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Americans tend to think of the Revolution as a Massachusetts-based event orchestrated by Virginians, but in fact the war took place mostly in the Middle Colonies—in New York and New Jersey and the parts of Pennsylvania that on a clear day you can almost see from the Empire State Building. In My American Revolution, Robert Sullivan delves into this first Middle America, digging for a glorious, heroic part of the past in the urban, suburban, and sometimes even rural landscape of today. And there are great adventures along the way: Sullivan investigates the true history of the crossing of the Delaware, its down-home reenactment each year for the past half a century, and—toward the end of a personal odyssey that involves camping in New Jersey backyards, hiking through lost “mountains,” and eventually some physical therapy—he evacuates illegally from Brooklyn to Manhattan by handmade boat. He recounts a Brooklyn historian’s failed attempt to memorialize a colonial Maryland regiment; a tattoo artist’s more successful use of a colonial submarine, which resulted in his 2007 arrest by the New York City police and the FBI; and the life of Philip Freneau, the first (and not great) poet of American independence, who died in a swamp in the snow. Last but not least, along New York harbor, Sullivan re-creates an ancient signal beacon.
Like an almanac, My American Revolution moves through the calendar of American independence, considering the weather and the tides, the harbor and the estuary and the yearly return of the stars as salient factors in the war for independence. In this fiercely individual and often hilarious journey to make our revolution his, he shows us how alive our own history is, right under our noses.
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Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, and most recently, The Thoreau You Don't Know. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York, A Public Space and Vogue, where he is a contributing editor. He was born in Manhattan and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.
WHAT IF RIVERS COULD TALK? What if ancient creeks, crossed hundreds of years ago by tired feet, could bubble up in verse? What would make the skies speak again of battles that had happened as they watched, centuries ago? And do the hills around us remember all that they have seen? Whenever I ponder these questions, or questions like them, or whenever I just want to get out of my apartment for a while and poke around, I buy a ticket to the top of the Empire State Building—especially in the spring, when the city is just turning green. On a bright, clear day, when the sun shines on the still-green hills of Brooklyn, on the plains of Queens, and on the saltwater marshes of the Bronx and Staten Island and beyond, I ride to the top of the Empire State Building and, invariably, find myself looking out across the blaring, ship-dotted panorama that is New York Harbor to see the American Revolution.
I see it across wide rivers and small streams glistening in the warm-weather sun that shines on New York, New Jersey, and the coves of Long Island Sound that eventually become Connecticut. I see it beyond Dutch-named kills, and even past old paved-over creeks in the middle of Manhattan, vertiginously sited below me, though still in many ways a hill-carved island. I see it up toward the Bronx, in the gentle public housing–dotted hills, where both the British and the Americans would have waded across the creek called Mosholu, a word translated variously as “smooth stones or gravel” and “clear water” from the language of the Lenni-Lenape tribes native to the city. The Mosholu was known to troops on both sides of the eighteenth-century nation-establishing battle as Tibbetts Brook. Tibbetts Brook is still there today, less flowing than dumping into the Harlem River, and the stream that will not go away may spend a portion of its course from north to south inside a sewer built with a high-arched brick ceiling, an underground architectural feature that quietly quotes the classical world.
I have sometimes thought, in fact, that from the top of the Empire State Building the harbor is like the shield of Achilles, displaying the ocean-bound strait called the Narrows, off Staten Island, where, in 1776, the British sailed in with forty thousand troops, a forest of masts deckling the edge of Staten Island. Indeed, from the observation platform, the harbor is like a great poem or painting, extolling the East River, which Washington used to escape after being routed by the British out near the big old Brooklyn cemetery visible to the southeast. The harbor sings the story of the shore—near hills in the Bronx and Westchester, where, in subsequent clashes with the British, the Americans did not lose. The harbor sings, too, the story of the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge, where the Americans did. For a few quarters, the coin-operated, high-powered binoculars sing the race of the newborn American army as it fled through New Jersey, across the marshes that today are demarked by an incinerator’s towers, by power plants, by disused factories and big-box stores and the slow, sparkling pulse of the New Jersey Turnpike.
