Library Blog

Overlooked Books: A Civil War, a.k.a. The American Revolution

Monday, June 17, 2024

The New York Society Library archives note that “[owing]… to the accidents of the late war,” the Library closed on April 26, 1774; it did not re-open for the next 14 years. King’s College also closed during the Revolution, re-opening as Columbia College after an eight-year shutdown. Those lengthy closings - to say nothing of the staggering casualties sustained in and around the city – remind us that even as we celebrate Independence Day, the American Revolution was a bitterly contested civil war that tore New York apart.

To understand that terrible divisiveness, we turn to two old-fashioned best-selling novels – The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821) by James Fenimore Cooper, and Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine (1943). While we should be wary of relying on novels as historical sources, two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians - Alan Taylor on The Spy and Carl Van Doren on Citizen Tom Paine - show how vivid story-telling can advance our understanding of the complexity of feelings of those living through uncertain and troubling times. Also to be considered is Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Loyal Son:The War in Ben Franklin’s House (2017), a well-researched and compelling history of how the war led to the bitter separation between the amiable Founding Father and his accomplished son.

While the growing tension among its Loyalist and Patriot members doubtless contributed to the Library’s closing two years before hostilities began, the worst was yet to come. Recognizing New York’s strategic importance, Britain assembled a 32,000-man expeditionary force to overwhelm a city of 25,000.

The seven-year occupation of Manhattan took a severe toll. Shortly after the Redcoats arrived in the fall of ’76, a fire broke out which burned a quarter of the city. Two years later another fire and the explosion of a ship loaded with gunpowder expanded the ruined area.

With the coming of the British, thousands of Patriots fled the city while Loyalists, now under His Majesty’s protection, moved to occupy vacated dwellings. While the poor set up sail-cloth tents in “canvas town,” grog (rum) shops and houses of prostitution flourished. And if the military occupation brought a measure of order, for civilians it appeared that bivouacked troops were being allowed to get away with murder.

Meanwhile, in the “neutral area” outside the city, raiding parties for each side preyed on the civilian population. In Washington Irving’s sardonic view “ the predatory bands … were apt to err on the safe side and rob friend as well as foe.”

When it came distinguishing friend from foe, James Fenimore Cooper, could well appreciate the difficulty. His father, having successfully evaded service for either side, grew wealthy developing land confiscated from Loyalist families in and around what would become Cooperstown, New York. James, in turn, had married into a Loyalist family – the once fabulously wealthy De Lanceys. Drawing on accounts of family, friends and neighbors, Cooper told the story of a Westchester family struggling to stay together with a son serving with the British, one daughter in love with a dashing Patriot and another struggling to deal with her betrothal to a perfidious Redcoat.

Beginning with the beautiful Wharton sisters, Cooper laid the romance on thick. And it worked. The first “blockbuster” by an American, The Spy was read by thousands at home and abroad (including the young Franz Schubert, who on his deathbed in Vienna called for more Cooper novels).

What set The Spy apart from other romances was its American setting, the absence of lords and ladies, and the appearance of an anti-hero – Harvey Birch, a disheveled peddler, unconcerned with political loyalties and distinguished only by an uncanny ability to thread his way through the lines of combatants. Ultimately revealed as a double-agent serving directly under Washington, Birch was among the first of a long line of tough, selfless American loners to be followed by the Lone Ranger, Sam Spade, and Clark Kent. Though clearly a romance, not everyone in The Spy lives happily ever after; war leaves in its wake troubled and conflicted survivors.

This 1822 edition of The Spy from the Library's Special Collections includes Cooper's autograph on a dedication to James Aitcheson and a note from then-Head Librarian Philip J. Forbes that the book was donated by the author.

No family breakup was more conspicuous or politically fraught than the estrangement between Benjamin Franklin and his son, William. They had maintained a warm and trusting relationship until the father became the revolutionary while the son, Governor of New Jersey for thirteen years, remained staunchly loyal to the Crown. And whereas William sought forgiveness at war’s end, Ben rejected his overtures, writing that “ … nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen sensations as to find myself deserted in my old age by my only son; and not only deserted, but to find him taking up arms against me, in a cause wherein my good fame, fortune and life were all at stake.”

Though sympathetic toward William, Daniel Mark Epstein in The Loyal Son shows why reconciliation was so difficult. No ordinary Loyalist, William was the only colonial governor who remained at his post even as the Patriots were closing in. After enduring a two-year imprisonment, and additional months in solitary confinement, William headed for British-occupied New York, where over the course of four years he led a paramilitary group to avenge the killing of Loyalist civilians. While William believed his irregulars would energize the British war effort, the high command considered his raids counter-productive and sought to rein him in. Meanwhile in Paris, Ben Franklin was painfully aware that his son’s activities were undermining peace negotiations. In the end, Franklin could forgive other Loyalists, but not his son.

As the war drew to a close, William Franklin, among thousands of Loyalists, left behind what The New York Packet (December 16, 1784) called “a ruined city … of exiles, disbanded soldiery, mixed foreigners, disaffected Tories and the refuse of a British army.” And then, as the years passed and the Revolution became a dim memory, there arrived among the exiles and aging veterans, a once-celebrated war hero, Tom Paine.

His story was improbable. Unemployed at 37 and separated from his wife, Paine departed from London in late 1774, arriving in Philadelphia with a somewhat tepid letter of recommendation from Ben Franklin. Quite understandably, Franklin had failed to recognize the genius of an undistinguished man looking for work. Within a year, Paine had completed Common Sense, a pamphlet arguing that since ordinary people could, without a king, manage their own affairs, Americans should declare their independence.

When it came to swaying public opinion, it was now obvious that no one could match Paine. Historian George Trevelyan wrote that “it would be difficult to name any human composition… [having] an effect at once so instant, so extended and lasting.” Though a majority of Americans in 1776 did not favor rebellion, Paine convinced enough of them to take up arms and then to keep fighting.

Paine briefly served as staff to General Nathaniel Greene, but it was as a writer, not as a fighter that he proved his worth. Written during the war’s darkest days, his Crisis pamphlets lifted the spirits of the troops and kept the colonies united behind the struggle.

After the war, to put the violence behind him, Paine sailed for Britain, hoping to realize his dream of constructing iron bridges there and in France. It was not to be. Responding to Burke’s denunciation of the French revolution, Paine called for universal suffrage and an end to aristocratic rule. His incendiary Rights of Man aroused such enthusiasm that fearful British authorities ordered his arrest, charging him with treason and seditious libel. Fleeing to Paris, he was immediately welcomed as a conquering hero and elected as a delegate to the National Convention. Though he spoke little French, Paine made it clear that while he opposed monarchy, he also opposed regicide. Following the execution of Louis XVI, Paine, now accused of being a counter-revolutionary, feared that he too might be guillotined. He spent 10 months in prison.

On returning home after fifteen years, Paine was greeted not as a hero but as the devil incarnate. In The Age of Reason - written in France - Paine had dismissed organized religion as little more than a racket, not unlike the monarchy or hereditary aristocracy. The Bible? A collection of myths. Though he believed in a beneficent god, Paine was seen as a contemptible atheist. When living in New Rochelle on a farm confiscated from Loyalists, he was taunted by the villagers and denied the right to vote. He then retreated to the city, first to Bleecker Street and then 59 Grove Street, where he died at age 72. He did not rest in peace. The British journalist William Cobbett, declaring a decade after Paine’s death that America had failed to recognize a genius, exhumed the body and smuggled the remains to England. The bones were somehow misplaced, their whereabouts still unknown.

What distinguished Howard Fast’s Citizen Tom Paine – Professor Van Doren pointed out in his introduction – was its “intimate sympathy with Paine’s passion for uncomplicated reason and uncompromising action.” That Fast could so thoroughly embrace Paine’s call for social justice reflected the young novelist’s struggle to come to grips with his own impoverished childhood on the Lower East Side. After graduating from high school, Fast published a number of short stories and historical novels, but it was Citizen Tom Paine that brought him nation-wide recognition. Following that triumph, Fast soon found himself in contempt of Congress for refusing to divulge the names of fellow Communist party members. (The black and white image here shows Fast before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950.) While serving a three-month prison term, he wrote the novel Spartacus, chronicling the Roman slave revolt. The popularity of Spartacus and the release of Stanley Kubrick’s film starring Kirk Douglas helped break the blacklist. Paine would have rejoiced!

Wishing members a joyful Independence Day. If perhaps caught in traffic or having taken a wrong turn in the pursuit of happiness, spare a moment to recall the vanquished and perhaps a hero, forgotten or despised. See you, if not on the beach, then in the stacks.

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