Category Archives: American Revolution

Online records

When I was working on my master’s thesis, one of the things I wanted to do was examine the federal pension applications of King’s Mountain veterans.  The NARA Rev War pension files are fantastic sources, sort of like miniature autobiographies of common soldiers along with supporting documentation.  Thing is, there are a heck of a lot of them, and I was only after pension files from veterans of one particular battle, so each roll of microfilm only had a few documents that were relevant to my project.  I spent as much time fast forwarding through microfilm reels to get to what I needed as I did reading the material I wanted to see.

Fortunately, people who are interested in using the Rev War pension files have it a lot easier these days.  Almost all of them are available at Fold3, one of the best subscription services to access digitized material.  These aren’t transcriptions, mind you, but digital versions of what you’d see if you were looking at the microfilm.  All you have to do is pay a subscription fee and you can peruse these documents to your heart’s content while sitting on the couch in your pajamas.  No gas mileage, no parking hassles, no library closing hours, no other researchers hogging the microfilm reader, and no duplication costs.

The Rev War pension files are just one example of the sort of thing you can access through these online subscription services—pay vouchers, muster rolls, the records of the Southern Claims Commission, Indian treaties, journals of the Continental Congress, Washington’s letters.

There’s clearly a lot to be said for these online services, and yet I haven’t run across that many academic history books that cite them.  Part of the reason for this is simple: people haven’t been digitizing manuscripts for all that long.  But even when it comes to more recent books, I don’t see that many online collections cited.  I know a lot of genealogists who make extensive use of these online services, but not many professional historians who do so.

Again, these sites offer digitized versions of the exact same thing you’d see if you consulted the microform, so on the face of it it’s hard to see why there would be any difference in citing one instead of the other.  In fact, if one of the purposes of citation is accountability (i.e., to allow readers to easily check an author’s sources), citing an online digitized document would seem to facilitate that better than citing the same thing from a roll of microfilm or a folder in a vault.

So is it just me, or are academic historians reluctant to use online services like Fold3, and is there some reason for that?  And will we start to see these types of services utilized more frequently by academic researchers as time passes?

(By the way, if it seems like I’ve been obsessing lately about choosing among different formats of primary source material, I plead guilty as charged.  This book project has made it something of a pressing issue for me.)

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Using published primary sources

As handy as it is when you can access the same primary source material in different forms, it also forces you to make choices about the form you’re going to use.  For example, when I undertook this King’s Mountain project I knew that sooner or later I’d need to dig into the Cornwallis material at the UK’s National Archives in Kew.  I’m in no position for a trans-Atlantic commute, so consulting the original documents is pretty much out of the question.  Thankfully, this material is available on microfilm, so I assumed I’d be scrolling through them while seated in front of a machine.  (Some of Cornwallis’s papers appeared in a three-volume biographical work published in the nineteenth century, but these volumes don’t have everything I need.)

But just recently I found out about a comprehensive six-volume collection of Cornwallis’s papers relating to the Southern Campaign, edited by Ian Saberton and published by Naval & Military Press in 2010.  A nearby library has all six volumes, so it would be a lot easier for me to use the books than it would be to track down a repository with the microfilm and print what I need.  This would also allow me to maximize my research time and budget on the collections I can only access in manuscript or microform.

At this point, I’ve just about talked myself into using these books instead of the microfilm so that I can spare myself some hassle and devote more time and attention to other collections that are only available in manuscript or microform.  An annotated documentary edition also gives you the benefit of reading the editors’ insights into the documents, which can be extremely helpful.  I’ve found just a couple of reviews of the Cornwallis volumes.  One review was pretty positive; the other criticized the editorial apparatus but said little about the transcriptions themselves.  Since the transcriptions are what I really need, I’m not too worried about whether the annotations or introductions are extensive.

Still, it’s a trade-off.  As with any published documentary edition, the question basically comes down to whether the convenience of a printed and easily available published version of a manuscript source is worth being another step removed from the original documents.  Microfilm isn’t the original, of course, but at least you’re looking at images of the documents themselves.  And I’ll be relying on the Cornwallis papers pretty heavily, since I’m trying to incorporate more of the British perspective than other King’s Mountain studies have included.

These are the type of questions I’ve been mulling over lately.  Now I want to hear from you guys.  What do you folks think about using published editions of primary source material when the same material is available in microform?  As readers, does it have any effect on how you evaluate a scholarly work?  And for those of you who write history, do you prefer to use a printed documentary edition when one is available, instead of manuscripts or microform?

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Novel approach to King’s Mountain

I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it.  The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer.  McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework. 

The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups.  McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition.  At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else.  Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir.  Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it.  It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources.  (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book.  I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)

When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy.  Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.

