A “Passion for Superiority,” The Continental Army Officer Corps, and Middle School “Mean Girls”

John Adams woke on the morning of May 21, 1777, feeling light of heart. A spell of bad weather had finally broken, and the bright spring dawn cheered his spirits. He took a few minutes before beginning his day to pen a letter to his “Dearest Friend,” his wife, Abigail.[1]

“The Charms of the Morning at this Hour, are irresistible,” he told her. “The Streakes of Glory dawning in the East: the freshness and Purity in the Air, the bright blue of the sky, the sweet Warblings of a great Variety of Birds intermingling with the martial Clarions of an hundred Cocks now within my Hearing, all conspire to chear the Spirits.” Adams’s letters are filled with such descriptions, which are one of the many reasons they’re a delight to read. But then he got down to business.

As the Second Continental Congress’s de facto Secretary of War, he had spent the previous evening, May 21, at the War Department meeting with General Benedict Arnold. Arnold had been embroiled in controversy with several lower-level officers, one of whom claimed “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.” (The charge was untrue at the time but proved ironically prophetic.)

Adams told Abigail that he’d heard Arnold “fought like Julius Caesar” and came to believe Arnold’s side of the tale. “He has been basely slandered and libeled,” Adams concluded.

His political perch gave Adams a view of the Continental Army that might surprise us today. In his usual candor, he told Abigail:

“I am wearied to Death with the Wrangles between military officers, high and low. They Quarrell like Cats and Dogs. They worry one another like Mastiffs. Scrambling for Rank and Pay like Apes for Nutts.”

As he continued, he made an observation that touched close to home. Adams was notoriously vain—a vice he recognized and continually struggled with—so he was deeply familiar with the human tendency to compare oneself with one’s peers. Particularly early in his legal career, Adams measured himself against other young lawyers and pined for the chance to distinguish himself. It was, he said to Abigail, a “Passion for Superiority”:

“I believe there is no one Principle, which predominates in human Nature so much in every stage of Life, from the Cradle to the Grave, in Males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as this Passion for Superiority …. Every human Being compares itself in its own Imagination, with every other round about it, and will find some Superiority over every other real or imaginary, or it will die of Grief and Vexation[. . . .] I never saw it operate with such Keenness, Ferocity and Fury, as among military Officers. They will go terrible Lengths, in their Emulations, their Envy and Revenge, in Consequence of it.”

Adams had seen that sort of cattiness “among Boys and Girls at school, among Lads at Colledge, among Practicers at the Bar, among the Clergy in their Associations, among Clubbs of Friends, among the People in Town Meetings, among the Members of an House of Reps. [Representatives], among the Grave Councillors, on the more solemn Bench of justice, and in that awfully August Body the Congress, and on many of its Committees — and among Ladies every Where. . . . .” No where was it worse than among the “Mean Girls” of the army’s officer corps.

“So much for Philosophy,” Adams decided, and then inquired about his children and Abigail’s asparagus. Then he concluded with a note that resonates with all of us here at Emerging Revolutionary War:

“I would give Three Guineas for a Barrell of your Cyder — not one drop is to be had here for Gold. And wine is not to be had under Six or Eight Dollars a Gallon and that very bad. I would give a Guinea for a Barrell of your Beer. The small beer here is wretchedly bad. In short I can get nothing that I can drink, and I believe I shall be sick from this Cause alone. Rum at forty shillings a Gallon and bad Water, will never do, in this hot Climate in summer where Acid Liquors are necessary against Putrefaction.”

Cheers!


[1] All quotes from: Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 22 May 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/

Review: American Rebels, How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution

Two of the above three last names are very familiar to even casual observers of American history. John Hancock, whose signature is readily apparent at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence, where it was joined by John Adams and Samuel Adams. Yet, that last name in the title, Quincy, may not be as obvious as should be at first glance.

What is remarkable about these last names? Besides, the simple fact that members with those three surnames played a major role in the road to revolution and surprisingly on both sides of the chasm of loyalties? All could trace their roots to a small town in Massachusetts; Braintree.

“The covenant of liberty that they shared would be sharpened by ambition and envy, polished through friendships and love, and fought for in a revolution fomented by these children of Braintree” (pg. 8).

In that town, from its first inhabiting European settlers, the spirit of questioning accepted decrees took root, matured, and blossomed. And until now, the intertwining vines of those family trees had not been put under the microscope of historic observation until the publication this year of American Rebels, How the Hancock, Adams,and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution. Penned by Nina Sankovitch an Illinois native, author of several nonfiction works, and resident of New England, she effortlessly weaves the stories of these families into part biography, part family history, and part United States history. All parts equally important and very well written.

“Even as the fortunes of these children of Braintree diverged, their futures would bring them together again. A shared promise connected them, fostered by the history, the land, and the people of Braintree…” (pg. 8)

One of the highlights in the book is the emergence of the Quincy family into a popular history such as this. One of the unsung heroes of the road to revolution was Josiah Quincy Jr.

“As Reverend Hancock preached, the “solemn covenant….of their Liberty” was not obtained through faith alone but could only be realized through hard work performed by a community together. And this sacred covenant would be protected against any and all usurpers who attempted to take their liberty away.” (pg. 15).

