Preparing for Our Nation’s 250th Birthday
A Report on this year’s Revolutionary War conference by the Fort Plain Museum
By Nancy Spannaus
June 17, 2023—The United States’ 250th birthday is slightly more than three years away, but preparations for its commemoration are already well underway around the country. Thus, it should be no surprise that the yearly Revolutionary War Conference which has been sponsored by the Fort Plain Museum for eight years, devoted this year’s gathering (June 9-11) primarily to examining the buildup to this historic event.
There were four sessions dealing with the conflicts leading to the war itself: 1) The Boston Tea Party at 250 by Benjamin Carp; 2) The Abiding Quest of a Forgotten Hero – Josiah Quincy by Nina Sankovitch; 3) The Battle of Golden Hill by Vivian E. Davis; and 4) 250 Years of Remembering: The Changing Landscape of Gaspee History by Steven Park.
Some fascinating international aspects of the War for Independence were discussed in three other presentations: 1) Congress’s Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union by Holly Mayer; 2) Hessians: The German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War by Friederike Baer; and 3) St. Eustatius and the American Revolution by Sergio Villavicencio.
The conference also included a panel on the status of New York State’s preparations for the Semiquincentennial (250th), a review of the Museum’s expansion plans, and an interesting discussion of art depicting the Revolutionary era by military historian Eric Schnitzer. I missed two sessions, one on the excavation of remains of Revolutionary War soldiers in Lake George, and another on the lives of “a revolutionary couple on the Old New York frontier.”
Like last year’s event, this conference provided much food for thought, as the presenters challenged traditional approaches to their subject in numerous ways. I will include my reflections on some of these challenges after summarizing the presentations themselves.
Build-up to the Revolution
Did the Boston Tea Party Kill the Anti-Slavery Movement?
The first full day of the conference was kicked off with the presentation by Brooklyn University professor Benjamin L. Carp, who has authored the book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America. Carp began by emphasizing that it was not the Tea Party that actually sparked the process of events leading into the War for Independence, but the British reaction to that event with the Coercive Acts. Yet the Tea Party has taken on iconic significance.
He then reviewed the thesis of his book, which identified four main causes of the Boston Tea Party:
- Taxation without representation
- The fact that the revenue from the tea was going to be used to pay officers of the Crown. This was a change and basically eliminated the colonists from having the power of the purse, as the salaries were previously paid by the elected House of Representatives. There was also the issue of corruption by the Crown officers, especially the Hutchinson family.
- The fact that the tea tax represented a monopoly by the East India Company.
- Peer pressure from other colonies, who had successfully sent back tea shipments and thought that Boston was breaking the colonies’ non-importation agreement.
Then Carp shifted to the subject of slavery, noting the role of the East India company in that infernal trade and the active fight against slavery in Massachusetts, including by one James Swan, who had participated in the Tea Party and written a pamphlet attacking the practice of slavery. He cited the uproar around the Phillis Wheatley case, and some of the proposals which had been presented to the colonial government by Massachusetts citizens to kill both the trade and the institution itself.
But Carp then made the following startling assertion: “The Boston Tea Party was the killer of the anti-slavery movement.” He claimed that Bostonians’ need for support from the Southern colonies led the Massachusetts patriots to downplay (or “kill”) the issue in favor of trying to achieve proto-national unity.
In the question period, I challenged this statement, pointing out that, among other things, Samuel Adams (the putative organizer of the Tea Party) was also the leader in proposing legislation to ban slavery. Indeed, in 1774, the Massachusetts Court passed a bill outlawing slavery, which was vetoed by the Governor. And anti-importation measures, as well as some outright abolition measures, spread throughout all the colonies in the period up to the Declaration and beyond.
Did Josiah Quincy’s Death Lead to the Declaration’s Omission of Slavery?
The next lecture on events leading up to the Revolution was given by Nina Sankovitch, author of American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution. Sankovitch’s talk was aimed at introducing the much-overlooked role of Josiah Quincy II in the Revolution to the audience. She reviewed how he spearheaded the resistance to the Stamp Act, and organized the boycott that successfully repealed it. She also described his role in defending the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre case (along with John Adams) and his belief that the British were violating their own system in their treatment of the Americans, a system that was a “glorious medium for human rights.”
Soon after the Tea Party, however, Quincy’s tuberculosis led him to seek warmer climes, and he chose to visit South Carolina. His objective, according to Sankovitch, was to forge personal ties with the Southerners so as to create the basis for colonial unity against the British. He considered this 1773 trip a success in that regard, but opined as well that slavery, which he called the “peculiar curse of this land,” represented a major obstacle to the unity he sought.