These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle.  If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it.  McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling.  We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own.  Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.

It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region.  This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century.  If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

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Patrick Ferguson’s two Virginias

Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain is out now.  I was hoping to pick up a copy yesterday, but the nearest bookstore didn’t have it in yet.  I don’t read much fiction, but it’s not often somebody writes a novel about your favorite historical subject, so I’m really interested in this one.  You can read an excerpt at Appalachian History.

The main characters in the excerpt are two women who share the same nickname, Virginia Sal and Virginia Paul (or Poll), both of whom reportedly accompanied Ferguson on the campaign and were present during the battle.  Quite a few books dealing with King’s Mountain refer to them, and they also appear in the film shown at the battleground’s visitor center.

When it comes to documenting their presence in Ferguson’s camp, things get as little tricky.  As with so much of what we know about the battle, the tale of the two Virginias owes as much to later oral tradition as it does to firsthand source material.  I’m about to discuss these two women in some detail, so if you’re unfamiliar with their story and you’re planning to read McCrumb’s novel, you might want to skip this post until you finish the book.

The fate of the two Virginias is one of the more colorful aspects of King’s Mountain lore.  The red-headed Virginia Sal reportedly caught a fatal bullet and was buried on the battlefield, either next to Ferguson himself or in a common grave with some of the dead Tories.  Virginia Paul is variously said to have been captured in the action and later released by Col. William Campbell, to have traveled with the Whigs back to North Carolina before going off to join Cornwallis, and to have pointed Fergsuon out to the attacking Whigs.

Patrick Ferguson’s grave. By National Park Service Digital Image Archives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, women frequently accompanied Revolutionary War armies into the field as camp followers in order to cook, haul water, provide laundry and nursing services, and so on.  But many accounts of King’s Mountain have the Virginias providing Ferguson with services of a less respectable character, claiming that the officer was keeping a mistress or two in camp.

In his 1881 book on the battle, Lyman Draper claimed that this tradition had been circulating in the Carolinas for fifty years.  His inquiries about Ferguson’s women yielded reports from about half a dozen correspondents in the region.  These letters date from about a century after the battle, but they do provide some tantalizing details.  W.D. Glenn claimed that Ferguson had dual mistresses with him at King’s Mountain, based on reports from “two old citizens near me” who got the information from veterans.  Wallace Reinhardt told Draper that Ferguson’s woman was named “Featherstone,” while J.R. Logan mentioned a string of beads taken from Virginia Sal’s body after her death.  Always fascinated by a good anecdote, Draper included the tale of the two Virginias in his book, and the story of Ferguson’s dual mistresses has become an inextricable part of the story of the battle as a whole.  Some early writers took it as proof that the Scotsman lacked any scruples.  For example, in his 1920 history of southwestern Virginia, William C. Pendleton wrote, “That Ferguson had no regard for morality and decency was evidenced by the fact that he had two mistresses with him when he was killed.”

If the “mistress” angle is correct, Ferguson wouldn’t have been the only British officer to do so while on campaign in America.  But since female camp followers performed a number of legitimate services for troops in the field, the fact that two women were reportedly with Ferguson at King’s Mountain doesn’t necessarily mean that he was sleeping with either of them.  To modern ears, the notion that Ferguson was keeping a buxom red-headed lover in his camp, that she died during his famous last stand, and that they were both buried on the battleground sounds like the sort of romanticized, unsubstantiated baloney that would appeal to a credulous nineteenth-century antiquarian.  Yet as tempting as it might be to dismiss the tale of the two Virginias as nothing more than a backwoods Carolina legend, there are actually a couple of sources that lend some confirmation to the story.

The first is this statement in the pension application of King’s Mountain veteran John McQueen:

That there was a woman who Ferguson had been keeping who had left the British army and had come with news to Capt. Lewis [presumably Capt. Joel Lewis] and she told him that Ferguson could be known by him using his sword in his left hand as he had been wounded previously in the right and Capt. Lewis communicated this to Col Cleveland and after the battle commenced, he pointed out Ferguson and selected 8 or 9 of his best riflemen and told them he had to fall, and there was 6 or 7 bullet holes through him after the battle….

This may reveal a kernel of truth to the story that Virginia Paul identified Ferguson, but McQueen’s claim that the woman “had left the British army” indicates that she had already departed from the camp before the battle started and then encountered the Whigs later at some point on their approach to King’s Mountain.  That seems to contradict the story that she was among the Tories taken on the field, as well as Draper’s statement that when the battle ended she “was seen to ride around the camp as unconcerned as though nothing of unusual moment had happened.”  Still, it’s significant that a veteran of the battle believed Ferguson had taken up with a woman who was accompanying the army.

