Category Archives: Revolutionary History

The Old Swamp Church and the story of the first Speaker of the House

Here’s some old fashioned New York City trivia for you — There’s never been a Speaker of the House from the city of New York, although there have been a couple from New York state —  the otherwise unremarkable John W. Taylor, an upstate New Yorker from the Saratoga region, in 1820-21; and a central New York representative, Theodore Medad Pomeroy, who held the post for exactly one day in 1869.

But never fear! America’s very first Speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, has a New York connection wholely unique and never to be repeated — he is the only Speaker to have served within that role in New York proper, in the months of 1789-1790 when the city was also the nation’s capital, and the center of government sat in Federal Hall on Wall Street.

Below: Federal Hall, home to the first House of Representatives 1789 [NYPL]

And that was not Muhlenberg’s only tie to the city. Although he served in the House as a representative from Pennsylvania, he had previously lived in New York for two years during a truly volatile moment — the years before the Revolutionary War.

His name will probably sound familiar if you’re a Lutheran. His father Henry Melchior Muhlenberg is considered “the patriarch of the Lutheran Church in North America,” coming to the British colonies from Germany in 1742 by request of several American ministers in need of spiritual direction. Henry spread Lutheranism throughout the colonies, principally to German and Dutch settlers, and for a time in 1751 even lived in New York, uniting the Lutheran congregations here.

He spawned a true religious dynasty as three of his sons entered the ministry. Frederick (pictured below), born in 1750 in Trappe, Pennsylvania, trained at several small churches in the state before moving with his family to New York in 1774.  Lutherans were by no means plentiful in New York during this period, but they worshipped in various small congregations throughout the city, including some services at Trinity Church.

Young Muhlenberg, however, took up with a new church situated just east of the city commons, the newish stone Old Christ Church at the southeast corner of Frankfort and William streets, affectionately referred to as the Old Swamp Church.

When that house of worship was built in 1767, this area of the city, sparsely populated, was called the ‘swamp’, not so much for the topography perhaps as for the grim-smelling leather shops and tanneries that sat here.

Collect Pond, which attracted these sorts of businesses, was but a stone’s throw away, and the area retained its air of industry even as the tanneries moved out and the presses (that would soon comprise Park Row’s newspaper district) moved in.

The congregation didn’t seem to mind however, especially now that they had a venerable Muhlenberg as their leader. And they certainly needed him by this time. In fact, he might had come to New York during this period specifically to reassure a tense congregation amid the tensions that were stewing within the city.


The city of over 22,000 inhabitants was being ripped apart with rebellion, as New Yorkers, caught in an increasing spirit of independence, fought back against British tyranny. From the steps of Old Swamp Church, members would have seen the ‘liberty poles’, hanging in the commons and festooned with banners, and heard (or participated in) regular rallies there.

Below: Civilians defending the liberty pole in 1776

The clandestine Sons of Liberty would conduct secret meetings in nearby taverns, and services would have been interrupted with sounds of the Sons’ many retaliations against British officials.

Congregants felt the inevitability of war; it would surely dominate their prayers by 1774. Having the guidance of Muhlenberg, son of the colonies’ most prominent Lutheran, would certainly be of great relief.

It seems, though, that Muhlenberg himself was at odds with his role. He was not bold or rebellious himself and he initially believed the conflicts were none of his business. Even as his brother Peter Muhlenberg, a Virginian who embraced the rebel conflict, would join the fledgling Continental Army in 1775, Frederick himself was not yet convinced. He wrote his brother: “You have become too involved in matters with which, as a preacher, you have nothing whatsoever to do and which do not belong to your office.” [source]

Revolution was invitable. But Frederick was a theologian, cautious and steady, and he worried not only for his congregation but for his own family. This passivity would soon fall away. When actual bombs began reigning down on the city, he sent his pregnant wife and children away to Philadelphia. He remained for a few months to officiate over a dwindling flock but soon fled himself in the first months of 1776, looking over his shoulder at a city soon to be paralyzed by war.

Below: An illustration from ‘D.T. Valentine’s Manual, 1859’, looking up from William Street from Frankfort. The building immediately to the left was the old Swamp Church, no longer in service and heavily redone by the mid-19th century.

He returned to New York in 1789 as one of the most powerful men in the new government of the United States. Muhlenberg spent the war in Pennsylvania and soon found his footing there as a political leader, becoming a member of the Continental Congress and later elected as speaker to Pennsylvania’s own state House of Representatives in 1780.