At this point, Sankovitch shifted her discussion to the Continental Congress’s debate during the spring of 1776 on the Declaration of Independence. She recounted Jefferson’s inclusion of the paragraph attacking King George’s preservation of slavery and the slave trade in his original draft, a paragraph that was ultimately struck from the Declaration due to objections from South Carolina and Georgia. This omission was fatal, she implied, as it set the country irrevocably on the road to condoning slavery.
Why wasn’t Quincy there to try to prevent this tragedy? Sankovitch explained that he had participated in the events in Boston around the Tea Party and its aftermath, writing an 82-page critique of Parliament’s response to the dumping of the tea. He then had taken off for London in the fall of 1774, in hopes of helping to organize peace between the colonies and the mother country. But when Parliament voted in January of 1775 against removing the troops from Boston, he concluded that independence was required. Having been briefed by William and Arthur Lee on some secret information which they considered vital to America’s cause, Quincy then boarded a ship to go home.
Unfortunately, that information not only never reached the American patriots, but it remains unknown. Quincy retained it only in his head, and he died on ship on April 26, 1775 – within sight of land.
The Battle of Golden Hill
This speech by Vivian Davis, a history education coordinator from New Jersey, was a blow-by-blow account of the 1769-1770 showdown between British troops and New York City patriots at a location known as Golden Hill. According to the New York Historical Society, it could also be known as the Battle of the Liberty Poles.
The Sons of Liberty, led by Alexander MacDougall and Isaac Sears, were leading the opposition to the British occupation. They were particularly incensed by the fact that the New York City Council had approved funds for the occupying troops, and that local merchants were employing British soldiers instead of Americans, in order to pay cheaper wages. The contest was primarily a war of words, in addition to contests around the patriots’ erection of a Liberty Pole.
Essentially, the patriots kept erecting the pole, which the British soldiers would tear down. After the 5th destruction of the pole in January 1770, the conflict began to escalate toward violence. A broadside signed by one “Brutus,” which declared that the Army was there “to enslave us,” called for a meeting of the townspeople on January 17, which broadside was followed two days later with one written by the British. That broadside, entitled “God and Soldier,” extolled the British troops and attacked the Sons of Liberty, while calling the Liberty Pole a “piece of wood.”
A confrontation ensued, in which the British officers restrained their men from firing, but which resulted in a riot in which there were significant injuries. “Blood was shed,” six weeks before the deadly confrontation known as the Boston Massacre. Eventually the appearance of local magistrates calmed the situation and the soldiers returned to barracks.
It was in the wake of this melee that the 6th, and final, Liberty Pole was raised by the Sons of Liberty. This pole remained until the British occupied New York City in 1776.
Was the British ship Gaspee burned to protect slavery?
The final presentation on the build-up to the Declaration was given by Steven Park, a professor at Wheaton College who is an expert on what is known as the Gaspee Affair. That incident involved the burning of a British schooner which was enforcing customs laws off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island in June of 1772. Up until today, Rhode Islanders have been staging elaborate commemorations of the affair every year, as it has been seen as a legitimate act of defiance against overzealous and illegitimate law enforcement, and British violations of the Americans’ right to a trial by their peers.
Park’s theme was the “changing landscape of Gaspee history,” and after a short resume of what happened, he traced the evolution of the treatment of the event.
In the immediate aftermath, Boston patriot leader James Otis wrote a pamphlet entitled When We Destroyed the Gaspee. Then in December of 1772, the Massachusetts-based Baptist preacher John Allen issued a pamphlet entitled An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty, or The Essential Rights of the Americans. That pamphlet put the burning of the Gaspee in the context of the Americans’ fight for their rights against the Monarch. It had seven printings, one of which included an addendum denouncing the practice of slavery. According to Park, it was among the most widely circulated pamphlets in the lead-up to the Declaration itself.
By the 1840s, Park said, the story had come out that praised the Gaspee affair for having sparked the formation of the Committees of Correspondence. Park asserted that while this is true, these were not the real radical Committees of Correspondence which the audience was familiar with. Throughout all this time, however, very few individuals had come forward to admit their involvement in the raid on the British ship. And the only person who testified about it at the time of the affair itself was Aaron Briggs, a black indentured servant, whose testimony the leading townspeople were eager to discredit, in order to continue to maintain secrecy about the perpetrators of the attack.
The Gaspee Affair celebrations continued through the 19th century, but were toned down in the 20th, as our country became aligned with Great Britain in global politics, Park explained. And as time went on, more and more questions have been raised. It seems that King George was really privately disgusted with slavery, he said, and was trying to end it through taxation. So perhaps the British enforcement actions against smuggling in Rhode Island (known informally as Rogue’s Island) was actually an anti-slavery activity. After all, the prominent Brown family of the state was notoriously involved in the slave trade. How could one celebrate an event carried out by slavers?
