"We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
– Benjamin Franklin
Setting The Scene
January 1: Four British warships fired on Norfolk, Virginia
January 8: Connecticut troops launch a surprise attack on Charlestown, MA, while British top brass are watching a farce entitled “The Blockade” at Fanueil Hall.
January 9: An agreement between Britain and Brunswick – Wolfenbuettel is signed to provide mercenary troops to the British in North America.
January 10: Knox and his guns reach the heights of the Berkshires.
January 10: In Philadelphia, Common Sense is published.
January 14: Washington writes: “Few people know the predicament we are in.”
January 16: Washington holds a council of war with Generals Putnam, Ward, Spencer, Sullivan, Greene, Gates, and Heath regarding the importance of taking Boston.
January 17: News arrives at headquarters about American losses at Quebec.
January 18: Knox arrives in Cambridge
The tea had been dumped in Boston Harbor, Paul Revere and four other riders had ridden shouting the famous warning, the Minutemen had rallied at the rude bridge in Concord in ’75. On January 1, 1776, a proclamation called for a new kind of soldier: a Continental soldier. The nascent war effort was stumbling with “soldiers” who slipped away in the night to harvest their crops or visit their girlfriends. Continental Soldier. It sounded grand, promised pay and, the kicker, the soldier served for three straight years, long enough to actually learn military decorum. Symbolically, a Continental Army would pull together the scattershot militias from 13 colonies into a force that just might be able to hold off the redcoats.
Truth be told, the 13 colonies were not a nation at war. Or even a nation. John Adams was to calculate, and later historians were to alter the proportions only somewhat, that one third of Americans "were averse to the Revolution... An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English [and] the middle third, comprising principally the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm ... and sometimes the whole body united with the first or the last third, according to circumstances."
Emotions were high, but mixed. Ben Franklin said the year before that he had heard no American talk of independence, "drunk or sober."
A Virginian wrote to a friend: "May God put a speedy and happy end to this... contest between the mother and her children. The Colonies do not wish to be independent ... They would freely grant the King whatever he pleases to request of their own Assemblies, provided the Parliament has no hand in the disposing of it." That was the rub: the King. Angry as many Americans were at his government, they could not translate that fury to George III himself. Even in Boston, where the redcoats of General William Howe had held the city under siege for six months, as late as this very January, the officers in Washington's mess toasted the King's health every evening.
Not that there weren't some hawks, drunk or sober. In late 1775, the New York Journal reported from Newport, Rhode Island, that: '''Early last Saturday morning, one Coggeshall, being somewhat drunk or crazy, went on the long wharf and turned up his backside towards the bomb brig in this harbor, using some insulting words, upon which the brig fired two four-pound shot at him; one of which went through the roof of Mr. Hammond's store ... and lodged in Mr. Samuel Johnson's distill house." Coggeshall was quickly hustled out of town.
The Founding Corset-Maker
Tom Paine had been a dabbler at many things, a failure at all. Some of it he blamed on King George. It rankled even after he left England, so one day he took his quill and decided to put it all down on paper.
On January 9, 1776, in Philadelphia, a pamphlet titled Common Sense was published. It said in public what even most of the red-hot hawks had dared think only to themselves:
that the King was a tyrant and the only path for the colonies was independence. It uttered – screamed aloud – the unutterable. Probably more than any one event, more than any one person, Common Sense made it respectable for the general citizenry of the 13 colonies to conceive that their Revolution would be revolutionary; indeed to think of a communal future in independence.
The anonymously published pamphlet and the mystery of the author stoked interest. King George III thought Ben Franklin wrote it; others assumed it was John Adams. No, Thomas Paine had, even though he signed it merely, "an Englishman." Thomas Jefferson once said Paine was "the only writer in America, who can write better" than Jefferson himself. That was a signal compliment coming from a college-trained lawyer who was about to do some significant writing of his own. It is even more surprising considering that Paine was a dropout from school, who failed twice as a corset-maker, twice as a tax collector, had two failed marriages, and was now on his second country, having been in the colonies less than two years. He had not yet dropped out of writing because he had scarcely ever done any. But, he scored a hit almost the first time out.
Tom Paine was 37 when he arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774, bearing a recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, a first-class boat ticket and strong opinions about George III. He had been born in Thetford, north of London, where he may have imbibed some views of democracy in Georgian England. Thetford had 2,000 inhabitants and two members in Parliament although only 31 citizens were eligible to vote for them. For Paine's father, religion and profession were equally straight-laced: Quakerism and corset making. By scrimping, the father managed to send the son to school for seven years, but Tom was weak in Latin, the requisite passport into the professions. He had, however, developed an interest in the natural history of Virginia and ran off to sea, leaving his apprenticeship behind. His father caught him before the boat could sail, but Tom got away again, this time successfully. He next appeared as a journeyman corset-maker in London, age 20, and eventually drifted to Sandwich, setting himself up in the girdle business with a £10 loan, which he never repaid. "Disgusted with the toil and little gain," Paine, now a widower, bade farewell to corsets for good and became an excise tax collector.
Paine spent his evenings arguing at the White Hart Tavern on matters of the day, writing some poetry and a campaign song worth three guineas, for a candidate standing for Parliament. He liked the ladies, one of whom remarked: "It is a whimsical weakness in Tom Paine, imagining that every woman who sees him, directly falls victim to his charm." (Except, apparently, his second wife, whom Paine refused to sleep with or explain why.)
