We asked our contributors:
Which personality of the American Revolution or the founding era (other than Benedict Arnold) is remembered for the wrong reasons, and why?
Silas Deane, like his friend Benedict Arnold, contributed so much to the patriot cause only to fall from grace. His infamous letter to Robert Morris could have been fatal to the American cause had Morris decided to withdraw his financial backing. Deane’s image as a profligate traitor never recovered and later died under mysterious circumstances.
Nathan Hale’s legendary-hero status is based on his having said something that in all probability he did not when hanged as a spy, i.e., regretting that he only had one life to give for his country. According to the diary of British officer Lt. Frederick Mackenzie, who observed the execution, Hale said “he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”
J. L. Bell
American culture remembers John Hancock for his signature on the Declaration of Independence and as a profit-minded businessman. In fact, Hancock was lousy at business. He inherited a great fortune and left a little one. But Hancock was a natural politician. He had a keen sense for the mood of the voting public. Over almost thirty years, he never lost a race. When in the mid-1780s the unrest in western Massachusetts looked insoluble, Hancock retired as governor for his health. After the Shays Rebellion spoiled the popularity of his successor, Hancock recovered and ran again, remaining governor until his death in 1793.
Matthew M. Montelione
John Adams. He’s often misremembered as an ineffective president, but his wit and subdued diplomatic skills avoided full-scale naval war in a crucial time in the early republic. He’s often mislabeled an ineffective figure due to his complicated presidency and his failure to preserve the Federalist Party. This is compounded in the general public’s consciousness due to the ill treatment of Adams in the otherwise spectacular Broadway show “Hamilton.” How lucky we are to be alive right now.
Alexander Hamilton is remembered more for how he died than how he created modern America. As co-author of the Federalist Papers and then Treasury secretary, Hamilton gave the U.S. a strong—and solvent—central government that encouraged economic growth. In essence, he made the U.S. a country, not a confederation. Hamilton’s polar opposite, Patrick Henry, is known for “Give me liberty, or give me death.” He really should be known as a reactionary states’ righter who complained about the concept of “We, the People” instead of his preferred, “We, the States.”
Paul Revere. He rode a horse. Basically, that’s it. The whole story. But we remember this non-event as if it were important.
Horatio Gates. Though remembered for the victory at Saratoga (1777), his defeat at Camden (1780) and ignominious skedaddle from the battlefield looms large. Worse, Gates supposedly schemed against George Washington in the Conway Cabal (1777) and Newburgh Conspiracy (1783). Gates was dreadful at Camden, but the threat he posed to Washington is overblown. Riding high from victory in Saratoga, he was naturally ambitious for command. Serving out the war in Newburgh, he just wanted to go home to his dying wife. After the war, Gates gave up planting and freed his enslaved laborers–something few Revolutionary leaders did. That’s worth remembering, too.
Don N. Hagist
Thomas Gage. As commander in chief of the British army in North America in the 1760s and early 1770s, and royal governor of Massachusetts after Parliament disbanded the civil colonial government in response to the Boston tea party, Gage struggled to follow established laws in dealing with a rebellious population that had no inclination to do so itself. Widely considered to have been unequal to the task with which he was charged, one wonders if anyone else could have done better.
Derrick E. Lapp
Poor Horatio Gates. He is remembered more for his schemes against Washington and ridiculed for his 180 mile “retreat” from Camden. He did, after all, win one of the few victories for the Americans in a major battle. But Camden overshadows Saratoga (Lee warned: “take care lest your Northern laurels turn to Southern willows”) and historians seem to relish in vilifying the “smug” Gates ignoring his officers’ recommendations on the eve of his contest with Cornwallis. But Otho H. Williams sagely observed, “a soldier’s fame is always precarious” and had Gates fallen perhaps his laurels would have been “ever green on his tomb.”
Patrick Henry may be remembered primarily for his rhetorical skills (Give me liberty or give me death!) or later opposition to the Constitution, but he also served as governor of Virginia during three critical years in the Revolution (1776-1779). Although Virginia was not as threatened as the other newly independent states and his office was constitutionally weak, Henry proved he was more than a show-horse defined by his rhetoric. He was an able administrator and work-horse, moving swiftly to organize and provide as much support as possible to Washington’s army farther north and building a strong working relationship with the Commander in Chief. This role, less memorable than Henry’s intellect and eloquence, was essential for turning ideas into reality.
William H. J. Manthorpe, Jr.
In Delaware, General Horatio Gates for his actions at the battle of Camden that decimated the Delaware “Blue Hens” Continental Regiment. Conway cabal as well.
No individual in the South is more “remembered for the wrong reasons” than Brig. Gen. Andrew Williamson. Like a jack-in-the box, he appeared in the South Carolina backcountry from almost total obscurity, rose at a phenomenal rate to wealth and status, becoming one of a handful of “leading men” along the frontier, then within the space of months, fell so far he is passing through history as the “Arnold of the South.” No biography of Williamson has yet been written; but everyone who looks hard at General Williamson comes away with their own interpretation of his life, one that can be defended. Was he a turncoat, traitor, “inveterate enemy,” “obnoxious person” who should have been hanged? brilliant selfish survivalist? A major figure in why the British southern strategy almost succeeded or part of the reason it ultimately failed? Was he an influential behind-the-scenes confidant of Cornwallis and his colonels? Peacemaker? Spy? “America’s first double agent,” one of Nathanael Greene’s most trusted sources of information, a major reason why Charleston was not burned? Was he a “warm” humanitarian or ruthless betrayer or friends and neighbors? Andrew Pickens and John Lewis Gervais, both ever so closely associated with Williamson, came to hate him; yet hundreds who served with him, after his death, wanted to forgive him for an understandable “political mistake.” There is a big hole here in our understanding of why so many of those like Andrew Williamson, simply wanting to survive the Revolution, did what they did.