Frederick wasn’t merely heeding a patriotic call. He had grown a little exhausted of the pulpit and wanted to develop his new course, one of his very own.

Muhlenberg’s austere character and unblemished reputation served him well in politics. He led Pennsylvania’s ratification of the Constitution in 1787. When the first national Congress was formed, Muhlenberg represented his state at their first meeting in the new temporary capital and his old home — New York.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

His election as Speaker made perfect sense; he had a well-known last name that had helped define American spirituality, and he came from a state neatly between that of President George Washington (from Virginia) and Vice President John Adams (from Massachusetts).

The first House of Representatives met on April 1, 1789, at Federal Hall at the junction of Wall and Broad streets, just south of Old Swamp Church (which now thrived under new leadership). Muhlenberg would help shape the first traditions of the House and define the rules as dictated by the Constitution, its ink still dry and untested. Most notably, his was the first signature to grace the Bill of Rights:

He grew into a tolerant and jovial leader, best known for inviting fellow Congressmen over to his home for fairly elaborate ‘oyster suppers’. Muhlenberg would remain Speaker of the House for the entirety of the first Congress, even as they moved out of New York at the end of 1790. He stayed in the House through 1797, become Speaker again for the Third Congress in 1793.

Muhlenberg’s name has been attached to some rather scandalous events. He was one of three men brought into the confidence of Alexander Hamilton during a blackmail scandal involving his mistress Maria Reynolds. Muhlenberg was sympathetic to Hamilton’s predicament; one of the other three men, political enemy and future president James Monroe, was less so.

Three brothers Major General Peter Muhlenberg, The Hon. Frederick Muhlenberg and Dr. Henry Muhlenberg from the 1913 book Lutheran landmarks and pioneers in America

In 1796, during congressional battles over funding for the Jay Treaty, Muhlenberg broke a tie vote authorizing the highly controversial treaty to go forward. As a thank-you, his anti-treaty brother-in-law stabbed him in retaliation. He recovered, but family dinners must have been very awkward after that.

Muhlenberg retired shortly thereafter and died in his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1801.

As for the Swamp Church, its members slowly drifted away, and the property was purchased by tobacco mogul George Lorillard. The Lorillards also have very deep scars due to the Revolutionary War, but that is another story.

Below: the location of Old Swamp Church

Illustration of the Swamp Church from an 1894 New York Times article.

 

A version of this article originally ran on this blog on Jan 7, 2011

George Washington’s copy of the Declaration of Independence

George Washington’s copy of the Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most well-known of the almost 200 copies first made of the document.  As a facsimile, it’s certainly not the the most valuable document held by the Library of Congress — after all, they have Thomas Jefferson’s actual rough draft of the Declaration, along with tens of thousands of his other papers — but it’s certainly an inspiring artifact in its own right.

Below: The document in question.

uc06330

Because George Washington wasn’t in Philadelphia at the time of the actual declaration on July 2 or the completion by Thomas Jefferson of the finished copy on July 4.

Washington was in New York.

Indeed he had been stationed here since April 9, 1776, headquartered at the Kennedy Mansion at 1 Broadway (pictured below), facing Bowling Green and the statue of King George at its center. Later, as news of a British arrival to New York became evident, he moved his headquarters to City Hall, then on Wall Street and Broad Street.

Below: Washington’s two headquarters pre-July 1776:

Internet Archive Book Images
Internet Archive Book Images

3409147326_e502e7c6c0_o

Hundreds of British war vessels had stationed themselves off of Sandy Hook by the first of July, so fearful a presence that many of New York’s 20,000 residents had fled in fear.

By July 9, thousands of Continental Army soldiers had amassed in New York, turning the port town overnight into a military outpost. The key gathering point for Washington and his men was the Commons, a former livestock area that had been the scene of protests against the British for over a decade.  Many a liberty pole had stood here, an age old protest against despotism.

George Washington, painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1776
George Washington, painted by Charles Willson Peale in 1776

But on that day, July 9, there was not a single inanimate symbol of protest, but rather many thousands of animate ones, all summoned to gather by 6 p.m. to await Washington’s words.

From the text of Washington’s order that day:

The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective Parades, at Six O’Clock, when the declaration of Congress, shewing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.