In this wide prospect, the vista is a great palimpsest of the Revolution, a painted-over canvas of ancient routes walked smooth or transformed into traffic-jammed highways, of colonial villages grown like weeds into great cities, such as Newark, Elizabeth, and New York. If I could zoom in on the backstreets of the old towns on the banks of the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, I’d see the road markers, on utility poles and street signs, still demarking that 1776 escape: “The Retreat to Victory.” And there is no need for a spyglass or zoom lens to see the New Jersey hills where the Continental troops held dances early one spring, and where, in 1777 and then again in 1779–1780, during the coldest winters known to New York and colonial Americans alike, men built huts and fires and waited out a deathly freeze. It was to these hills that these long-gone troops marched, starting from the Delaware River, which Washington had most famously crossed. As for the crossing itself, it happened at the outer edge of the circle one can see on a clear day from the Empire State Building, a day’s march past a rise that I need binoculars to just make out from the observation deck.* I know this hill from my own attempts to attack the Revolutionary landscape, as well as from ancient maps, where it is denoted as Remarkable Hill.
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Because this is where it happened: the Revolutionary War, the newborn American military’s struggle for independence, the nation’s birth. Let Longfellow go on about Paul Revere’s ride to Boston and thereabouts; let Emerson memorialize the shots that rang out at Lexington and Concord. It is within the view of the Empire State Building that the Revolutionary War was fought, and where the first president sat in a chair beneath a ceiling decorated with the moon and the stars and the sun.
Go ahead and take a look at a map of America. Find those first thirteen colonies, the original ones that declared their independence from the British crown on July 4, 1776, the colonies with names you memorized when you were a kid. Remember that Vermont was not yet a state, that Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Recall that there was a line down the left side of the about-to-be-a-nation that more or less followed the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains—an old mountain chain, incidentally, that once would have been among the tallest in long-ago geologic time, before being worn down by that winner of all wars: time. Certainly battles were fought in Canada; and we well know that the British finally surrendered on a peninsula of land in the area of Yorktown, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay.
But look closer to see where George Washington and his army spent their time, where exactly the majority of battles were lost and, less often, won. The action in the Revolution, it turns out, was centered in the area of Connecticut, New York, and Philadelphia, in a patch of territory that, as one contemporary historian has noted, takes about twenty minutes to fly over in a commercial jet—enough time for, say, pretzels and a Diet Coke. The resulting demarcation, if you draw it as a rectangle, blow it up, put it on TV, and stand a meteorologist before it, looks a lot like a local weather map, specifically those you see on news programs in and around New York. Indeed, if the landscape of the Revolution were a forecast, the weatherman would direct the viewer at home to the points of the compass and say: We’ve got the Hudson River valley dropping down from the north, and Connecticut and the Long Island Sound dipping in from the northeast, with a big blast of New Jersey, coming in like a storm from Chicago!
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The land on this weather map is the very first Middle America. The Middle America we think of as middle today is not New York and not L.A. and sits at the center of the nation. Likewise, the Middle America that was middle in 1776 was not Williamsburg, Virginia, and not Boston, Massachusetts; it was a place in between. It was also middle in a number of other ways: a mix of cultural affiliations, of income levels, of jobs. There were speculators and fishermen in the cities, and farmers out in the New Jersey countryside, all fighting one another before the war with Britain even began—fighting with absentee landlords in England and Manhattan, fighting for rights having to do with religion and money. As opposed to New England, which was squeezed for arable land and in economic decline (farmers packing up, markets moving elsewhere); as opposed to Virginia, which was mostly in debt, the Middle Colonies were the land of economic opportunity—Pennsylvania was called “the best poor man’s country in the world”—and the Middle Colonies’ newly arrived immigrants crafted a definition of liberty that was characterized mostly by its expansiveness, by its disparate indefinability.
Boston has its Liberty Trail, and Virginia has Mount Vernon, where George Washington farmed and fished, ran a mill, and manufactured various kinds of alcohol. But the British were fought—and, to a large extent, avoided—in the Middle Colonies. Dozens of battles, all of them less well known than the Battle of Bunker Hill, took place in the area of New York; Connecticut and New Jersey were home to hundreds of skirmishes. And New York City itself was the place where Washington officially began the Revolution, as well as the place where it ended, on Evacuation Day, a day celebrated for a century and a half with parades and flags throughout New York City, though no longer. And then, when the war was over and a new government formed and a president inaugurated, that first president took up residence in a house on a plot of land that is today unmarked and frequented by skateboarders. If the Revolution itself were still being described on that local TV newscast, we’d have British troops coming in from Sandy Hook at the mouth of New York Harbor and moving up past Staten Island, with colonial regiments blowing down from New England, via the Hudson River valley and the Connecticut coast. For five years, we’d see the skirmishes between New Jersey loyalists and various New Jersey rebel militias, battles that, if they were denoted by a TV news icon, might be indicated by a persistent dark cloud.