The other source isn’t on paper.  It’s on the battlefield itself—or rather underneath it.  In his book on Tories in the American Revolution, North Callahan reports that in 1845 Dr. J.W. Tracy of the town of King’s Mountain, NC found two sets of remains in Ferguson’s grave and identified one of them as female.  And in his guidebook to the battleground and collection of eyewitness accounts, NPS ranger Robert Dunkerly notes that ground penetrating radar confirms the presence of a second body.  So just because some historical anecdote sounds too dramatic and juicy to be true, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bunk.

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Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Attendance and artifacts

There’s an interesting article at AxisPhilly on the challenges facing the historic attractions in and around Independence Mall.  Big museums in the City of Brotherly Love are dealing with shrinking funds and visitation numbers that are below their goals, even as yet another public history institution—the planned Museum of the American Revolution—is preparing to set up shop in the same neighborhood.

Even with some buildings closed due to budget cuts, Independence National Historical Park is doing a brisk business, with 2 million visitors to the Liberty Bell last year and capacity crowds of 686,788 at Independence Hall.  (If the number for Independence Hall seems low, bear in mind that NPS restricts the number of people allowed into the building and tours fill up early.)  The National Constitution Center, by contrast, brought in fewer than 400,000, even though it’s right across from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell building.  You’d assume that most museums would be delighted with annual visitation of 400,000, but the folks at the NCC were apparently counting on more.  The nearby Jewish History Museum saw 100,000 visitors and the African American Museum just 65,000.

Independence Mall, from Wikimedia Commons

What accounts for the fact that INHP is doing a more brisk business than the other museums?  Some of the answers are obvious.  As the article’s author notes, the cost of admission probably has a lot to do with it.  Getting in to see the Liberty Bell or the room where the Continental Congress met won’t cost you a dime, but you’ll have to fork over some cash to visit the National Constitution Center and other museums.

Name recognition has got to be another factor, perhaps the most significant one.  You couldn’t ask for a historic building with more superstar appeal than Independence Hall.  The Jewish History Museum and the African American Museum presumably cater to a more specialized crowd.  But the National Constitution Center isn’t as narrowly focused in its subject matter, and it seems to market itself extremely well.

Why aren’t more of the people who visit INHP making the short stroll over to the NCC?  I think the AxisPhilly author is onto something important when she notes that the NCC “doesn’t have a core collection of objects that people will pay to come and see.”

Ultimately, what I think most heritage tourists want more than anything else is authenticity.  They want to stand in the original spot, see the real thing, have a face-to-face encounter with the past.  Take a tour of some historic house, and you’re bound to hear somebody in the group ask how much of the structure and furnishings are original.  Likewise, when I was a museum intern, the first question people asked when they stood at the counter trying to decide whether or not to hand over their money was, “What is there to see?”  They weren’t referring to the exhibits, but the collection; they’d come to a Lincoln museum to see Lincoln artifacts.  It’s like the apocryphal story about Willie Sutton.  When a reporter asked him why he robbed banks, he supposedly answered, “because that’s where the money is.”  People who are interested in history go to history museums because that’s where the historic stuff is.

This is an age of high-dollar mega-museums with ever more elaborate exhibits, but public historians always need to keep in mind that the objects themselves are what separate museums from other media of education and entertainment.  We definitely don’t need to return to the days when an exhibit consisted of nothing but text panels and cases filled with labeled items, but we also don’t need to lose sight of the fact that while exhibits will eventually become dated, the objects aren’t going to lose their appeal.

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ABC is developing a Rev War counterfactual

The network has a series in the works called The Thirteen, set in an alternate twenty-first century where America lost the war.  It’ll be interesting to see how precise they get about what actually happened differently in their fictional timeline, assuming the show actually goes into production.

This raises the interesting and question of what alternate event or series of events might have resulted in a British victory.  Howe manages to trap Washington in New York?  Burgoyne brushes aside the opposition in ’77 and the French decide America is a bad investment?  Cornwallis subdues the Carolinas and marches into Virginia unopposed?  Quite a few intriguing possibilities.

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Pinpointing the Cane Creek battlefield

Thanks to a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program, the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina is going to try and delineate the precise location of the Battle of Cane Creek.

Patrick Ferguson’s Tories shot it out with Charles McDowell’s North Carolina Whigs at Cane Creek on Sept. 12, 1780, less than a month before Ferguson lost his life at King’s Mountain.

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Defending the Forks

We managed to take in one last historic site on the final day of the trip: Point State Park in Pittsburgh, PA.  Although it’s not as well known as Bunker Hill or Independence Hall, it’s one of the most important pieces of real estate in the history of North America.  The struggle for this triangle of land at the “Forks of the Ohio,” the juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, shaped the destiny of an entire continent.