The General hopes this important Event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer, and soldier, to act with Fidelity and Courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his Country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms: And that he is now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest Honors of a free Country.

A copy of the Declaration — the one pictured above — had been hand-delivered to Washington on that very day. However the General himself did not read it aloud. Rather he had one of his aides read it to the gathered crowd.

Imagine hearing these words for the first time:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation….”  

Below: A British map of New York as it was played out in 1776:

NYC1776

These weren’t empty phrases. Upon the completion of the reading, New Yorkers knew their city would be attacked. The men of Washington’s army knew they would fight and possibly die.

The words were greeted with joy, fear, anticipation and rage. The crowds surged with excitement.  Most ran to their places — to Kings College, to the counting-houses of Hanover Square, to the ships docked along the East River — and prepared for the world to change.

Many people certainly ran to their local taverns to get wasted. (Samuel Fraunces must have hosted a lively crowd that night.) Some New Yorkers went to their homes, packed their belongings and fled.

Needless to say, the reading had gone off as intended. General Washington’s letter to the Continental Congress is an almost amusing example in understatement:

“Agreeable to the request of Congress I caused the Declaration to be proclaimed before all the Army under my immediate Command, and have the pleasure to inform them, that the measure seemed to have their most hearty assent; the Expressions and behaviour both of Officers and Men testifying their warmest approbation of it.”

In fact, not only did his army and the gathered New Yorkers approve of the Declaration, but later that night, they actively demonstrated their approval by rushing down Broadway to Bowling Green, where they proceed to pull down the loathsome statue of King George!

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Afterwards, Washington had his personal copy sent to Artemes Ward, his major general stationed in Massachusetts. Washington’s note to Ward also survives:

“The inclosed Declaration will shew you, that Congress at Length, impelled by Necessity, have dissolved the Connection between the American Colonies , and Great Britain, and declared them free and independent States; and in Compliance with their Order, I am to request you will cause this Declaration to be immediately proclaimed at the Head of the Continental Regiments in the Massachusetts Bay.”

Today the Washington Declaration — or rather, a fragment of it — is only one of 26 Dunlap copies that are still believed to exist. It lives, naturally, in Washington D.C. However three copies of the ‘Dunlap’ Declaration are in New York City — at the Morgan Library, at the New York Public Library and another, in the hands of an unknown private collector.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CHECK OUT OUR PODCAST ON THE BRITISH INVASION 1776 and ‘THE GREAT FIRE OF 1776′

 

Perilous Night: The Great Fire of 1776

PODCAST The circumstances surrounding the Great Fire of 1776, the events of the Revolutionary War leading up to the disaster, and the tragic tale of the American patriot Nathan Hale.

A little after midnight on September 21, 1776, the Fighting Cocks Tavern on Whitehall Street caught on fire. The drunken revelers inside the tavern were unable to stop the blaze, and it soon raged into a dangerous inferno, spreading up the west side of Manhattan.

Some reports state that the fire started accidentally in the tavern fireplace. But was it actually set on purpose – on the orders of George Washington?spy

To understand that damning speculation, we unfurl the events that lead up to that moment – from the first outrages against the British by American colonists to the first sparks of the Revolutionary War. Why did New York get caught up so early in the war and what were the circumstances that led to the city falling into British hands?

Underneath this expansive story is another, smaller story – that of a young man on a spy mission, sent by Washington into enemy territory.  His name was Nathan Hale, and his fate would intersect with the disastrous events of September 21, 1776.

PLUS:  The legacy of St. Paul’s Chapel, a lasting reminder not only of the Great Fire of 1776 but of an even greater disaster which occurred almost exactly 225 years later.

AND: Find out what Alexander Hamilton was up to in September 1776!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #191: THE GREAT FIRE OF 1776

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The escape of the Continental Army from Long Island under cover of night. This illustration by Henry Alexander Ogden is from 1897.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

The house of Roger Morris which George Washington took over as his headquarters after fleeing New York.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

The Morris-Jumel Mansion, depicted in a postcard in 1965.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

An imagining of young Alexander Hamilton in uniform in 1776

Courtesy the Department of Defense
Courtesy the Department of Defense

A Harpers Magazine illustration by Howard Pyle from 1880, depicting Nathan Hale receiving the details of his spy mission directly from General Washington.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A beautiful map from 1897 laying out the events of the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776.