Furthermore, Sankovitch brings to the forefront the role of women in the various families and their impact on the time. The best known is Abigail Adams who is the confidant and intellectual equal of her husband, John. Another is the aunt of John Hancock, Lydia, who constantly watches out for John’s place in society. She is the driving force that will bring to fruition the connection between the Quincy and Hancock families. Or Abigail Quincy, who had married Josiah Quincy, Jr., would never remarry but dedicated the rest of her days to raising their son and preserving his memory and contributions to the cause of America. The anguish of losing her beloved is quite evident:

“I have been told that time would wear out the greatest sorrow, but mine I find is still increasing. When it will have reached its summit, I know not.” (pg. 348).

Highlighted by the quote above, the author brings these historic personas and people to life, capturing the heartache, familial turmoil, ambition, and connections. Just as these families bred revolutionaries, there were sons that stayed loyal to the British crown, including a brother and brother-in-law of Josiah Quincy.

From weaving the families together, to connecting the threads of the evolution of political thought, and showing the personal strains of what the road to revolution looked like, Sankovitch has compiled an easily readable, insightful look into the 18th century world.

Enjoy!

*Book Information*

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (March 2020)

Pages: 416

ERW Book Review: Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle by Jonathan Horn

George Washington retired from public life at the end of his second presidential term on March 4, 1797. Twenty months and ten days later he died on December 14, 1799. In between Washington was also the first in the United States to be a former president, first to deal with securing his legacy as both a military hero and political figure, and having to see the country he sacrificed so much to create, lurch forward without him having an active part in it.

Until now, these years have been either excluded, glossed over, or an anti-climatic ending to a Washington biography. Until now. Joseph Horn, a former presidential speechwriter and the author of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington lends his talent to a new biography of Washington, examining those last few years in-depth.

The author has a valid point when he argues that, “for too long, the story of Washington’s last years has been squeezed into the margins of manuscripts, if included at all” (pg. 14). Channeling the method of famed Washington biographer Douglas Southall Freeman, Horn writes this biography in the “fog of war” style that affords the reader the opportunity to read the history “through the eyes of those who made it rather than through the hindsight of historians” (pg. 14).

Continue reading “ERW Book Review: Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle by Jonathan Horn”

Review: Founding Martyr, The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero by Christian Di Spigna

ERW Book Reviews (1)

Doctor. Major General. President of the Provincial Congress. Author of political tracts. A true patriot. Forgotten.

41mPwaMUWfL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_All these words, plus many more, are titles that depict the life of Dr. Joseph Warren. However, the last term is most synonymous with the Massachusetts doctor who fell in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 in the early stages of the American Revolutionary War. That last word, forgotten, is exactly what author and historian Christian Di Spigna is hoping to expunge with his new biography, Founding Martyr. 

Di Spigna, an early American history expert and Colonial Williamsburg volunteer, focuses his account of Dr. Warren on not the events immediately surrounding his death at Bunker Hill and subsequent martyrdom but “to fill in the more obscure parts of Warren’s life” which will lead to understanding more of the “key period in the formation of his character, his special networks, and ultimately his medical and political careers” (pg. 7). Continue reading “Review: Founding Martyr, The Life and Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero by Christian Di Spigna”

A Woman’s Place –Women’s Contribution in the Revolutionary War

Emerging Revolutionary War is honored to welcome historian Malanna Henderson to the blog. A biography of Mrs. Henderson is at the bottom of this post. 

Historical records are generally written by men about men.

When most of us think about the role women played in the Revolutionary War, Betsy Ross comes to mind.  Why did early historians choose to recognize the contributions of Betsy Ross instead of others? We all know the answer to that question. Her contribution was sewing the American flag. Sewing, a traditional “female” occupation, was elevated to heroic heights by the legacy of Ross. Most historians today don’t name Betsy Ross as the designer of the first American flag, but that’s another story.

Women whose contributions didn’t fall neatly into categories that weren’t exclusively defined as “feminine” were intentionally excluded; and yet, without their contributions, big and small during the years that the war ensued, the war could have raged on longer or dare I say, we might be flying the Union Jack instead of the Stars and Stripes.

Heroism has many forms.

On the home front women maintained the farms, took care of livestock and fed, clothed and educated their children while their husbands took up arms against the British. That was how most women supported the war effort. However, as in the Civil War women were camp followers, accompanying their husbands and sons to the battlefield. For these women, the army could supply food and protection since they could no longer support themselves after their men left for war. In the military camps, women nursed the sick and wounded, laundered and mended uniforms and cooked meals. At some time in the war, women were paid for providing these services.

Then there were women who chose to pursue more daring endeavors, like spying or binding their breast, cutting their hair and donning men’s clothing to enlist in the war under an alias.

deborah-sampson
Deborah Sampson (courtesy of Fold3 by Ancestry.com)

One in particular, Deborah Sampson answered the call to freedom by enlisting in the in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, under the alias Robert Shurtliff. Continue reading “A Woman’s Place –Women’s Contribution in the Revolutionary War”

The Second of July’s Importance

This year, July 4th, which falls on a Monday, and will be celebrated as America’s Independence Day around the country. Americans remember that date, in 1776, as the day that John Hancock, as president of the Second Continental Congress, put quill to ink and then parchment, to affix his signature in a bold stroke at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. Interestingly, only one other person signed their name to the document that day, secretary to the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thompson.

