Daily Archives: September 7, 2006

Samuel Johnson and Metaphorical Propriety

The following essay is by Jason Turetsky of the College of Staten Island, who tied for first place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Jason!

Samuel Johnson and Metaphorical Propriety

There is a famous passage in Samuel Johnson’s Life of Denham which has confused critics and produced a variety of interpretations. I.A. Richards, Allen Tate, Jean Hagstrum and William Edinger, have tried to decipher the passage. I will consider the comments of each in an attempt to arrive at some sound conclusions about the meaning of Johnson’s statement. It is my view that this difficult passage, if read properly, will help to establish a better understanding of Johnson’s concept of metaphorical propriety.

Johnson analyzes the following lines from Sir John Denham’s “Cooper’s Hill”:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream

My great example, as it is my theme!

Though deep, yet clear: though gentle, yet not dull;

Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full. (qtd. in Lives 34)

Johnson admires the passage but qualifies his praise with the following criticism:

The lines are in themselves not perfect; for most of the words, thus artfully opposed, are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other; and if there be any language which does not express intellectual operations by material images, into that language they cannot be translated. (34-35)

The cryptic formulation of Johnson’s language has vexed his readers for a long time. The confusion partly results from Johnson’s decision to treat the tenor of the conceit as the “intellectual operations” of the poet rather than poetic style.1 Poetic style is evaluated by its effect on the listener. It is a result of the oral effects and aural impressions of diction, syntax and meter. This is distinguished from “intellectual operations,” or purely cognitive processes, which are understood abstractly. In the Life of Cowley, Johnson uses the same phrase in an apparent binary sense: “They neither copied nature nor life; neither painted the forms of matter nor represented the operations of the intellect” (9). This pronouncement suggests that Johnson may have considered any non-material activity or process, such as the flow of a poem, to be an “intellectual operation.” Nonetheless, poetic style is far more analogous to the flow of a river insofar as its effects are realized through sense experience. Poetic style therefore can be aligned with material processes more easily than can pure thought or cognition. The problem with the conceit is that Denham’s tenor seems to alternate between poetic style and mental process. Denham invokes the river as a model for the “flow” of his poetic style; yet his first descriptive clause, “Though deep, yet clear,” suggests a profound mind rather than a smooth poetic style. Certainly the imaginative faculty, from which poetic style flows, may be considered as an operation of the intellect. And since Denham initially seems to describe the mind, Johnson’s treatment of the tenor as “intellectual operations” is perhaps understandable. But after the initial descriptive clause, the rest of the terms all apply to style far more directly than if they were applied to the intellect.

If we consider Johnson’s own analytical style, as exemplified in the Lives of the Poets, we find that he exhibits a critical habit of mind very similar to Denham’s method in the Thames conceit. Johnson’s tendency in his moral and critical writings to use parallel and antithetical constructions to separate praiseworthy qualities from their corresponding faults accounts for his high estimation of the passage. According to Johnson, “…[T]he particulars of resemblance are so perspicaciously collected, and every mode of excellence separated from its adjacent fault by so nice a line of limitation; the different parts of the sentence are so accurately adjusted… (35). This principle of analysis is prevalent in the Lives of the Poets. In the memorable, encomiastic closing to the Life of Addison, Johnson describes his style as “familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious” (248). In the Life of Milton, speaking of the poet’s depiction of Adam and Eve, Johnson states, “In the first state, their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime without presumption” (72). Johnson uses this style for negative criticism as well, as in Life of Cowley, where he complains of the “metaphysical poets”: “Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just” (9). In the Life of Pope, Johnson says of Warburton’s poetry, “His style is copious without selection, and forcible without neatness” (403). In each example, we see Johnson using antithesis in a manner similar to Denham’s. In the last example, his descriptive words are very similar in meaning to those used by Denham. “Forcible without neatness” is essentially an inverted version of Denham’s “strong without rage.” “Copious without selection,” is almost a perfect analogue, though constructed as a negative, to Denham’s “without o’er-flowing full.” In light of Johnson’s negative comments, Tate suggests, “His remark that the ‘particulars of resemblance are perspicaciously collected,’ seems incomprehensible” (91). But if we consider Johnson’s own tendency to separate “mode[s] of excellence” from “adjacent fault[s],” it is not difficult to see why Johnson admired Denham’s lines. The confusing part of Johnson’s comment is the criticism.

Before we can assess Johnson’s exact meaning, we must determine what he refers to when he uses the word “comparison.” William Edinger supposes that the “comparison” Johnson refers to is the antithesis of terms in each clause. He correctly points out, “The words ‘artfully opposed’ include ‘deep’ versus ‘clear,’ ‘gentle’ versus ‘not dull,’ ‘strong’ versus ‘without rage,’ and ‘full’ versus ‘without o’erflowing’” (597). This point is obvious enough, but he proceeds to the questionable conclusion that the “comparison” Johnson refers to is each antithesis taken individually. According to Edinger, “If Johnson’s observation that one side of each comparison is to be understood ‘simply’ i.e., literally, and the other side metaphorically were true of all, then ‘deep,’ ‘gentle,’ ‘strong,’ and ‘full’ would describe the Thames, while ‘clear,’ ‘not dull,’ ‘without rage,’ and ‘without o’erflowing’ would only describe qualities of style, Denham’s ‘tenor.’” (598). Here Edinger has interpreted Johnson’s statement to mean that, in each antithesis the first term literally applies to the river and the second term metaphorically applies to the intellect. He goes on to say, “Johnson does not, however, make this claim, saying only that ‘most’ of the antitheses are to be understood in this way. An unmistakable instance is ‘gentle, not dull,’ where gentle can apply both to the river and to style… but dull can apply only to style… Other instances are more open to question (598).” Edinger’s assumption that Johnson refers to the antitheses when he uses the word “comparison” leads him to a shaky interpretation. He acknowledges that only one of the four “comparisons” seems to legitimately fit his reading of Johnson’s comment. And he does seem to recognize the problem when, to support his reading, he points out that Johnson qualifies his statement by saying that “most” of the words function this way. Even with Johnson’s qualification, Edinger would have to demonstrate that more than one of the antithetical clauses can clearly exemplify his reading. One out of four comparisons would not justify Johnson’s use of the term “most.” It seems doubtful that Johnson is censuring Denham, as Edinger supposes, for a failure of the visual side of the metaphor to afford images.

Edinger’s problematic reading proceeds from a mistaken interpretation of the word “comparison.” He is perhaps confused by the structure of Johnson’s sentence. Following the implied logic of apposition, Edinger assumes Johnson’s insertion of the qualifying phrase “thus artfully opposed” implies that the comparison he refers to is each individual antithesis formed by the artful opposition of terms. A more reasonable conclusion is that the “comparison” Johnson refers to is the whole conceit—the comparison of the river with the poet’s style. The two sides of the comparison are not the first and second term of each antithesis, but rather the vehicle on one side and the tenor on the other: the river and the poet’s style.

If we accept that Johnson means the entire conceit when he refers to the “comparison,” we see that, in Johnson’s view, most of the words in Denham’s conceit are literally applicable to the river but only figuratively describe the intellect. As we’ve already considered, the tenor of the conceit is more appropriately thought of as poetic style, with the exception of the first descriptive clause which would seem to apply to the mind; nonetheless, I will take Johnson on his own terms—as Tate, Hagstrum and Richards have each done in their respective discussions of the passage—in an attempt to elucidate his meaning and infer a principle from it. Johnson’s criticism suggests that the ground of the comparison is obscure because Denham’s conceit employs a vehicle to elucidate a tenor which is already figurative. For Johnson, this represents an impropriety in the structure of the analogical relationship of the metaphorical components because that which is figurative, the intellect or imagination, is transferred over to an image, the river, where the descriptive terms have a different literal meaning.