Courtesy Internet Archives Book Imaging
Courtesy Internet Archives Book Imaging

The Battle of Harlem Heights with a look into the valley called the Hollow Way.

harlem

 

This is New York is 1776, the city that was captured in September 1776.

British Library
British Library

A grave illustration showing the severity of the fire, looking at the burning buildings on the west side of Broadway.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

A map delineating the path of the fire from Whitehall Street up the west side of the city.

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The ruins of Trinity Church stood for  years as evidenced by this image of people just strolling around it like nothing weird had happened.

Internet Archive Book Imaging
Internet Archive Book Imaging

Another illustration (from a 1902 history) showing the cemetery in relation to the ruins.

pic

ruin

Mount Pleasant, where the British general William Howe set up headquarters and where Nathan Hale was taken after he was captured.

New York Public LIbrary
New York Public LIbrary

 

A vintage trading-card depiction of Nathan Hale’s hanging.

card

 

An 1880 illustration by Howard Pyle of the same event.

Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Courtesy New York Public LIbrary

 

St Paul’s Chapel (pictured below in 19160, a survivor of the Great Fire of 1776, opened its doors to parishioners the day after the fire.

1916
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The statue of Nathan Hale which stands in front of City Hall. He’s been moved around quite a bit since his installation here on November 25, 1893, the anniversary of Evacuation Day.

From 1900:

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

From 1911:

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

From 1913:

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

From 1920:

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

From 1939:

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

From 2006:

Courtesy Kris Long/Flickr
Courtesy Kris Long/Flickr

Ten facts about Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill

Big news in the world of numismatics — the U.S. Treasury Department has announced that Alexander Hamilton, long the solitary face on the $10 bill, will be joined by a woman. But who? His wife Eliza Schuyler? Harriet Tubman? Eleanor Roosevelt? And how will she featured?

Thankfully he’s not leaving the bill which he has graced since 1928. Here’s a few other interesting tidbits about his appearance on currency:

1) Why is Hamilton, who was never a president, on money in the first place? He was America’s first treasury secretary, of course, from 1789 to 1795. But in many ways he’s also the inventor of American money!

According to Ron Chernow, Hamilton encouraged the use of the dollar bill as the basic unit of currency and called for a series of coins broken into smaller values, a new concept in an age when bartering was the preferred method of transaction.  To encourage the new American spirit, he recommended putting presidential faces on the money. Since there was only one president at that time, this meant the basic unit currency went to Hamilton’s good friend George Washington.

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2) Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury, but he was NOT the first Treasurer of the United States. That honor went to Michael Hillegas, a wealthy Philadelphian who led the treasury through the duration of the American Revolution. His face was actually on an early version of the $10 well before Hamilton’s.

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3) Hamilton was never in charge of actually making money.  While Hamilton is partly responsible for the creation of the U.S. Mint (established in 1792), it was placed under the job of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.  Chernow: “Unfortunately, Jefferson ran the mint poorly.  Hamilton later tried, in vain, to arrange a swap whereby the post office would go to State in exchange for the mint coming under Treasury control, where it belonged.”

The first director of the U.S. Mint was David Rittenhouse, on which Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square is named.

Below: The first U.S. Mint building in Philadelphia

Courtesy 1794largecents.com
Courtesy 1794largecents.com

4) Hamilton is only one of only three non-Presidents to currently grace American paper money, the others being Benjamin Franklin ($100) and Salmon P. Chase ($10,000).  But non-presidents have lived upon paper money since its invention.  William Tecumseh Sherman, George Meade and Lewis and Clark have all been on U.S. printed currency.

5)  For decades, Alexander Hamilton was actually the face of the $1,000 bill.

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6) The current image of Hamilton on the $10 bill is based upon a portrait by John Trumbull which currently hangs in New York City Hall. That painting was completed posthumously in 1805; Hamilton had been shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr the year before.

7) Alexander faces left where the other members of the Faces On Money Club are turned right. There is a rarely used $100,000 bill with Woodrow Wilson which faces a similar direction but I doubt you will ever see that in your lifetime.