Park said he didn’t believe the British were going after slavery at the time, but no one can tell what future investigations will show. Gaspee celebrations continue to go on, but who knows for how long?
Both this author and historian Glenn Williams, also in the audience, raised questions about Park’s presentation. I pointed out that it wasn’t just the aggressive customs enforcement that turned the Gaspee event into a cause célèbre for the colonists, but the fact that the British were determined to send the perpetrators over to England and try them for treason. The denial of a jury trial by their peers was seen by the Americans as a major violation of their rights. Park acknowledged that this was the threat. I also noted that there was indeed continuity between the Committees of Correspondence established as a result of the affair, with Samuel Adams again a key example.
Williams asked how Park could square the King’s vetoes of colonial attempts to lay prohibitive taxes on slave importation, with George’s alleged determination to end it? Park said he couldn’t.
Three excellent strategic discussions of the international dimensions of the Revolution were also presented.
Congress’s Own: A Canadian Regiment, the Continental Army, and American Union
Holly Mayer’s presentation on the two Canadian regiments which participated in the American Revolutionary war was quite an eye-opener. The founders were Col. Moses Hazen and Col. James Livingston. Hazen was an American from Massachusetts who had moved to Canada after the Seven Years War; he first joined the Continental Army with the 1775 invasion of Quebec, and continued on to lead what was called the 2nd Canadian Regiment.
His colleague Col. James Livingston was also an American émigré who was living in Quebec during the outbreak of the Revolution. He joined the Americans in the 1775 invasion and actually established the 1st Canadian Regiment at that time.
What was unique about these Regiments is that they were the only truly continental units in the Army, in contrast to the state-based units. In September of 1776 Congress re-authorized both Regiments, saying they could recruit from all the states, not just Canada. They proceeded to do so under the title “Congress’s Own.” While Congress ultimately objected to that nickname, it was to a large extent continued.
The Regiments reached their highest numbers in the spring of 1777; over the course of the war, Mayer counts 1840 enlistees. They participated in all the major battles in the war, and were not disbanded until Evacuation Day, November 1783. In it, international volunteers and Americans worked and fought together against the British enemy. And while Hazen, in particular, kept urging another assault into Canada, that never happened.
Hessians: The German Soldiers in the American Revolutionary War
This presentation by Friederike Baer was a tour de force, and I can only provide a short summary here. Drawing on her research in archives in Germany and the United States, and her 2022 book of the title above, Baer gave a comprehensive picture of the much-underplayed role of Britain’s German auxiliaries in our eight-year war for Independence.
At least 30,000 Germans – mostly but not all from the states of Hesse (there was no “Germany” at the time) – participated in the war from 1776 to the bitter end. In 1780, one third of the British troop strength in the colonies was comprised of Germans. Nor were they only soldiers; the German units arrived along with hundreds of civilians, both support staff and family members. And they kept coming all the way up to 1782.
Like the Canadians on the American side, the German troops participated in all the major battles – and more. For example, thousands were stationed in Canada, as security against a possible American invasion. And in 1779, a unit was sent to West Florida (they called it the American Siberia) to try to protect British territory from the Spanish. It was a miserable experience, which resulted in a 50 percent death rate over two years.
Baer spiced her talk with excerpts from letters which the German soldiers sent back home, and in which they gave their impressions of the country and the Americans. Generally, they were quite disdainful, expressing the idea that the Americans had quite a prosperous life, and thus no reason to rebel. This view reflected the fact that living conditions in America were indeed superior to those in Germany. They also complained of the lack of discipline, proper uniforms, and general wastefulness of the Americans. Some soldiers also wrote letters describing the flora and fauna.
What was the fate of these German soldiers overall? Baer gave the figures: nearly 5000 settled in America (they were encouraged to do so with carrot and stick tactics); 6354 died from illness or accident; 1200 were killed in action; and 17,300 went back home.
St. Eustatius and the American Revolution
Important strategic insight into the global nature of the War for Independence was given by Sergio Villavicencio, vice-president of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society (AHA). His talk focused on role of the small Dutch colony of Sint Eustatius in the American Revolution, particularly around the decisive Battle of Yorktown.
This small island, only three miles square, was a free port. Thanks to Dutch neutrality, from 1776 on, it served as a major supplier to the American Army, sending weapons, clothing, gunpowder, and other important items. The importance of this support for the American revolutionaries was well known in Britain, and is reflected in a quote Villavicencio cited from Lord Stormont in 1778: “If Sint Eustatius had sunk into the sea three years before, the United Kingdom would already have dealt with George Washington.”
On November 16, 1776 Sint Eustatius made history by becoming the first foreign polity to recognize the sovereignty of the United States, when an American ship brought a copy of the Declaration of Independence to its shores. The American ship, the Andrew Doria, signaled its arrival with a 13-gun salute, and was immediately greeted with 11 cannon shots in response – the accepted sign of recognition of our sovereignty.
