Howe to Prolong the War

The British defeat at Saratoga…in October of 1777 was clearly the turning point of the Revolutionary War.  The surrender of an entire British army finally brought the French recognition and aid the Americans desperately needed.  The defeat also put tremendous pressure on the administration of Lord North and its failing war policies.  What is often overlooked is how close the war came to ending following Burgoyne’s surrender.  Just days before Saratoga, Washington’s army had launched a surprise attack on Sir William Howe’s army near the sleepy village of Germantown, Penna.  Two crushing defeats, nearly on top of one another, would have surely spelled the end of  the North ministry.  His replacement would have pursued resolution.


The British forces and Germantown never expected… Washington’s bold stroke.  Just three weeks earlier, the redcoats routed the Americans at Brandywine, the largest battle of the war.  British commander Sir William Howe was not expecting an attack as his forces rested on the outskirts of Germantown.  The battle that occurred on October 4, 1777 could have helped end the Revolution…..The British survived:

  • Fog blanketed much of the field that morning, obscuring vital marching routes and confusing commanders on both sides.
  • Washington’s plans were complex, too complex for his poorly trained army.  His forces had to advance 16 miles on a night march in four separate columns.  Orders were confused, troops became lost, and the attacks were not coordinated.
  • At a pivotal moment early in the fighting, General Howe personally rallied his retreating troops, and was nearly killed by American artillery.
  • Significant confusion led to a destructive round of friendly fire, which forced Washington’s men to disengage at the British center.
  • British reinforcements were able to exploit the American disorder and drive the Continentals from the field.

Washington’s audacity at Germantown… attacking a numerically superior foe, just weeks after suffering a serious defeat, did not go unnoticed in Europe.  The French were every bit as impressed by Washington’s near victory in Pennsylvania, as they were by the British surrender in New York

Smallpox Blankets and Guilt by Association

“You will Do well to try to inoculate the Indians, by means of Blankets, as well as to Try Every other Method, that can Serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race. — I should be very glad [if] your Scheme for Hunting them down by Dogs could take Effect; but England is at too great a Distance to think that at present.”  Lord Jeffrey Amherst to Colonel Henry Bouquet- July 16, 1763. 

NPG 150,Jeffrey Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst,by Thomas Gainsborough

A small passage from an insignificant letter…from the Royal Governor of North America to a  British soldier under his command during Pontiac’s Rebellion(1763-1766)- its ramifications are infamous.  The astoundingly befuddled plans of two British officers(most North Americans had already been exposed) has been inexplicably  linked  to American Indian policy of the late 19th century.  There is not a scrap of evidence that any US officer advocated using biological warfare against any Indian nation; yet, popular sentiment holds it as an indisputable fact. Our government committed many wrongs in its dealings with American Indians- this is not one of them.

The myth of the United States committing genocide through biological warfare cannot stand up to peer review– see the link marked here.

Jefferson/Hemings- The Industry

New books, articles, and lectures appear on this topic monthly. 

All of Monticello’s resources are dedicated to this highly speculative portion of Jefferson’s world.

Jefferson scholarship is now controlled by a small clique of writers who have no interest other than the salacious potential they see in his private life.


Fawn Brodie’s 1974 book… Thomas Jefferson; An Intimate History reignited the Sally Hemings rumors and introduced the world to the quackery of psychobiography (using pop-psychology to interpret words or actions when there’s no historical evidence.)  The book was a commercial success and became the toast of elite literary and social circles.  Brodie and her publisher went to great lengths to guarantee that none of the three most respected Jefferson scholars,  Dumas Malone, Merrill Peterson, and Julian Boyd would review her book.  Someone had to speak up in defense of historical scholarship, and that was the great Garry Wills.  His review in the New York Times is now the stuff of legend…..


Two vast things, each wondrous in itself, combine to make this book a prodigy–the author’s industry, and her ignorance. One can only be so intricately wrong by deep study and long effort, enough to make Ms. Brodie the fasting hermit and very saint of ignorance. The result has an eerie perfection, as if all the world’s greatest builders had agreed to rear, with infinite skill, the world’s ugliest building.

Start with ignorance, as the most understandable part of the book. She regularly treats us to sub-freshman absurdity–thus: “We do not even know for certain if Jefferson signed on the second of July, when the Declaration was formally–voted, or on the fourth, as he later insisted. There is still controversy over this, though Julian Boyd makes out a good case for the fourth….” She has tangled up as two things the three events at issue:

Not only does she misconceive all three elements in the problem, considered singly; she then collapses them into two (the wrong two for her purpose) and says that we must choose one or the other from these wrong two on the basis of inapplicable norms. Then, just to complete our amazement, she tells us that Julian Boyd has made “a good case” on the matter–though his case has nothing to do with the garbled mess she has made of things. Error on this: scale, and in this detail, does not come easily. There is a skill involved.