Jean Hagstrum interprets Johnson’s criticism in terms of Addison’s concept of “mixed wit” (121). According to Addison, “Mixt Wit… is a Composition of Punn and true Wit, and is more or less perfect as the Resemblance lies in the Ideas or in the Words” (252). His examples are taken from passages where poets have formed metaphors based on the common use of “fire” and “flame” as figures for the passion of love. He states, “…[T]he Poet mixes the Qualities of Fire with those of Love; and in the same Sentence speaking of it both as a Passion and as real Fire, surprises the Reader with those seeming Resemblances or Contradictions that make up all the Wit in this kind of Writing” (251-52). Johnson was influenced by Addison’s theories about metaphor and quoted his comments on “mixed wit” in the Life of Cowley (20). The concept of “mixed wit” is helpful in understanding Johnson’s critique of Denham because in Denham’s metaphor the descriptive terms, which form the comparison, function simultaneously on both sides of the analogy. For a resemblance to be found, as Addison supposes, in the words, the metaphor must employ the same words in different senses on both sides of the metaphor. It is important to recognize the difference between a pun, which Addison terms “false wit,” which is simply an accidental coincidence of language, and an instance of “mixed wit,” where the double entendre is formed by a secondary, figurative sense of the word that proceeds from a perceived resemblance to its primary meaning (250). This form of wit is “mixed” rather than “false” in Addison’s view because there is in fact a partial correspondence between the two meanings without which the figurative sense would not have arisen. Furthermore, Addison acknowledges the possibility of a mixed-wit metaphor having propriety when he states that such a metaphor “is more or less perfect as the Resemblance lies in the Ideas or in the Words” (emphasis added). Based on this concept, Hagstrum argues, “The assertion about the river is clear; but the assertion about the poet himself is not… [N]o words in the comparison literally and clearly explain the poet’s mental operations” (121). Allen Tate similarly suggests, “The imperfection… lies in its failure to work both ways; that is, the qualities that Denham would like to achieve cannot be found literally in the river” (91). Addison’s theory, which defines a specific type of metaphor in which the analogy is partly true and partly a verbal felicity, provides a plausible basis for Johnson’s criticism of Denham’s lines. The crux problem he detects is that words like “deep,” “clear,” “gentle,” “strong,” “o’erflowing,” and “full” have literal meanings in a material context, but the abstract transference of those terms into an immaterial context, such as creative processes of the intellect, requires the terms to function figuratively. The terms must perform a double role, with literal meaning on one side of the conceit and figurative meaning on the other. Understood in terms of “mixed wit,” the analogy is built partly upon puns that exploit the double meanings of the descriptive terms. What is said of the river is said of the poet’s style; the illusion of analogical correspondence is created by the double meaning of each descriptive term. A degree of correspondence in the nature of the two things may exist, but the poet has only hinted at such a correspondence.

Tate construes Johnson’s complaint the following way: “The tenor of the figure, in order to be convincing, ought to have translatability into a high degree of abstraction; it ought to be detachable from the literal image of the flowing river” (91). This means that all of the descriptive terms should literally apply to the immaterial side of the conceit. Johnson’s judgment that the lines are imperfect reveals something important about his idea of metaphorical propriety. His remarks on “Cooper’s Hill,” implicitly demand a strictly literal correspondence in any metaphor that compares material and immaterial processes. The problem with this stricture is that the ground of a comparison of physical and mental operations cannot achieve a perfectly literal correspondence because qualities of the intellect cannot be visualized or understood by the senses except through the use of figurative language. Even if we treat Denham’s tenor as poetic style and distinguish that from “intellectual operations,” the difference is only a matter of degree. A phrase like “without o’erflowing, full” may be more directly applicable to style than to the intellect, but it is still somewhat figurative. It is not as literal in reference to style as it is in reference to the river. As Richards suggests, “…[M]etaphor is the omnipresent principle of language” (Philosophy 92). It is precisely this facility with which we revert to figurative language which Johnson mistrusts in the structure of metaphors such as Denham’s, where words are pressed into functioning both literally and figuratively at the same time. We inherently rely on figurative language in describing the processes of the mind. Johnson recognizes this and expects the poet to observe a greater degree of care and clarity in his use of figurative language when the objective is to exemplify an unexpected but accurate resemblance of different entities.

The problem with Johnson’s idea of metaphoric literalism is that all languages “express intellectual operations by material images.” This is precisely why Johnson’s hypothetical language, which does not express operations of the intellect in material images, is only hypothetical. Abstract terminology results from the human intellect’s ability to grasp intuitively a resemblance of immaterial qualities of the mind to the material processes of the physical world. As Richards points out, “…[H]istorians of language have long taught that we can find no word or description for any of the intellectual operations which, if its history is known, is not seen to have been taken, by metaphor, from a description of some physical happening” (Philosophy 91). This is precisely the point which renders Johnson’s criticism of Denham’s lines problematic and necessitates his use of a hypothetical language devoid of figures of speech to elucidate his point. The words we use exclusively in reference to mental qualities have been so distinctly separated from their original literal meaning that we mistake their abstract meanings for primary ones. Johnson himself offers a pertinent reflection on this feature of language in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language:

The original sense of words is often driven out of use by their metaphorical acceptations, yet must be inserted for the sake of a regular origination. Thus I know not whether ardour is used for material heat, or whether flagrant, in English, ever signifies the same with burning; yet such are the primitive ideas of these words, which are therefore set first, though without examples, that the figurative senses may be commodiously deduced. (b3 recto)

A perfect example of this would be the word Johnson uses to praise the manner in which Denham’s “resemblances” are collected: “perspicaciously.” It is incidentally noteworthy that two of the first three examples of the word “perspicaciously” in the OED are from Johnson. The third example is the exact sentence which I am currently discussing from the “Life of Denham.” The OED defines “perspicacious” as follows: “Of eyes, sight, etc.: keen, sharp; clear-sighted. Chiefly fig.” (def. 1); “Of a person, wit, etc.: penetrating; perceptive, discerning.” (def. 2); “Clear, transparent. Obs. rare.” (def. 3). Definition 2 is an abstract application of the term which relies on other abstract terms taken from material processes, such as “penetrating,” “perceptive” and “discerning” to define its meaning. The etymological entry also displays the word’s original denotation of a physical, sense-related process:

[perspicc-, perspicx having keen or penetrating sight, discerning (perspicere to see through, look closely into, discern, perceive (see PERSPECTIVE adj.) + -x: see -ACIOUS suffix) + -IOUS suffix.

Another particularly pertinent example of this relationship between material and abstract terminology can be seen in one of the problem words from Denham’s conceit discussed earlier: “dull.” As I noted, Edinger suggests that the word “dull,” as it is used in Denham’s conceit, only applies to the intellect. Richards, on the other hand suggests that the term describes the river literally but the intellect only derivatively (121). The disagreement over the signification of “dull” in Denham’s line suggests the reciprocity of mental and physical qualities. Common usage can easily give rise to a material application of a term where the common signification is mental. Here is the OED’s first definition for “dull”: “Not quick in intelligence or mental perception; slow of understanding; not sharp of wit; obtuse, stupid, inapprehensive. In early use, sometimes: Wanting wit, fatuous, foolish” (def. 1). Here too, we see how an apparently abstract term is inherently reliant upon material images to elucidate its meaning. The OED definition employs physical terms, such as “quick”, “slow” and “sharp” to explain the mental signification of “dull,” supporting Richards’s contention about the physical origin of abstract terms. Also supporting Richards’ interpretation of the word “dull” as descriptive of the river, here is the OED’s third entry for “dull”: “Slow in motion or action; not brisk; inert, sluggish, inactive; heavy, drowsy” (def. 3a). And the following example is cited from Spenser, where “dull” is applied to moving water: “Thenceforth her waters wexed dull and slow” (def. 3a). Johnson himself quotes this same passage from Spenser to exemplify the sixth entry for “dull” in his Dictionary.

