Category Archives: Essay Contest

The Young Revolutionary, in Drag

 The following essay by Charlotte Harrigan of Hunter College has been awarded third place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Charlotte!

The Young Revolutionary, in Drag 

Imagine the life of a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. DoGood who had just left their home in England to start over in New England. As we all know, crossing the Atlantic was a perilous task, but this story is a particularly perilous one because Mrs. DoGood was pregnant. And shortly after the boat left the harbor, Mrs. DoGood unexpectedly went into labor. Making the situation ever more unfortunate was the throes of an impending storm, which made the sea rise violently and undoubtedly struck fear in the hearts of everyone on board. The brave and steadfast Mrs. DoGood must have summoned the entirety of her strength as the waves crashed around her and she bore a beautiful daughter, Silence, into the world.  But the story takes a sharp turn when just moments later, a merciless wave rose out of the dark, dreary sea and nearly devoured the ship.  Mrs. DoGood would only naturally cling to the small, fragile body of her newborn baby as the rest of the passengers struggled to stay alive.  When the water subsided, Mrs. DoGood gazed into the face of her helpless little girl, and must have been thrilled to realize they were safe once more. But unfortunately, the wave had carried her husband off to sea. Her despair was most likely as deep as the ocean. Little Silence entered the world the very day her father was literally, tossed out.[1]

This was the early life of Silence DoGood, a smart, witty woman whose tenure on earth had begun under unfortunate circumstances.  But Silence DoGood was not a real woman. She was a fictional character, an invention of none other than Benjamin Franklin.  Franklin had used the pseudonym of Silence DoGood in order to submit his writings to his older brother, who was then editor of the New England Courant.  Since Ben was only sixteen, and in a contentious sibling relationship with his brother, he feared that Franklin would not accept his writings. So Ben invented a personality to operate under.  Silence DoGood was an immediate hit. After New England Courant readers read her first piece, they eagerly awaited more.  And so Silence DoGood wrote fourteen pieces for the newspaper, and the popularity of her column aided in the newspaper’s growth.  These DoGood papers discussed subjects ranging from freedom of speech to hoop skirts.  Yet one can see in these early writings that sixteen year old Franklin was already demonstrating the traits of a future revolutionary.  This paper will explore the similarities the young Benjamin Franklin, operating under total anonymity, had with the mature and influential Franklin.  In order to answer these questions, the paper will determine why Franklin chose to write this column, what events (if any) his column was reacting to, and finally if his opinions anticipated or paralleled those of his later life.  In short, do the Silence DoGood letters reveal that Benjamin Franklin was always destined to be a Revolutionary?

The New England Courant itself had revolutionary origins.  At the time of the Newspaper’s inception, Cotton Mather (of Salem witch trial fame) was a prominent leader in Boston. Ben Franklin’s older brother James, felt that all the newspapers in the area were too compliant with the authorities of Boston- such as Mather, “who had a very strong influence on Boston society and politics.”[2] Thus, James sought to open his own paper, one that “would be lively, opinionated, and not averse to challenging the establishment.”[3] The first issue of the Courant attacked Mather’s method of inoculation against the smallpox epidemic of the time.  Cotton Mather immediately wrote a complaint in the Courant’s rival, the Boston News-Letter, calling the Courant a purveyor of “nonsense, unmanliness… immorality… arrogance… and to debauch and corrupt the minds and manners of New England.”[4] Today we know that inoculation is a successful method of fighting diseases and viruses, however, this would make little sense to any educated individual in the early 18th century. Even though James was wrong to argue with Mather on this subject, the fact that he argued with such a prominent member of society shows the newspaper’s courage and individuality.  Circulation numbers of the New England Courant are “impossible to know,” however, we do know that they must have been high enough to warrant a response from the stubborn Cotton Mather.[5]

Because of these feuds, Boston’s readers were subject to humorless quarreling and personal diatribes from their papers, making them an eager audience to the jovial and witty observances of Silence DoGood.  Before he posed as DoGood, Franklin had always been fond of reading and writing.  Yet his desire to communicate clearly and effectively did not always come easy.  Franklin had the advantage of the friendship and mentorship of  town intellectual and free thinker, John Collins.  Mr. Collins thought Franklin was a talented boy, but his writing style needed improvement.  In his autobiography, Franklin recalled that he “felt the justice of his remarks, became more attentive to language, and resolved to make every effort to improve my style.”[6] That very year Franklin saw an opportunity to practice his style when he observed that many of the Courant’s staff were writing editorials under pseudonyms.  Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he was “tempted to aspire to the same kind of reputation; but as I was still a boy, I naturally enough concluded that my brother would not insert any thing of which he knew me to be the author.”[7] Therefore, Benjamin Franklin submitted his editorial under the name of Silence DoGood.  James Franklin, completely unaware of its real author, immediately liked the piece.  After all, Silence DoGood poked fun at James’ archrival, Cotton Mather, who had recently published two books, “Silentarious,” and “Essays to Do Good.”[8]

Franklin used his natural wit to captivate readers.  His humorous essays were enhanced by his strong opinions and his meticulous observations of New England Society.  The first DoGood piece told the aforementioned story of DoGood’s origins because “the Generality of People” as Franklin (or Silence DoGood) observed “give their Opinion of the Performance, according to the knowledge which they have of the Author’s Circumstances.”[9] Franklin was criticizing the general public for judging an author’s work against his or her status, so he teased his readers with an inventive and humorous story, yet hooked them “into the realm of her sympathy.”[10]

Franklin also used his DoGood letters to criticize issues stretching beyond the literary world.  One issue he felt strongly about was education.  As discussed before, Franklin was an avid reader and would have done well at a university, however his father could not afford it, so he instead became an apprentice.  Benjamin Franklin did not have a high esteem for the university system.  He thought it more a status symbol and money-vacuum than a learning institution.  He believed that one could learn more from reading and from one’s own life lessons than from a college education.