In 1765, Paine was sacked from tax collecting for the first time. Briefly he tried school-teaching and then preaching. In 1768 he was given a second chance with the customs service at Lewes, south of London. Paine became enraged at the King in 1772 while in London lobbying for a raise for the excise officers. Concurrently, George III was asking Parliament for £100,000 more a year. George got his; Paine did not. Paine lasted six years as tax man this time; in 1774 he was fired again for negligence and for failing to see the conflict of interest in selling liquor and tobacco at the shop of his second wife, items whose taxation he was paid to enforce.
After meeting Ben Franklin, Paine decided he'd had enough of King and country, and set sail for America with £35 as a separation settlement with his wife, who stayed behind, and within five weeks of his arrival in Philadelphia was off on a new career: journalism!
Dr. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University, said Paine could not write "until he had quickened his thought with large draughts of rum and water." Primed or not, Paine had talent. Robert Aitken, a printer, hired him for Aitken's new publication, “The Pennsylvania Magazine; or American Monthly Museum” and told Paine to sidestep political topics. This was fine with the new immigrant. "I had no thoughts of independence or arms," said Paine. As usual, he did think, however, that Aitken was underpaying him. And Aitken, despite the new magazine skyrocketing to a circulation of 1,500 a month, a colonial high, thought Paine was late in delivering his copy. They split.
And there were sound business reasons to avoid writing about politics at the time. Paine, having been in North America a scant two years, could not fathom the extent of regional differences among the colonies. Unity of thought, purpose, culture or economy had never prevailed in the 13 colonies. They were just that: 13 fingers feeling their own way directed by the mother brain 3,000 miles away. The flinty Yankee, the sybaritic Southern planter, the pious Quaker were not just stereotypes. They lived in different worlds, rooms without a house. And there were rooms within the rooms. The Dutch around Albany clung to their language and culture as did the Germans of Pennsylvania, so much so that Franklin feared half seriously that English might become a dead language. In the North Carolina hills, Highlanders from Scotland, spoke Gaelic. So did some of their slaves. Other slaves were still speaking the languages they brought through the horrific Middle Passage.
Virginians and Marylanders depended on one crop, tobacco. In South Carolina it was rice and indigo. New Englanders would trade anything with anybody, legally or illegally, despite their Puritan heritage. Male property owners in Connecticut and Rhode Island could elect their own governors. Those in other colonies could not.
Differing colonial customs made each colony fearful of entangling alliances with the others. They each had their own relationship with London but little with one another. The currency of English shillings, French pistoles, Spanish dollars, and their own local currencies varied so much in value from colony to colony that a traveler carried a list to tell him what his New England pounds were worth in Philadelphia joes. They were suspicious of each other. A New Englander found Virginia an odd place and its "hospitality and politeness" exaggerated. Virginians found Pennsylvanians "remarkably grave and reserved, and the women remarkably homely, hard-favoured and sour." A Connecticut man complained of "frauds and unfair practices" by New York merchants, while a New Yorker said he would not send his son to school in Connecticut lest he pick up the "low craft and cunning so incident to the people of that country." Note the word "country." New York and New Hampshire were close to violence over the disputed land between them that later became Vermont. Pennsylvania was as mad as Quakers could get at Connecticut settlers moving into its Wyoming Valley. They were equally unhappy over Virginian migration into the Ohio Valley.
To Franklin such disunity didn't make sense. He was a great admirer of the Iroquois Confederacy in the colony of New York. "It would be a strange thing," he said, "if Six Nations of ignorant savages would be capable of forming a scheme ... yet a like union should be impracticable for 10 or a dozen English colonies." Clearly these natives had the upper hand in mutual cooperation.
The idea of nationhood or independence was simply not a consideration. "What sort of dish would [such a nation] make?" demanded a South Carolina legislator. "The Northeast will throw in fish and onions. The middle states flax, feed and flour. Virginia and Maryland will add tobacco. North Carolina pitch, tar and turpentine; South Carolina rice and indigo and Georgia will sprinkle the whole composition with sawdust. Such an absurd jumble will you make if you attempt to form a union from such disordered materials ... "
As the colonies and mother country painfully moved down the road to Lexington and Concord - and to opposing sides – anger was springing up across the nation: the tarring and feathering of Tory pamphlets, the increasingly outspoken petitions, the burning of the British warship Gaspee, the bloody Boston Massacre, the subversive stevedoring of tea, and yet, George remained King and the colonies were still colonies. But it seemed events had begun forcing a consensus from a commonality of need and enemy.
When Britain closed the port of Boston in 1774, other colonies had sent supplies. Israel Putnam, who had fought with the British against the French, personally drove a herd of sheep in from Connecticut. In each colony, similar patterns were emerging. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, South Carolina all had tea parties. In December 1774 Irish-tempered John Sullivan led a raid that stole gunpowder from a British fort at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The following April 21, a group of Charlestonians lifted 1,200 muskets from the royal arsenal. Being Southern gentlemen, of course, they did it at night so as not to embarrass Governor William Bull who was well-liked. And again, when they seized 15,000 pounds of powder from the British at St. Augustine, they delivered a receipt. After the war a Charleston physician wrote that: "Even while they were arming themselves, they [were] alleging it was only in self-defense against ministerial [Parliamentary] tyranny. The colonies southward of Boston were not immediate sufferers, yet they were sensible that the foundation was laid for every species of future oppression."
That things were happening was clear; where it would all lead was not; at least not without Tom Paine. As John Adams said later, "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” But Paine’s stirring invective almost didn’t happen.
