“When a Hurricane Saved DC and United a Nation”

B. Henry Latrobe’s 1815 design for the U.S. House chambers using a theater motif. He served as Jefferson’s surveyor of public buildings. British soldiers on August 24, 1814 torched the U.S. Capitol, destroying the wooden floor of the Senate, irreplacable paper records, and bringing down the roof, whch severely damaged the structure used by the U.S. House. Not until 1819 would the rebuilt and rennovated Capitol be ready for legislative business. (See below for other illustrations.)

America’s dwindling historic memory barely flickers to recall a vengeance-seeking battalion of British soldiers torched the U.S. Capitol and might have laid waste to the entire town, had not the city’s prayers for rain delivered their salvation in 1814, during the war after the American Revolution.

A splinter group of British soldiers remembered well how a motley crew of American sympathizers set fire to the Canadian Parliament in York the year before. Ever patient, the British waited until after they’d concluded their European dust-up with the French. Now they planned to extract their vengeance as they roared down Pennsylvania Avenue to the “President’s Mansion,” then home to James and Dolly Madison.

Earlier President Madison galloped off to Bladensburg, Maryland, to assist troops there as they were defeated by a well-trained British contingent. Far enough away he could not return in time, Adams had to rely on the Dolly Madison, who was much more courageous than the hostess we’ve had reinforced in history class. He swiftly sent a courier to warn that their home had fallen under the hardened gaze of British arsonists as they moved into Washington. He urged her to leave, of course, but not to miss collecting a few of the mansion’s priceless pieces before her departure.

One of which was the Gilbert Stuart painting of Washington. Screws attached the painting to the walls in the Red Room, so she instructed a slave to get on a ladder to take it down, and hand it to the First Lady. Swiftly she carved it out of its frame and rolled it to take with her in the carriage.

Mrs. Madison sent word to the Octagon, a sturdy brick structure several blocks north of the President’s residence, where she took meager belongings and fled out the front door just as the British soldiers were coming in the back. Interior rooms, drapes, furniture and the makings of a meal went up in flames.

Not satisfied yet and giddy with the chaos and destruction they’d created, the British went on to torch the Treasury and the War Departments on either side of the residence. Only the Patent Office, with all those glorious paper documents, was spared because the federal patent officer debated, then pleaded and bargained with the fire-happy soldiers.

The small Senate Rotunda, designed by B. Henry Latrobe in 1816 after the British burned the U.S. Capital. In the fire the Senate sustained the greatest damage, but wind, fire and water combined to make the building uninhabitable. It would take until 1819 for the entire rebuilding to be completed.

The British marauders could have determined they’d destroyed enough of the physical government to forestall the Colonists from rebuilding.  They yet hoped they could convince the Colonists to give up this crazy idea of being independent of the Crown by upsetting their “experiment” in its infancy.

Large portions of the U.S. Senate with its wooden floors and cache of paper documents were destroyed as explosions rocked the seat of American law making– fires were ignited by massive amounts of British gunpowder. Torrents of water from above and flames that flashed across the structure attacking the U.S. House chambers as well. Madison’s residence, the Treasury and War Departments—everything but the Patent Office—were belching smoke, pierced by multi-story flames rushing out the windows and licking roofs throughout town. Explosions rattled buildings and shattered nerves throughout the city as the flames reached gunpowder traps set around still-standing buildings.

Washington residents prayed for the blessing of rain to extinguish the roaring fires. Within a few hours the heavens delivered—first more rain than had fallen in a decade, but before the rains stopped, the winds began, reaching hurricane force, overwhelming the smoldering flames and foreign troops bent on the town’s destruction.

This is Old Brick, where Congress met until the completion of the reconstructed U.S. Capitol in 1819. ThHere we see the structure in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.

Initially Washington’s inhabitants moaned in despair and wondered what they had done to deserve God’s wrath in casting such a plague upon them. Then, as the storm grew well beyond their modest request or humble expectations, massive waves of torrential rain quenched the rising flames and left a little of each building behind. Rather than deterring the Colonists from reconstructing their government in Washington, the British attack inspired them– just as future strikes would galvanize Americans two centuries hence. A plan to return to Philadelphia didn’t receive the votes needed for the move to a less prominent, possibly more defendable location. Washingtonians made a go of it in DC for spite, ignoring the heat, humidity and mosquitos that made it a hardship city for foreign diplomats at least until air conditioners hummed throughout the city, making it slightly more bearable inside.

Two key federal buildings—the rennovated National Capitol (completed 200 years ago in 1819) redesigned by B. Henry Latrobe, Jefferson’s surveyor of public buildings; and the refurbished President’s House (1817) using the original architect, James Hoban, to restored it over the next two years. Both were built and expanded with forethought and care to meet the needs of an expanding nation, which both continue to serve today.

The structures, while limestone, glass, brick and marble, serve an enduring testimony to the courage and endurance of the American people who have worked together, raised their families, fought and died in many wars since and those who toiled and parented in their absence.

Let us all remember the dark day in 1814 when the fires threatened to extinguish a young democracy, but when the hurricane and the rains came. Now 200 years later we have a special obligation to celebrate the lives lost on September 11, those who swiftly responded to unearth them from the Trade Center and the Pentagon, and those who gave their lives in a distant Pennsylvania field to prevent further destruction. We should not forget their parents, siblings and children who still radiate the pain of this physical and emotional loss. May we learn from them to value the people around us and learn from them.