However, the important date to remember, is today, July 2. On this date in 1776, the Second Continental Congress will adopt Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to declare independence from Great Britain. This document, crafted by another Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, was originally brought up for debate in June. By June 28th, Jefferson, chosen by a sub-committee to write the declaration, had presented it to Congress assembled in Philadelphia for review.

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Artist Charles E. A. Dumaresq’s rendition of the Second Continental Congress signing the Declaration of Independence

Continue reading “The Second of July’s Importance”

Review: The Spirit of ’74, How the American Revolution Began by Ray and Marie Raphael

ERW Book Reviews (1)Why did Boston’s act of political vandalism lead to a British military expedition against small towns in Massachusetts sixteen months later?

How, exactly did evolving political tensions result in actual warfare?

How did Lexington and Concord become, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the shot heard around the world.”

The Spirit of '74, How the American Revolution Began by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael
The Spirit of ’74, How the American Revolution Began by Ray Raphael and Marie Raphael

In a much-needed narrative, historians Ray and Marie Raphael fill in the movement toward those first shots at Lexington and Concord. In a primary source driven, easy to read history of that year before and leading up to 1775. However, “our story slows, pausing at additional markers that are often bypassed or slighted” (x).

Therein lies “only in a full telling is war a plausible outcome” (x).

The Raphael duo fluidly walks the reader through the build-up to that fateful April 1775 day. The book sheds light on developments in towns and counties across the colony of Massachusetts. A timeline in the beginning provides a good resource to remember the important dates as you read.

With the British response to the Boston Tea Party of December 1773, committed activists perceived that Britain had handed them a blueprint for disenfranchisement (44). What would be seen in the colony as the Coercive Acts, which, among other changes nullified the Charter of 1691 which colonists in Massachusetts held as sacrosanct. When the news of what the British government had did, which arrived in the harbor of Boston in May 1774 until the following April 1775, “resistance would mount, coalesce, and manifest itself in armed, relentless rebellion (44).

That coalescing would resemble an accordion, with Boston being one end and the countryside of Massachusetts the other end of the instrument. Both ends would reverberate the bellows as ideas, exchanges of opinions, passive and aggressive action, all marred the intervening months of 1774. Until as Abigail Adams wrote many months before April 1775, the”flame is kindled and like lightening it catches from soul to soul” (192).

The Raphael duo capture what the farmers in Berkshire set in motion, in accordance with capturing the attitude of townspeople in Worcester, Massachusetts at the same time. These various local uprisings, which put an emphasis on peaceful activities coalesced into the call for committees and eventually into the need for the Provincial Congress. This Congress acted as the de-facto governing body of Massachusetts in response to British measures to subdue and punish the intransigent rebels.

When viewed through the prism of the preceding years, what happened on the green of Lexington or the North Bridge at Concord becomes clearer as the pivot in which the simmering resentment in Massachusetts finally boiled over and led to the “shot heard around the world.”

Every once in a while a monograph is written that fills a necessary void in the field of early American Revolutionary history. This history is definitely one of those as it fills in that critical, yet overlooked, time period in the build-up to the fighting between British-American colonists and the redcoats that represented the mother country.

One cannot hope to understand the events of 1775 and beyond without knowing how the colonists of Massachusetts, so many that have unfortunately been lost to the passing of time, began the protests that led to independence, beginning in the years before.

Or as the authors more succinctly state; “and so begins a story we know” (214).

 

Book Information:

Publisher: The New Press, New York, NY

Pages: 219 pages plus acknowledgements, bibliography, index, and, timeline

 

 

Remembering John and Abigail (part two)

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Abigail StatuePart two of two

“Remember the ladies,” Abigail Adams wrote in a letter to her husband during his service in the Continental Congress. And those words are how we now most often remember her: “Remember the ladies.”

And John did. He pined for her. His long public career—in the Continental Congress, as a minister in Europe, as vice president, as president—kept them apart for long stretches. They spent ten of their fifty-four years of marriage separated by war, by sea, by duty.

So they wrote—some 1200 letters in all. “My dearest friend,” he addressed her, and he meant it.

The lively correspondence between John and Abigail illuminates not only a great American love story but also a great political partnership. Among the company of great Founders, Abigail was the one forced to stay at home—by social convention and family duty—but she refused to be forgotten. Continue reading “Remembering John and Abigail (part two)”

“Remember the Ladies”

RevWarWednesdays-header

 

March is Women’s History Month, a time to reflect on the many contributions women have contributed in our country. At George Washington Birthplace National Monument, our social media policy for the month has been to highlight important women to the history of the National Park Service and/or to George Washington’s life.

By writing the history text and developing what images to use for these posts, I thought I would take this example and expand it to include two other women that played integral parts in the American Revolutionary movement.

Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. Continue reading ““Remember the Ladies””