 In her fourth letter, Mrs. DoGood describes a dream she had after discussing with her friend whether or not she should send her son to college. In the dream, she saw many people traveling to the “temple of learning,” most of them “dunces,” and “blockheads.” DoGood did not understand where they were going, but she was curious, so she decided to follow the crowd and find out.  When DoGood arrived at the temple, “the passage was kept by two sturdy Porters named Riches and Poverty, and the latter obstinately refused to give Entrance to any who had not first gain’d the Favour of the former.”[11] Thus, those without the proper funds were sent back, and only those who gave up enough money were allowed entrance.  In her dream, DoGood wondered about where those students would end up later in life.  Their parents sent them to school “because they think their Purses can afford it,” and their children “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a Room genteely, (which might as well be acquir’d at a Dancing- School,) and from when they return, after Abundance of Trouble and Charge, as great Blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”[12] When she awoke from her dream, she related all of its events to her friend, who after some thought, told her that her dream was a representation of Harvard College. Benjamin Franklin might have decided to attack the school in his DoGood letters because of the many negative encounters he had with students who attended this college, which was located in his home town.  Another reason might have been that Franklin, by age sixteen, was already a highly intelligent, well-read, and (as we now know) talented writer.  Franklin was brighter than many Harvard graduates, and he was self-taught.  Furthermore, New England was a society where people got by on their credentials, and it stands to reason that Franklin, who “never respected people for their credentials,” would therefore take it upon himself to “lampoon Harvard.”[13]

It is unclear why Benjamin Franklin chose to write under the disguise of a woman, but perhaps it is because he felt very strongly about the unfortunate nature of women’s circumstances.  Benjamin Franklin felt that the subjugation of women was wrong and unnecessary.  These views were eloquently expressed by Mrs. DoGood.  An anonymous “Ephraim Censorious,” wrote to DoGood that he wished her to direct her resentments “against Female Vice; let Female Idleness, Ignorance and Folly, (which are Vices more peculiar to your Sex than our’s,).”  He then asks her to reform her sex, and once she has, he assures her it will be much easier to reform men, as women “are the prime causes of a great many Male Enormities.”[14] Silence DoGood, always one to step up to the challenge, voiced her whole-hearted objection to Censorious’ insults.  In response to his accusation of idleness, DoGood argues that women “always have more work upon their hands than they are able to do.”  She then goes on to argue that, even if there are grounds for Censorious’ accusations, one must ask “whose fault is it?”  DoGood asserts that men are to blame for socially and professionally limiting a woman’s role in life.  DoGood also blames Censorious’ accusation of ignorance on “the fault wholly of men, for not allowing women the advantages of Education.”[15]

Franklin’s opinions on the treatment of women were  progressive for the era and society in which he lived.  English and New England society limited women’s roles to the home and maybe, in certain circumstances, to the lower levels of the church.  There was no need to educate women at the time because their traditional role was “providing food, clothing, shelter, and the rudiments of hygiene.”[16] This work, before the advent of technology, was very hard.  A woman had no time to educate herself but, more importantly, a woman’s education was thought of as useless because she could not serve in any position that required an education. Although women in new England society were encouraged to read so that they could understand the scriptures, they were not encouraged to engage in politics or any other mode of education, as most were too busy with household work.  But it wasn’t just the limitations of women’s education and professionalism that bothered Franklin.  Later in his life, he posed as another woman to voice a social injustice, albeit a fictional case (but certainly a realistic one, given the laws at that time) to the literary community.

Polly Baker, another invention of Benjamin Franklin, was a story that gained international attention in England and France when it was published in 1747.  In it, Franklin posed as a woman who was brought to court on the charges of producing illegitimate offspring.  Polly Baker lived in Connecticut, had five children and never a husband.  During her fifth child’s infancy, she was called to court for her ungodly lifestyle, during which she vehemently, yet respectfully renounced the charges brought against her.  The piece was called  “Speech of Polly Baker,” and in it, Franklin criticized the existing penal system.  Particularly, Franklin protested the Puritan-based law that “prohibited sexual intercourse outside wedlock and condemned the mother of an illegitimate child to the payment of a fine and to a public whipping.”[17] Polly Baker protested her impending punishment by arguing that her actions of bringing “five fine children into the world,” should be celebrated and not punished.[18] Since she had not burdened the town with financial help, she assumed the charges brought up against her were strictly from a religious objection.  This she argued by announcing that she had done the work that God set out for her: “increase and multiply.”  Furthermore, she added, “if mine is a religious offence, leave it to the religious punishments.”[19] Franklin decides to end Baker’s story with a happy ending. Baker’s defiant plea persuaded the court to drop her charges, and even led to one of the judges deciding to marry her and raise her children.

One can deduce Franklin’s political views from the humor in the Speech of Polly Baker.  This piece discussed the unjust nature of the punishment at hand.  In most of these cases, the “father of the child usually went entirely free,” so Franklin asks the question: Why should just the woman be punished? [20]Shouldn’t the man who promised marriage be punished for abandoning his responsibilities?  The men in the court were acting hypocritically against Baker’s sex, because men had just as important a part in producing illegitimate children as the female had.