And much nerve. She has managed to write a long and complex study of Jefferson without displaying any acquaintance with eighteenth-century plantation conditions, political thought, literary conventions, or scientific categories – all of which greatly concerned Jefferson. She constantly finds double meanings in colonial language, basing her argument on the present usage of key words. She often mistakes the first meaning of a word before assigning it an improbable second meaning and an impossible third one. When Hamilton assures Washington that he will do nothing to “endanger a feud” with Jefferson, she calls this a “curious slip of the pen” – though the word more often meant “incur the danger of” in Hamilton’s time than “cause danger to ” as in our own.

Ms Brodie seems never to have heard of the OED. When a slave (Robert Hemings who may have been Jefferson’s son) was freed by purchase, Jefferson wrote that the purchaser had “debauched him from me.” Ms. Brodie calls this a “curious phrase”; yet the literal first meaning of the word in Jefferson’s time, in English as in French, was “to turn or lead away, entice, seduce from one to whom service or allegiance is due.” The phrase can only be “curious” to one who has excluded the possibility that words still in use can have had different meanings two hundred years ago.

Ms. Brodie delights in the small titillation of finding sexual references wherever possible. It seems a shame to deprive her of such innocent fun; but the game becomes tedious to anyone who has not got her endless appetite for it. “He began his Syllabus with a curious sentence [by now we know what “curious” means to her]: ‘In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.’ Could the repetition of the word ‘corruption’ suggest that he was not so much contemplating the ‘corruptions of Chritianity’ or the ‘corruptions of reason’ as the corruptions of Thomas Jefferson? That he was defensive and anxious shows not only in the document itself but in…”

That last sentence is typical of Ms Brodie’s hint-and-run method – to ask a rhetorical question, and then proceed on the assumption that it has been settled in her favor, making the first surmise a basis for second and third ones in a towering rickety structure of unsupported conjecture. Why should Jefferson use the “curious” word corruption in this context? Because it was a commonplace of deistic thought that a pristine Christianity had been corrupted by medieval additions. Because one of the books that moved Jefferson to this composition was Priestley’s Corruptions of Christianity. Because it was the natural and established usage in this kind of discussion. Ah, but why repeat the word? Because Jefferson is instituting a series of comparisons–by contrast–and his opening sentence poses a neatly balanced paradox–how ancient reason was corrupted by the vulgar, and Christian faith was corrupted by the learned. The sentence is as carefully wrought as a couplet, and the repetition is as inevitable to it as rhyme within the couplet.

One more example, from the thousands: Ms Brodie argues that Jefferson had, by 1788, fallen in love with the fifteen-year-old quarteroon slave, Sally Hemings, who accompanied his daughter to meet him in France. She offers as “evidence” of his “special preoccupation” with Sally the “singular” fact that he used the word “mulatto” eight times in twenty-five pages of his travel account that spring. But all these references are to the color of the soil, and the OED gives that use of the word as peculiarly American and eighteenth-century. In the journals of his European travel, Jefferson regularly keeps note of the different regions’ soil under four different categories: color, consistency (mould, rotten rock, loam, clay, gravel, sand), quality (rich, good, middling, poor, barren), and crops borne on it.

The color notation is the most frequently used of these categories, and it covers this spectrum: black, dark, dark brown, reddish brown, red, mulatto, gray, white. Given that mode of classification, the repetition of mulatto in the twenty-five pages she refers to means no more than the repetition of red (seven times) or gray (three times) – unless we are to assume that Jefferson deliberately falsified his own records just to relieve his psyche from the strain of not repeating “mulatto” for the sixth or seventh or eighth time, in obscure tribute to Sally. So much forthe argument that it is “singular” (why not octuple?) for a word to be “repeated” eight times in twenty-five pages.

Well, does the psychic revelation derive, not from repetition of the word but from its choice in the first place? After all, though it was a use common in agrarian contexts, Jefferson could have chosen another word. Did he choose this one (instead of yellowish brown, which it seems to stand for) because he had just fallen in love with Sally? Unfortunately for Ms. Brodie’s thesis, he had used “mulatto” in exactly the same way during his tour of southern France, the spring before Sally arrived in Paris. The category already existed in his mind. Ms. Brodie tries to solve this difficulty by stressing, once again, the repetition. In the tour of France, she tells us, Jefferson used the word “mulatto” only once in forty-eight of Boyd’s pages, as opposed to eight times in the twenty-five pages of his Holland tour.

Well, as usual, Ms. Brodie has her facts wrong, even before she loads them with unsustainable surmise: She refers to “the single use of the word ‘mulatto’” at Boyd XI, 415, in the tour of France, and cannot find a second use at XI, 429. There is no other term that might have done service for mulatto in the account of the first tour, so the naive might suppose that the varying rate of use had something to do with the different soil conditions in France and in Holland.

Ms. Brodie has delivered us from such naïveté, however, so we know how to read Mr. Jefferson’s accounts. For instance. on the seven-week tour of Holland he used the word “red” only seven times; but on the nine-week tour of southern France he used it (or “reddish”) thirty-eight times. Such a disparity must reflect “special preoccupation” of some sort, according to the Brodie method. Since his daughter had Jefferson’s reddish hair and complexion, and he was arranging for her to come join him, the soil descriptions are really covert expressions of an incest drive. How on earth did Brodie miss this “curious” fact?