Control of the Forks meant command of the Ohio River, which also meant command of the continent’s vast interior.  Both France and England acted on this realization about the same time, which is why in 1753 Virginia’s royal governor sent an inexperienced young officer named George Washington to tell the French that the Pennsylvania frontier was British territory.  Unimpressed, the French proceeded to drive away an English crew building a fort at the Forks and then constructed their own outpost at the site, naming it Fort Duquesne.

In 1754, Virginia sent Washington back to the Pennsylvania frontier to kick the French out.  This expedition, of course, culminated in the messy and controversial confrontation at Jumonville Glen and an embarrassing defeat for the inexperienced officer at Ft. Necessity.  These proved to be the opening moves in the French and Indian War, so it was the struggle for the Forks of the Ohio that launched the war which resulted in the transfer of France’s North American mainland empire to Britain.

For the first few years of the French and Indian War, the French managed to hold on to Ft. Duquesne and the Forks.  Gen. Edward Braddock’s 1755 expedition to Duquesne was wiped out before getting a chance to threaten the fort, and another effort faltered in Sept. 1758.  The English finally succeeded in driving the French away from the Forks that November.  They built their own fortification very near the site of Duquesne, naming it “Fort Pitt” after the popular English politician.  This fort—quite a bit larger than its French predecessor—was one of the most substantial defensive works in colonial North America.

When the war ended in 1763, Indians along the Great Lakes and Ohio frontiers revolted against the new English masters of the interior, disgusted at British attempts to restrict trade and gift-giving.  The outbreak of Pontiac’s Rebellion saw Ft. Pitt and other outposts along the frontier under siege by these irate warriors; the fort’s commandant attempted to break the encirclement using smallpox-infected blankets, but the Indians ultimately broke off the siege themselves to intercept a force coming to Pitt’s relief.  The site continued to play an important role as a staging ground for colonial forces in Lord Dunmore’s War, and then for American forces operating in the West during the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion.

Of course, there might not have been a Revolutionary War if Britain hadn’t tightened its grip on its American colonies after winning the French and Indian War.  Since it was the cost of that war which prompted Britain to tighten its grip in the first place, it wouldn’t be too vast an oversimplification to say that if England and France hadn’t disputed mastery of the Forks of the Ohio, American independence wouldn’t have happened when and how it did.  It would therefore be pretty hard to overstate the historical significance of this piece of ground at the meeting place of three rivers.

Unfortunately, the forts which once symbolized these nations’ commitments to control the Ohio River Valley are pretty much long gone, but there are still some features worth seeing at the Point.  A brick outline marks the site of Ft. Duquesne, and an outbuilding of Ft. Pitt called the “Blockhouse” is extant and open for tours.  Built in 1764, it’s probably the oldest surviving building west of the Appalachians.

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In addition, one of the bastions of Ft. Pitt has been reconstructed and houses the Fort Pitt Museum, which is run by the John Heinz History Center.

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I highly recommend a visit to the museum.  The exhibits deal with the struggle to control the Forks of the Ohio before and during the French and Indian War, as well as the important role Ft. Pitt played in the Revolution and into the early national period.  There are some fantastic military artifacts to see in the galleries, and the gift shop has a great stock of books on the French and Indian War and the early history of western Pennsylvania.

You can get a beautiful view of the Point—and of Pittsburgh as a whole—by taking one of the historic incline railways up to the heights overlooking the city.  Built in the late 1800′s for immigrant laborers who lived on the mountains above town, there are two of them in operation today.

IMG_1343The fountain in the left center of this photo marks the spot where the rivers flow together into the Ohio, right in front of Heinz Field.

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Now I want to get back up to western Pennsylvania and see Fort Necessity, the Braddock battlefield, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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The sequester and slavery in the City of Brotherly Love

We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go.  It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.

I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force.  We hit the trail anyway.  I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.

Something like the sequester, for example.

To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love.  I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip.  We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.  I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage.  Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space.  In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections.  So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.

Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum.  With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat.  I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time.  Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.

So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer.  You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed.  If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…

Image via news.moviefone.com

…it was sort of like that.

Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones.  But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits.  The park’s website gave no information.  I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.

On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.

Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places.  It’s an awesome park.  We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside.  The original was demolished in 1883.

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And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.

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People have been paying their respects here for a long time.

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The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building.  I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed.  There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day.  It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.

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I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time.  The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.

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We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground.  Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.

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One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet.  It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.

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It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

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Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges.  Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated.  As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household.  Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children.  Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.

It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully.  The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible.  The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development.  This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams.  Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.

I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office.  To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels.  It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.

I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP.  I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative.  Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites.  I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system.  I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken.  The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country.  If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.

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