Franklin also presents another important issue: separation of church and state (or at least for the consideration of Polly Baker’s trial).  He argues that if the grievances presented against Polly Baker are from a religious view, why should it be punished on Earth?  Let God decide her eternal fate, and the courts limit their dealings to secular matters.  Silence DoGood had earlier weighed in on this issue in her ninth letter, when she stated that, “A Man compounded of Law and Gospel, is able to cheat a whole Country with his religion, and then destroy them under Colour of Law.”[21]

Silence DoGood’s letters expressed many radical views, such as her statements about law and gospel.  But it wasn’t the publication of DoGood’s editorials that got the New England Courant in trouble; instead it was a statement the editor, James Franklin, had made suggesting that the local authorities were not trying to capture the pirates that had been attacking the coast that season.  James was jailed for his sarcastic and disrespectful statement that the Captain “will sail sometime this month, if wind and weather permit.”[22] Benjamin took over as editor while James was in prison, and Silence DoGood felt compelled to give her two cents on the matter.  DoGood submitted a letter to the Courant quoting a passage from the London Journal which delved into the importance of freedom of speech.  It read, “without Freedom of Speech, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty.”[23] This was a lesson Benjamin certainly learned from his brother’s imprisonment.

After his brother was released from prison, Ben continued to serve under him for a while longer.  But because of sibling rivalry and Ben’s adventurous nature, his “apprenticeship became insufferable,” and he managed to finesse his way out of it and moved to Pennsylvania, embarking on his now legendary life.[24] Franklin is famous for a number of reasons, a few being his Revolutionary spirit and intelligent contributions to our nation’s constitution.  It is certain that our nation would not be the same today without his originality.  But a very important aspect of the DoGood letters that must be reemphasized, is its stand-out humor.  For example, one DoGood letter is dedicated to the subject of Pride, a “reigning Vice of the Town.”  More specifically, “Pride of Apparel” which has manifested itself in the “monstrous topsy turvy Mortar-Pieces,” called Hoop-Petticoats.  DoGood asks of her readers to question whether women, “who pay no Rates or Taxes, ought to take up more Room in the King’s High- Way, than the Men, who yearly contribute to the Support of the Government.”[25]

Franklin’s good-humored demeanor was a large part of his public persona, as well as his mischievous spirit.  In the DoGood letters, one is able to see how that is applied to such a wide range of topics. What is more interesting about these letters is to read his early opinions (and in some cases, perhaps read under what circumstances his opinions originated) on matters that later formed the identity of our nation.  At just sixteen, Franklin discussed the importance of Freedom of Speech after his brother was jailed for insulting the Boston authorities.  Other issues discussed were the oppression of women and the separation of church and state.  His disgust with Harvard University’s petty education might have later led him to design his own discipline when he founded the University of Pennsylvania.  For these reasons, the DoGood letters are entertaining and substantive.  With the Silence DoGood letters, a modern reader is privileged to discover this young revolutionary. 

[1] J.A. Leo Lemay, Franklin: Silence DoGood, The Busy- Body, and Early Writings. (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1987). 5.

[2] H.W. Brands.  Interview by author.  Phone conversation.  New York, NY., May 8, 2007.

[3] Brands, First American, 25

[4] Brands, First American, 26.

[5] Brands, Interview

[6] Benjamin Franklin, The Works of the Late Benjamin Franklin. Consisting of His Life, Written by Himself.  Together with Essays, Humorous, Moral and Literary Chiefly in the Manner of the Spectator. (Charlestown: Principal Booksellers, 1798) 25.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin. (London: Pater-Noster Row, 1793) 27.

[8] Brands, First American, 26.

[9] Lemay, Franklin, 5.

[10] Brands, First American, 29.

[11] Lemay, DoGood, 11.

[12] Lemay, DoGood, 13.

[13] Brands, Interview.

[14] Lemay, DoGood, 14.

[15] Lemay, DoGood, 15.

[16] Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman, A History of Women in America. (New York: Bantam Books, 1978), 2.

[17] Marcello Maestro, “Benjamin Franklin and the Penal Laws.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No.3. (Jul.-Sep., 1994),551.

[18] Brands, First American, 203.

[19] Maestro, Franklin, 551.

[20] Maestro, Franklin, 551.

[21] Lemay, DoGood, 27.

[22] Brands, First American, 29.

[23] Benjamin Franklin, The Silence DoGood Letters II. (New York: Privately Printed, 1969.) 13.

[24] Franklin, Works of Franklin Consisting of his Life, 32.

[25] Lemay, DoGood, 17-19.  


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Filed under 1700's, Colonial America, Essay Contest, Franklin, Newspapers, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

John Smith and Pocahontas: A Review of the “Sometimes Governor” of Jamestown’s Works and Reputation

 The following essay by Casey Levinson of Hunter College has been awarded second place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Casey!

John Smith and Pocahontas:

A Review of the “Sometimes Governor” of Jamestown’s Works and Reputation 

Most Americans who are familiar with John Smith know him from a paragraph in a high school textbook or from commercial dramatizations of colonial Jamestown such as the 1995 Disney animated feature “Pocahontas.” These popular treatments depict Smith and Pocahontas as two dashing twenty-somethings who fall madly in love but must hide their feelings from Powhatan, her father, and John Ratcliffe, the President of the Jamestown colony. Current historians, however, know that Pocahontas was only about thirteen years old when Smith met her, that they never had a romantic relationship and that the primary concerns within the Jamestown fort were starvation, disease and the amassing of what was later discovered to be fool’s gold. Smith himself, though absolutely an adventurer, was also a vain, dictatorial braggart and mercenary, castrated at twenty-nine by a gun powder explosion. Despite his efforts, the Virginia Company refused to rehire him and he died alone and unemployed with a reputation as a teller of tall tales. In fact, it has only been within the last twenty years or so that the historical community has begun to emerge from a contentious debate over the veracity of Smith’s words and many doubts still linger. This paper reviews Smith’s two different accounts of Jamestown’s first year, his 1608 A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of note, as hath hapned in Virginia and his 1624 The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles and addresses one major question over which historians still struggle: Did the Pocahontas rescue in fact take place?