In 1780, the British finally declared war on the Dutch, and British Admiral George Rodney easily took over the island. Rodney’s orders were to move on from St. Eustatius to support Cornwallis in Virginia, but he got distracted by his determination to fill his own coffers. While carrying out a vicious crackdown on the prosperous Jewish community on the island (and banishing many of the Jewish residents), Rodney accumulated great wealth, much of which he sent off to London in some of his ships. Thus, by the time he got around to heading to the American mainland, it was too late.
Meanwhile, Villavicencio explained, the United States got help from other quarters, namely the French and the Spanish. Not only did a loan from the French allow America’s financier Robert Morris to pay for Washington’s troops to get to Yorktown, but the Spanish rallied both money and arms in support. A huge collection of silver coin was collected in Cuba and brought to the U.S. to pay the troops. In addition, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez, significantly weakened the British fleet with his spring 1781 offensive to take Western Florida. As a result, Galvez is one of only eight honorary citizens of the United States.
Villavicencio left the audience with the provocative thought: Was it the hatred of the Jews that led to Britain’s defeat?
Will We Celebrate America’s 250th Birthday?
This conference kicked off what is intended to be decades-long celebration of the American Revolution. As a museum dedicated to a significant fort on the American frontier in the Revolution, and a premier bookstore for books on the American Revolution, the Fort Plain Museum is in a perfect position to play a leading role in this effort.
To advance the process, the conference organizers included a panel by some of the leading organizers of the New York State’s plans to commemorate the Revolution. The report was discouraging. As Devin Lander, the New York State Historian, explained, the governor has still not filled all the positions on the 250th Commission which was authorized by the legislature in December 2021. Activities are supposed to kick off in 2024, and culminate in 2033, but so far, the ball is being carried by local committees, especially those linked to the 41 Revolutionary War-related park sites in the state. Lander was rather pessimistic as to when the Commission could actually begin functioning.
But the concerted assault on the true history of the United States which has increasingly dominated public discourse about the Revolution over the last years, clearly creates major problems for a proper celebration. This is reflected, first of all, by the determination, reflected in the national 250th Commission and state bodies as well, to insist that this be a commemoration, not a celebration. After all, the argument goes, with all the flaws of the Founding Fathers, the lack of inclusion of women and people of color in voting rights, and slavery, how can we celebrate the founding of our nation?
As I hope my write-up of the presentations made clear, this cynical undertow was a very real presence in this conference. The talks on the Tea Party, the Gaspee Affair, and Josiah Quincy included extremely interesting and valuable information, and were clearly chosen by the conference organizers for that reason. But, in my view, these speakers at times significantly distorted the picture by omission, exaggeration, or even misinformation, to cast doubt on the patriotic cause.
Most galling to me was Nina Sankovitch’s spin on the rejection of Jefferson’s paragraph on slavery in the Declaration of Independence. I agree that that was a mistake, but it was by no means decisive as to where we would go as a nation. That paragraph was part of the statement of grievances, not a statement of policy, as she implied. And the Continental Congress had no power over the states at that point: the crucial moments would come at the Constitutional Convention. Indeed, the following decade (1776-1787) would see a dramatic increase in anti-slavery activity throughout the colonies, keeping the fight alive, and in fact, inspiring further anti-slavery activity internationally.
The founding of the United States deserves to be CELEBRATED. We had and have our flaws, grievous flaws, and they should not be covered up. But we mobilized ourselves and allies from around the globe to fight and defeat a brutal Empire which had enslaved many millions around the globe, including bringing slavery en masse to our shores. That defeat was a historic victory for humanity. We raised the standard of a republican form of government against imperial rule, and established a government more humane and representative of the aspirations of all its people than any which had ever been established before. That standard – the ideals of opening statement of the Declaration of Independence, if you will – has been an inspiration to the world, and made it a better place for mankind.
Our 250th birthday should be a cause as well for reflection as to what distinguished our Revolution and new government from the global empires we rebelled against. What is the difference between a republic and an empire? How can a republic be preserved? How do we avoid the lure of imperial ambition and chauvinism which drives the world into endless wars?
One thing should be absolutely clear: The idea of a beneficent, slave-hating British empire is a lie. Long live the American Revolution!
Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics, available here.
 As I am writing this article from notes, not transcripts or videos, I apologize for any errors in advance.
 I am paraphrasing Sankovitch here so it’s possible she did not mean to sound so fatalistic, but that’s certainly the impression she gave.
 In her book and a previous talk at the Society of the Cincinnati, Baer emphasized that these attitudes changed over time, becoming more positive in their evaluation of Americans.