The figurative, verbal structure of the analogy which Johnson recognizes is apparent, but Johnson’s judgment that the lines are thus imperfect indicates a narrow view of metaphorical decorum. The ingenuity of Denham’s metaphor is in the use of an image that allows him to exemplify the relational aspects of the intellectual qualities he aspires to. Richards suggests, “What the lines say of the mind is something that does not come from the river. But the river is not a mere excuse, or a decoration only, a gilding of the moral pill. The vehicle is still controlling the mode in which the tenor forms” (Philosophy 122-23). By this he means that although an overly scrupulous reading of the conceit would recognize a lack of perfect analogical propriety in the terms of the metaphor, the arrangement and structure of the metaphor is such that the relations of the terms on both sides of the conceit make sense to the reader. The fidelity of the analogy is not found in the terms taken individually but in the antithetical relations of the terms to each other. The bottom of the river is mysterious as is the bottom of a profound idea. Just as the river’s clearness is all the more surprising considered in relation to its depth, a profound intellect is all the more impressive for its ability to express itself lucidly. This relation can only be visualized in the image of the river, but the tenuous relation of depth and clarity—the difficulty of achieving both—may be appropriately applied to the river and the intellect in a way that is acceptable and even felicitous by Johnson’s standards. Similarly, the river is “strong, without rage.” This means that the river flows powerfully but stays within the limit of its banks. Similarly, Denham’s ideal style of poetic expression is forceful but tempered and focused. Although the correspondence is not literal, the relation of the terms is analogically fit to describe both the river and the poet’s style. These relational analogies, the separations of virtues from concomitant faults, are the resemblances which Johnson celebrates as “perspicaciously collected.”

The metaphor is not simply a verbal felicity that compares a set of literal qualities with a corresponding set of figurative qualities; it is not simply an instance of Addison’s mixed wit. It is a collection of analogous antithetical relations of qualities. It would seem that although Johnson is troubled by the figurative application of Denham’s terms to the intellect, he recognizes the fitness of the antithetical relations of the terms in both the vehicle and the tenor.

Edinger cites one of Johnson’s own images from “The Vanity of Human Wishes” as an example of a metaphor which observes his own guidelines for a proper metaphor. The image of fireworks to represent the transience of worldly prominence affords an opportunity to analyze Johnson on his own terms, but with perhaps a different conclusion than Edinger’s:

Unnumber’s suppliants crowd Preferment’s gate,

Athirst for wealth, and burning to be great;

Delusive Fortune hears th’ incessant call,

They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall (Vanity 73-76).

Edinger says that this image “fulfills all the requirements we have inferred from his criticism” because “Johnson’s particulars function on both the metaphoric and descriptive levels” and afford a striking image with visual propriety (607). This conclusion relies on Edinger’s assumption that Johnson criticized Denham for a “failure of the visual” (598). But the use of terms that “are to be understood simply on one side of the comparison, and metaphorically on the other,” which Edinger observes as the propriety of Johnson’s metaphor, is precisely Johnson’s complaint about Denham’s lines. The words, “mount,” “shine,” “evaporate,” and “fall,” are all derived from material processes. They are literally applicable to an image of fireworks, just as Denham’s terms do, in spite of Edinger’s claims, afford a literal image of the river. But, like the terms in Denham’s conceit, Johnson’s four verbs, “mount,” “shine,” “evaporate,” and “fall,” are to be understood figuratively when applied to the tenor. The structure of the metaphor is similar to that of Denham’s insofar as the verbs perform a double function, which is literal on the side of the vehicle and figurative on the side of the tenor. The figurative sense of words like “mount,” “shine” and “fall” is so common to the language that one easily forgets they are figurative at all. In this sense, the words, as they function in Johnson’s metaphor, bear a similarity to Addison’s mixed wit. What Johnson makes evident with this conceit, he fails to acknowledge in his criticism of Denham: namely, that the analogy of an abstract process to a material one can be evinced by the use of figurative speech—and this can be the proper ground of a successful metaphor. Johnson’s verbs are no more literally true of worldly ascension and decline than Denham’s qualities are literally descriptive of the intellect. Johnson’s tenor is no less dependent on the visual image of the fireworks to elucidate the meaning of the analogy than Denham’s is on the river. To say that someone who has risen to prominence “shines” would be as meaningless as Denham’s conceit in a language that does not express abstract operations by material images. “[E]vaporate” is a particularly problematic word from Johnson’s image because it is a technical, scientific term which is only understood in Johnson’s metaphor because of its position between two other common, figurative terms.

It may be true that Johnson’s analogy is more clear and direct than Denham’s. But this is simply a matter of degree. As Addison suggested, mixed-wit metaphors may exhibit a range of analogical propriety between the illusory verbal resemblance and true resemblance. As a type of metaphor, the structure of Johnson’s fireworks image is similar to that of Denham’s Thames conceit. In Denham’s metaphor, it is not the qualities themselves, but the analogous relations of the terms in each of the four antitheses that accounts for the fidelity of the comparison. In Johnson’s image, it is the arching figure formed by the chronological relation of the four verbs which is analogous in the vehicle and the tenor. Both conceits rely on the vehicle not to explain a perfect analogy of operations but to provide a concise unifying power of summation. Both images establish a mode in which the figurative terms make sense.

It is difficult to see why Edinger chose the fireworks metaphor as an example of Johnson observing his own critical precepts. If Denham’s image suffers from a failure of literalness in the tenor, the same can be said of Johnson’s. Perhaps a better example, one which avoids the qualities which Johnson censures in Denham, can be found in the Life of Cowley where he criticizes the methods of the metaphysical poets: “Their attempts were always analytic; they broke every image into fragments; and could no more represent, by their slender conceits and laboured particularities, the prospects of nature, or the scenes of life, than he who dissects a sunbeam with a prism can exhibit the wide effulgence of a summer noon” (9). Here we have a metaphor with a different structure from Denham’s Thames conceit. There is sufficient abstraction because none of the terms function on both sides of the comparison, thus avoiding Addison’s problem of mixed wit. Each of the elements of the tenor lines up neatly with the features of the vehicle. The vehicle is perfectly suited to exemplify the actions and qualities of the tenor. The image of a scientist using a prism to divide sunlight into a narrow view of the refracted light spectrum exemplifies the style of analysis that Johnson found distasteful in the metaphysical poets.

According to Richards, “A metaphor may be illustrative or diagrammatical, providing a concrete instance of a relation which would otherwise have to be stated in abstract terms” (Principles 239). The image from the Life of Cowley avoids the problems Johnson discusses in Denham’s conceit because it is a simile that does not require any of its terms to function simultaneously on both sides of the metaphor. In Denham’s lines, depth and clarity of the river are compared with depth and clarity of intellect, pressing the terms to function both figuratively and literally. Likewise, in the fireworks image, the terms “mount,” “shine,” “evaporate” and “fall” function on both sides of the comparison. In both metaphors, it is up to the reader to see the figurative relationship of the terms to the tenor. Johnson seems to prefer the diagrammatical form of analogy. Of course, he could not avoid the use of figurative language to exemplify resemblances of material and abstract processes any more than other poets can.

Works Cited

Addison, Joseph and Steele, Richard. The Spectator. Volume The First. “No. 62.” Glasgow: Printed for A. Stalker and R. Murie, 1745. 248-254.

Edinger, William. “Johnson on Conceit: The Limits of Particularity.” ELH, Vol. 39, No. 4. Dec.
1972. 597-619. http:/www/jstor.org.

Hagstrum, Jean H. Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1952.

Johnson, Samuel. “Preface.” A Dictionary of the English Language. Vol. I. Sixth ed. London:
Printed for J. F. and C. Rivington, L. Davis, T. Payne and Son, 1785.

— — –. Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets. London: Frederick Warne & Co., n.d.

— — –. “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Samuel Johnson: A Critical Edition of the Major
. Ed. Donald Greene. New York: Oxford UP. 1984. 12-21.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd. Ed. 1989.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

— — –. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc., 1925.

Tate, Allen. “Johnson on the Metaphysical Poets.” Samuel Johnson. Ed. Donald J. Greene. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1965. 89-101.


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Filed under Essay Contest, Poetry, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

The Origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Racism and Historical Memory in Colonial New York

The following essay is by Michael Brenes of Hunter College, who tied for first place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Michael!

The Origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Racism and Historical Memory in Colonial New York

In July of 1763, the attorney general of New York, John Tabor Kempe, wrote a letter to the newly appointed Chief Justice, Daniel Horsmanden, regarding the abduction of a freed African American man.1 For what appeared to be the purposes of profit, the kidnappers were intent on sending the freedman to South Carolina, where he would be sold back into the bonds of slavery.2 Kempe implored Horsmanden to prevent this from occurring, requesting that a warrant be issued to bring those responsible for the man’s capture to justice.3 While Kempe normally would have made it a point to visit Horsmanden in person, being known for his industriousness, he had been “quite undressed having been very much engaged all day.”4

With the disadvantage of not being in person to address Horsmanden, Kempe had to employ vociferous rhetoric to describe the direness of the situation. Kempe exhorted Horsmanden to salvage the destiny of the freeman otherwise “he may never be able to extricate himself” from slavery.5 Hoping that Horsmanden possessed a modicum of humanitarianism, Kempe claimed that Horsmanden should intervene because the man was “so unfortunate as to have a Black Face, and be Friendless and unable to assist himself.”6 Kempe went on to apologize to Horsmanden for “the Trouble of this Letter” but that he was compelled to petition the Chief Justice because of his “Detestation of the cruel practice of infringing the Liberty of a poor Man.”7 If this argument failed to persuade Horsmanden, Kempe also deferred to the unflagging rule of the law when it came to the legal status of blacks, writing that the man “is certainly free and…ought to be protected in his Liberty as much as a White Man.”8

Kempe’s twofold appeal to Horsmanden was most likely grounded in his knowledge of Horsmanden’s racism and his previously harsh treatment of African Americans that had been brought before his court. In 1741, Daniel Horsmanden was the city recorder and the third presiding judge in what became known as the New York Conspiracy trials. After a series of fires had consumed several buildings in New York within a span of weeks, slaves were perceived to be the primary suspects. Based on a collection of circumstantial evidence and on the coerced testimony of one witness, the cadre of New York’s legal elite arrested dozens of supposed criminals, both black and white, and ended up executing the ringleaders of the fires as well as exiling many others.

Whether a conspiracy truly existed is a topic of contention, but the hysteria that led to the mass arrests is undeniable. Many scholars have acknowledged the origins of the conspiracy but they have failed to explore them in detail as they have been shrouded in the broader concerns of whether a conspiracy did in fact occur. While the evidence is available to explore the viable explanations for the mass terror that engendered the executions of slaves, there appears to be no concise monograph on the topic. However, when one reviews the sources of the conspiracy, one finds that the New York Conspiracy of 1741 was due to whites’ racist and conspiratorial fear of African Americans as well as the nature of slavery in New York.

The alleged slave plot that would come to terrorize the residents of New York City for almost a year began with a burglary in the late winter of 1741. On February 26th, a young man named Wilson came into a shop owned by one Mr. Robert Hogg in order to make some purchases.9 Hogg’s wife had been in charge of the shop that morning, and after Wilson had bought his items, Mrs. Hogg produced “a considerable quantity of milled Spanish pieces of eight” when she went to make change.10 The large sum of money appealed to Wilson and he decided to steal the coins.11 To accomplish this, Wilson recruited slaves “of very suspicious character” to confiscate the money from Hogg’s house where it was presumably stored.12 These slaves included Caesar, owned by John Vaarck, Prince, owned by John Auboyneau, and Cuffee, owned by Adolph Philipse.13 The plan was further abetted by business owner John Hughson, who caught notice of the plot and agreed to hold the stolen items at his house.14 Hughson was a tavern owner and alleged sympathizer of enslaved African Americans, as his bar was known to be “a place where numbers of negroes used to resort.”15

Originally, everything went according to plan up until March 1st, when Wilson returned to Mrs. Hogg’s shop. It was then that she told Wilson she had been the victim of theft.16 Earlier in the week, Mrs. Hogg had seen Wilson eyeing the coins, and when they had gone missing, she immediately suspected he was the culprit.17 To deflect the blame from himself, Wilson alerted the authorities to where the money was and claimed that Caesar was the person who had stolen it.18 When the money was reclaimed at Hughson’s, an indentured servant named Mary Burton (who was living at John Hughson’s residence at the time of the robbery) was then questioned by the town clerk.19 Initially, Burton was reticent to reveal what she knew about the robbery, but after being brought before the court, she eventually implicated both the slaves and Hughson in the robbery after she was told that “she might be taken care of” if she confessed.20

Burton would not only become the key witness to the robbery but also the slave conspiracy as it began to unfold. On March 18th, a fire engulfed “his majesty’s house at Fort George” and burned it to the ground.21 A pair of fires then subsequently broke out within the next two weeks. On April 4th, fires erupted at two more residences, one of which was determined to be set “upon examination…whereon a negro slept.”22 The following day, Mrs. Earle spotted three slaves together sauntering down Broadway.23 One was “Mr. Walter’s Quaco” who Mrs. Earle heard exclaim with “a vaporing sort of an air, “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A LITTLE, damn it, BY-AND-BY.”24 Again on April 6th, multiple fires broke out, one of which was at a storehouse owned by Adolph Philipse where a witness had seen “a negro leap out at the end window” of the building ablaze.25 The African American man turned out to be Philipse’s own slave Cuffee who “had a great deal of idle time, which…he employed to very ill purposes,” and he was soon hunted down and arrested.26

With Mrs. Earle’s accusations and the seizure of Cuffee, New Yorkers were convinced that the fires had been the effort of slaves who had intended “to burn the town, kill the white men, and take their wives and daughters as mistresses.”27 After Cuffee’s arrest, Burton would implicate Hughson as the person who orchestrated the slave uprising.28 Eventually, he would be one of the first suspects to be hanged.29 Burton continued to accuse greater numbers of slaves in order “to please her patrons” and those she indicted pointed to others with the hopes that it would stave off any attempts at legal retribution.30 When the trials waned down in early 1742, by then, up to 152 blacks had been arrested, eighty one of whom had implicated more slaves that were either burned at the stake or hanged.31

Only a few months after the events had reached their dissolution, people questioned whether the executions were justified. Some began to critically examine whether a slave conspiracy really existed.32 These doubters feared they had unfortunately been captured by “the merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot.”33 To counteract the criticisms revolving around the vicissitudes of the conspiracy, Daniel Horsmanden wrote a lengthy account of the trials to explicate the actions of the court and finally put to rest these concerns. Relying on his own observations of the events as well as court records, Horsmanden recreated the events of 1741 in his one-sided, subjective version of the plot and the trials.34 However, Horsmanden’s account failed to persuade many people, including historians.

By the nineteenth-century, the notion that the plot had been a fabrication in the harried and panic-stricken minds of New Yorkers was insinuated into popular historiography. In 1839, William Dunlap, a playwright turned historian, published his multivolume history of New York. In his concise treatment of the conspiracy, Dunlap claimed that the conspiracy was indeed invented, and that the “best parallel” to the New York Conspiracy of 1741 was the “popish plot of 1679 in the reign of Charles II.”35 Dunlap’s ostensibly abolitionist leanings also appear in his book as he suggests that the abhorrent nature of slavery created the conditions for the uprising.36

Indeed, Dunlap’s inference that the nature of slavery in New York had exacerbated fears of a plot has merit. In the city, “the free and the slave lived in close proximity” as close to 20,000 people inhabited an area approximately 1.1 square miles.37 Of these twenty thousand, the 1737 census revealed that blacks comprised nearly 25% of the total population in New York.38 The predominant numbers of African American men present in the colony made the white colonists’ uneasy and aroused fears that slaves would overwhelm the whites. William Dunlap wrote that before the conspiracy, “slaves were comparatively small” in number, but their population had increased by 1741, spreading fear of a slave uprising.39 In addition, lawyer William Smith feared that New Yorkers “shall never be quite safe, till that wicked [black] race are under more restraint, or their number greatly reduced within this city.”40

The primary fear among whites was that a gathering of slaves would share collective experiences of oppression, decide that their situation had become intolerable, and foment a revolution. In response to these fears, New York City had promulgated a variety of legal barriers to restrict the autonomy of African Americans. New York’s “Negro Law” was comprised with the intent to discourage “the ability of enslaved people to move at will, and to gather.”41 Slaves were proscribed from social activities that required group participation. Gambling was deemed illegal for slaves as well as drinking in taverns without the presence of their masters.42 To avert slaves from acting in concert under the cover of darkness, those who were “over the age of fourteen had to be off the streets by sunset” unless escorted by their owners.43 Slaves could not even leave “from their Masters Houses or Plantations on the Lords Day” without documented proof that their owners permitted them to be off the premises.44