            Thomas Fuller, commenting in 1662 on the adventures Smith recounted in his 1630 autobiography, The True Travels, Adventures and Observations of Captain John Smith, wrote, “[Smith’s] perils, preservations, dangers, deliverances…they seem to most men above belief, to some beyond truth.”[1] A year after Smith’s death, a satirical epic poem appeared in London with a title character oddly reminiscent of the deceased. The braggart hero of David Lloyd’s 1631 comic romance, The Legend of Captaine Iones, fights Indians and Arabs, is wounded in the genitals and is sold into slavery, all events Smith recounted in his various works.[2]

            Yet his writings lived on, and as America developed, his legend steadily grew. In his 1803 history of America, Englishman John Davis writes, “of the first settlers in Virginia, the most distinguished character was Captain Smith, a man who seemed to inherit every quality of a hero; a man of such bravery and conduct, that his actions would confer dignity on the page of the historian.” Davis’ romanticized depiction of Smith conforms to the common public perception of his era. Smith’s tendency to magnify his exploits in his writings had translated over time into accepted popular belief. Davis declares in his history that “by [Smith’s] judgment, courage, and industry, he saved the new establishment.”[3] It was not until the post-Civil War era that a movement began among historians to once again question the veracity of Smith’s accounts. With this debate came the first doubts about the famous Pocahontas incident.

            In 1867, previously unknown historian Henry Adams made his career with an article in the North American Review attacking Smith as an historian and challenging the existence of his famous rescue from death by Pocahontas. Before Adams, historians had generally accepted that during Smith’s imprisonment with the Chesapeake’s Algonquin Indians, he had been brought before their chief, Powhatan, for execution, and that it was only by the last second intervention of the chief’s favorite daughter that Smith kept his life. The only source for this event was Smith’s own account, published in the Generall Historie in 1624. Adams cited the absence of the Pocahontas story in the much earlier True Relation as evidence that Smith was simply lying.[4]

            The following is a review of Smith’s two versions of the events of December, 1607 on the way to and in Werawocomoco, centering on his capture by Opechancanough and his near-execution in Powhatan’s hut. Again, the True Relation (henceforth Relation) is Smith’s first version of the events, written c. June 2, 1608, and the Generall Historie (henceforth Historie) includes Smith’s second version of the events, written around 1623-1624. In the summary that follows, all facts, events and commentary are essentially in accord unless otherwise noted.

From The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986):


            In December, 1607, Smith hired two Powhatan Indians with a canoe to guide him down river with two other colonists, Jehu Robinson and Thomas Emry, to find the lake into which the river emptied. Farther down the river, Smith ordered his guides to dock the canoe so that he could explore the forest. He brought one of the two Indian guides with him, leaving the other behind with his two men.

            While he was alone with his guide in the woods, Smith was ambushed by Opechancanough and 200 Powhatan warriors. Suspecting a betrayal, Smith bound his guide to him as a shield. During the ensuing fracas, Smith was wounded in the thigh. For his part, he shot two Indians with his pistol. The Powhatans captured him and led him back to their village where they showed him the dead bodies of Robinson and Emry, full of arrows. The text in the Relation is marred by editorial cuts, after “Emry I saw not” and “all over the woods”:


With kinde speeches and bread he requited me, conducting me where the Canow lay and John Robinson slaine, with 20 or 30. arrowes in him. Emry I saw not, I perceived by the aboundance of fires all over the woods, At each place I expected when they would execute me.[5]

            Weeks later, Opechancanough took Smith to Werawocomoco to present him to Powhatan. Here one finds the point in the 1624 Historie when the famous Pocahontas rescue occurs. Smith is restrained “by as many as could [lay] hands on him” and his head is placed on “two great stones” in front of Powhatan. As his guards approach with clubs “to beate out his braines,” Pocahontas, “the Kings dearest daughter” cradles Smith’s head in her arms and lays her own head over his, compelling Powhatan to call off the execution. The chief decides Smith will live on to provide hatchets and copper to his people.

            Two days later, Powhatan “disguised himselfe in the most fearfullest manner he could…made the most dolefullest noyse” from behind a mat and, “more like a devill than a man,” informed Smith that the two were now “friends.” Powhatan returned Smith to Jamestown to bring him back “two great gunnes [canons] and a gryndstone” in exchange for lordship over the “County of Capahowosick.” Powhatan stated that he would henceforth regard Smith as his own son, with the new name “Nantaquoud.” Though it seems clear that Powhatan intended Smith to be his vassal, there is no evidence in either text that Smith understood this, nor does Smith make any statement that suggests he suspected the near-execution to be a premeditated ceremony. Despite his lack of comprehension of the ceremony, Smith seems to have remained factually accurate in his report. The Pocahontas episode does nothing to champion Smith’s character or ability and it lacks the romantic angle applied to it by later writers.