After his most recent failure of employment, Paine was contemplating forming a "Salt-Peter Association" to produce homemade gunpowder; instead, Dr. Benjamin Rush walked into his life. Rush had dropped by Aitken's one day to chat with Paine who had similar views to his regarding slavery. Rush and Paine were both social mavericks, friends of Franklin and of independence. They somehow had a meeting of minds even though Rush was an early-rising teetotaler and Paine drank at all hours and slept late. Rush told Paine he had written down some of his thoughts "and was preparing an address to the inhabitants of the Colonies about it. But I ... shuddered at the prospect ... of its not being well received."
Furthermore, Rush, while a radical, was well connected in Philadelphia, whereas Paine, a newbie, was not. "I suggested to him [Paine] that he had nothing to fear from the popular odium to which such a publication might expose him, for he could live anywhere, but that my profession and connections, where a great majority of the citizens and some of my friends were hostile to a separation of our country from Great Britain, forbade me to come forward as a pioneer in that important controversy."
So, with Rush hiding behind Paine and Paine hiding behind a nom de plume, the pen that became mightier than a sword began to write. “O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!” cried the anonymous pamphleteer. Paine referred to the Bible, with its book of Kings I and II, to claim that monarchy was an abomination in the sight of the Lord. Nature abhorred kings, he wrote, “otherwise she would not so frequently turn [monarchy] into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”
“I have heard it asserted by some, that as America has flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness ... Nothing can be more fallacious...You may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat." Or, said the ex-corset-maker who could write from experience, "that the first 20 years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next 20...”
“The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'TIS TIME To PART ... nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined DECLARATION FOR INDEPENDENCE..."
There it was, finally, in black and white. Paine wanted to call the pamphlet Plain Truth. Rush opted for Common Sense. Rush won. Robert Bell, a printer "whose religion was at least doubtful" but of liberal views and actions was given the job of setting it in type. Why not? His was the only name to appear. The pamphlet came out on the same day that the King's declaration to quash the rebellion was published in Philadelphia. Common Sense went for two shillings a copy, and returned £50 in the first week. Paine, being Paine, or rum being rum, wanted to rewrite parts of the second edition. Bell refused, presumably wanting to make hay while the sun shines. So, Paine went to another printer and had 3,000 copies run off at his own expense. Thus did Common Sense have two printers and no known author. "I believe the number of copies printed and sold in America was not short of 150,000," Paine the ever confident said later, "[which] is the greatest sale that any performance ever had since the use of letters." Despite his self-aggrandizing bluster, Paine gave his half-share of the first edition to buy mittens for the freezing troops of Benedict Arnold in Canada.
And what did the critics say?
Sam Adams, who knew something about making a fuss, said in Philadelphia that Common Sense had "fretted some folks here more than a little." Edmund Randolph of Virginia said, "the public sentiment which a few weeks before had shuddered at the tremendous obstacles with which independence was environed overleaped every barrier ... [Common Sense] put the torch to combustibles which had been deposited by the different gusts of fury ... " Ambrose Serle, secretary to Lord Richard Howe, the Admiral of the British fleet in America, believed John Adams had written it and called it: "A most flagitious Performance replete with Sophistry, Impudence & Falshood; but unhappily calculated to work upon the Fury of the Times ... His Attempt to justify Rebellion by the Bible is infamous beyond Expression."
Paine's inspiration was colored by his own animus to the King. And while he had not read John Locke, he could not have been unfamiliar with the English philosopher's dismissal of the Divine Right of monarchs to rule, and his argument that humans were born with certain "self-evident" natural rights, including those to life, liberty and property. Men had joined voluntarily in a compact choosing one to rule over them, but Locke held this authority was only to protect those rights, and once the original compact was broken, men had the right to rebel against the monarch for they, not God, had chosen him.
What part played the demon rum? Aitken had said Paine "would never write without that. The first glass put him in a train of thinking," the next "illuminated his intellectual system," the third loosened his ideas so that they "appeared to flow without any alteration or correction." Whatever the stimulus, it was Tom Paine whose pamphlet was copied by printers all over the colonies. He threw down the idea of independence, which took root in every crossroads pub, village, farm, and the Royal Palace.
After publication, a London newspaper reported: " ... The Prince of Wales has been discovered by the Queen Mother, reading a copy of Dr. Franklin's dreadful pamphlet, Common Sense and in response to the Queen's searching questions, refused to confess how he got the copy." But the Prince’s father got the message.
Bookish, Bold and Jolly: Henry Knox
Paine provided the intellectual and emotional flint to spark colonists’ feelings into flames, Knox provided the physical means for the revolutionary army to start fighting. Henry Knox was a bookworm and also a poor, fatherless boy. To support his mother and his younger brother, by the age of 9 he was apprenticed to Boston booksellers. He was encouraged to read by Mr. Wharton and Mr. Bowes, his employers, but fiction was not his game. The glory of war and particularly the noisiest aspect of war, artillery, fascinated the boy, and he read every book on war, military training, and particularly weaponry stocked in the bookstore. Henry could hold his own in the rough and tumble of Boston alleys, but at the bookshop, he impressed patrons, including Sam and his cousin John Adams, with his intelligence and pleasant manner.
In his free time, he added to his book knowledge of war by observing militia drills and military parades. Eventually, Henry, 16 years old, joined ranks under the command of Loyalist Lieutenant Adino Paddock, where he learned about loading, firing and maintaining artillery pieces. From treatises such as Sharpe’s Military Guide, he absorbed information about designing effective fortifications, transporting heavy cannons, and discerning topographic features that could win or lose a battle. At 21 in 1771, Henry Knox opened his own bookshop with stock purchased and sent from London, as well as stationery, ledgers, and journals. But the trials of the British occupation of Boston inspired him to leave the comfort of a pleasant bookstore proprietorship to embark on a wintry visit to Fort Ticonderoga, which required all his youthful energy, savvy problem-solving, and fending off a few competitors as well.