It should be clear, by now, what fuels the tremendous industry this author poured into her work – her obsession with all the things she can find or invent about Jefferson’s sex life. Since that life does not seem a very extensive or active one, Ms. Brodie has to use whatever hints she can contrive In particular, she reads practically the whole Jeffersonian corpus as a secret code referring to what is presented as the longest, most stable, most satisfying love in Jefferson’s life–that with Sally Hemings. 


New York Review of Books April 18, 1974

New Classics- Book Review

Toll, Ian, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, Norton Publishing, New York, 2007- ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5


Ian Toll has written that rare book… that provides a fresh look at a little studied historical period, while remaining true to research pioneers in the field.  Other studies, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, have examined the history of the fledgling US Navy, but Toll’s work fills the obvious gaps in historiography.  Writers such as Roosevelt, Christopher McKee, Henry Adams, and even CS Forester have all studied the characters, battles, and politics of the Age of Sail, Toll’s book serves as an authoritative compendium to the previous histories.


“Joshua Humphreys proposed, in short, to build exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates…”     Toll is at his best when describing the intrigue surrounding the formation and construction of our first fleet.  The same radicalism that had separated us from European monarchy and aristocracy was driving our chief shipwright to challenge ship building norms.  America’s first warships were going to be exceptional- Humphreys is Toll’s unlikely hero.    Just as America  was designed to be unconventional, so would our Navy.  Politics proved ruinous from the start, and Toll does the research required to show how second-guessing and patronage nearly ruined Humphreys’ exceptional fleet.  On far too many occasions, the young US government allowed partisanship to risk our national security interests-  Toll’s analysis fits into debate over current events as well.


Toll’s ability to focus his writing… on the original six frigates shows commendable restraint and prevents this study from deteriorating into muddled mass of dates, places, and names.  Utilizing prior studies, Toll’s historical recounting of the Golden Age of Sail is both gripping and realistic.  The narrative effortlessly guides the reader from the Quasi-War in the Caribbean to the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean.  Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers figure prominently in Toll’s story, but so do oft overlooked figures like Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, and Jesse Eliot.  The founding of the American Navy was a difficult and sometimes bloody affair- Toll astutely points out how dueling nearly brought the officer corps of the Navy to it’s knees by the mid-19th century.  And this is the essence of Ian Toll’s study– more than just battles and larger than life heroes– founding the US Navy was about blood, sweat, and good strong oak.

Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park

M.A. Kleen

If patriot-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold’s reputation wasn’t already bad enough, the massacre of American forces at Fort Griswold earned him a particularly reviled place in American historical memory.

Click to expand photos

The Battle of Fort Griswold (or Battle of Groton Heights) was fought on September 6, 1781 in Groton, Connecticut, between the American garrison commanded by Lt. Col. William Ledyard and British forces commanded by Patriot-turned-loyalist Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold and Lt. Col. Edmund Eyre during the Revolutionary War. The battle was a British victory; Fort Griswold was seized and New London burned, but the British did not achieve any long term gains. The British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia a month later effectively ended the war in the Continental US.

Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold’s raid on New London, Connecticut was an attempt to divert General George Washington from attacking Lord Cornwallis’s army in Virginia. Arnold, who was from the area…

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The Construction of the Male Dominated Narrative of Pocahontas

History Voyager

I have always had an interest in the lives and culture of Native Americans. In the stories that have been told about the violent struggles between settlers and the Native Americans, I have always found my sympathies lay with the Native Americans. As a very young child, I must admit this probably stemmed from Disney’s Pocahontas, but my parents always taught me, when I was old enough to understand, the hardships and discrimination the Native American nations were forced to endure, most notable the Trail of Tears and the forced movement away from their ancestral land to reservations on the other side of America.

3782664Pocahontas and Thomas Rolfe, Lebrecht History / Bridgeman Images

As a bit of a whim recently, I decided to investigate where this anti-Native American sentiment came from. I guess this was probably from my knowledge that their culture is focused around hospitality and the…

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Selective Historical Outrage, Part 2

Academic historians like Kevin Kruse and Manisha Sihna take to social media to criticize the current President.  There is merit in using history to critically analyze current events.

Their analysis begins to fall apart when they bemoan the manner in which Donald Trump was elected. Like many “progressive” intellectuals they despise the electoral system and argue for plurality when electing our President.  They go as far as to claim Hillary Clinton is the legitimate election winner, and the electoral system is harming society because it attacks our democracy.


It is difficult to argue with the results of the election.  Samuel J. Tilden would have been a disastrous President.


Opposition to the Electoral College runs through academia like the freshmen flu.  Only selected candidates can receive such support from the intelligentsia.  Attacking the Electoral College is intellectually lazy.