            In the earlier Relation, in place of the would-be execution and Pocahontas’ rescue, comes a somewhat jarring passage describing Powhatan’s kindness and congeniality. Editor Philip Barbour suggests that a cut was made here and John Healey, the editor, may have penned the passage. That the style and tone of the prose in this section differs distinctly from that which precedes and follows it indeed supports Barbour’s argument for editorial interference. The Relation was published as a pamphlet for the Virginia Company, with the purposes of generating positive publicity for the colony and attracting more settlers. It was based on a private letter of Smith’s that he did not intend for print. One must assume the Virginia Company would have preferred to sell the idea of an amicable Powhatan in their pamphlet rather than that of a blood-hungry war chief. It was also in the Virginia Company’s interest to publicly present the Indians as capable of adopting Christianity. In item III of the first Virginia Charter, the crown stresses the importance of converting the Indians to Protestantism and the Virginia Company hoped to retain the king’s favor.[6] The shift from Smith’s narration to Healey’s occurs between Smith’s identification of Powhatan as “a naked Salvage” and Powhatan’s welcoming words:

[Powhatan,] with such a grave and Majesticall countenance, as drave me into admiration to see such state in a naked Salvage, hee kindly welcomed me with good wordes, and great Platters of sundrie Victuals, assuring mee his friendship, and my libertie within four dayes.[7]

            Smith’s discourse has been characterized to this point by both tension and astonishment as he anticipates his own murder but is at the same time awestruck by the majesty and ceremony of the Powhatan court. The tone of the second half of the excerpt eschews the fearful awe of the first portion and it is as if the attack, capture and imprisonment is revealed to have been a misunderstanding. John Healey’s editorial intervention in the Relation suggests that the 1608 account is not the completely dependable source historians such as Henry Adams have believed it to be. Concerning details where Smith’s own heroism is not currently at play, the Historie is in fact more consistently reliable. The Historie’s authority is most pronounced in regards to the Pocahontas episode.

            It is to Smith’s credit that he did not portray his relationship with Pocahontas as romantic. That lingering perception was developed by later interpreters and historians. In his 1803 history, John Davis describes their tryst in a rendition consistent with the stage plays and other retellings of his time. When Pocahontas, “whose soft simplicity and innocence,” writes Davis, “cannot but hold captive every mind,” first laid eyes on Smith at Werawocomoco, “never did the moon gaze more stedfastedly on the water than she on the prisoner.” After she rescues him, Pocahontas hangs “wildly on the neck of the reprieved victim, weeping with a violence that choaked her utterance.” According to Davis, Powhatan then offered one of his two best “sqaws” to Smith, but he refused the offer, “to the unspeakable joy of Pocahontas.” However, it was not until she later brought him provisions at Jamestown that she was able to summon the courage to confess her feelings. At that point, Davis states, Pocahontas “gave loose to all the tumultuous extasy of love.”[8]

            There are two main points in the case against the Pocahontas incident. First, Smith never mentioned the rescue in publication until after Pocahontas had died. Obviously, she never had a chance to rebut his testimony. Second, since Pocahontas had made quite a splash during her visit to Europe in 1616, only months before she succumbed to disease, the attention-hungry Smith could have been motivated to latch on to her celebrity to advance his own career.

            However, the case for the Pocahontas rescue is stronger. As stated before, there is a very good chance that it was cut by John Healey from the original 1608 account. The Relation was published without Smith’s knowledge while he was still in Jamestown. Healey admits in his introduction to the pamphlet that “somwhat more was by [Smith] written, which being as I thought (fit to be private) I would not adventure to make it publicke.” Wyndham Robertson suggested as far back as 1860, before Henry Adams’ article, that Healey may have cut the Pocahontas incident out of the Relation.[9] Without Smith’s original letter, there is no way of knowing what Healey and the Virginia Company thought was unfit for the public.         

            But the strongest evidence for the veracity of the Pocahontas story are Smith’s claims in the 1620’s that, prior to Pocahontas’ 1616 visit to the royal court, he gave Elizabeth I a “little booke” proclaiming the honorableness of the Indian Queen. Smith claimed his “little booke” explained how Pocahontas had saved his life by hazarding the beating out of her brains for his own. Though Smith’s “little booke” has not been preserved, Leo Lemay is right to insist that “it strains one’s credulity to believe that Smith in 1624 would lie about a letter written to the queen eight years before,” because surely, if this “little booke” were a lie, one of Smith’s contemporaries would have immediately exposed it. There was indeed a multitude of persons involved either with Virginia or the royal court circle such as Dr. Theodore Goulston, Henry Rolfe (John’s brother) and Samuel Purchas who had been close to Pocahontas or the queen and who were still alive when Smith published these statements. They would have known if Smith were lying and they would have said something about it. However, there is no record that any of them did.[10]

            Though he never seemed to recognize it, what John Smith experienced at Werawocomoco was most likely an Indian adoption ceremony. In such a ceremony, a captive is guided through a mock execution, spared his life and then accepted into his captor’s community, the effect being that a feudalistic political alliance is formed between the pardoner and the pardoned. The events following Smith’s reprieve suggest this was precisely the case and that Powhatan was attempting to incorporate Smith into his ruling underbody. Recordings of other contemporaneous examples of Indian adoption practices can be found in F. W. Hodge’s 1907 Handbook of American Indians. Jarvis Morse noted that “in connection with adoption practices…similar commutations of the death sentence can be found to have occurred both before and after the one in question.”[11]

