and graceful” man who “never entered a room with his hat on and never retired from it without a graceful bow and a modest and sincere adieu.”  I suspect it was J.G.M. himself, with his interest in history, who made sure his grandfather’s tombstone mentioned his Rev War service.


Reynolds isn’t the only Rev War veteran buried at Lebanon-in-the-Forks.


Jeremiah Jack, another Rev War vet buried in the churchyard, was one of Knoxville’s early settlers.  Ramsey’s Annals includes a brief account of a canoe trip Jack and another man made to Coyatee to purchase corn from the Cherokees:

During the infancy of the settlements on Nollichucky, corn had become scarce, and availing themselves of a short suspension of hostilities, Jeremiah Jack and William Rankin, of Greene county, descended the river in a canoe, for the purpose of bartering with the Indians for corn. They reached Coiatee without interruption. The warriors of that place refused to exchange or sell the corn, and manifested other signs of suspicion, if not of open enmity. They entered the canoe and lifted up some wearing apparel lying in it, and which covered their rifles. This discovery increased the unwillingness of the Indians to trade, and they began to show a disposition to offer violence to their white visitants. The beloved woman, Nancy Ward, was happily present, and was able by her commanding influence to appease their wrath, and to bring about friendly feelings between the parties. The little Indians were soon clad in the home made vestments brought by the traders—the canoe was filled with corn, and the white men started on their return voyage well pleased with the exchange they had made, and especially with the kind offices of the beloved woman. On their return, the white men landed and camped one night, a mile above the mouth of French Broad, on the north bank of the little sluice of that river. Mr. Jack was so well pleased with the place, that he afterwards selected it as his future residence, and actually settled and improved it on his emigration to the present Knox county, in 1787.


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The continuing threat to the Princeton battleground

Here’s an update on the ongoing preservation issue at Princeton.  You might recall that the Institute for Advanced Study’s initial plan to build faculty housing on land adjacent to the battlefield got shot down because it encroached on a local drainage.  

The institute later received approval for a revised building plan, but preservationists claim the planned construction still threatens land involved in the battle.

Now comes news that an archaeological survey on the site found artifacts associated with the battle, supporting the preservatonists’ argument that the land in question is historically significant.

The fact that archaeologists hired by the institute itself have noted the historical importance of the ground ought to indicate that putting buildings there is a bad idea.  But it looks like the institute is moving forward anyway.

If you’ve been to Guilford Courthouse, you’ve seen the impact that encroaching development can have on a Rev War battlefield, and how much harder it is to understand and interpret sites that are suffocated by buildings.  Americans deserve to have the places where their country was born kept whole.

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A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:


Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:


Grand French Battery:


The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:


Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:


Site of the French artillery park:


An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:


The Victory Monument:


One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:


In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:


Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…


…but the effects of the originals are still evident:


Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:


Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:


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Military history is on exhibit in Ohio

If you’re in Ohio and you’re a military history buff, there are a couple of special exhibits in your neck of the woods that are worth checking out.

The Toledo Museum of Art is hosting The American Civil War: Through Artists’ Eyes until July 5.  This exhibit features paintings, sculptures, photos, and artifacts from the museum’s own collection, as well as items from the William L. Clements Library, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, and other repositories that tell the story of Ohioans’ involvement in the war.

One of the highlights is Gilbert Gaul’s 6′ x 10′ painting Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor, on loan from the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society.

Civil War_1

Gilbert Gaul (American, 1855–1919), Battery H 1st Ohio Volunteers Light Artillery in Action at Cold Harbor. Oil on canvas, 1893. Framed: 10 x 6 ft. (305 x 183 cm). Lent by the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society. Photo courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

Photos by Gardner, copies of Volk’s cast of Lincoln’s hands, and a sword carried by Rutherford B. Hayes are in the exhibit, too.  Definitely worth a visit if you’re into the Civil War.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice…

…sorry, at the Cincinnati Museum Center, Treasures of Our Military Past just opened this week.  This exhibition covers more than two hundred years’ worth of military history from the Cincy region.  John Holt’s broadside printing of the Declaration of Independence, one of only four surviving copies, is the star attraction.

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