The story properly begins with Benedict Arnold, who was as great a hero in the first half of the Revolution as he was a villain in the second. Indeed, he has been called the best general on both sides of the war. At 16, Arnold joined a militia, traveling to fight the French in Canada. He was advertised as a deserter in one company, joined another, and finally returned home to New Haven, Connecticut where he opened his own drug and bookstore and married the daughter of the local high sheriff. He was a quick-tempered fellow, and when he heard of the Boston Massacre, chafed, "Good God, are the Americans all asleep and yielding up their liberties, or are they all turned philosophers that they do not take immediate vengeance?"
When the shot heard 'round the world echoed in New Haven, Arnold, by then a 34-year-old captain in the militia, dashed to the town powder house and said he would break down the door himself if the town fathers did not give him the keys within five minutes. They did, and Arnold and his company of the Governor's Foot Guards set off post-haste to Boston in their scarlet, white and black uniforms. At Boston, Arnold remembered Ticonderoga from his teen-age service and volunteered to seize the cannon. The Massachusetts Committee of Safety said fine, and Arnold was off to recruit a force. At Stockbridge, Massachusetts, he heard to his dismay that Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were already after the cannon.
For some time, Allen and his Boys, when sober enough, had been waging war against New York’s claims to the disputed New Hampshire Grants, territory that later became Vermont. Now Allen headed out from the Catamount Tavern in Bennington, traveling to Fort Ticonderoga. Allen was at least as rash as Arnold and maybe tougher. Made a prisoner by the British after impetuously trying to capture Montreal with scarcely 30 men, Allen showed his fellow POWs a chipped tooth, suffered from biting off one of his handcuffs. One of his astonished spectators exclaimed, “damn him, can he eat iron?" Aghast that Allen might steal his thunder as well as the cannons, Arnold set off in hot pursuit, a single servant trailing in his dust. When he caught up with Allen, the two argued furiously as to who was authorized as commander of the expedition.
"What shall I do with the damned rascal?" Allen demanded of his Boys, some of whom wanted to take a shot at Arnold.
"Better go side by side," replied a cooler head. So they did, Arnold marching with the sullen Allen at the head of the column, but agreeing to give no orders. As dawn broke May 10, 1775, Arnold and Allen, each trying to shoulder his way in front, stormed into the sleeping fort. Allen stabbed a sentry, whose musket misfired and awakened a dazed Lieutenant Jocelyn Feltham of His Majesty's Twenty-Sixth Foot, who stood bewildered, his pants in his hand.
"Come out, you damned rat," roared Allen, and out came the garrison commander, Captain William Delaplace. Asked by whose authority he was acting, Allen roared again: "In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!" In fact, the dovish Congress was highly embarrassed when it learned what Allen and Arnold had done, and for a time ordered the crumbling old fort to be abandoned lest the British think the colonies were overly belligerent. Congress lamely explained that Fort Ti was taken to forestall an invasion from Canada, although there wasn't a redcoat within miles except for Delaplace, his garrison and 24 women and children. There were British in Boston, however. The problem was how to get the cannon to where the war was.
Henry Knox was in Boston, and he had long dreamt about cannons. At 230 pounds, Knox was something of a cannonball himself. Henry was a convivial man, throwing his girth into the frenzy of militia mustering days and Guy Fawkes parades, and despite his weight, he was brawny enough to hold up a wagon when it lost a wheel during one of the revelries. Guns and gunpowder were the stuff of Knox's dreams. His one shyness seems to have been the loss of two left fingers, blown off in a hunting accident. In public, Knox wrapped the mutilated hand in a handkerchief.
Arnold, born in 1741, was nine years older than Knox, and his childhood was also cut short by the abandonment of his father. Knox’s father went to sea and Arnold’s father drank himself into a stupor. Both young men dropped out of school and were apprenticed, Knox to the bookstore and Arnold to an apothecary. Knox fared better than Arnold. His master Nicholas Bowes became a surrogate father to young Knox and encouraged Henry to educate himself, loaning him books to take home. Bowes’ kind treatment of his apprentice fostered Knox’s own generous nature. Arnold, on the other hand, was left more to his own devices and turned out to be something of a lout. Both men were practicing for their military future in local militias by the age of 16, Arnold in Connecticut, Knox in Boston. Ironically, when some British artillerymen bound for Quebec were held up in Boston by weather, they helped train Knox's company, little realizing the trouble they were sowing. Knox and Arnold each started businesses. Interestingly, while Arnold set up his own apothecary shop in the 1760s, he also sold books. Knox stuck mainly to books. Americans at the time had perhaps the highest literacy rate in the world with white males having approximately a 90 percent literacy rate, white females, 40 percent literate. Books were rather a luxury when there were forests to be cleared, wool to be carded, and butter to be churned. The emphasis was on "how to" practicality. Knox offered his readers such useful tomes as Manning’s On Female Diseases, and L.W.C.'s A Very Perfect Discourse in Order How to Know the Age of a Horse. And the books helped influence radical thinking; from the native best-seller John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which stated the colonial case in reasoned terms, to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which was something of a bible among the colonial radicals.
Thus Knox had become a comfortable member of the "leather apron" set, shopkeepers and artisans who worked in the tiny shops along Boston's twisting streets and lived upstairs. Knox's shop became "a fashionable morning lounge" where Paul Revere might drop in to chat, or the blacksmith, Nathanael Greene, when he was in town from Rhode Island.