These laws were legal extensions of New Yorkers’ racist attitudes towards slaves. Because they believed that slaves “were naturally annoying and vexing,” whites thought they had to be consistently vigilant and restrictive with their slaves out of trepidation that they would incite a rebellion.45 Reflecting on the conspiracy in his Journal, Horsmanden wrote that it demonstrated that slave owners should view their slaves as “enemies of their own household, since we know what they are capable of” doing.46 Horsmanden recommended that masters should not provide slaves “with too great liberties” of which they will only “make use of to the worst purposes” including “caballing and confederating together in mischief, [and] in great numbers.”47

Yet despite the multifarious controls on their liberty, slaves did find ways to circumvent such restrictions. Slaves would commit various crimes as acts of opposition to white hegemony, including drinking, stealing and sleeping with white prostitutes.48 However, one of the most popular crimes for slaves in colonial New York was arson. As Edgar McManus writes, “next to theft, arson was the most common crime committed by slaves.”49

Fire was an enduring threat to New York City in the mid 18th century.50 Just the fear of fire alone was disconcerting to the colonists.51 When recalling the burning of Fort George, Horsmanden wrote that the “flames spread so fast, that in about an hour and a quarter’s time the house was burnt down to the ground.”52 Compounding this fear, prior to the conspiracy of 1741, slaves had established a precedent that they would use fire to voice their discontent.53 When the fires in 1741 broke out in such quick succession, the accusations of slaves being involved in their inception was therefore a reflexive conclusion. Indeed, when Cuffee had been spotted in the midst of the storehouse, he was not considered to be the lone culprit, as there were cries that all of “the negroes were rising” throughout the city.54

In addition to being worried about the eruption of fire, colonial New Yorkers were perpetually concerned about slave uprisings. Before March 1741, fears of vast conspiracies pervaded the minds of most American colonists, not just New Yorkers. The British colonists were sensitive to any gossip that intimated that slaves and Native Americans would subvert their way of life. In 1738, inhabitants of Nantucket thought that there was a Native American “conspiracy to destroy all the English, by first setting Fire to their Houses…and then falling upon them with their Fire Arms.”55 Such a plot turned out to be false, as did one in Kingston, New York, where after a group of slaves were involved in a physical scuffle, it was reported by whites as a sign of a nascent rebellion.56 Despite the repudiation of the plots, the American colonists continued to remain suspicious of others and “spotted plotters lurking behind nearly every shadow.”57

However, slave conspiracies were not entirely an illusion by the time fires started to destroy buildings in 1741.58 Slave rebellions were nearly ubiquitous events in the early eighteenth-century. Newspapers invariably brought accounts of slave conspiracies throughout the colonies. Of the most infamous in the prewar era, slave revolts in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina and Pennsylvania had appeared since the mid 17th century.59 But more recent accounts of slave conspiracies alarmed New Yorkers. In Jamaica, a slave named Cudjoe led a group of slaves who had fled from their owners in the 1730’s and established self-sufficient outposts on the island.60 New Yorkers were also cognitive of the Stono Rebellion in 1739, where one hundred rebel slaves took the lives of over twenty whites before their revolt came to a violent end.61

However, the slave conspiracy that hit closest to home was one that occurred in New York almost thirty years before the conspiracy of 1741. In 1712, a slave insurrection unlike New York had encountered since its settlement by the Dutch shook the attention of the citified elite. A group of slaves on April 6th armed themselves with a variety of weapons and proceeded to unleash a furious attack on the whites of the town.62 Two slaves took revenge upon those slave owners who had continuously reduced them to chattel, personally stabbing and shooting Andrew Beekman, Joris Marschalk and Adrian Hoighlandt.63 By the time the murders were squelched, nine white New Yorkers were killed and a handful more suffered wounds.64

Despite the space of nearly thirty years separating the conspiracies, the happenings in 1712 were still fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers. As Jill Lepore writes, there were indeed “hints that whoever set the fires in 1741…was commemorating 1712,” as there were a great deal of similarities between both.65 To begin with, the two conspiracies occurred on the dates of March 25th and April 6th.66 Both involved fire, as those who rose up against whites in 1712 did so by setting fire to a building and then fleeing.67 Additionally, slaves in 1712 kept their plans for insurrection well-hidden before they struck.68 Whites who were therefore compelled to blame the fires in 1741 on slaves had a founded basis on which to make such a conclusion, as they most likely based their accusations on the affinities the fires shared with the most recent slave uprising in memory.

The events of 1712 were also kept alive because a number of the city’s white leaders who were spectators to the 1712 conspiracy had a vital role in the prosecution of slaves in 1741 as well. Of those involved in the conspiracies of 1741 and 1712 were Adolph Philipse, Rip Van Dam and Gerardus Beekman, who survived the death of his son in 1712 at the hands of slaves.69 These men possessed lucid memories of 1712 and the punishments that were then meted out to slaves. Lawyer William Smith was angered by what he viewed as the slaves’ insubordination, claiming that the conspiracy of 1741 was “the second attempt of the same kind that this brutish and bloody species of mankind have made within one age.”70 He thought it appropriate to invoke the legacy of 1712 to claim that the “Justice that was provoked by Former Fires…should have been a perpetual Terror to the Negroes that survived the Vengeance of that Day, and…a Warning to all that had come after them.”71

In order to understand the origins of the New York Slave Conspiracy, one must examine it within the broader context of the history of slavery in the United States.

The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 was the product of several factors: racism, fear of slave rebellion, and the distinct nature of slavery in New York. The reactions of white New Yorkers to the conflagrations, thefts and other crimes that sprouted throughout the city in 1741 are symptomatic of much bigger historical issues. Ultimately, the conspiracy of 1741 takes an important place in the recurrent oppression of African Americans throughout history and is an example of how slavery forever altered American society.


1. John Tabor Kempe to Daniel Horsmanden, July 14, 1763, Charles J. Tanenbaum collection, 18th century Reading room of the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, New York.
2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid. For Kempe’s work ethic see Catherine Snell Crary, “The American Dream: John Tabor Kempe’s Rise from Poverty to Riches,” The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 14 (1957) 176-195. http://www.jstor.org (accessed March 13, 2006), 184.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. My account of the plot is taken directly from Daniel Horsmanden, The New York Conspiracy, or a History of the Negro Plot, with the Journal of the Proceedings Against the Conspirators in the Years 1741-2. Together with Several Interesting Tables (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969) 15-16. The edition I consulted is the reprint of the second edition of Horsmanden’s Journal, printed in 1810.

10. Ibid., 16.

11. Ibid., 16.

12. Ibid., 16.

13. Ibid., 16.

14. Ibid., 16.

15. Ibid., 16.

16. Ibid., 16.

17. Ibid., 16.

18. Ibid., 18-19.

19. Ibid., 21.

20. Ibid., 21.

21. Ibid., 23.

22. Ibid., 26.

23. Ibid., 27.

24. Ibid., 27.

25. Ibid., 28-29.

26. Ibid., 29.

27. Leopold S. Launitz-Schurer, Jr., “Slave Resistance in Colonial New York: An interpretation of Daniel Horsmanden’s New York Conspiracy,” Phylon 41 (1980): 137-152. http://www.jstor.org/ (accessed March 15, 2006), 138.

28. Ibid., 138.

29. For Hughson’s execution see Lepore, 119-120, and Horsmanden 144.

30. See William Dunlap, History of the New Netherlands, Province of New York, and State of New York, to the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 1., (New York:, Carter &Thorpe, 1839), 330.

31. Lepore, xvi. See also Appendix B of Lepore’s book, beginning with page 248. Lepore lists the names of the slaves that were arrested, their pleas, their sentences, and whether they confessed to the crimes brought before them. This list is extensive and takes up eleven pages of her book.