Hamilton Grange in 1895, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Hamilton Grange in 1895, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

8) Having your face on money doesn’t mean that you had much. At the end of his life, Hamilton overspent on his new home in upper Manhattan (Hamilton Grange) and was nearly broke.  To William Cooper, he wrote, “I have been building a fine house and am very low in Cash; so that it will be amazingly convenient to me to touch your money as soon as possible”


car

9) The most interesting thing about the that 1928 $10 bill with Alexander Hamilton on the front is actually a small detail which appears on the back — a very small automobile. According to the blog US Dollar Bill: “The car parked outside of the Treasury Department building is based on a number of different cars manufactured at the time and was the creation of the Bureau designer who developed the artwork that served as a model for the engraving, because government agencies were prohibited from endorsing any specific manufacturer or product, according to a bureau of engraving and printing pamphlet.”

 

10) There is already a woman on the $10 bill, or at least, part of her. On the redesigned 2006 bill, Hamilton breaks free of the oval which has traditionally confined the portrait. He is looking left towards the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty.  Lady Liberty’s torch once sat in Madison Square Park for several years as a way to drum up funds for the statue’s pedestal.  The park’s namesake, James Madison, wrote the Federalist Papers with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

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And a bonus fact — Aaron Burr has never been on the face of any currency. 

Below: Aaron Burr, to be found nowhere on money

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At top of this post — Alexander Hamilton’s first $10 bill, gold certificate edition, printed in 1928

 

 

History in the Making 1/9: Main Squeeze Forever Edition

The Lower East Side lost a great one this week. Walter Kühr, the owner of the Main Squeeze accordion store, died last weekend.  He completely succeeded at his strange but profound mission in life — to keep accordion music alive in the heart of a once-thriving immigrant neighborhood.  He formed the Main Squeeze Orchestra — an all-female accordion group — who performed throughout the city. His store Main Squeeze was a bright and welcome oddity situated among the Chinese and Orthodox Jewish businesses of Essex Street.

And he was also a friend of the Bowery Boys, somebody who made us feel welcome when we moved to his neighborhood in the late 1990s. Walter was a one of a kind guy, and my heart is broken that Essex Street will no longer have this friendly advocate for great music. Learn more about him in the video above and in his obituary here. [New York Times]

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Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11. That we do know. However the actual year is more uncertain. He was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean either in either 1755 or 1757.  To quote Ron Chernow: “The mass of evidence from the period of Hamilton’s arrival in North America does suggest 1757 as his birth year, but, preferring the integrity of contemporary over retrospective evidence, we will opt here for a birthday of January 11, 1755.”

Regardless you can celebrate his birthday this Saturday at Hamilton Grange for their big birthday celebration. Or save up your enthusiasm for the start of Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Hamilton musical at the Public Theater, starting on January 20th. Or, to escape the cold, maybe you’d like to just go down to Nevis and visit the Alexander Hamilton birthplace?

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And some other links of interest:

Mega-City:  The completely batty plan to turn Manhattan into a landfill-created mega-island, expanding into the harbor and gobbling up islands to become, no joke, “Really Greater New York.” [Gothamist and Gizmodo]

Streit’s Matzo, an institution of Rivington Street and the Lower East Side, has decided to close its doors after 95 years. Sigh. [Bowery Boogie]

Parks and Recreation:  Photographer Jon Sobel is visiting every public park in New York City. Not an easy task in this place!  For his latest entry, he visits the lush Clove Lakes Park in Staten Island, once a 19th century estate and grist mill and a favored spot of Frederick Law Olsted. [Park Odyssey]

The Haunted Well:  You may remember the tale of the mysterious SoHo well from one of our past ghost story podcasts. Well, you can now go see the well as it’s been incorporated into the decor of the clothing store which now inhabits the spot at 129 Spring Street. WOW. [Scouting NY]

A Murderer’s Read:  My latest story for the 1981 website tie-in to A Most Violent Year focuses on Mark David Chapman — the killer of John Lennon — and his macabre crusade to promote the book The Catcher In The Rye. [1981.nyc]

Before Stonewall:  A brief look at a little gay and lesbian history along Christopher Street. [Off the Grid]

Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton: The terrible consequences of an ugly insult


PODCAST Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met at a clearing in Weehawken, NJ, in the early morning on July 11, 1804, to mount the most famous duel in American history. But why did they do it?

This is the story of two New York lawyers — two Founding Fathers — that so detested each other that their vitriolic words (well, mostly Hamilton’s) led to these two grown men shooting each other out of honor and dignity, while robbing America of their brilliance, leadership and talent.