We need to rekindle the sense of unity — of being part of something bigger than our individual needs and desires — to repair the self-inflicted wounds of isolation that hold us apart, preventing our nation’s reunion.

Historical Notes: Why is it called the “White House?” The walls to the mansion that remained after the fire were gray from the smoke, so they were painted white to remove the stains, a practice repeated over the years to yield an unworldly white tone for a structure smack dab in the middle of what would become a teaming city–the streets were still a mucky mess when the Lincoln’s moved in forty years later.

At the time of the fire, people referred to it as the President’s House or the Executive Mansion, thinking of George Washington, who laid the cornerstone in 1791, but John Adams became the first President to live there.

Site for Executive Mansion: George, who died at Mount Vernon in 1799, picked the location for the future “White House,” centrally located at the time, not sitting on top of a natural spring, so water had to be carried in. Not until Andrew Jackson did the White House have running water. Even then the water flowed from a source near Franklin Square just a mile away and impacted by the 18th and R Street dump for “night soil.” (Use your imagination.)

Capitol Site: Earlier Washington selected a parcel of land on the edge of the District by what is now George Washington University. Maybe he initially thought direct travel by boat from his home on the Potomac might be an advantage, but fortunately was deterred. That location on a much lower elevation sat in a misquito-infested marsh, years later improved by an infusion of soil that extended the city by many blocks. The original site would not support even a one-story limestone structure, much less the massive Capitol building planned for the site. There’s a reason the current site is called “Capitol Hill” because of its location overlooking the city and the Potomac River to the west.


Hamilton & Madison & Jefferson: Money, Money, Money!

Money generated heated debate and became the source of America’s first “cut-it-with-a-knife” political division. How to pay for the debts from the Revolution? How to stabilize the young economy and who, if anyone, would be willing to pay to make it so? Money–how to get it, how to grow it, and how to spend it–divided Americans politically in the 1790s (more complicated today with millions more people, billions more dollars, and trillions more debt).

In the Federalist Papers, which Hamilton and Madison wrote together to gain support for the Constitution in 1788, Madison signaled an opening for a central bank. But upon reflection, he denied that the Constitution granted the federal government powers not specifically enumerated there–like a national bank.

Hamilton felt confident that the Constitution DID grant Congress the right to pass any legislation deemed “necessary and proper,” including a central bank. In Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution continues to be the go-to language Congress relies upon when it sees a need. Madison’s ire rose and he charged Hamilton and Congress with exploiting this power and “leveling all the barriers which limit the powers of the general government and protect those of state governments.”

Madison saw the vote for the national bank as marking Hamilton’s takeover of the delicate balance between executive and legislative power. First Chief Justice John Marshall marked this debate as the beginning of the “complete organization of those distinct and visible parties which in their long and dubious conflict for power have. . .shaken the United States to their (sic) center.”

Fearing Hamilton’s ability to turn a phrase and remembering the intellect of his Federalist partner, Madison swiftly moved to become a strict constructionist when interpreting the Constitution–allowing Congress to assume nothing not strictly mentioned in the Constitution.

The idea of a national bank experienced rough sledding, particularly among Southern legislators. Then the rural population composed 95 percent of the nation, according to the 1790 records. One Virginia planter said he would “no more get caught going into a bank than into a house of ill repute.”

Madison saw the role of the Secretary of the Treasury as a staff role to Congress, not as someone making reports, then drafting legislation to bolster weaknesses or solve deficiencies brought to light in the reports. Under Hamilton’s perspective, as part of the executive branch, he saw his role as being a proactive problem solver, able to give direction and propose policies.

Bank of United States: Opens Deep Rifts

Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington

Despite this division, the House approved Hamilton’s legislation 39-20, but it was lopsided with votes from most all congressmen north of the Potomac River with votes in opposition from the Southern contingent. The Senate had already approved it, so the Bank of the United States legislation went to President Washington’s desk.

Madison sought out the President to lobby him to veto the bill. Washington reached out to cabinet members Jefferson and Reynolds, seeking their opinions, which were negative. Washington questioned whether their responses were complete. He did what any self-respecting chief executive would do, he asked Hamilton for a full report. Of course Jefferson and Randolph did provide papers for Washington, but these weren’t nearly as comprehensive. Hamilton took ten days to complete a thesis-sized resonse.

Jefferson amended his criteria to expand the powers of Congress from what he called “just convenient” to truly “necessary.” He didn’t just disagree with the Bank and its central authority, he went much further and did not recognize the supremacy of the federal law over state law, a basic tenant of the U.S. Constitution.

A man who would become the President of the United States in 1801 and who was the prime author of the Declaration of Independence recommended to the chief architect of the Constitution, Madison, that ANY Virginia bank functionary who cooperated with Hamilton’s bank should be found guilty of TREASON and EXECUTED.

Hamilton’s Position Paper: 15,000 Words

” The power of erecting banks and corporations was not given to the general government: it remains then with the state itself. For any person to recognize a foreign legislature (Jefferson referred to the U.S. Congress as a “foreign legislature” to support his position of state supremacy) is an act of treason against the state. And whosoever shall do any act under color of the authority of a foreign legislature whether by signing notes, issuing or passing them, acting as director, cashier or in any other office relations to it, shall be adjudged guilty of high treason and suffer death, accordingly by the judgment of the state courts.”