And yet, this Revolutionary landscape is today not so much neglected as forgotten, or rushed by, its founding details mostly lost to constant inspection, trammeled by the machinations of business and real estate. Massachusetts lauds its Minutemen as patriots; in comparison, New Jersey and New York seem insecure, or less certain, despite some encouragement over the years. “I cannot but remember the place that New Jersey holds in our early history,” Abraham Lincoln once said. He recalled being enthralled, as a child, by the story of the Revolution in New Jersey, which, by the time he reached adulthood, was a less-told tale. “In the early Revolutionary struggle, few of the States among the old Thirteen had more of the battle-fields of the country within their limits than old New-Jersey,” Lincoln said.
If Washington is the Father of Our Country, in other words, then this is the country he was first father of—this is the country that he begat, the forgotten first land.
Father of Our Country was, after all, more like a job than people today, I think, tend to realize. It was an actual position, in many ways, from which, in a matter of months or even weeks, one guy was fired, another hired, a George for a George, “George” being a name derived from the Greek, meaning “earth worker,” or “farmer.” King George III was the one fired, obviously, and George Washington was the next in line, a shooting star that showed up on cue. Father of Our Country turns out to be a thing about Washington that America did not fabricate later on, as opposed to the story about him cutting down a cherry tree and not lying about it, or the notion of his teeth being wooden, when they were not wooden, in point of fact, but made of gold and ivory and lead, as well as being made of teeth taken from horses, donkeys, and his slaves.
The father position was associated with the writings of a British political philosopher, Henry St. John (pronounced sinjin), better known as Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was himself the opposite of what we as Americans have come to think of George Washington as being. Whereas Washington was reluctant to write and speak, trained in the arts of surveying, farming, and animal husbandry, always finding a smart young officer for secretarial purposes, Bolingbroke was urbane and literary, at the center of a circle that included Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. It is written that Oliver Goldsmith once saw Bolingbroke run naked through a park drunk, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica remembers him as “a poor manager of men who tended to lose his nerve in a crisis.”
Bolingbroke saw the British government as a broken and corrupt machine, its power newly vested, under the leadership of his rival, Sir Robert Walpole, in the financial contrivances of the city, in the machinery of debt and credit. Power, he believed, ought to be vested in the landed gentry, whose (to him) benevolent ruling power was derived from their long-lived-on land. His treatise, entitled The Idea of a Patriot King, defined that king as the unique individual who could rise above personal ambition, and whose character, motivated by selflessness and public spirit, would transform society with a disinterested patriotism. Though not well read in England, Bolingbroke was esteemed in the colonies, by John Adams in Boston, and by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington in Virginia.
It’s a long story, of course, and let us not forget that many versions of the Washington story exist. Suffice it to say, though, that when George III took the throne, the American colonists first crossed their fingers for a patriot king, and then, when the English George failed them, they looked to a military hero on the horizon, a George who had been brought up in the tradition of disinterested patriotism, who had spent years enthusiastically practicing the called-for public reluctance. It is astounding to a reader today to see how suddenly the transition occurred, to see the term “country” used in Virginia in the 1760s referring specifically to Virginia, transformed into another “country”—“the Cause of our Common Country.” And very soon, we hear Washington himself speak of “the great American body.”
Oh, how the colonies wanted the king to be their king. Oh, how the place that was about to become America blamed Parliament for their troubles, Washington himself referring to the invading British armed forces as “the ministerial troops.” This is after the Boston skirmishing, just before the war officially commences in New York. At last, though, in January 1776, the king, speaking in Parliament, accused the Americans of revolting “for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” The colonies were mortified; the colonists disowned King George immediately, renouncing him in newspapers as “an unnatural father.”
“Your name darkens the moral sky and stinks in the nostrils of the world,” said a writer referring to himself as “Soldier” in a broadside. The king was called a monster in human form, likened to Cain.
As I say, it is a long story, and you might read any number of historical accounts of the breakup of the king and his American colonies, the point being that the replacement father began in his post not after the war or after the Constitution or after the first White House or after an obelisk was chosen to represent him in the place that, as it ended up, he himself chose to call Washington, D.C., on account of his plans for the country and his own personal real estate development goals. The replacement father began his fatherhood almost immediately. He took his new position right here, in the middle of the Middle Colonies, within view of an Empire State Building that was not yet built.*
In New Jersey, at the start of long, never-certain war, a Hessian commander was startled to hear a New Jersey couple sing: “God save great Washington! God damn the King!” Even before the first major battle of the Revolution, a town in Massachusetts incorporated and took the name Washington, becoming the first geographical place named in his honor. A few weeks later, in what is today known as the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, Mount Washington was named in honor of the new father; soon afterward, the name Washington showed up as the name of a district in North Carolina, a town and a mountain in ...
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