You may know the story of this duel from history class, but this podcast focuses on its proximity to New York City, to their homes Richmond Hill and Hamilton Grange and to the places they conducted their legal practices and political machinations.

Which side are you on?

ALSO: Find out the fates of sites that are associated with the duel, including the place Hamilton died and the rather disrespectful journey of the dueling grounds in Weehawken.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #168 DUEL! Aaron Burr vs. Alexander Hamilton
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And we would like to thank a new sponsor Audible, the premier provider of digital audiobooks. Get a FREE audiobook download and 30 day free trial at www.audibletrial.com/boweryboys. Over 150,000 titles to choose from for your iPhone, Android, Kindle or mp3 player Audible titles play on iPhone, Kindle, Android and more than 500 devices for listening anytime, anywhere.
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CORRECTION: Alexander Hamilton had his fateful dinner as the house of Judge James Kent, not John Kent, as I state here.

SOURCES: Many of my research materials include the books on my Riffle list of 25 Great Books About the Founding Fathers (And Mothers).
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Alexander Hamilton, leader of the Federalists was a played out, stressed out, heavily in debt politician by June 1804. This is John Trumbull’s painting of Hamilton, completed almost over a year after the duel.

The Hamilton Grange, a beautiful home on the Hudson that Alexander only lived in for a couple years. (NYPL)

Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States, was a played out, stressed out, heavily in debt politician by June 1804. This is John Vanderlyn’s portrait of Burr from 1802.

View of the Weekhawken dueling grounds in 1830s.  This area most likely still saw some duels at this period.  Note the small monument/obelisk marking the spot allegedly where Hamilton fell. (NYPL)

Thomas Addis Emmet’s quaint depiction of the dueling grounds was created in 1881, long after the actual grounds were destroyed by railroad construction. (NYPL)

From the New York Tribune, July 1904, a look at the Hamilton bust that once sat in Weehawken.  Several years later, vandals took the bust and hurled it off the cliff.

The William Bayard house in later years, with the lots surrounding it obviously sold and built up around it. (NYPL)

The Hamilton tomb at Trinity Church, picture taken in 1908, although it looks pretty much the same today! (Wurts Brothers, Courtesy MCNY)

Broadway and Wall Street. Tomb of Alexander Hamilton, Trinity churchyard.

 

Richmond Hill: West Village’s former Vice Presidential mansion and the lonely refuge of Aaron Burr

[Richmond Hill, residence of Aaron Burr.]

Richmond Hill, the spacious mansion and 26-acre estate on the outskirts of town that had once been George Washington‘s headquarters and later the home of John Adams, was also home to another vice president — Aaron Burr.  This was the place he lived on that fateful day, July 11, 1804, when he entered into a duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Here’s a lovely description of the home from an 1861 biography of Burr by author James Parton:

“[Burr’s] style of living kept pace with his increasing income.  In a few years we find him master of Richmond Hill, the mansion where Washington had lived in 1776, with grounds reaching to the Hudson, with ample gardens, and a considerable extent of grove and farm.  Here he maintained a liberal establishment and exercised the hospitality which was then in vogue.

The one particular in which Richmond Hill surpassed the other houses of equal pretensions, was its library.  From his college days, Colonel Burr had been a zealous buyer of books, and his stock had gone on increasing till, on attaining to the dignity of householder, he was able to give to his miscellaneous collection something of the completeness of a library.

It is evident enough, from his correspondence, that his favorite ethos were still those whom the ‘well-constituted minds’ of that day regarded with admiring horror.  The volumes of Gibbon’s History [The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire] were appearing in those years, striking the orthodox world with wonder and dismay.  They had a very hearty welcome in the circle at Richmond Hill.”

—  the Life and Times of Aaron Burr, by James Parton, 1861

After the duel, Burr liquidated his assets, selling Richmond Hill to John Jacob Astor.  With the grounds heavily cut up and sold, he had the mansion rolled on logs to the newly carved street corner and turned into a theater and opera house.  At this time, he also moved the carriage house further north, where it was later re-purposed and today houses the romantic restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea.

It made for a very sumptuous opera house, it appears.  According to author Eric Homberger, “Boxes at the Richmond Hill were furnished as though they were an extension of the elegant parlors of St. John’s Park, with ‘light blue hangings, gilded panels and cornice, arm-chairs, and a sofa.'”