Hamilton didn’t play. He met with Philadelphia’s leading lawyer, William Lewis, to review his work, then recruited Mrs. Hamilton to stay up with him the ninth and final night to recopy his writing. Hamilton provided Washington with the ammo for a positive response. His Treasury Secretary no less brilliant than when he joined the General’s military staff at 21, but wiser now in the ways of politics and certainly finance. Washington realized the need to address the economic issues facing his nation if America would rise to fulfill its promise. It’s unlikely he read all 40 pages, but he read enough to feel confident in his support for the National Bank.

He explained how the central bank would enable the federal government to:

  1. Collect taxes;
  2. Borrow money;
  3. Regulate trade among the states;
  4. Support fleets and armies.

Another sore point for Jefferson: he did not want the federal government to have authority to create corporations, possibly thinking it would hamper Virginia’s rural agrarian economy. Hamilton pointed out that well-structured corporations were stronger and more adventageous than the private partnerships then in vogue. By limiting manufacturing opportunities, the new nation could be held hostage by more mature economies, like existed in Europe, depending on them for finished goods.


On July 4, 1791, the public forgot about the earlier controversy with the opening of subscriptions to stock in Hamilton’s central bank. Stock sold out in an hour as a money-hungry mob formed in Philadelphia.

As sales moved to New York, where Madison experienced the bedlam of speculation, he reported to Jefferson by mail, “The bank shares have risen as much in the market here as at Philadelphia,” terming it a “mere scramble for so much public plunder.”

This fever for money, like America had never seen before, took hold. To broaden ownership, Hamilton agreed to sell bank shares in the form of script in major East Coast cities. To broaden ownership, Hamilton agreed to sell bank shares in the form of script. Investors made a $25 down pament and were given a script entitling them to buy a set of shares, paying them off in 18 months. Trading went so well that many doubled their money in a few days–lending to the term–“scriptomania”–long before social media promoted such ideas.

Not every American banking venture in the last 230 years has gone flawlessly and a portion of Americans do not experience the full benefit of the economic engine, but the nation has led the world in gross national product because of the ingenuity of its people and the availability of working capital that got a jump start with Alexander Hamilton. The quest continues.

Come back next Friday to see how Hamilton immersed himself in personal quicksand while competing another massive visionary piece for President Washington.


“Reviewing the Constitution. . .it was not possible to discover in it the power to incorporate a bank.” Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788-1804. New York: MacMillian, 1862, p.9

“necessary and proper” “Leveling all the barriers which limit the powers of the general government. . .” Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Ed Harold C. Syrett et al. vol. 8, p. 113, “Opinions on Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank,” February 23, 1791.

“Complete organization of those distinct and visible parties which in their long and dubious conflict for power have. . . shaken the United States to their (sic) center.”The Reynolds Pamphlet, vol. 10, p. 253, August 1797

“no more get caught goiong into a bank than into a house of ill reprute.” John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959, p. 727.

Madison saw the Secretary of the Treasury more in a staff role. Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, New York: The Penguin Group, 2004. p. 351. Chernow noted that history has come to support Hamilton’s take on this.

Jefferson did not recognize the supremacy of the federal law over the state law. Chernow, p. 353. See next note for continuation. Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol 12, p. 85, Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 1, 1791

“and whosoever shall do an act under the color of the authority of a foreign legislature (in this case the U.S. Congress) whether by signing (bank) notes, issuesing or passing them. . . shall be adjudged guilty of high treason and suffer death “Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol 12, p. 85, Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, October 1, 1791

Mrs. Hamilton’s role and size of the report. Chernow, p. 353.

Work performed by the Bank, Papers of Hamilton, vol. 8, p. 97

“every power vested in a government is in its nature sovereign. . . Ibid.

A fever for money. . .Hamilton agreed to sell bank shares in the form of script. Chernow, p. 357.

“The bank shares have risen. . . a mere scramble for so much public plunder.”New York Historical Society Quarterly, October 1948, uncovered correspondence between Madison in New York and Jefferson in Virginia.

Hamilton and Burr before the Duel

Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury to Washington, set up the Bank of America, stares out from the five dollar bill, leaving his imprint across America more than two hundred years later.

In the four years since “Hamilton” hit the New York stage, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony and Grammy-winning tale of this Founder’s rise to power and dramatic death dominated Broadway, the London stage, and now moves around the country, creating a hunger for more.

Hamilton and Burr’s political differences became American tragedy in1804, after years spent glaring across the political Federalist vs. Republican-Democrat divide– except for a brief time early in their careers when they both worked to limit slavery in New York.

A little Hamilton background–the pen saved him

Arriving in Boston in 1772, Hamilton entered a country preparing to severe ties with England and win its freedom. He came from the British West Indies, the illegitimate son of a woman of French and British ancestry and a Scottish Laird, who lived together but never married. Essentially an orphan after his father left and his mother died of smallpox, Hamilton went to work in the export-import business, making himself and his language skills essential to the trade.