Between chatting up customers, Knox was also reading all he could lay his hands on about artillery. The "Boston Grenadier Corps" whose members had to be at least five feet ten inches tall to best show off their splendid uniforms, gave Knox, six feet or more, the post of second in command. Knox, a genial sponge, absorbed all he could of the military arts.
In addition to artillery power, he was captivated by the political confrontations and strife around Boston. He had been present at the Boston Massacre and had tried to prevent the British troopers from firing into the crowd. He had fallen in love with Lucy Flucker, daughter of the Loyalist Secretary of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thomas Flucker, the father, offered his influence to get Knox a commission in the British Army, but Knox refused. The family's opposition to the marriage caused one Boston wit to rhyme:
"But whoever heard
Of a marriage deterred,
Or even deferred
By any contrivance so absurd
As holding the boy and caging his bird?"
Stout Knox and the equally stout Lucy were wed notwithstanding, and she never saw her parents again. Meanwhile, Knox was spending more time with Nathanael Greene studying military science. When Revere stopped by to talk politics, the two would feign an argument to avert suspicion anytime a Loyalist entered the shop. After Lexington and Concord, Knox bundled himself and his sword beneath a cloak and by dark of night slipped over Roxbury Neck. Knox promptly offered to help design fortifications around Boston for the defending American rabble, and when Washington and Charles Lee, his third in command, inspected the work, "they expressed the greatest pleasure and surprise." Washington had found a lifelong friend and his chief of artillery. Knox was only too happy, but where were the cannon? Then Knox remembered: Ticonderoga. Even before Congress, more militant now, approved the mission, Knox had set off with his younger brother, William, for New York. "No trouble or expense [should] be spared to obtain them," Washington said in parting.
One story has it that Knox spent the night at Fort George on the way north where he met British Major John Andre, who had been captured by General Richard Montgomery. True or not, Knox five years later sat on the court martial that condemned Andre to death for his role in Benedict Arnold's treason.
At Ticonderoga, Knox decided most of the captured guns were too worn for much use, and sorted out 59 cannons ranging from 4- to 24-pounders (the weight of the ball they fired). One was a fat mortar they nicknamed The Old Sow, which "hove bombs to an amazing distance." By December 9, Knox had the guns aboard a selection of lake boats and set out down Lake George against the ice and snow. High waves sank William Knox's boat "luckily near shore ... [so that] we were able to bail her out." Henry Knox, up ahead, had reached the southern end of the lake and "went ashore and warmed ourselves by an exceeding good fire in a hut made by some civil Indians who were with their ladies abed. They gave us some venison, roasted after their manner, which was very relishing." Knox, the gourmand, even in the wild.
Now began the overland trek, hauling the cannons, which weighed up to 5,500 pounds apiece, through the snow and along "roads that never bore a cannon before," wrote Knox, "and never have borne one since." These were the forests, marshes, and streams that later impeded British general “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne in his quest to sweep down from Canada and wipe out the Continentals. General Philip Schuyler, a senior American officer and wealthy landholder in the Albany area, sent fresh men and horses. Knox had organized well, writing ahead to Committees of Safety along the route to have food and fresh oxen ready. He told Colonel Alexander McDougall, in New York, to be sure to have some 13-inch shells in Boston for the Old Sow to "hove" at the British. And to Washington, Knox wrote: "Three days ago it was very uncertain whether we should have gotten them until next spring, but now, please God, they must go ... trusting we shall have a fine fall of snow which will enable us to proceed further and make the carriage easy – if that should be the case, I hope in 16 or 17 days to be able to present your Excellency a noble train of artillery."
It took 40 days.
Farmers were reluctant to supply teams at the 12 shillings per day Knox was offering. Squire Palmer, between Saratoga and Albany, wanted 24 shillings, whereby "the treaty broke off abruptly and Mr. Palmer was dismissed." Knox spent Christmas Day breaking a trail on foot through snow over his knees, finally reaching Albany "almost perished with the cold." He and his men devoted New Year's Day 1776 to cutting holes in the ice across the frozen Hudson to flood and refreeze the ice to make it thicker for their crossing. The exhausted Knox had just sat down for dinner with Schuyler when someone rushed in saying that a cannon "had drowned," crashing through the ice. Citizens and teamsters pitched in to fish the cannon up. A grateful Knox christened it "the Albany." Knox's men stood by the traces with axes to cut the oxen free should another gun go through. Another did. Some Albany folk paid for the privilege of helping to retrieve it. Now on the east bank of the Hudson, one of Knox's massive sleds mashed a "handsome" pleasure boat. Knox pushed on, with "the idea that the country would pay all the damages ... the only sympathy we had at that time to bestow on the owner."
The caravan began climbing through evergreen forests into the Berkshires over a crude road, then over a pass where there was no road at all. Across broken country, traversed only by Native Americans and deer, across gullies where chains lashed to trees eased the guns down the drops and pulled them back up to the next height. It was "almost a miracle that people with heavy loads should be able to get up and down such hills," Knox said. A terse piece of paper is one of the surviving traces of Knox's passage: "Received of Henry Knox 18 shillings of lawful money for carrying a cannon weighing 243 pounds from this town to Westfield, being 11 miles. Solomon Brown. January 13, 1776."