            Critics of John Smith have rightfully pointed out that he had a tendency to exaggerate his accomplishments, embellish dramatic moments, and even invent heroic exploits for himself, especially toward the end of his life. These faults are more true, however, of Smith’s True Travels than of the Generall Historie. As well, the Pocahontas incident is almost entirely exempt from such temptations. Leo Lemay argues that sheer embarrassment may have been the cause of the rescue’s omission from the True Relation.[12] One should take into account as well the fact that Smith’s proclivity to declare unpopular truths kept him unemployed in middle age. Among his many complaints about the Virginia Company’s mismanagement, his criticism of the emphasis on gold mining must not have gone over well with either his employers or the crown. Gold, silver and copper were the only goods given their own section in the first Virginia charter. The crown and the Virginia (then London) Company were clearly inspired by the successes of the Spanish and judging by the charter, precious minerals were the main aim of the venture. The king, competing with Spain for global domination of both religion and wealth, was only concerned with a twenty percent tax on the gold and silver harvest and converting Indians to the Church of England.[13] Thus, though Smith was capable of telling tall tales, it was his habit of reporting truths that stifled his career. In light of these factors, but especially Smith’s “little booke” and Healey’s editing, we should confidently accept that the Pocahontas rescue did indeed occur.



Works Cited:

Adams, Henry. “Captain John Smith.” North American Review. CIV (1867): 1-30.

Davis, John. Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. London: R. Edwards, 1803.       

Lemay, J.A. Leo. Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Morse, Jarvis M. “John Smith and His Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography.” Journal of Southern History. I (1935): 123-137.

The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords. Vol. II. London: J. Almon, 1775.

Smith, John. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith. Edited by Philip L. Barbour. 3 vols. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.        

Vaughan, Alden T. “John Smith Satirized: The Legend of Captaine Iones.” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1988): 712-732.

[1]J.A. Leo Lemay, Did Pocahontas Save Captain John Smith? (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 94.

[2]Alden T. Vaughan, “John Smith Satirized: The Legend of Captaine Iones,” The William and Mary Quarterly. 3rd Ser., Vol. 45, No. 4 (Oct., 1988): 712-732.

[3]John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (London: R. Edwards, 1803), 259, 261.

[4]Henry Adams, “Captain John Smith,” North American Review. CIV (1867): 1-30.

[5]John Smith, The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, edited by Philip L. Barbour, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), vol. I, 45-47 and vol. II, 146-147.

[6]The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords. Vol. II. (London: J. Almon, 1775), 68.

[7]John Smith, The Complete Works, vol. I, 47-53 and vol. II, 150-151.

[8]Davis, 272-278.

[9]Lemay, 19.

[10]Lemay, 37-38.

[11]Jarvis M. Morse, “John Smith and His Critics: A Chapter in Colonial Historiography,” Journal of Southern History. I (1935): 125.

[12]Lemay, 27.

[13]The Parliamentary Register, 73.

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Filed under 1600's, Colonial America, Essay Contest, Indians, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

Spectators of Oppression: Depictions of American Slavery in Travel Journals, 1792-1840

The following essay  by Michael Brenes of Hunter College has been awarded first place in the 2007 Eighteenth-Century Reading Room Essay Contest. Congratulations to Michael!


Spectators of Oppression:

Depictions of American Slavery in Travel Journals, 1792-1840 


            In Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic tome on American life in the nineteenth century, Democracy in America, he famously denounced Southern slavery while presciently conveying his opinion that it “is not an institution which can last.”[1] De Tocqueville was profoundly disturbed by slavery; it was for him a glaring contradiction to the ideas and values that America was founded upon, among them the individual right to liberty and freedom. The “peculiar institution” was simply incompatible with the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, and its life was dwindling to an end. Slavery might not abolished through the volition and goodwill of Southern whites, Tocqueville reasoned, but if “freedom is refused to the Negroes of the South, they will end up by seizing it themselves.”[2]  

            But de Tocqueville was only the most famous expatriate traveler to America in the 1800’s that took a position toward slavery. Many writers of travel journals, while passing through the United States, recorded anecdotes of interactions with slaves, depictions of plantation life and the dynamics between slave and master. Most authors of travel journals were predominantly from Europe—specifically England—who had the means to travel extensively. Many were highly educated at elite universities and had intimate relationships with American leaders in government. One author even dedicated his book to Thomas Jefferson.[3]

Coming from this educated, enlightened background, most of these writers were vociferous opponents of slavery. If they did not outright petition for the abolishment of slavery, they at least denounced its practice. They often categorized slavery in the southern United States as an evil enterprise that rested on fallacious ideas of African-Americans. These authors believed that slavery remained in perpetuity simply because it kept the Southern economy profitable; however, like de Tocqueville, they felt it could not last for long. Indeed, thirty years prior to de Tocqueville’s journey through America, author Isaac Weld used uncannily similar words as his successor to predict that “there will be and end to slavery in the United States…[as] negroes will not remain deaf to the inviting call of liberty forever.”[4]

            It is no surprise that cosmopolitan, European elites had anti-slavery sympathies around the turn of the eighteenth century. What is more revelatory—and more relevant—are the diverse perspectives travel writers held toward slavery at the time. This paper will examine these various viewpoints of slavery as recounted by writers of travel journals. Furthermore, they will be set against the historiography of slavery in order to decipher their factual validity. In the end, I conclude, these authors of travel journals in the early 1800’s did not intend to embellish or downplay the reality of slavery; most were attempting to be objective and to offer themselves to their readers as impartial observers trying to understand slavery within its context.