It was parallel in style, perhaps, to the Astor Place Opera House across town.   Eventually it deteriorated into a lowly roadhouse and saloon — but certainly, the most gorgeous one in town — called the Tivoli Saloon before being torn down in 1849.

Richmond Hill House or Theater.

Today the site of Richmond Hill and its former ground are occupied by this building, currently the home of WNYC, and the surrounding blocks of this area of the far West Village.

Top image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

25 Great Books About the Founding Fathers (and Mothers)

Independence Day may be over, but our celebration of the Founding Fathers continues all this week, culminating in a brand new podcast this Friday! I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the subject of America building, great reads on the personalities of the men and women who helped form America.

 Included here are some of my favorite biographies, as well as narrative histories of events between 1783 and 1817. And there’s a couple event-specific books on the Revolutionary War, for some context.  I’ve purposely chosen recently written books (and thus readily accessible) with one exception — Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention by Catherine Drinker Bowen, written in 1966.  Not only is it still a fascinating read, but it was the first book I ever read as a kid about the early days of America.

Do you have any favorites from this time period that I’ve left out? Include your choices in the comments! (Please note it may take a few hours for comments to appear below.)

 

George Washington’s inauguration and the 1939 World’s Fair

James Earle Fraser’s colossal Washington statue out in Queens. (NYPL)

Tomorrow (April 30th) is the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, sworn in at Federal Hall as the first President of the United States.  It is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  That was not an accident.

The monumental events of America’s founding would be immortalized by the fair in some rather unusual ways 150 years later.  Both April 30th events were occasions of great patriotic ceremony (and both even slightly kitschy) in their own ways.

April 1789
 It took George seven entire days to get to New York from his home in Mount Vernon, as his procession was met every step of the way with throngs of patriotic crowds and flamboyant celebratory displays.

Washington’s vice president John Adams had already arrived in New York, on April 21st.  The building which greeted him, the former City Hall building on Wall Street, had been the center of city’s government since 1699, when the British used materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall to construct it.

The heavily remodeled building which now stood in its place, later to be called Federal Hall, was designed by successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  According to author David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.” (Sadly, this building was ripped down in 1812; the ‘Federal Hall’ which stands in the same spot today was built as a customs house in 1842.)

L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC out of Maryland swampland.  He would ultimately be fired from that project — by George Washington.

George finally arrived in New York two days after Adams, April 23, via a barge from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was met at the Wall Street pier by the current mayor of New York James Duane and the state’s governor George Clinton.

From there, he was taken to his new home on Cherry Street (long demolished, around near the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage today) and spent the day greeting dozens of well-wishers.  That night, Governor Clinton hosted an elaborate dinner in his honor; the pomp and extravagance by this time were probably getting tiresome to the stately Virginian farmer.

Meanwhile Adams spent the week at Federal Hall in Senate chambers, hashing out such things we take for granted — such as how to even address the new president — until at last they were ready for the ceremony to begin, on April 30.

According to Ron Chernow, “Washington rose early, sprinkled powder in his hair, and prepared for his great day.”  Like some detail from a fairy tale, Washington left his Cherry Street home at noon in a yellow carriage driven by white horses, legions of soldiers marching proudly behind him.

The streets of Manhattan were clogged with people, over ten thousand cramming Broad and Wall streets, as far as the eye could see both ways.  Sitting on the balcony of his own home on Wall Street was Washington’s closest confidante Alexander Hamilton, certainly reveling in the moment.

After greeting the Congress, Adams led Washington to the second floor balcony along with Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York (the highest judicial office in the state), who held out a bible owned by the St. John’s Lodge Freemasons and delivered the oath of office, probably not loud enough for anybody in the street to actually hear.

Washington, even less audibly than Livingston, swore to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  He then possibly threw in a ‘so help me God’ for good measure (although there are many doubts that this occurred).

New Yorkers went crazy then, firing cannons, screaming and waving flags, playing music and dancing in the streets.  After returning inside to address the new Congress — by this time with tears in his eyes — Washington and his entourage went up Broadway to receive on invocation at St. Paul’s Church, the scrappy survivor of the great fire the destroyed much of the city in 1776.  Washington would be a regular here for his entire stay in New York; the pew where he planted himself for two years is still on display there (illustrated above).

Martha Washington would not arrive in town for another month, but that didn’t stop the parties.  The official inauguration ball took place a week later, on May 7th, at the Assembly Rooms at 115 Broadway.