Maj. Gen. Adam Stephen. Historians have generally accepted Lafayette’s conclusion that Stephen was an incompetent drunk after the Battle of Germantown. However, an infantry officer equally experienced as Washington, Stephen showed no evidence of intoxication during the Germantown battle. Instead, he became a scapegoat for an overly complex battle plan gone wrong. As to sobriety, Stephen became the most commercially successful major general after the war and helped Virginia ratify the new U.S. constitution. Outspoken, willing to challenge Washington, and rough and tumble, but no incompetent drunk!
John Dickinson is mainly remembered for opposing the Declaration of Independence. But he was one of the earliest and greatest patriots. He started influencing colonial thought about Britain in 1767, prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation in 1776, and risked his life and fortune while serving in the militia. He then served at the Constitutional Convention and prepared initial drafts of the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “A more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us …. his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.”
George Rogers Clark is a person that is often only remembered partially, and this leads to a misunderstanding of him. While General Clark served well during the War for Independence, maintaining a presence in the Old Northwest in an attempt to keep the British-allied Indians at bay, as well as applying pressure upon the British forts along the frontier, his actions after the war and during the Neutrality Crisis of 1793/4 are often overlooked. During the crisis, Clark raised a private army, and was in talks with and willing to act under a commission from the French government while he attacked the Spanish along the Mississippi River and in Louisiana. This willingness to act upon his own accord, as well as seizures of Spanish goods in Port Vincennes during the 1780s, gave him a reputation as an uncontrollable liability to the young nation. His flaunting of the federal government’s rules is often overlooked in the popular stories told about him, allowing him to be remembered as a hero who helped found the country and not as a person who almost split the country in two while it was finding its way in the world.
Robert S. Davis
Paul Revere, although Esther Forbes in her Pulitzer Prize winning and charming book Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942) started the ball rolling on Revere’s statue having clay feet, that he was not the best or the brightest but maybe the most entertaining. Other nominees would include John Adams (because of the television mini-series) and Thomas Jefferson because his complexities had a real dark side, beginning with Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997). Overall, I think it is the idea that these people were human and we have no right in our time to judge them in theirs!
Jane Hampton Cook
“He was able to restrain thunderbolts and tyrants,” France’s Count Mirabeau described Benjamin Franklin at his death. Franklin should be remembered for his free-speech advocacy that saved his career. If he hadn’t stood up for himself when people tried to censor and socially ostracize him for publishing an offensive newspaper ad in 1731, Franklin would never have been chosen to conduct diplomacy in the American Revolution. He wrote: “That when truth and error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.” Franklin set the debate standards that later enabled the American Revolution to flourish.
I’m going with Paul Revere, who never said “The British are Coming,” never made it to Concord, and never signed the Declaration of Independence. However, he was a true Renaissance man. As an artist, he engraved the famous Boston Massacre lithograph and received a contract to print paper currency for the new nation. As a metalsmith, he mastered the technique for producing rolled copper and made high quality bells, considered the finest in America. And as a dentist he practiced dentistry on many Boston residents, including Dr. Joseph Warren, which made it easy for Revere to later identify Warren’s body by his dental work a year after Warren was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill and was buried in a mass grave. This also made Revere the first forensic scientist to identify a body based on dental records.
James Kirby Martin
Horatio Gates, the so-called “Hero of Saratoga,” as proclaimed by the Continental Congress and so often repeated in commentary thereafter, did little if anything to bring about that great victory. Any study of the Saratoga campaign demonstrates that Benedict Arnold was the “real hero” in stopping Burgoyne’s advance, along with invaluable contributions from Daniel Morgan and too often needlessly maligned Philip Schuyler.
When we think of George Washington, we think of the general lionized for his command of the American Continental forces which beat the British in the Revolution. We don’t think much of his coveting a royal commission in George III’s military, although that was his greatest ambition early on. Yet, no matter his umbrage, his striving was in vain for two important reasons which are rarely addressed in the scholarship: he had neither the pedigree to earn it nor the stomach to pay for it. The custom by which most British aristocrats attained their military commissions was owing to what was known as the “purchase system” which was not abolished until the 1850s. Secondly, Washington could not have been ignorant of his lack of pedigree as early as 1754 – a full year before he joined Braddock’s campaign as a consultant, owing to what was decreed as the King’s Orders. Any royal commissioned officer above a captaincy outranked any provincial military officer (as the colonists were known in England).
William M. Welsch
William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son. We remember him as a traitor to the cause, assuming that as the son of a founding father, he should have been a patriot. Obviously, it didn’t work that way. Rather, he was a competent royal governor, who chose to remain loyal to his principles and his king.
British Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton is remembered as “Bloody Ban,” and “Ban the Butcher” for his alleged massacre of American troops at the Waxhaws in 1780. His abilities as a cavalry officer, displayed at Monck’s Corner, Lenud’s Ferry, Fishing Creek and elsewhere are completely overshadowed. Not only that, but his infamy for the Waxhaws incident is the result of inaccurate accounts by two survivors, written long afterwards. Not only are these versions incompatible with primary source evidence, they even contradict each other. Myth triumphed over reality to create one of the Revolution’s great villains.
Henry Knox. In a good portion of my reading when he is mentioned the author can’t seem to get away from how large of a person he was. That is always the first attribute they use to describe him. Large, plump, hefty, corpulent even are used with abandon. Sure it was a thing, but the fact that he was one of Washington’s chosen from the start and had a brilliant, self-taught military mind is always second to his weight. It was an attribute for sure, but it did not define him and should NOT be what he was remembered for.