A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation


February 26, 2024
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: A Republic of Scoundrels: The Schemers, Intriguers, and Adventurers Who Created a New American Nation edited by David Head and Timothy C. Hemmis (New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2023)

Many believe that books written with rigorous academic care are not enjoyable and appropriate only for wonkish readers.

Editors and essayists David Head and Timothy C. Hemmis have proven this old saw wrong in their new volume, A Republic of Scoundrels, which offers new insights for casual and scholarly readers. The academic duo edited fourteen essays describing prominent characters viewed by their contemporaries as traitorous generals, crooked politicians, unauthorized adventurers, and common and famous murderers. The editors arranged the Revolutionary Era and the Early Republic compositions chronologically. The essay authors possess a wide range of educational and scholarly experiences. Professors emeriti crystalize a lifetime of research while early-stage pre-PhD scholars offer fresh views to interpret historical events and people better.

In the introduction, Professor Hemmis cites a period dictionary defining a scoundrel as “a mean rascal, a low, petty villain” and asserts that people widely used the term in the Early Republic (page xiii). The authors explore various rascally villainous behaviors within this simple definition. Starting with two Continental Army generals, Benedict Arnold and Charles Lee, senior historians argue that their actions were more than simply treasonous but, at times, significantly benefited the Patriot cause. Ironically, the editors’ contention that the term scoundrel was widely used is supported by Lee’s characterization of Royal New York Governor William Tryon: “Scoundrel is not too harsh an epithet for the man.”[1]Like Arnold and Lee, James Wilkinson, a general in the Early Republic period, engaged in questionable treasonous behaviors. Wilkinson pursued an unscrupulous quest for power while, at times, proficiently serving the first four presidents.[2]

Politics is the source of scandalous scoundrels for two characters. Christopher Magra, a University of Tennessee professor, describes the corrupt politician William Blount, whom many cite as a founder of the state of Tennessee. Magra characterizes Blount as a pretender who abused his power to amass enormous landholdings. Further, he conspired with Great Britain to attack Spanish North American colonies to protect his ill-gotten real estate (p. 67). While Blount’s actions were self-serving, Assistant Professor Shira Lurie’s essay on Matthew Lyons demonstrates that the moniker scoundrel may be in the eye of the beholder.[3]A Vermont US House of Representatives member, Lyons became one of the first Federalist critics to be convicted and jailed under the infamous 1798 Sedition Act, which outlawed criticisms of the government. Federalists decried Lyons for physically spitting on a Federalist Congressional member and for his noxious views, while Jeffersonian politicians lauded his courage and fortitude.

Another subset of scoundrels were the unauthorized adventurers operating on the American states’ southern and western fringes. Philip Nolan, Thomas Green, and the three Kemper brothers are examples chronicled in separate essays who sought personal financial aggrandizement and irritated Spanish and American authorities. Ph.D. candidate Jackson Pearson describes Nolan’s self-serving horse-dealing expeditions into Spanish territories, disputing the current popular notion that he was a patriotic proto-Texan seeking independence. Green, a Virginian and military veteran, moved to Natchez, attempting to destabilize Spanish control of West Florida, engendering American expansion. Reuben, Nathan, and Samuel Kemper engaged in “filibusters,” or unsanctioned military expeditions to overthrow Spanish rule in Florida. Doctoral student Jane Plummer argues that personal vendettas and not any loyalties motivated the trio to contest Spanish rule. Nolan, Green, and the Kemper brothers demonstrate the American government’s relative weakness in controlling its frontiers and respecting neighbors’ sovereignty.

Not all adventurous scoundrels represented American society. University of Texas at Arlington Professor David Narrett describes William Augustus Bowles, a Tory soldier during the American War of Independence who sought to speak for the Creek and Cherokee nations’ interests with the British Empire. His essay demonstrates that Bowles lacked Native Americans’ imprimatur to represent them, acting principally on his interests. A second non-American is Diego de Gardoqui, a Spanish diplomat assigned to represent the Crown to the United States during the American War of Independence. Tyson Reeder, an Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University, argues that Diego de Gardoqui operated around a fine line between hero and villain, fidelity and treachery (p. 226).

The last two essays involve murderers who gained enmity beyond their capital crimes. Craig Bruce Smith, a professor at the National Defense University, describes the relatively unknown Jason Fairbanks and his controversial conviction for murdering a female love interest. While most people in the community regarded Fairbanks as a scoundrel, his family fought for generations to clear his name. The second murderer, Aaron Burr, famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a Weehawken, New Jersey duel. However, Timothy Hemmis focuses his essay on Burr’s subsequent activities to build a Western empire that he could lead. The Texas A & M professor concludes that Burr plotted to divide the United States, and his populous politics and filibustering schemes presaged the rise of Andrew Jackson.[4]

In addition to these well-written fourteen essays, Head and Hemmis could have added several other Founding Era scoundrels, such as Vermont’s Ethan Allen or Whiskey Rebellion rebel Daniel Bradford. While the republic’s early years had its share of scoundrelly actors, it remains to be seen whether villainous behaviors in other eras in America rose to similar levels as the Early Republic. For example, patent medicine producers, robber barons, and corrupt politicians vexed Americans during the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age. Professor Head hints that scoundrelly behaviors are endemic to societies by concluding that “the America they [the founders] built and the America of the scoundrels built were the same country” (p. 269). As Head and Hemmis demonstrate, historians are duty-bound to describe the complete range of honorable and dishonorable actions. Finally, realistic historical introspections help inform fulsome assessments and reactions to current events. Reading the Republic of Scoundrels is an excellent step in understanding the complexities of American society.

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN HARDCOVER  or KINDLE(As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

[1]Charles Lee to Benjamin Rush, October 10, 1775, The Lee Papers, ed. Henry Edward Bunbury (New York: New York Historical Society, 1872), 1:211.

[2]For an alternative view that James Wilkinson was simply a traitor, see Howard W. Cox, American Traitor: General James Wilkinson’s Betrayal of the Republic and Escape from Justice(Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2023).

[3]Shira Lurie is an Assistant Professor of History at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the author of The American Liberty Pole: Popular Politics and the Struggle for Democracy in the Early Republic (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2023).

[4]For a comprehensive view of the Burr conspiracy, see James E. Lewis, The Burr Conspiracy: Uncovering the Story of an Early American Crisis(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).

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