            Travel narratives were popular forms of literature even before the American Revolution, but they experienced a surge in publication following the end of the first administration. An overwhelming interest in the political experiment that was the United States spurred this rapid increase in readership. Wanting to understand what made Americans tick, travel writers went out into America to survey the topography of the land, record the intricacies of its economy, and observe the social milieus of the people, all in an effort to discover what differentiated America from other countries.[5]

            It must be said that while travel writing made an attempt to be objective, subjectivity underlay all of its insights. Most authors wrote travel books under the influence of Enlightenment philosophers like the Scottish thinker David Hume, who felt that “the senses alone are not implicitly to be depended on; but we…must correct their evidence by reason.”[6] Authors of travel journals abided by this philosophical conviction almost to the point of faithful devotion: they did not believe that their interpretation of events was the definitive one, but if they saw something, it must indeed be true because they reasoned that their observations were true. As modern research in the field of psychology has proven, this is not always the case.[7] Nonetheless, empiricism was deemed by travel authors to be at the time the most scientific approach one could use in order to arrive at some universal truths.

            Using the method of empirical research, travel writers acted essentially as modern day reporters: they indiscriminately went out into the field of study, conducted interviews, viewed the circumstances which confronted them and weighed them against their subjective interpretation. Their facts were their observations, and their sources were reliable, ipso facto, because they were observed. When they went to the South to uncover the particulars of slavery, this was the mentality travel authors set out with. John Davis exemplified the attitude of colleagues when he wrote in the introduction of his narrative that he had “entered with equal interest the mud hut of the negro, and the log house of the planter.”[8]

            When they directed their attention toward the practice of slavery in the South, writers of travel journals saw a barbaric practice, rooted in and supported by in the avariciousness and pitilessness of Southern plantation owners. Writers of travel journals deplored the fierce hardships that the slaves were forced to undergo. With forcible prose, Thomas Anburey saw that slaves were forced to work all hours of the day with nothing to eat but a lunch that “consists of hominy and salt.”[9] If they refused to work under such harsh conditions, it was expected that they would be whipped or bound. Isaac Weld saw that slaves were neglected in both body and spirit as they were malnourished, given rags to wear as clothing and were publicly humiliated.[10] Charles Janson wrote that slaves in South Carolina labored in rice fields that are “overflowed with stagnant water” and that they “endur[ed] the scorching rays of the sun, in raising tobacco and different kinds of grain” all to preserve the wealth of the very people who enslave them.[11]

            While the work was backbreaking, the living conditions of the slaves were decrepit. Blacks were described by various writers as living in conditions of squalor. Slaves usually lived in quarters that feigned “the appearance of a small village” which were comprised of large, wooden huts.[12] These structures intended to provide shelter for the entire population of slaves. Many took notice of the stark, economic dichotomy between the slave and the master. Some authors had difficulty reconciling the destitution slave quarters when contrasted with the fecundity of the owners’ estates.[13]

            Travel writers blamed the coexistence of the owner and the overseer for this cruel treatment of slaves. The role of the overseer on the plantation was integral to the machinations of the plantation, while the master was the arbiter of plantation rules. The overseer, these authors felt, was the individual who had a greater and more negative impact on slaves.  The overseer was the everyday authority on the plantation; the presence of the owner of the plantation was largely absent from the regular operations of the plantation. The master’s presence was largely symbolic, while the overseer’s was ubiquitous and palpable. Indeed, the “eye is assailed in every direction with the unpleasant sight of…slaves toiling under the harsh commands of the overseer,” wrote Isaac Weld.[14] The overseer was employed under the owner but entirely independent from him; he acted with caprice in dealing with the slaves and appeared not to answer to the owner for his savagery.[15] Overseers were thought to be worse than the owners; they were “unfeeling monsters,” whose rapacious nature knew no bounds since it could be unleashed on the slaves with impunity.[16]

            As a result of what they had seen when traveling through plantations in the South, it reinforced their preexisting ideas regarding slavery, the most conspicuous being that it must be abolished through whatever means. There was simply no logic—no “casuistry” to use one writer’s word—that could permit the ownership of slaves.[17] These writers looked to slaves as human beings who have human qualities and claimed that they should be given the rights that whites had already taken for granted. One writer claimed that since slaves shared the ability to communicate through language, it was obvious that they are “men” and should be free.[18]

            But they took great pains to absolve themselves for slavery’s existence in their time. It was not their contemporaries’ fault that slavery continued in the United States, these authors reasoned; however, they did have a resolute responsibility in ending it. One writer wrote that “the present generation” is not at fault for slavery, but that its must carry out its duty to “mitigate its evils as far as possible.”[19]

            Moreover, although writers of travel journals felt that slavery should be abolished, that did not mean that they felt that blacks were equal to whites, or that they had the mental capabilities and faculties of white Anglo-Saxons. Indeed, many, if not all, harbored virulent stereotypes of blacks—ones that we now recognize today as preposterous. None of the authors of travel journals thought that slaves were, or had the potential to be their intellectual equals. To think such a think would have been a departure from years of intellectual tradition. Just because African Americans were human beings who deserved to live unfettered from oppression, this did not make travel authors adopt the position that blacks were somehow equal to them.

            Indeed, the racism of many authors comes through multiple times in their books. James Kirke Paulding claimed that blacks “seem a gay, harmless, and unthinking race.”[20] Upon encountering an elderly black slave, Paulding reasons that he has witnessed the personification of his stereotype because the man possessed an “unreflecting gayety, which, happily for his race, so generally falls to their portion.”[21]  He thought it was a wonderful sight to see slaves overwhelmingly “jovial and vivacious in a Christian land.”[22] It was frequently felt by authors that blacks “appear jovial, contented and happy,” despite of their hardships.[23] Another writer felt that it “is a fortunate circumstance that they possess and are blessed with such an easy satisfied disposition” otherwise, the writer felt that slaves would inevitably “sink under…misery and wretchedness.”[24]

            These anecdotes reasserted the image of the “happy Sambo” in the American imagination as whites interpreted this behavior amongst African Americans as a sign that slaves acquiesced to their condition; and that the depravity of their bondage was alleviated by their own personal attitudes. Travel writers did not interpret this behavior for what it was: a tool of survival employed by blacks that assuaged whites’ suspicion of slave rebellion: an action that would be punished with whippings, beatings, torture, and possible death.