At Westfield, near Springfield, where later at Knox's successful urging the new nation was to build its first armory, townspeople who had never seen a cannon gawked over the strange sight. One and all became so spirited on cider and rum, they prevailed on Knox to touch off a blast from the Old Sow. Then everyone crammed into a local tavern and got really spirited. Beyond Springfield, the snow thinned out and a "cruel thaw" turned the ground to mud. Homesick, the New York teamsters went back west and were replaced by Massachusetts men. Cold weather returned, and on January 18th, 1776, Knox and his cannon dragged the last miles into Framingham. Knox went on to Cambridge to report to Washington. He submitted his expense account for providing America's first detachment of artillery: 520 pounds, 15 shillings, 8 3/4 pence, more than $20,000 in modern money. After Knox had arrived with guns in tow, Washington told him he now held the rank of colonel. The General was to see if books could make an artillery officer.
The State of Affairs in the States of the Future
The overland agony of Henry Knox was illustrative of one very real barrier to a physical or metaphysical consensus of the American colonies. That was, simply, that you could hardly get from here to there. Word of mouth, or of quill, could travel no faster than a horse, a ferryman's scow, or a captain's schooner. The high road to nationhood was quite literally blocked by innumerable rivers and creeks, swamps, fallen trees, mud, foul tides and head winds. "Good roads," said one colonial American, "are like angels' visits: few and far between." In fact, most people walked to conduct their business, their goal to be able to buy a horse. More men than women and children took to the road.
Touring for pleasure was rare. Home was where the hearth as well as where you were, and stayed, unless, armed with a desperate determination and a cast-iron stomach, you set out to brave unknown roads and equally opaque tavern cooking. It is an unsung miracle that enough Americans survived their rattled vertebrae and outraged bellies to forge the spine of a nation.
As today's events from all over the world pour into our devices by the minute, pause to consider that the news battles at Lexington and Concord, fought April 19, 1775, arrived breathlessly in Charleston on May 8. The Declaration of Independence took just under four weeks from Philadelphia to the same destination. When Charleston, in turn, had some hot news to tell after the Battle of Sullivan's Island, the bulletin was entrusted for want of anyone else to Daniel Latham, "a very athletic young man who was going to Philadelphia on business." In colonial America everyone very nearly was an island.
Travel was such an adventure then that almost every voyager seemed to have written about it after his bones stopped jangling. A Virginian said of a road in winter: "I say it's not passable, not even Jack-assable." A coach driver, asked by his curious passengers why he had stopped by the side of the road, replied that he was "waiting for the mud to dry." A European in New England: "I never saw a Country so full of Rocks and Stones."
Drink was, indeed, about the only solace for the colonial traveler, a shining beacon at the end of a hard day's journey in a crammed and malodorous wayside inn. People wrote about inns, too. The Marquis de Chastellux, a fastidious Frenchman who knew America well, noted: "Throughout America, in private houses [which also took transients] as well as in the inns ... it very commonly happens that after you have been fed, a stranger of any condition comes into the room, pulls off his clothes and places himself, without ceremony, between your sheets."
An Englishman amply experienced with backwoods Carolina "ordinaries," most aptly named, found the type "mostly log-huts. One corner of the room would be occupied by the family bed [another corner] railed off for a bar, containing a rum keg and a tumbler. The rest of the furniture consisted of two chairs and a table, all in the last stage of palsy ...If hunger and fatigue compelled you to remain, a little Indian corn for your horse and a blanket on the hearth with your saddle for a pillow, to represent a bed, were the most you would obtain...As to edibles, whether you called for breakfast, dinner, or supper, the reply was one – eggs and bacon...10-to-1 you had to cook the meal yourself. No sooner were you seated than the housedog (of the large wolf breed) would arrange himself beside you and lift his lank, hungry jaws expressively to your face. The young children, never less than a dozen, at the smell and sight of victuals would let up a yell enough to frighten the wolves ... "
It was often sixpence for "lodging and clean sheets, one in a bed," three pence more for "same, two in a bed" and no extra fee for three or more. Of course, if the bed got too crowded, the transient could adjourn back to the bar and console himself with draughts of WhistleBelly Vengeance. This was a potion made of bitter beer, sweetened with molasses and covered with bread crumbs served hot. Milder beverages could be an equal gamble. At one rural inn, John Randolph of Virginia spat out what was reported to be tea and called to the innkeeper: "Sir, if this be tea, bring me coffee. If this be coffee, bring me tea."
Slaves often traveled with their owners. If traveling on their own, slaves had to carry identification to prove that they were not runaways. Though in general, women and children did not travel extensively, there were exceptions. Female Quaker ministers from England traveled to the colonies to preach to Quakers and non-Quakers alike as well as blacks and Native Americans. Catharine Payton traveled more than 8,750 miles by horseback in the colonies over a three year period. Often these intrepid Quaker women were accompanied on their travels by local Quakers, frequently also women. They camped outside overnight in the backwoods of the Carolinas as well as the luxurious accommodations offered by wealthy Pennsylvania Friends.
Near towns, conditions improved. A wayfarer might dine on lobster stew or Yankee oyster pie in New England: sauerkraut, knackwurst and creamed potato salad in the Pennsylvania German regions; terrapin in Maryland; ham in Virginia, and crabs in South Carolina. The common drink was cider, beer or small beer – beer weakened with water. Water itself was thought to sap the energies, of which the traveler had constant need. In fact, the water was probably rife with unfriendly bacteria. Virginia and other colonies began to fix rates at inns to prevent gouging, but there were also scrupulous and attentive hostelers, such as the keeper of the Green Tree Inn between Philadelphia and Lancaster. When the clientele was unexpectedly large, he would go out into the yard with his cane and a handful of corn, call the chickens and brain the nearest one for the cook.