32. Ibid., xviii.

33. Quoted in Lepore, xviii.

34. For the sources he used, see Horsmanden, 5.

35. Dunlap, 322.

36. Ibid., 320-322.

37. Hoffer, 33.

38. This figure is disclosed in Appendix A of New York Burning. Lepore, 236.

39. Dunlap, 321. Dunlap’s statement is supported by the table on page 42 of McManus.

40. Horsmanden, 93. Part of this quote from Horsmanden’s Journal also appears in Thomas J Davis “The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 as Black Protest,” The Journal of Negro History 56 (1971): 17-30. http://www.jstor.org (accessed March 13, 2006), 22.

41. Lepore, 57.

42. McManus, 80-82.

43. Ibid., 80.

44. Quoted in Lepore, 57.

45. Davis., 19.

46. Horsmanden, 12.

47. Horsmanden, 11-12.

48. Davis., 25-27.

49. McManus, 85.

50. Lepore, 42.

51. Hoffer, 35.

52. Horsmanden, 24.

53. McManus, 85.

54. Ibid., 29.

55. Quoted in Lepore, 55.

56. McManus, 122.

57. Lepore, 51.

58. Lepore, 55.

59. Marion D. deB. Kilson, “Towards Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States,” Phylon 25 (1964): 175-187. http://www.jstor.org (accessed March 20, 2006). See Table 1 on p. 177 and Table 2 on p. 179.

60. Lepore, 53.

61. Ibid., 53.

62. Ibid., 53.

63. Ibid., 53.

64. Lepore, 53.

65. Ibid., 59.

66. Lepore, 59.

67. McManus., 123.

68. McManus., 123.

69. Ibid., 59.

70. Horsmanden, 93.

71. Ibid., 93. Also quoted in Lepore, 59-60.

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Filed under 1740's, Essay Contest, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Slavery

Burgoyne’s Failure at Saratoga

The following essay is by Justin Mugits of Hunter College, winner of third place in the 2006 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Justin!

Burgoyne’s Failure at Saratoga

The war for American Independence began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Initially the rebel forces encountered failure and defeat. The Battle of Saratoga was the turning point of the American Revolution. When General John Burgoyne surrendered to General Gates on October 17th, 1777, it became clear that the rebels could win their independence and the war would not end quickly, as the English high command had hoped. Burgoyne’s overconfidence and several key tactical errors, led a promising campaign to almost certain failure.

Several Factors led to Burgoyne’s Failure and subsequent surrender. First, inadequate supplies and troops put the British at a sever disadvantage. On top of that, Burgoyne critically underestimated both the American fighting capacity and their means of warfare. In addition Burgoyne had a poor understanding of the environment in which he was campaigning. Finally, a lack of communication between Burgoyne, General William Howe and Lord Germain would prove fatal to the campaign

Burgoyne’s strategy was to descend from Canada, move south along Lake Champlain and Lake George to the Hudson River then continue to Albany, where he intended to unite his forces with General Howe’s troops coming from the south and a smaller army led by Colonel St. Leger from the west. Hypothetically, this united British force would control the area from Montréal to the mouth of the Hudson and separate New England from the rest of the colonies, effectively crushing the rebellion.1 This plan seemed fairly simple and something similar had been suggested by Lord Carleton, the governor of Canada, as early as 1767.2 Burgoyne and Lord Germain, Secretary of State for the colonies, were confident that such a campaign would bring a quick end to the insurrection in the colonies.

Among the many problems that beset Burgoyne’s campaign, the most critical was a lack of support from Howe’s army. Howe moved south from the city of New York in an attempt to take Philadelphia. Had Howe moved his army north, along the Hudson, he would have been able to aid Burgoyne. It is doubtful the rebels would have stood in Burgoyne’s way if Howe had pressured them from the rear.

Why Howe moved south and failed to meet Burgoyne is shrouded in controversy. The correspondence between General Howe, General Burgoyne, Lord Carleton and Lord Germain suggests a general lack of communication. The inherent communication problems that arose due to physical distance were magnified by certain interpersonal quarrels and jealousies. The letters between Lord Germain and General Howe were often ambiguous at best. For example, Lord Germain failed to send a critical letter to Howe ordering him to co-operate with Burgoyne.3 Because of this lack of contact, Burgoyne was operating under the impression that Howe was acting in accordance with the orders from Germain.4 Furthermore Burgoyne blamed his inability to retreat on the fact that his orders were to support and meet Howe. He did not want to retreat for fear of abandoning Howe. As late as September 19th he was worried about “exposing” Clinton and Howe by not pressing forward.5 Burgoyne also argued that his orders had been overly inflexible. In his book, State of the Expedition From Canada as Laid Before the House of Commons, Burgoyne defended his actions before parliament. He cited the fact that he did not receive communications from Howe and “without latitude to change course nothing could be done.”6 In truth, Burgoyne seems to have misinterpreted his orders. Carleton was instructed to tell both Burgoyne and St. Leger that “Until they have received orders from Sir William Howe, it is His Majesty’s Pleasure that they Act as Exigencies may require.”7 This order was intended for Burgoyne after he reached Albany. It is difficult to discern how much of Burgoyne’s accusations are valid and to what degree he is attempting to deflect blame. Lord Germain was attempting to direct military operations in a war thousands of miles away. He could not comprehend the nature of the battles there.8 It cannot be ignored that Lord Germain failed to unite his generals into a concerted effort.9

Part of the reason Burgoyne insisted upon maintaining his course to Albany can probably be attributed to his own overconfidence. Burgoyne seems to have underestimated the rebels until his position was untenable. His confidence caused him to make several brash decisions. He separated his troops by sending almost one thousand of his soldiers to Bennington to gain supplies. This contingent was not supported well by the rest of Burgoyne’s army.10 Even after he lost almost one seventh of his force at the Battle of Bennington11 he maintained that he must advance.12 When Burgoyne easily took possession of Fort Ticonderoga his army was contemptible of the enemy whom they thought “incapable of standing a regular engagement”.13 Ticonderoga had been seen as the only significant barrier between Quebec and Albany. Burgoyne was convinced that the area he was advancing into was teaming with Tories waiting to join his army.14 In reality he faced the hostile scorch and burn retreat of General Schuyler. It has been speculated that Burgoyne wanted to continue south without Howe’s assistance because he was intent upon the glory of the campaign. At the same time it is possible that Howe neglected to aid Burgoyne because he desired the glory of crushing the revolution himself by moving to Philadelphia.15

Aside from miscommunication with Howe and Germain, the biggest problem that Burgoyne’s army faced came from the environment they campaigned in. Many of the soldiers in Burgoyne’s army, especially the German mercenaries were not used to the thick woods and swamps with which they had to pass through. Animals such as rattlesnakes were unheard of in Europe. Many of the men wore uniforms which were inappropriate for movement through thick woods. English and German standards of warfare were not suitable for the war which was taking place in the colonies. The German dragoons who did not have mounts due to a lack of horses, were among the most ill prepared. They were hampered throughout the campaign by their riding boots which had spurs. They wore long heavy coats, and their swords dragged at their feet.16 The Troops were not accustomed to combat in the wilderness of the colonies and the guerilla warfare at which the Americans were adept.

As Burgoyne made his way from Ticonderoga to the Hudson his movement was hindered by the alien terrain he encountered. General Schuyler had cut down trees across the few roads which traversed the area. The trees were cut down in a manner so that every few meters the branches coming from each side of the road were intertwined to block the path. General Schuyler also ordered the destruction of the bridges which Burgoyne’s troops had to rebuild. The heavy rains of that spring had turned many of the roads to mud. Often pack animals in Burgoyne’s train had to be unpacked so they could maneuver through the mud.17

Because of the slow progress of the army due to conditions and inexperience Burgoyne had great difficulty supplying his army. The army had a long baggage train which slowed progress to a near standstill at times. The supply train for the army reached far to the northern end of Champlain and required portage into Lake George and then the Hudson. Supplies could only be accumulated to last the army for a few days. The sluggish movement of Burgoyne’s supplies had direct effects upon his army. The old adage; an army moves on its stomach, was more than appropriate in the case of Burgoyne’s Northern Army. The inability to supply his army is what prompted Burgoyne to send a portion of his army on the fatal expedition to Bennington.18 Bennington was being used as a supply depot by the Americans and was supposed to be weakly defended. If Burgoyne had not been so desperate for supplies he might not have committed this fatal error which was the first in a series.