            But white, travel writers could not understand this. They were blinded to this explanation by their deep-seated racism. The ability to be racist and at the same time anti-slavery, which, according to most contemporary viewpoints, seems contradictory if not irreconcilable, but was nevertheless the attitude of most authors in the early 1800’s. To any historian of the nineteenth century, the mental compartmentalization of slavery and African Americans is no surprise. Nevertheless, it deserves elaboration since this mode of thought played a key role in the intellectual foundation of slavery.

            As modern historians have amply demonstrated, racist portrayals of blacks stemmed from slave owners’ attempt to justify the inequity of slavery. Many historians have developed hypothesis about the origins of black stereotypes and the reason for their recurrence in the lexicon of supporters of slavery. Eugene D. Genovese and Kenneth Stampp have asserted that these stereotypes were a product of the paternalistic relationship between blacks and whites which owners insinuated into the minds of their slaves.[25]  There is some veracity to this argument, as it is certain that racial stereotypes served to protect the hegemony of the master, but this is not the end of the argument. More likely is James Oakes’ theory that racial stereotypes served to keep slaves under “total subordination,” thereby guaranteeing that owners could obtain their comprehensive labor while at the same time preventing dissension.[26]

            The impact of these travel journals on the American reading public is difficult to assess. However, it would be a fair supposition that their publication was minimal on what one historian called “the slaveholding republic.”[27] Since literacy rates were still low at this point, it is unlikely that a wide array of Americans read these books. More likely is that these books gained more of a following in places like London, but that the reading public in America, while ever-growing, was not as significant.  These travel journals did not revolutionize the American outlook towards blacks, nor did they facilitate the demise of slavery.

            What these travel journals demonstrate is the opinion of prominent intellectuals of the day. Since it was these men—and a select group of women—who were responsible for the liberation of slaves in Europe and America, their insights provide an indication as to the direction of the anti-slavery movement. Their books are valuable historical documents that lend insights into the intellectual thought toward slavery at the time. Furthermore, they help contemporary audiences understand the ideological evolution toward thinking about African Americans. Contained within the writings of these authors are the glimpses of our society today. Indeed, the insights of travel narratives in the early nineteenth century continue to be salient, as they allow us to understand why racism in its entirety has yet to be extirpated from the American consciousness.

[1] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America (New York: Penguin Classics edition, 2003), 496.

[2] Ibid., 496.

[3] See, for example the introduction to John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States. (London: Sold by T. Ostell and T. Hurst, 1803). 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.

[4] Weld, 94.

[5] Richard Gassan, “The First American Tourist Guidebooks: Authorship and the Print Culture of the 1820s,” Book History 8 (2005): 51-74,

[6] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), 104. For a valuable synthesis of Enlightenment thought see Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: Penguin, 1995).

[7] There has been much research conducted by psychologists in the past fifty years alone that discredits the viability of empiricism as being an accurate method through which to ascertain whether any object or individual presented visually exists in the world objectively, and is in fact real, or in a state that one recognizes to be “real.” The process of seeing an object inherently means interpreting it, these psychologists say, and that is where the problem of empiricism lies: interpretation differs according to how the information is processed. The use of heuristics affect how an observed image will be processed within the brain, where it will be imbued with meaning within the context of its external surroundings.  See the work done by Richard E. Nisbitt and Timothy DeCamp Wilson, “Telling More than we Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes” Psychological Review 84 (1977) 231-259; Ziva Kunda, Social Cognition: Making Sense of People (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999) chapter 3.

[8] John Davis, Travels of four and a half years in the United States of America; during 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802. Dedicated by permission to Thomas Jefferson, Esq. President of the United States. (London: Sold by T. Ostell and T. Hurst, 1803). 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.

[9] Thomas Anburey, Travels through the Interior Parts of America; in a Series of Letters (London: Printed for William Lane, 1791), 296-6. 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.

[10] Isaac Weld, Travels through the State of North America, and the provinces of upper and lower Canada, during the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 Vol. II (London: Printed for J. Stockdale, 1800), 149, 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.

[11] Charles Janson, Stranger in America: containing observations made during a long residence in that country, on the genius, manners and customs of the people of the United States; with biographical particulars of public characters; hints and facts relative to the arts, sciences, commerce, agriculture, manufactures, emigration, and the slave trade (London: Albion Press, 1807), 373. 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.

[12] Anburey, 287.

[13] Weld, 133-140.

[14] Weld, 133.

[15] See Janson, 375.

[16] Anburey, 296

[17] Davis, 85.

[18] Davis, 85.

[19] Paulding, 26.

[20] James Kirke Paulding, Paulding, Letters from the South, written during an excursion in the

Summer of 1816 (New York: James Eastburn & Co., 1817), 118, 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.

[21] Ibid., 24.

[22] Paulding, 120.

[23] Anburey, 298.

[24] Ibid., 296.

[25] Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. (New York: Vintage 1976), 323; Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery and the Antebellum South (New York, Vintage, 1989), 322-323.

[26] James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990), 145.

[27] Don Edward Feherenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).



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Filed under 1790's, 1800's, Early Republic, Essay Contest, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, Slavery, Travel Literature

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/

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. (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. (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. (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. (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