For the locals, inns were social centers. Yet another Englishman noted that taverns were identifiable even without signs "by the great number of miscellaneous, papers and advertisements with which the walls and doors of these publick houses are plaistered; generally, the more the bills are to be seen on a house, the better it will be found to be. In this way the traveler is afforded a many-sided entertainment, and informs himself as to where the taxes are heavy, where wives have run away, horses stolen or the new Doctor has settled..."
The locals also grilled a newcomer for all the latest news from whence he had come to such a degree that Franklin would simply enter the tap room and declare to one and all: "My name is Benjamin Franklin. I was born at Boston, am a printer by profession and traveling to Philadelphia, shall return at such a time and have no news. Now, what can you give me for dinner?" Franklin, too, developed a ploy for latecomers to get a seat by the fire. Entering a Rhode Island tavern one chill night and finding the room crowded, he called to the stable lad: "Boy, get my horse a quart of oysters!" The mob dashed outside to see such a curious animal which, of course, spurned the seafood. They returned inside to spy Franklin perched cozily by the hearth.
The first roads in the colonies were trails that simply followed where the deer or the native people had roamed. There were few, if any, bridges, and wagon drivers carried axes to clear fallen timber. Logs were sunk across bogs to corduroy a path. Summer was the best time to travel, when trails were dry and rivers low. Ferries were either poled across or hauled by a rope pulley. The chief hazard on the rivers was flooding after heavy rains. Virginia, among other colonies, began fixing ferry rates. A coach and driver, for instance, crossed at the same fee as six horses. A goat or sheep was a fifth the cost of a horse, and a hog a quarter.
Until the French and Indian War, when east-west roads were cut into the interior, roads mainly paralleled the seacoast or rivers. By the 1760s, a traveler had a choice of four roads between Boston and New Haven and could travel overland all the way to Charleston. A guide, called Vade-Mecum for America: Or a Companion for Traders and Travelers, had long been in print giving distances from important points, and inns would post the mileage to the next stopping place. Nonetheless, Bostonians much preferred sailing to nearby Salem than fording the many streams. So did New Yorkers prefer the 240-mile water route down the New Jersey coast and up the Delaware River to an 8o-mile land trip to Philadelphia. Horseback was the most convenient land transport. De Chastellux reported he once made 24 miles between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. over a bad road, an average rate.
As roads improved, so did the conveyances. The shay, or chair which lacked a top, was drawn by a single horse, perhaps a Narragansett pacer, a small but sure-footed breed developed in Rhode Island. A curricle was a two-horse chaise. A landau was a carriage with facing seats, and the chariot, the Cadillac of the day, was decorated with paint and carvings, a glass pane in front, and even a silk fringe on top. Stage coaches had parallel benches and leather straps instead of springs. Passengers were limited to one trunk and a piece of hand luggage, usually a leather sack. Sounds like airlines regs of today.
Passengers then as now complained about road maintenance. One stage survivor wrote: "The roads are so little attended to that the driver has to call to the passengers to lean out of the carriage, first at one side, then at the other, to prevent it from over-turning in the deep ruts with which the road abounds. 'Now, gentlemen, to the right,' upon which all the passengers stretched their bodies half out of the carriage to balance on that side. 'Now, gentlemen, to the left,' and so on."
But Americans of the past and present, would ride anything if it saved walking. A Virginia saying was that a man would walk five miles to saddle a horse to ride 100 yards. Typically, on setting out for a long journey, a man would buy a horse, and at the end of the trip he would sell the horse. A technological breakthrough occurred in the 1770s when John Mercereau introduced his Flying Machine, a scheduled coach between Paulus Hook, New Jersey (Bayonne) and Philadelphia, three departures a week in summer, two in winter. For 30 shillings (20 shillings for those willing to ride outside, somewhat like riding on an airplane wing). Mercereau promised passengers to get them to Philadelphia and back "in five days, and remain in Philadelphia Two nights and One day to do their business. Gentlemen and Ladies who choose to encourage this useful ... Undertaking, may depend ... that the coach will always put up at Houses on the Road where the best Entertainment is provided."
Inns were, in fact, sprucing up. In Philadelphia, where, by the eve of the Revolution, there were 84 private carriages, there were public dining rooms with Chinese wallpaper, Chippendale furniture, damask table cloths and even forks. An inn between New York and Philadelphia became well-known for its Butter Drop Dew "biskits." Innkeepers began to vie for favorable locations near village centers where their hostelries became such oases of pleasure, particularly on Sundays, that Massachusetts passed a law requiring innkeepers within so many miles of a church to turn out all patrons during hours of service "who were able to go to church."
Along with the Flying Machine, which could make its trip one way in a day and a half, and a scheduled weekly coach for three passengers, from Boston to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which took two days, the mails were beginning to get through. The post office was slow to start because there was little need. Governor Andrew Hamilton of New Jersey said as late as 1700 that no more than 100 letters a year went from Virginia and Maryland to the northern colonies. When Franklin became deputy postmaster for the colonies in 1753, he changed things around, as he usually did. He cut round trip delivery time of a letter between Philadelphia and Boston from three weeks to six days. This was via the Boston Post Road from Cambridge to Springfield to New Haven and along the coast to New York. Post riders could make 60 miles on a good day, and even at those fearsome rates, some had time to knit as they rode, and one used to deliver oxen as well as the mail. Others ran errands en route. Mail was delivered to a town center or crossroads, not to individual addresses. There were no stamps, receivers paying the postage at their end. Even so, Parliament at Franklin's urging cut the rates by a third in 1765, and the operation still made money because of the increased business. Franklin, as ever, was ahead of his time. Nonetheless, mail still took 10 weeks from Boston to Charleston, and the system began to break down by 1774 when the British began opening the mails, the royal version of colonial wiretapping.