Burgoyne could have moved back to Ticonderoga and built a larger supply base there. Instead he maintained that he did not want to move backwards in due to concerns about the morale of his army and that of the enemy.19 This is a somewhat justifiable excuse. However he continued that progressing through the destroyed and blocked roads was good for the “wood service” of his troops.20 This excuse makes little sense because his army was already deficient in Canadians and Tories who were responsible for such hatchet work.

Moving supplies along the waterways did not go as quickly as planned either. Burgoyne had over two hundred bateaux which were quickly divided between Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River. Between these places the Bateaux had to be unloaded and carried across the land. The planned route to Albany on the Hudson had three waterfalls which required another small portage.21 Each of these portage points had to be protected in order to maintain the chain of supply.22 This long network of bateaux supplying the army proved to be insufficient for such a long distance. The distance between Fort George on Lake George and Fort Edward on the Hudson River was sixteen miles and the roads covering that span were in disrepair.23 The lack of supplies required the army to forage for its self. In one instance 30 men were killed by rebels while picking potatoes.

Several times throughout that campaign Burgoyne made orders to his officers that they must carry less baggage. Burgoyne appears to have ignored his own order. His personal belongings might have filled as many as ten wagons. A small number of women, mostly wives of officers, were also traveling with the army.24 Lieutenant Anburey, a diarist noted in his Travels through the interior parts of America that many of the officers had servants as well.25 None of these factors could have helped to propel the army forward.

The artillery train which Burgoyne brought into the wilderness was particularly strong for an army his size. It has been speculated that this large artillery train hampered the progress of the army to a large extent and was rarely used. Burgoyne testified before parliament that his artillery train was not overly large, but he has come under considerable criticism for the burden it became.26 The artillery was initially planned to be used for the siege of Fort Ticonderoga. Because the fort was evacuated before such a siege could take place it was not used there. General Burgoyne had been present at the battle of Bunker Hill, which persuaded him that strong artillery was needed in order to force the rebels from the defensive positions they frequently took.27 General Carleton, as well as several of Burgoyne’s officers, testified that they did not think the artillery train was larger then necessary.28 It does not appear that Burgoyne’s artillery proved of particular use during the campaign. The artillery did impede the movement of the army though the muddy and inaccessible terrain. Regardless of the pace of the artillery it subtracted horses from the supply train. Supplies were inadequate and more horses could have helped solve this problem. General Burgoyne claimed that his artillery train did not detract from the rest of the army’s movement because it had its own horses.29 This arguments major law was that there were not enough horses for the army regardless of what they were transporting. If there were fewer cannon, then there would have been more horses available to portage boats and carry supplies across land. The fact that the artillery had a dedicated number of horses is of no consequence.

Since the army assembled in Canada at Boquest River, Burgoyne had complained that his means were insufficient.30 He was lacking not only horses and oxen but drivers for them. Fourteen Hundred horses had been deemed necessary before the campaign began but far less were available.31 Few Canadians were willing to accompany the English army and drive the horses or bear muskets. The number of Tories who joined Burgoyne was much smaller then projected. Burgoyne had fewer regular troops, Tories, Canadians, Native American allies and Horses then he and Lord Germain had initially planned. Even with these deficiencies, Burgoyne was confident that his army could succeed. He made his complaints before Parliament after his surrender. If he was worried that his forces were insufficient he still had the ability to retreat after the loss at Bennington.

The army was particularly hurt by the small number of Canadians and Tories who enlisted to help Burgoyne. These irregulars along with the Native Americans were used as scouts, pickets and other unconventional uses. They were the only men available to Burgoyne experienced in combat in the wilderness. The Iroquois allies began deserting Burgoyne after he reprobated them for mistreatment of a captive at the beginning of the campaign. The Iroquois had proven difficult to control and were often of little use to Burgoyne.32 Because Burgoyne lacked a sufficient amount of irregular troops he was at a particular disadvantage. Burgoyne “was not practicable to gain knowledge on the enemy’s position” at the battle of Freeman’s Farm because he did not have sufficient Native Americans to scout rebels position and his irregular troops were far outnumbered by the enemy riflemen scattered in the thick woods between the opposing camps.33 General Burgoyne had camped his army on the west bank of the Hudson in open fields. These fields allowed for little cover from enemy fire except for the redoubts which were built. By that point in the campaign almost all of the Tories and Canadians had deserted Burgoyne.34 The American General Gates was able to gain considerable knowledge of the English camp by posting men in the woods surrounding their position. Without Native American, Canadians or Tories to form a screen in the woods, the English were susceptible to marksmen posted in the trees.

Captain Anburey drew a picture in his diaries of a portion of the English camp at the time of General Fraser’s burial. The picture allows a view of the English who were situated in the open fields on the banks of the Hudson. This allowed the Americans to cannonade the English camp even during the procession of General Fraser’s Burial. Burgoyne was not only in plain sight of the Americans but he had lost his ability to retreat when he crossed the Hudson. General Gates deployed artillery on the east side of the Hudson which might have been firing into the English encampment. Charles Botta, an Italian historian wrote, History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America. In this book he was critical of Burgoyne’s decision to cross the Hudson because it would have been safer to continue on the eastern side. This course of action would have avoided Gates main army but it would have been more difficult to cross the Hudson farther south. In 1776 Claude Joseph Sauther completed a map of the Hudson River which shows the roads on the western side of the Hudson to be less then a mile from the river all the way to Albany. On the eastern side which Botta thought more useful the road skirted a large swamp extending between six and ten miles from the river. Because Burgoyne had to be close to the river to receive supplies and protect his bateaux, the eastern side of the river would have been much more difficult in the long run.35 Botta’s criticism is not completely unfounded. Moving south on either side of the Hudson was a mistake.

Having just suffered the loss of one seventh of his army Burgoyne should have evaluated the situation and retreated rather then continue south to Albany. Burgoyne dawdled in the days after Bennington arguing that his troops were recovering in the Hospital. Every day Burgoyne waited for his men to gain health, the ranks of the rebels swelled.36

Several factors moved the men from New England and New York to join General Gates. After the battle of Bennigton the militias in the area were catalyzed. As word of the victory spread men began to flock to the rebel lines. Before General Gates took command of the Army, the New Englanders were apprehensive about the leadership of the New York patrician, Philip Schuyler. With Congress’s Change of command to Gates the New Englanders gained confidence in the army.37

Early in Burgoyne’s campaign he had issued a statement effectively ordering the citizens of New York to declare their loyalty or he would release the Indians to pillage the country side. Although this was probably an idle threat it infuriated many people. That fury was realized when Jane McCrea was murdered by her Native American captors. McCrea was a loyalist being transported to the English camp but her death inflamed the countryside. Men throughout the area took up arms to defend their families from the “Savages” and the English army who had turned them loose.38 The patriot army was growing daily while Burgoyne languished near Saratoga.

When Burgoyne finally attacked on September 19th the Americans were ready to fight. In the previous battles of the campaign, Burgoyne’s main army had not been engaged by a major opposing force. The rebels had withdrawn when faced with Burgoyne’s entire Army. Now with their ranks swelling the Americans under Benedict Arnold actually counter attacked the British, disturbing their operations. The ensuing battle at Freeman’s farm was inconclusive. Both sides claimed victory. The British remained in position of the field but they sustained heavy losses. The Americans also suffered many casualties but their ranks could be replenished unlike the English who were surrounded. After the final battle at Bemis Heights in late October, Burgoyne’s army was crippled by the losses it has sustained throughout the campaign.

By the end of September Burgoyne’s situation was critical. The only way his command could avoid defeat would be rescue by another army. Colonel St. Leger and his small army had already retreated from Ft. Stanwix and relief from the southern army had been denied by Howe. General Guy Carleton was instructed by orders from Lord Germain not to send reinforcements.39 A last minute effort by General Clinton from New York City only prolonged Burgoyne’s resolve to move on Albany.