Although a bit stiff and silent, George was still popular with the ladies and danced “two cotillions and a minuet,” often seen with Alexander Hamilton’s young bride Eliza. When Martha arrived on May 17, landing at Peck Slip, she was greeted with similarly grand fanfare, and yet another ball was held in her honor.

April 1939
One hundred and fifty years later, the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the second largest American fair up to that time (only St. Louis’ 1904 event was larger).

This celebration of human advancement — as demonstrated through miles of utopian kitsch and strikingly bizarre architecture — was a reason for Robert Moses to turn the unsightly Corona Ash Dumps into a Queens super-park.  The fair was advertisement as entertainment, with hundreds of modern gadgets displayed as novelties and staples of the future.

But the celebration was planned with the past in mind as well.  It opened on April 30, 1939, coinciding with another great day in New York City history — Washington’s inauguration.  That’s how important the city thought the opening of the fair was.  (Life Magazine was a little more cynical; in 1939, they refer to Washington as “the excuse” for the fair.  The purpose, of course, was profits.)

A 61-foot-tall statue of Washington by James Earle Fraser stood mightily over the fair’s Constitution Mall, peering perhaps quizzically at Paul Manship’s massive sundial sculpture.  A cluster of buildings called the Court of States recalled the Colonial architecture of Washington’s day.  Even Federal Hall was recreated.

Below: The World’s Fair presented a recreation of Washington’s inauguration, except with lots of flag dancing. (NYPL)

A replica of Mount Vernon (sort of) called Washington Hall was the pet project of a New Yorker with presidential ties.

According to the New Yorker, “Mr. Messmore Kendall, is responsible for the Hall.  Mr. Kendall, president of Sons of the American Revolution and owner of the Capitol Theatre, [developed] plans for erecting, entirely at his own expense, a $28,000 building to house a collection of Washington relics. Before the Fair closes, he expects the whole thing will have cost him more than $50,000. He has given more than money to the project; he has given the family cook, so that whenever he wants a home-cooked meal, he has to go all the hell out to Flushing.”

The Hall received a host of reenactors who had made their way up from Mount Vernon in emulation of Washington’s own footsteps.  On May 6th, a child named Robert E, Lee Williamson opened Washington Hall in a grand ceremony, bringing “three consecutive weeks of neo-Federal quaintness to a close.” [source]

The president also sits (sometimes awkwardly) upon a variety of World’s Fair merchandise.  Light shows and fireworks unheard of in Washington’s time were dedicated in his honor throughout the fair.  He even starred in a popular musical pageant at the fair called American Jubilee, with books and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. 

It was another great president who kicked off the fair 75 years ago.  With 200,000 people in attendance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an opening speech extolling the virtues of American ingenuity as he became the first president to be broadcast to television audiences.  Few had televisions in their homes at the time.  But NBC founder David Sarnoff helpfully scattered a few dozen of them throughout the city in a clever publicity stunt.

Roosevelt starts off his speech referencing Washington. “[T]here have been preserved for us many generations later, accounts of his taking of the oath of office on April thirtieth on the balcony of the old Federal Hall. ….. And so we, in New York, have a very personal connection with that thirtieth of April, one hundred and fifty years ago.” [Read the whole speech here.]

Defined by the odd Trylon and Perisphere buildings, the fair seems like something truly dreamlike.  The land where the fair once stood now contains the ruins of a New York’s other World’s Fair, the event from 1964-65.

For this article, I’ve re-purposed a couple pieces of writing I did on these events a few years ago.  The original pieces can be found here and here.

A primer before this Sunday’s Revolutionary War series Turn

Courtesy AMC

This Sunday (9pm EST) marks the debut of AMC’s new Revolutionary War drama Turn, documenting the beginnings of George Washington’s mysterious spy circuit The Culper Ring and starring Jamie Bell as Washington’s spy leader Abraham Woodhull.

Follow along with me on Twitter this Sunday as I throw in a few historical details related to the action on the show (but I promise not to get to spoiler-y in case you’re over on that other channel watching Game of Thrones!)

Then on April 13 comes the return of Mad Men!

The show is set in 1778.  If you’re interested in some background on this period in American history, give our podcast ‘Life In British New York 1776-1783’ a listen.  You can play it below or download it from iTunes for free: