by Barrett Seaman –
On November 9, narrative historian Russell Shorto returns to the rivertowns as the featured speaker at the Irvington Historical Society’s annual meeting. The author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City and The Island at the Center of the World, about Manhattan, Shorto has been a favorite in the village, having spoken there twice before. His subject this time is his latest work, Revolution Song, a telling of the American Revolution story from the perspective of six lives that, one way or another, intersected during the second half of the 18th Century.
Each of the six is a real historical figure, and Shorto depicts each with the meticulousness of an historian and the felicity of a natural writer. The central character is George Washington, an iconic subject of numerous biographies. The other five are less obvious at first blush, but their stories reflect different facets of the American story—indeed of the world order as it evolved in the course of the 1700s.
Only slightly less prominent than Washington at the time was George Germain, the British lord, soldier and, as secretary of state for the British colonies leading up to the Revolution, the man who directly oversaw the failed British attempt to thwart the colonial uprising.
Abraham Yates was a shoemaker in Albany who successfully remade himself as a local attorney and politician. He advised Washington during the war and served as a New York delegate to the Congress of the Confederation in Philadelphia. Shorto calls Yates the “unknown Founding Father.”
The Seneca Chief Kayethwahkeh, known to English speakers as Cornplanter, was a fearsome warrior whose Iroquois tribe chose its European allies based on a fervent desire to retain control of their own lands. As an ally of the British during the Revolution, Cornplanter ended up on the losing side and faced the consequences in post-war meetings with General Washington.
Margaret Moncrieffe Coghlan, the headstrong daughter of a British army officer, found herself trapped inside rebel-held New York City in the shadow of Washington’s headquarters. She spent the rest of her life bridling against male domination but dependent upon it as a serial mistress of various London aristocrats.
Venture Smith was born Broteer Furro in West Africa but was taken to the Americas as a slave. Avoiding the fate of deadly work in the sugar cane fields of Barbados, he ended up indentured to a series of white owners in coastal Connecticut. Smart, determined and enormously strong, he managed eventually to buy himself out of slavery and died a relatively wealthy and free man in the new American nation.
Inclusion of these last three might strike some as Shorto’s attempt at politically correct inclusion, but the author makes a strong case that they bring to the story important representations of the complexities inherent in the Revolution and in the broader global evolution of the Enlightenment as articulated by the likes of Spinoza, Locke and Burke. To find them, he “auditioned” more than 100 figures from the period. Washington was his last pick; after he was satisfied that he had sufficient breadth from more obscure characters.
With the possible exception of Venture Smith, each of the personae in Shorto’s tableau had at least some personal interaction with George Washington. But each, including Washington, was also motivated by resistance to, and resentment of some form of systemic oppression: Cornplanter of the white man’s usurpation of native lands; Coghlan of the paternalistic culture in which she was forced to live; Smith of slavery; Yates of the arrogance of ruling elites. Even George Germain, as the one British figure and, in Shorto’s words “a perfect villain,” had reason to resent his British peers’ disdain for what was deemed to be his earlier cowardice in battle against the French in the Seven Years War. And Washington himself deeply resented the refusal of the British to grant him an army commission for his service in the French and Indian War.
Shorto contends that the currents that ran through 18th century colonial America are evident in the United States of the 21st century: the resentment of elites and distrust of government as expressed by the Tea Party and Trump supporters going into the 2016 election, which then flipped from Right to Left post-election, as liberals became alarmed by Trump’s autocratic style. And there are the ongoing debates over race, gender and freedom of the press. In that sense, he argues, the American Revolution has yet to end.
Shorto’s Irvington Historical Society talk will be at 7 p.m. on Friday, November 9 at Irvington’s Main Street School, 101 Main Street. Admission is free.