A Story of American Freedom
By Russell Shorto
512 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $28.95.
“There is properly no history, only biography,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. Russell Shorto, in his new book “Revolution Song,” seems to be of similar mind. He writes about six people, all of whom lived in the Revolutionary era, but he does not roll them up into a single narrative or use their lives to bolster an overarching thesis. Instead, he artfully weaves their stories together and leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions. “I have tried not to preach or even teach,” Shorto writes in the preface — and it proves a decidedly refreshing approach.
Shorto has an eye for intriguing subjects (his previous books include “Amsterdam,” “Descartes’ Bones” and “The Island at the Center of the World”), and this book is no exception. The Seneca chief Cornplanter (or Kayethwahkeh in Seneca) was a fine looking, philosophically minded man who was also, in Shorto’s words, “something of a killing machine.” Allied with England during the Revolution, Cornplanter and his warriors slaughtered patriot soldiers and civilians, even children. In retaliation, George Washington sent an invasion force that destroyed crops and leveled village upon village, killing and scalping along the way.
The war devastated the Senecas, and afterward Cornplanter counseled accommodation, urging his people to learn English and know something of white ways. But as the Senecas lost more territory, they grew increasingly hostile to white culture. A message came to Cornplanter from the Creator, telling him to “remove from his house and sight every article of the workmanship or invention of the white man.” He destroyed mementos, including a sword that had been a gift from Washington, and gradually withdrew from the wider world.
Shorto concludes with the optimistic side of the Creator’s message, describing ancestral lands and ancient ways that Cornplanter, having thrown off white culture, could dream of once more. But the conclusion to Cornplanter’s story is actually very sad. Although the United States government guaranteed in 1794 that the Seneca grant where Cornplanter was buried would never be taken, in 1964 it was. The Army Corps of Engineers moved his remains and those of hundreds of Senecas buried near him in order to construct a dam on the Allegheny River.
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Another of Shorto’s subjects is Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan, a dark-haired beauty who wrote a delightfully scandalous memoir. Some scholars have thought it a forgery, but Shorto argues that it is not, and without doubt it is a good read. Coghlan’s father, a British officer assigned to the United States during the Revolution, forced her at age 14 to marry the British lieutenant John Coghlan, probably to put an end to her dalliance with Aaron Burr. She detested her husband, ran away and availed herself of an English lord, whereupon her father sent her to a nunnery. After she escaped, he disowned her.
A string of lovers supported her passion for fine things, but one had gambling debts that mounted until he could not afford to pay her bills. Debtors’ prison was looming when her false death notice appeared in the newspapers. But soon she reappeared in Paris, and the pattern of lovers and debtors’ prison resumed. Then she disappeared from the historical record, leaving behind a mystery: Did she die in prison? Or did she get away with faking her own death once more?
Both Cornplanter and Margaret Coghlan met George Washington. It was otherwise for Venture Smith (whose Western African name was Broteer Furro). Brought to New England as a slave when he was a boy, he grew into a formidable man, over six feet tall, 300 pounds, and amazingly strong. He was of steady temper, though he could be pushed too far. When one master and his brother beat him, Smith stacked them on top of each other and stomped both at the same time.
Smith’s son Cuff marched with George Washington, but Smith himself was too absorbed in making a life for his wife and children to participate in the Revolution. By persuading one of his masters to hire him out, he earned the money to buy freedom for himself and his family and to invest in land, including a parcel in Connecticut where he built a three-level home, a barn and a forge. Although he never learned to write, he was adept at complex financial transactions and willingly used his skill to help other free blacks establish themselves.
In old age, stooped and blind, Smith was proud of his achievements but bitter about the obstacles he had faced because he was black. Still, he found reason for gratitude. “My freedom,” he said, “is a privilege which nothing else can equal.”
Closer to the Revolution was Abraham Yates, a shoemaker of deceptively meek appearance who educated himself in the law and, with help from the future New Jersey governor William Livingston, broke through New York’s ruling clans to become an influential politician. During the war he served in New York’s Provincial Congress, helped write New York’s Constitution and corresponded with Washington. Afterward, convinced that the United States Constitution was written for the privileged few, he threw himself into defeating its ratification. Losing the battle did little to deter him, and in the last years of his life, he was still defending the rights of the common man.
In a portrait painted by George Romney, Lord George Germain, another of Shorto’s subjects, wears a silver wig and red jacket. England’s secretary of state for the American colonies has a hint of hauteur about him, but also a sense of doubt.
He may be wondering whether England will defeat the American rebels. Should that fail to happen, Germain would never recover the reputation he’d lost some 20 years before when he had been court-martialed for purportedly refusing a direct order.
As it turned out, Germain’s anxiety was justified. In 1781, it was his duty to deliver news of the American victory at Yorktown to the prime minister, Lord North, who cried out, “Oh God, it is all over!”
George Washington is the hub of Shorto’s book, the figure with whom almost everyone else directly connects. Cornplanter sought his help for the Senecas. Coghlan attended a dinner at which he was present and got his attention when she saucily refused to toast the American cause. Yates exchanged letters with him. Germain was his opponent, and, like Washington, a tall, imposing man who hid vast ambition behind a usually unreadable visage. Shorto captures this resemblance, as well as the noble demeanor that separated Washington from nearly everyone else.
But like many who have written about Washington, Shorto has difficulty describing the president’s inner life. As his soldiers became more professional, Shorto writes, Washington “found himself overcome with emotion, thrilling in his heart at the feeling that he was becoming one with them.” Such a description deserves an example — or at least a footnote. The same is true when Shorto writes that while living in New York as the new president, Washington felt like a “bumpkin.” Perhaps, but where is the proof?
Still, Shorto’s achievement is a remarkable one. The intertwined stories of “Revolution Song” give a sense of how far-reaching a phenomenon the War of Independence was. It leaves to readers the pleasure of judging what each of the figures in the book — or perhaps the combination of them all — contributed to an event that changed the world.