Traveling slowly became more pleasant. John Singleton Copley, perhaps because he was an artist, delighted in plodding through New England where "you scarcely lose sight of a house." In the South, plantation owners kept a slave at the gates to ask any wayfarers in for dinner. But the most colorful highway of the colonial era was the Great Wagon Road which cut west from Philadelphia to Lancaster and then down the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge. It was also called "The Bad Road." This was the artery of the frontier, a byway for newly arrived immigrants, herds of sheep and cattle, tinkers, black-clad itinerant preachers on sway-backed horses, lurching Conestoga wagons drawn by dull-eyed oxen or six enormous horses specially bred for the job. The huge wagons, designed and built by Germans in the valley of the Conestoga River in Pennsylvania, could haul eight or 10 tons up to 15 miles a day. Their bottoms were curved to the center to keep the load from shifting, with hoops covered by waxed cloth to keep out the weather, made of hickory, white oak and poplar. Conestogas rode on hubs of sour gum trees girded by iron tires half an inch thick that were hammered on while hot then plunged into cold water to shrink onto the wheel. Regular runs were hauled by "liners": "tramps" moved where business could be found.
Their drivers, "sharpshooters," were the aristocrats of the Great Wagon Road. They looked down on the sheep drovers herding their flocks to the markets of Pennsylvania because they smelled of the barnyard and were not welcome in the crude roadside inns. The teamsters on the Conestogas rode the left rear horse to keep their right hand free for the bullhide whip; so, they customarily drove to the right to pass oncoming traffic, a heritage they left to their motor-driven descendants. Mingling with the traffic were backwoods farmers aboard ox-drawn carts with two wheels made of solid sections cut from large trees. Pack horse trains branched off onto narrow native American trails, carrying salt for curing ham, nails, iron kettles or a few pewter plates to the isolated settlers back in the hills. One such traveler recalled: "The path, scarcely two feet wide, and traveled by horses in single file, roamed over hill and dale, over craggy steeps beneath impending rocks, and around points of dizzy heights, where one false step might hurl horse and rider into the abyss below ... A driver followed behind, to keep an eye upon the proper adjustments of the pack and to urge on any horse that was disposed to lag. In this way two men could manage a caravan of 10 or 15 horses."
Farmers also organized their own pack trains, selecting a sharp bargainer to take their produce to market, one who could profitably trade hides and furs and bear grease for nails or salt along the way. If a driver made an inn or found lodging with a farmer, he might end up three in a bed or sleep on the floor. Often the place would be in an alcoholic uproar. Women experienced the only gentility as they usually had rooms to themselves.
As difficult as travel could be in the colonial era, communication via the written word was lively. Newspapers had been born, flourished and died in turn during the 18th century. By the Revolution, 37 were being printed in the colonies. Fourteen were in New England, 13 in the middle colonies, including three in German in Pennsylvania and 10 in the southern colonies. Only Delaware and New Jersey lacked a paper. Most of the first ones were called a gazette, using a publisher’s name as identification as the publishers were usually also public printers to the colony, and a gazette was by definition a variety of official record. They were aimed at readers in government and among merchants. Since printers were also usually the local postmaster, they sent their papers through the mails free of charge. Franklin, not unmindful of the competition to his own printing business, stopped the practice when he became Deputy Postmaster to the colonies in 1753. He required postage for all papers save those exchanged between one printer and another.
Thus printers began borrowing each other's news, and what was in the Charleston paper often found its way into Boston's, however belatedly. Travelers also carried home papers with them, selling them at their destinations to the curious at a profit. Since newsprint was scarce, many colonial papers were printed on rag pulp and are in better shape now than most papers of today after a month’s time. Most were weeklies with a circulation of from 100 to 1,000 copies, although the Boston Gazette hit a pre-Revolution high of 2,000. Subscriptions were costly - six to 10 shillings a year so that copies were often hung in taverns where the patrons could browse. A single ad averaged three shillings, proclaiming such wonders as Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops which could eradicate "fluxes, spitting of blood, consumption, Small-pox, Measels, Colds, Coughs, Pains in the Limbs or Joints." A typical edition of the 1760s might also contain ads for runaway slaves or spouses, an article on anything from astronomy to horticulture along with the latest news from the Governor's Palace, events in Europe and ship arrivals.
The Stamp Act, which taxed newspapers directly, aroused publishers generally and revealed to them the power of the press when the act was finally repealed. The American papers became increasingly radical thereafter. Publishers also printed broadsides – single sheets printed on one side, which carried some of the news not fit to print in the family newspaper: executions, dying remarks, scandalous behavior and items too hot to wait for publishing day.
Almanacs were also popular such as Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack, which carried weather forecasts, times of sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon and tides, weights and measures, recipes, quotable maxims, and more. Even they became increasingly political after 1765, carrying texts of various charters and documents and biographical sketches of Britons friendly to the rebel cause.
After the repeal of the Stamp Act, political talk heightened the din along the Great Wagon Road. Certain inns became known as Whig houses, others gathering places for Loyalists. In Pennsylvania, Tories did their roistering at the Admiral Warren Inn, rebels at the General Paoli nearby. Ponderously, but as sure as a Conestoga wagon, the word was spreading up and down the rutted and rocky roads that tenuously linked the colonies, and Americans were beginning to choose.