As a teenager his break comes with the furry of the 1772 Chistiansted hurricane, which he chronicles for the Royal-Danish-American Gazette and writes his ticket off the island. Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow found the letter in his research, astonished a self-educated boy could write with such “verve and gusto” and equate the hurricane as a “divine rebuke to human vanity and pomposity.” On the basis of the essay, influential members of the community gathered funds to send him to New York to be educated.

Hamilton brings with him never-to-be-forgotten images of 250 scarecrow-like creatures struggling out of the depths of a Dutch Trader after traveling from West Africa’s Gold Coast to St. Croix, squeezed together like human sardines. His nostrils would remember for years the stench of the mass of humanity that had been held tightly in chains for months, bathing in each other’s bodily fluids. Working for the import-export firm, one of his responsibilities was to help inspect, house, groom and put a price on each one about to be auctioned. He shaved bodies and smeared them with palm oil until their muscles glistened in the sun. Some slave merchants came with their own branding irons to mark their purchases, adding the smell of burning flesh to auction sites.

While later Hamilton gained the highest rung of New York society by winning the hand of Eliza Schuyler and stepped up onto the ladder of national notority as the very young aide to General Washington, deep inside he carried a memory of man’s inhumanity. With it came a cry for freedom, equality, and fair play. He held close a parallel fear of the anarchy that can rise from undisciplined race to achieve that freedom. This may explain how Hamilton became such a strong Federalist, eager for an organized central government to unite the states.

A decade after coming to New York, he passed the New York bar after graduation from King College (Columbia University). Hamilton shuffled law practice as he served in the New York militia, then joined General Washington’s staff. After the Revolution, he gained position as a representative to the Congress of the Confederacy (before the Constitutional Convention).

His pen and organizing principles were applied to The Federalist Papers, making a case for New York to accept the Constitution. This lays the groundwork for America’s capitalist revolution, which he plans will operate at full-tilt using free labor.

A man of ideas and passion, battles with the mighty

Known as a faithful friend to his close circle of friends, Hamilton’s hair-trigger ego response could pull him into feuds of historic proportions with leaders and rivals, including Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and finally, Burr. The question arose: would Hamilton embrace a glittering American future and neglect his impoverished West Indian roots once the war ended?

Early on his preference for the British cause (after the war, obviously not before) stood him up against strong Federalists and seemed to place Hamilton squarely on the side of the monied class, what we’d call the one-percenters. Which side would Hamilton take on the issue of slavery? Could his marriage to the ravishing, wealthy, and well-connected Eliza Schuyle sway his decision? Her father held twenty-seven slaves at his Albany mansion and his fields and mills near Saratoga.

Contrary to popular belief, in the 18th century wealthy families in New Jersey and New York retained slaves to serve as cooks, maids and butlers, even to serve as status symbols. New York City held slave auctions in the 1750s and by the 1790s one in five New York City households had slaves or indentured servants.

Slaves and free blacks were being stolen off the streets of New York when on January 25, 1785 when a group of concerned citizens gathered at the home of innkeeper John Simmons to form the New York Manumission Society. Prominent New Yorker John Jay was voted chair, even though he owned five slaves. He authored five of The Federalist Papers with fifty-nine completed by Hamilton and Madison, to promote New York ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Jay believed unless gradual abolition of slavery became law in the U.S., “her prayers to heaven for liberty would be impious.”

Hamilton attended a meeting of the Manumission Society in July as the organization developed a campaign against slavery with lectures, essays, and a registry to prevent free blacks from being dragged back into slavery. The Society also established an African Free School to teach older boys carpentry and navigation, and dressmaking and embroidery to older girls. The school’s goal: to keep slaves from “running into practices of immorality or sinking into habits of idleness,” taking the era’s paternalistic and judgmental approach to slavery.

By February Hamilton took an active role forming the Society’s Ways and Means committee to produce answers concerning how to address New York’s slave population. The conclusions seemed abrupt to the slave owners in the group, but lacked the speedy conclusion people of color prayed for. The proposal to members: slaves under twenty-eight should gain their freedom on their thirty-fifth birthday; those between twenty eight and thirty-eight should be freed seven years hence; and those above forty-five should be freed immediately.

Truth be told, Burr kept four or five household slaves. As he moved politically towards the Republican-Democratic party of Jefferson, Burr no longer spoke like an abolitioinist. According to Chernow, by 1831 Burr tried to discourage William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the Liberator, from persisting in his antislavery crusade. Garrison, who went on to become an advisor to Abraham Lincoln, said of Burr: “His manner was patronizing. . .As he revealed himself to my moral sense, I saw he was destitute of any fixed principles.”

Hamilton’s committee’s proposal did not gain the support of the Society since half its members were slaveowners. They feared members would “withdraw their servies and gradually fall off from the Society,” This did not stop Hamilton. In February 1786, he became a member of the Society’s standing committee lobbying the New York State Legislature to halt the export of slaves from New York, using a pamphlet, “a Dialogue on the Slavery of Africans etc.” Then he signed a petition reinforcing this position, deploring the conditions for blacks exported “like cattle and other articles of commerce to the West Indies and the southern states.” The petition didn’t mince words, calling the practice “so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with the liberality and justice which should distinguish a free and enlightened people.”

An illustrious list of Founders and Revolutionary leaders signed this petition just three years after the Revolution ended. Many in the Society would be friends of Hamilton since he came to America, like Robert Trout, his roommate at Kings College (Columbia University); Nicholas Fish, New York Revolutionary warrior and ancestor of generations of politicians; Hercules Mulligan, Irish- American tailor and secret agent for General Washington; William Livingston, signer of the Declaration of Independence and Governor of New Jersey (1776-1790); John Jay, first Chief of the U.S. Supreme Court and second Governor of New York. Governor Jay signed the legislature’s watered-down version of the Society’s bill permitting slave owners to free their slaves between the ages of 35 and 50.

While this permissive language insults America’s slaves, some whose ancestors were West Africans who arrived on the first ship to Jamestown in the 16th century, saw the promise of freedom postponed yet another century. The hopeful moment in the 1780s, marking the end of the slave trade in New York and slow emancipation of slaves, would be eclipsed by the need to placate the Southern states during the Constitutional Convention.

Hamilton, often criticized as an elitist, showed himself a friend to the oppressed, despite his links to power and wealth. Whether this reflects the perils his French-British mother faced, possibly as a woman of mixed race, may never determined. His drive and ambition served him well and pulled him out of the crowd. He used his hard-earned skills to write and speak on behalf of those locked into a life of slavery after he blazed his name across the Revolutionary era. Hamilton’s talent for genius tempered by a stubborn, take-no-prisoners ego could have has an even greater impact on America were it not for his knack to wreck promising personal alliances.

Stay tuned for more about this clever man of adventure and a look at Aaron Burr’s life turned after the duel.


1772 Christainsted hurricane. Ron Chernow. Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Group, 2004) p. 32

Her father held twenty-seven slaves at his Albany mansion and his fields and mills. Ibid., 210.

Slaves and free blacks were being stolen off the streets. Chernow, p. 214.

Jay believed unless gradual abolition…”her prayers to heaven for liberty…” Richard Brookhiser, Gentleman Revolutionary. New York: Free Press, 1999. p. 34

The school’s goal to keep slaves from “running into practices of immorality…” Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, A History of New York City to 1898, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 286.

Hamilton’s motion. . .A subsequent committee said its adoption would cause members to “withdraw their services and gradually fall off from the Society. NYHS-NYCMS, reel 2 (ca. August-September 1786)

“a practice so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent with liberty. . .” Chernow, p. 214

“His manner was patronizing…” destitude of any fixed principles. Milton Lomask, Aaron Burr: The Conspirac and Years of Exile. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980.p. 403.

Hamilton’s committee proposal, Chernow, p. 214.

The petition didn’t mince words, “so repugnant to humanity and so inconsistent… NYHS-NYCMS March 1786.

An illustrious list of Founders. Chernow, p. 216.

Spying in the American Revolution: How a Virginia Slave helped Colonists win victory at Yorktown in 1781

James Armistead Lafayette, a Virginia slave who risked his life spying for the Colonists, helped win the American Revolution at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

General George Washington served a portion of the French and Indian War as a spy and put his experience to work in the American Revolution. He settled spy rings into places where British soldiers gathered: coffeehouses, taverns and tea shops, then shipped their messages to him by complicated routes through Long Island and by whale boat to Connecticut.

Washington knew it unlikely the inexperienced, under-trained and out-numbered Colonists’ could pose a serious threat to the greatest fighting force on the planet without a bit of intelligence. America had no navy to stand up to the strongest fleet prowling the Atlantic and the European waters. Seemingly no contest.To even the odds would require out-witting the British, using American ingenuity, and a strong desire for freedom.

Initially on April 18,1775, the Massachusetts Colonists were out-numbered at Lexington 700 British to 77 Colonial militia. Eight defenders died and nine were wounded. The following day the Minutemen, 2,000 strong with 1,500 militia streamed into Concord and the results were different–250 British died to 90 Colonists. The sound of the “shot heard around the world” reached London on May 28. (1)

Suddenly King George realized he had a full revolt, more serious than Bostonians dumping English tea into the harbor five years earlier. Shutting down the harbor with British ships posted outside wouldn’t do the trick. Neighboring port of Braintree gathered supplies and shipped them overland. So King George gathered his generals, encased them with their Red-clad soldiers onboard masses of British men-of-war, then launched them across the Atlantic. He felt confident that a foray or two would be sufficient to quel the rumpus and return the Colonists to obedience.

Washington accepts command of Colonists’

After being named Commander-in-Chief George Washington in June 1775, Washington hadn’t reached Boston when the Battle of Bunker Hill concluded on the 17th. In confounding results, the British took territory in the encounter, even though their casualties exceeded the Colonists’ losses. The British lost over 110 officers, overall 226 killed and 828 wounded, while the Americans’ losses included 140 killed and 450 injured. British General Clinton said: “A few more victories (like this) could have put an end to British dominance of America.” (2)

Such a situation faced General Washington when he accepted command. As he assessed his generals and assembled the men in favorable positions, he also began to assemble a spy network, attempting to out-fox the British and take full advantage of the American’s innate knowledge of their countryside. He instructed his generals to “leave no stone unturned, nor do not stick to expense” in gathering intelligence, and urged that those employed for intelligence purposes be those “upon whose firmness and fidelity we have safely rely.” He delegated significant field responsbility to trusted officers, including Alexander Hamilton, who was deeply involved with intelligence operations, including developing reports received in secret writing and investigating a suspected double agent. (3)

Washington made known his desire for information and worked with those who could develop codes for Colonist spies to use in translating messages, ciphers to complicate translation, and code brakers. The Continental Congress created a Secret Committee (later to become Foreign Affairs in 1777) to help obtain information in 1775. It helped gather intelligence about secret Loalist ammunition stores and seized them. James Lovell, a teacher arrested by the British after the Battle of Bunker Hill on charges of spying, was exchanged for a British prisioner and elected to Congress. He became Congress’s expert on codes and ciphers and gained the title “father of American cryptanalysis.” (4)

Anna Strong (dramatization), mother of 10 and tavern owner, who gathered news from British troops in her tavern.

Anna Smith Strong: Spy in Petticoats

Raised in the house her great-great grandfather built in Setauket, Long Island, Anna Smith Strong knew the land and the people that surrounded her. She had strong motivation to defeat the British. They’d captured her husband who joined the minutemen early in the war and sent him to the notorious prison ship in New York Harbor.

This patriotic housewife and tavern owner, joined Washington’s brigade hanging her “clothesline codes” –petticoat and handkerchiefs to signify the location of a ship drop off point for a message destined for Washington. (5)

She belonged to the Culper Spy Ring, many of the participants were people she’d known from childhood, which helped defray concerns of being betrayed. Their codes were a combination of letters and words. Code letters were taken from Entick’s Dictionary. But Major Benjamin Tallmadge, the network’s leader, took several hundred words from people and places and assigned each a number from 1 to 763. Attack was 38 and George Washington, 711. Once a week one of Washington’s spies rode to New York City to dig up information from the troops stationed there. Returning to Long Island, he would hide the message in a wooden box buried on a farm owned by Anna’s friend, Abraham Woodhull, across the bay from Anna. She would await word from another, the whaleboat capatain, Caleb Brewster. He’d slip past the British ships and hide in one of the island’s coves. (6) .

Brewster would send word to Anna which cove he’d hidden his boat and Anna would put her black petticoat on the line, followed by a number of handerchiefs signifying which cove he boat could be found. They’d established a map with numbers for each of the coves. Then Woodhull would wait for darkness to sneak across the fields to Brewster’s boat to deliver the message. Brewster rowed over to Connecticut and gave the message to the spymaster, who took it directly to Washington.

Enoch Crosby, Continental soldier who played the role of a cobbler, roaming across the Hudson Valley for six years 1776-1781 gathering news from the British to assist General Washington.

Crosby: Long serving spy in Revolution

Enoch Crosby became a hero to General Washington for his unassuming manner and the material he could obtain from British soldiers and Loyalists. He played along when Loyalists invited him to a meeting in New York. Crosby reported what he learned to Patriot John Jay (future Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court), who recruited him among the first counterintelligence operatives. He began his work early in the Revolution, around 1776, and became one of the longest serving spies. Many British sympathizers were unmasked due to his efforts. (7)

Dr. James Jay creates “sympathetic stain”

The Secret Committee made good use of the talents of Dr. James Jay, brother of the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Living in London, he used the technology available to him to create a “sympathetic stain” that could make a message appear invisible until a certain chemical was applied to the paper. A physician living in London, Dr, Jay had been knighted by George III, and used the stain to report military information from London to Washington. Silas Deane, serving as a diplomat in Paris, used a heat-developing invisible ink–a compound of cobalt chlorive, giycerine and water. Later Deane switched to Jay’s method because it required specific chemical applications one at the time of writing and a second to develop the message. (8)

Armistead’s Intelligence turns Yorktown

Yorktown became the final battle of the Revolution with the assistance of a Virginian slave assigned to General Marquis de Lafayette, commander of the French forces and a key ally of Washington. Lafayette and the entire American force suffered at the hands of British General Cornwallis–better equipt and more numerous army.

James Armistead on orders from Lafayette posed as a runaway slave and infiltrated British forces in General Arnold’s camp. His knowledge of the terrain, proved helpful to the British to obtain their trust, then he became a double agent when they ask Armistead to spy on the American forces. He obtained information on the British position for Lafayette, then carried back inaccurate information to the British. At the end of summer 1781 Armistead sent a note to Lafayette that outlined Cornwallis’s move from Portsmouth to Yorktown and the expected arrival of 10,000 British troops. This knowledge gave Washington forewarning. He, Lafayette and French General Comte de Rochambeau set up a blockade by land and sea around Yorktown peninsula. Simultaneously code master James Lovell determined the encryption method that British commanders used to communicate. A translated message from Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown to General Henry Clinton in New York told Washington how desperate Corwallis was and enabled him to time his attack. Then warning that a British relief expedition approaching Yorktown was blocked by a French fleet offshore. The blockade and the bombardment of the British position convinced them to surrender.

Armistead returned to slavery in 1783 after the war. Slave soldiers were granted freedom as part of their agreement upon joining. But spy slaves were not given freedom. When General Lafayette, heard about this, he sent a letter to the Virginia legislature, indicating Armistead’s service and the need to grant him freedom. Virginia’s political leadership agreed and agreed to a pension of $40 annually for his service. He purchased 40 acres south of New Kent, Virginia, married, raised a family, and lived to be 82. (9)

(1) https://www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/battles-of-lexington-and-concord

(2) His words mimic Pyrrhus of Epirus of the Battle of Heraclea: “one more such victory and our cause is lost.”

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War

(4) https: //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War

(5) https://beyondword.com/blogs/beyond-words-blog/anna-smith-strong-spy-in-petticoats Ryan Ann Hunter, “Excerpt from In Disguise”

(6) Ibid

(7) http://www.hvmag.com/Hudson-Valley-Magazine/June-2014/How-a-Shoemaker-Turned-Into-a-Spy https://www.history.com/news/5-patriot-spies-of-the-american-revolution

(8) “Intelligence in the American Revolution”

(9) https://www.history.com/news/battle-of-yorktown-slave-spy-james-armistead Access date June 7, 2019 Publisher A & E Television Networks Last updated February 5, 2019

Northwest Ordinance: Two men who blazed the path in self-governance, human rights, and higher education

Reverend Manasseh Cutler and General Rufus Putnam

The grand push to settle the Ohio Territory, stretching from the base of Ohio to the Mississippi and up to the top of the Great Lakes, came from a polymath pastor from Ipswich, Massachusetts who fought in the Revolution, and General Washington’s chief military engineer, Rufus Putnam.

While referred to as Reverend Manasseh Cutler, he brought advanced mental tools to his flock. In addition to his Divinity degree from Yale, he had completed medical and law degrees and his work in astronomy and botany excited Benjamin Franklin enough to schedule time to meet in Philadelphia. Cutler’s prime motivation: to ensure that the Massachusetts Regiment got a piece of the territory and an opportunity to explore it first hand.

He gathered Massachusetts veterans at Boston’s Bunch of Grapes Tavern in March 1786 to lay out his scheme and roles for each. (1) Five million acres of land would be open to settlement thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1783) negotiated by fellow Massachusetts resident and then-diplomat John Adams, a territory larger than France. Cutler knew that Congress would consider plans to explore, survey, and establish an organized government structure to open up this land west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Massachusetts’ veteran, General Rufus Putnam would lead the expedition into the Northwest Territory after Congress approved the plan and turned over 1.5 million acres to their group, the Ohio Company Associates. In 1776 Punam gained notoriety while in charge of the defenses of Dorchester Heights’ frozen ground overlooking Boston Harbor during the Revolution. His quick thinking resulted in the withdrawal of the British from Boston. Later he marked out most of Brooklyn’s fortifications and Washington named this self-educated man to be the chief engineer of his army. ( 2)

He had no formal schooling after his father’s death in his childhood, so his knowledge of engineering came from experience and borrowed books. Putnam expanded his reading prior to leaving for the Ohio Territory at age 49. Cutler wanted to join the first expedition, but had many details to resolve, including Indian treaties to finish, so sent his 18-year-old son, Jervis, a natural adventurer. Putnam left home the last day of December 1787. The journey over the Alleghenies took nearly a month in heavy snow, bitter cold, and later heavy rains. Great challenges awaited him and his crew of forty-eight men who would build the ships to carry them once over the mountains on the water, but crossed the Alleghenies on foot, leaving the sleds to carry equipment and supplies. Once inland the men worked to build a stockade-like structure to house 864 people, the first private fortification on the Ohio River. (3)

Five states carved out of the Northwest Territory- Library of Congress

Cutler knew George Washington was eager to find a means to parcel out the land, since he had promised land to men he’d recruited to fight for the Revolution. Washington also had a personal interest in the Ohio Company. (In the end it took twenty years to deliver on that promise.) Washington’s interest in the Ohio Territory stretched years earlier, when his older brother, Lawrence, had been an original investor prior to 1763, when the British prohibited settlers from moving west of the Alleghenies.

Lobbyist for Northwest Ordinance

By July 1787, Cutler had arrived in New York and began calling on Members of Congress and lined up his neighbor from Ipswich, Congressman Nathan Dane, to carry the bill through Congress. Cutler proved to be an excellent lobbyist, called an “agent” then, for the Northwest Territory proposal. He explained the plan to several members of Congress, then met with the key geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins, to discuss the best site for the initial settlement on the Ohio. Hutchins favored a site near the confluence of the Ohio and the Muskingum rivers, close to Fort Harmar with a small population of native people and great forests nearby to provide building materials. (3)

The final contract approved by the Continental Congress included a private real estate venture with the Scioto Company and totaled 5,000,000 acres for an investment of $3.5 million, all the funds to go to the Federal Treasury to help retire the national debt after the Revolution. Cutler’s Ohio Company Associates would draw a million and a half acres. This would be the largest contract in the history of Congress when it was approved July 27, 1787–four years after the Trreaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War. (4)

John Adams’s influence hovered over the ordinance, as much of the language read like the Massachusetts’ Constitution, written by Adams, and his concern with human rights sings throughout the document. Article I addresses freedom of religion, expressing tolerance. Article III states: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” (5)

Land within each township would be set aside for a school. The land-grant colleges started here, written into the basic framework of each state to stimulate the bandwidth for future discoveries, patents, and to build solutions to thorny problems faced by the settlers and their 21st century ancestors. Creative work in art, music and the development of educators to serve millions of children flow from this enlightened document.

Native Americans to receive “utmost good faith”

Native Americans were also considered in the contract, stating “utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent. . . they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars created the by Congress.” (6) No discussion took place concerning which land belonged to the Indians or whether since they pre-dated Colonists, Native Americans might have claim to all the land.

Many Native Americans in Ohio refused to acknowledge treaties signed after the Revolutionary War that ceded lands north of the Ohio inhabited by them to the United States in 1783. In a conflict sometimes known as the Northwest Indian War,  Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Little Turtle of the Miamis formed a confederation to stop white expropriation of the territory. After the Indian confederation had killed more than 800 soldiers in two battles – the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. at the hands of the Indians – President Washington assigned General Anthony Wayne to command of a new army, which eventually defeated the confederation and allowed European-Americans to continue settling the territory. (7)

Blueprint for Achieving Statehood

The Ordinance created a framework for the development and settlement of the region, which the weak Articles of Confederation could not enforce in a systematic way. In 1789, after creation of a federal government and its Constitution, the Ordinance began to manage and promote statehood through the federal government, rather than as an extension of existing states. Five states were carved out of the Territory: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota.

Provisions of governance in the territory: Once 5,000 free men of legal age to be living in an area, it could receive authority to elect representatives from their counties or townships to a territorial general assembly. When the number of representatives reached 25, then Congress would control the number and portion of representatives in a territory. Once 60,000 free men were living in a territory, it would be admitted into representation in the Continental Congress on an equal footing with the original thirteen states. While the population of free, male inhabitants of a territory was less than 5,000, there would be a limited form of government: a governor, a secretary, and three judges, all appointed by Congress. The governor—appointed for a three-year term and given a “freehold estate therein, in one thousand acres of land”—would be commander-in-chief of the militia, appoint magistrates and other civil officers, and help create and publish laws as they saw fit for their territory. The secretary—appointed for a four-year term and given a similar freehold estate as the governor but of five hundred acres—would be in charge of keeping and preserving the acts and laws passed by the territorial legislatures, keeping the public records of the district, and transmitting authentic copies of such acts and proceedings every six months to the secretary of the Continental Congress. Three judges—whose appointments would continue indefinitely “during good behaviour” and each given the same freehold as the secretary—would be in charge of helping the governor create and pass acts and laws and in making official court rulings. (8)

Key Tenent: Outlawing Slavery

Article VI states: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory” (9) the size of the new territory made it difficult to believe that slavery would be banned everywhere in the Ohio Territory, but neither tobacco or cotton could grow in this frigid climate. No legislative notes from the time indicate who specifically took responsibility for this statement. Cutler’s journal, which was very specific in most other areas, did not mention slavery, but his grandchildren believe it to be his work. Others surrounding him did not have his writing ability to craft language.

The language of the ordinance prohibits slavery, but also contained a clear fugitive slave clause as well.(10) Efforts in the 1820s by pro-slavery forces to legalize slavery in two of the states created from the Northwest Territory failed, but an “indentured servant” law allowed some slaveholders to bring slaves under that status; they could not be bought or sold.[Southern states voted for the law because they did not want to compete with the territory over tobacco as a commodity crop; it was so labor-intensive that it was grown profitably only with slave labor. Additionally, slave states’ political power would merely be equalized, as there were three more slave states than there were free states in 1790. (11)

Transportation–Free Navigable Water and Highways

18th century keelboat and flatboat traffic on the Ohio River. Library of Congress

Under Article 4: “The navigable waters leading to the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers and the carrying between these places shall be common highways and forever free to inhabitants, citizens, and those of other states. . .may be admitted without any tax, import or duty thereafter.” (12) Thus setting up a precedent for the free national highway system President Eisenhower built in the 1950s. Now as states struggle to fund infrastructure (with the deadlock in Congress) privately-funded road projects, instead of government funded, and toll roads are becoming common place.

The Northwest Ordinance blueprint county laid out state and county government as new territories were added to the nation, a system used all the way to the West Coast. The bold move that Manasseh Cutler recommended to fellow veterans at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern in 1786 grew into the contract that serves the nation to this day. He told his son, Ephraim, that he prepared the articles prohibiting slavery and included religion, morality and knowledge as the foundations of civic government because he was “acting for associates, friends, and neighbors, who would not embark in the enterprise, unless these principles were unalterably fixed.” (13)

U.S. postage stamp issued 150 years after the signing of the
Northwest Ordinance’s passage in Congress, honoring Manasseh Cutler and Rufas Putnam.

On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1937, the U.S. Post Office issued a three-cent stamp commemorating Manassah Cutler, prime author and agent for the Ordinance in Congress, and the leader of the expedition to establish the first settlement, Rufus Putnam. (14)

(1) David McCullough,The Pioneers, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2019) p, 12

(2) Ibid, p. 37

(3) McCullough, p. 47

(4) McCullough, pp. 16-17.

(5) Ibid., p. 28.

(6)”Northwest Ordinance,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress, July 13, 1787. pp. 335-337, Retrieved May 30, 2019

(7) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_Ordinance

(8) “Northwest Ordinance,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress, July 13, 1787. Retrieved May 30, 2019.

(9) McCullough, p.29-30

(10) Ibid, p. 31.

(11) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northwest_Ordinance

(12) McCullough, p. 28-30

(13) Ibid.

(14) “Northwest Ordinance,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress, July 13, 1787. Retrieved May 30, 2019.