General Burgoyne had departed from Canada at the end of May, 1777 with 9500 men.40 On October 17th 1777 his Army surrendered to General Gates of the Continental Army. Burgoyne’s capitulation resulted from a series of brash decisions and incompetent moves combined with overconfidence. If Burgoyne had proven to be an able commander his command might still have faltered, due to the lack of unified operations by Lord Germain, General Burgoyne and General Howe.

1. William B. Willcox, “Too Many Cooks: British Planning before Saratoga.” Journal of British Studies 2 (Nov 1962): 63.

2. Rupert Furneaux, The Battle of Saratoga (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 20.

3. H. E. Egerton, “Lord George Germain and Sir William Howe” The English Historical Review 25 (April 1910): 316.

4. John Burgoyne, State of the expedition from Canada as laid before the House of Commons by Lieutenant- General Burgoyne and verified by evidence in a collection of authentic documents (London: J. Almon, 1780), 23.

5. Burgoyne, 16.

6. Burgoyne, 139.

7. Jane Clark, “Responsibility for the Failure of the Burgoyne Campaign” The American Historical Review 3 (April 1930): 545.

8. Thomas Anburey Travels Through the Interior Parts of America; in a Series of Letters. By an Officer. (London: William Lane, 1791), vol. 2, 4.

9. Burgoyne, 139.

10. Anburey, 348.

11. George Baxter Upham, “Burgoyne’s Great Mistake” 4 (October, 1935): 658

12. Burgoyne, 16.

13. Anburey. 370.

14. Charles Botta, History of the War of the Independence of the United States of America (New Haven, Nathan Whiting, 1834), 449

15. Clark, 546.

16. Furneaux, 46.

17. Richard M. Ketchum, Saratoga: Turning Point of the American Revolutionary War (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997), 250.

18. Burgoyne, 13.

19. Burgoyne, 12.

20. Burgoyne, 12.

21. Claude Joseph Sauther. A topographical Map of the Hudson River (London: William Faden: 1776)

22. Anburey, 401.

23. Burgoyne, 13.

24. Anburey, 378.

25. Anburey, vol. II 14.

26. Burgoyne, 9.

27. Anburey, 339.

28. Burgoyne, 27.

29. Burgoyne, 42.

30. Burgoyne, 7.

31. Furneaux, 34.

32. Anburey, 314.

33. Burgoyne, 17.

34. Anburey, 377.

35. Burgoyne, 46.

36. Burgoyne, 64.

37. Ketchum, 253.

38. Furneaux, 99.

39. Burgoyne, 17.

40. Furneaux, 40.

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Filed under 1770's, Essay Contest, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt, Revolution

Item of the Day: Guthrie’s Geographical Grammar (1786)

Full Title: New system of modern geography: or, a geographical, historical, and commercial grammar; and present state of the several kingdoms of the world. Containing, I. The figures, motions, and distances of the planets, according to the Newtonian system and the latest observations. II. A general view of the earth considered as a planet; with several useful geographical definitions and problems. III. The grand divisions of the globe into land and water, continents and islands. IV. The situation and extent of empires, kingdoms, states, provinces, and colonies. V. Their climates, air, soil, vegetable productions, metals, minerals, natural curiosities, seas, rivers, bays, capes, promontories, and lakes. VI. The birds and beasts peculiar to each country. VII. Observations on the changes that have been any where observed upon the face of nature since the most early periods of history. VIII. The history and origin of nations; their forms of government, religion, laws, revenues, taxes, naval and military strength. IX. The genius manners, customs, and habits of the people. X. Their language, learning, arts, sciences, manufactures, and commerce. XI. The chief cities, structures, ruins, and artificial curiosities. XII. The longitude, latitude, bearings, and distances of principal places from London. To which are added, I. A geographical index, with the names and places alphabetically arranged. II. A table of the coins of all nations, and their value in English money. III. A chronological table of remarkable events from the creation to the present time. By William Guthrie, Esq. The astronomical part by James Ferguson, F.R.S. Third edition, with great addtions and improvements, and a copious index, illustratd with a set of large and accurate maps. London: Printed for C. Dilly, and G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1786.

[In his Travelling Memorandums, Lord Gardenstone makes the following observation regarding this work of William Guthrie: “Gurthrie’s geographical grammar is the best book of its kind so far as I know. It is concise, accurate, and instructive. –And I think it is one very proper Vade mecum for travellers.”]


To a man sincerely interested in the welfare of society and of his coutnry, it must be particularly agreeabe to reflect on the rapid progress, and general diffusion of learning and civility, which, within the present age, have taken place in Great Britain. Whatever may be the cae in some other kingdoms of Europe, we, in this island, may boast of our superiority to those illiberal prejudices, which not only cramp the genius, but sour the temper of man, and disturb all the agreeable intercourse of society. Among us, learning is no longer confined within the schools of the philosophers, or the courts of the great; but, like all the greatest advantages which Heaven has bestowed on mankin, it is become as universal as it is useful.This general diffusion of knowledge is one effect of that happy constitution of government, which, towards the close of the last century, was confirmed to us, and which constitutes the peculiar glory of this nation. In other countries, the great body of the people possess little wealth, have little power, and consequently meet with little respect; in Great Britain the people are opulent, have great influence, and claim, of course, a proper share of attention. To their improvement, therefore, men of letters have lately directed their studies; as the great body of people, no less than the dignified, the learned, or the wealthy few, have an acknowledged title to be amused and instructed. Books have been divested of the terms of the schools, reduced from that size which suited only the purses of the rich, and the avocations of the studious; and adapted to persons of more ordinary fortunes, whose attachment to other pursuits admitted of little leisure for those of knowledge. It is to books of this kind, more than to the works of our Bacons, our Lockes, and our Newtons, that the generality of our countrymen owe that superior improvement, which distinguishes them from the lower ranks of men in all other countries. To promote and advance this improvement, is the principal design of our present undertaking. No subject appears more interesting than that we have chosen, and none seems capable of being handled in a manner that may render it more generally useful.

The knowledge of the world, and of its inhabitants, though not the sublimest pursuit of mankind, it must be allowed, is that which most nearly interests them, and to which their abilities are best adapted. And Books of Geography, which describe the situation, extent, foil , and productions of kingdoms; the genius, manners, religion, government, commerce, sciences, and arts of all the inhabitants upon earth, promise the best assistance for attaining this knowledge. . . .

Next to Great Britain, we have been most particular upon the other states of Europe; and always in proportion as they present us with the largest field of useful reflection. By comparing together our accounts of the European nations, an important system of practical knowledge is inculcated; and a thousand arguments will appear in favour of a free government, religious toleration, and an extended, unrestrained commerce.

Europe having occupied so large a part of our volume, Asia next claims our attention; which, however, though in some respects the most famous quarter of the world, offers, when compared to Europe, extremely little of our entertainment or instruction. In Asia, a strong attachment to ancient customs, and the weight of tyrannical power, bear down the active genius of the inhabitants, and prevent that variety in manners and character, which distinguishes the European nations.

In Africa, the human mind seems degraded below its natural state. To dwell long upon the manners of this country, a country immersed in rudeness and barbarity, besides that I could afford little instruction, would be disgusting to every lover of mankind. Add to this, the inhabitants of Africa, deprived of all arts and sciences, without which the human mind remains torpid and inactive, discover no great variety in manners or character. A gloomy sameness almost every where prevails; and the trifling distinctions which are discovered among them, seem rather to arise from an excess of brutality on the one hand, than from any perceptible approaches towards refinements on the other. But though these quarter of the globe are treated less extensively than Europe, there is no district of them, however barren or savage, entirely omitted.

America, whether considered as an immense continent, inhabited by an endless variety of different people, or as a country intimately connected with Europe by the ties of commerce and government, deserves very particular attentions. The bold discovery, and barbarous conquest of this New World, and the manners and prejudices of the original inhabitants, are objects, which, together with the description of the country, deservedly occupy no small share of this performance.

In treating of such a variety of subjects, some less obvious particulars, no doubt, must escape our notice. But if our general plan be good, and the outlines and chief figures sketched with truth and judgment, the candour of the learned, we hope, will excuse imperfections which are unavoidable in a work of this extensive kind. . . .

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Filed under 1780's, Geography, Maps, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Travel