New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Statesmen

The Fallen Angel

Around twilight on June 7, 1812 the old soldier landed somewhere near today’s South Street Seaport. The colonel hastened to a friend’s house at 66 Water Street, only to find everyone away. Only around midnight did he find a room—already occupied by five other men—in “‘a plain house’ along a dark alley.” In the morning, he found his friend Samuel Swartwout at home, and after an affectionate welcome the Swartwout brothers lodged him.

The charm that had borne him up remained potent: a boyhood friend and long-time political opponent, Robert Troup, lent him ten dollars and a law library. He rented space at 9 Nassau Street. He took out some newspaper advertisements. He ordered a small tin sign, “brightly lacquered,” bearing his name, and tacked it to the outside wall.    When he arrived to open his office on the morning of July 5, 1812, a line of clients awaited him. Hundreds more would follow. Within twelve days, his receipts totaled a staggering $2,000.00. “However the inhabitants of New York viewed…the man,” Milton Lomask writes, “they had not forgotten the skills of…the advocate.”

Thus, at fifty-eight, Aaron Burr resumed the practice of law.

He had been born February 6, 1756 in Newark, New Jersey. He entered Princeton in the sophomore class at thirteen, took his degree with distinction at sixteen, and even spoke at commencement.

He was elegant from youth: small, slender, broad-shouldered, and handsome.  He had fine taste in clothes, as dozens of unpaid tailors on two continents would attest. His manners were exquisite, his conversation never palled, and whether in the courtroom or the United States Senate, he spoke quietly and conversationally, without bombast or literary allusion. He strove to see things as they are, not as they ought to be, and possessed a massive savoir faire: “… dexterity enough to conceal the truth, without telling a lie; sagacity enough to read other people’s countenances; and serenity enough not to let them discover anything by yours.”

He fought for American independence at the battles of Quebec, Brooklyn, and Morningside Heights. He was a lieutenant colonel at twenty-two, wintered at Valley Forge, and had a horse shot from under him at Monmouth on June 28, 1778. The man of pleasure once single-handedly suppressed a mutiny in his regiment.  A ringleader leveled his musket at Burr, shouting, “Now is the time, my brave boys.” The last syllable had barely left his lips when Burr’s saber severed his arm just above the elbow. There were no more mutinies.

During his service, he met Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a British officer serving in the West Indies who lived in Bergen County, New Jersey. Burr later wrote that Mrs. Prevost possessed “the truest heart, the ripest intellect, and the most winning manners of any woman” he had ever met. She spoke French fluently, frequently quoted the Latin poets, and read avidly. Burr admired her greatly. She responded with warmth and friendship.

Her husband died in 1781. She married Burr the following year. Nothing so testifies to Theodosia Prevost’s character, charm, and intelligence than that this sensual, cynical man was her faithful husband. More, though Burr was a feminist by instinct—he admired Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women—his marriage made his beliefs heartfelt. He was among the first practical politicians—and Burr was nothing if not practical—to work for women’s education on a par with men. “It was a knowledge of your mind,” he wrote to her, “which first inspired me…the ideas which you have often heard me express in favor of female intellectual powers are founded on what I have … seen…in you.” She died in 1794 after twelve years of marriage.

In 1782 he was admitted to the New York bar. He was elected to the Legislature in 1784, where he fought to abolish slavery, and appointed attorney general in 1789. Within two years, he was a United States Senator. Burr worked hard without taking politics seriously. For him it was the pursuit of “fun and honor & profit.”  This earned the antipathy of Thomas Jefferson, who took politics almost as seriously as he did himself.

Yet the Virginian and Burr needed one another. Burr controlled the country’s first mass party organization: the Society of St. Tammany. If Thomas Jefferson was the Democrats’ first ideologue, Burr was their first mechanic.

In 1800, the Jeffersonians nominated Burr for vice president and his troubles began. Presidential electors then voted for two candidates for president and vice president without specifying a preference either man’s holding either office. The candidate receiving the most votes became president; the runner-up became vice president. Jefferson and Burr tied with seventy-three votes each. The election went to the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who detested Jefferson, tried electing Burr instead. The House elected Jefferson President and Burr Vice President only after thirty-six ballots.

Jefferson froze Burr out and withheld patronage from his followers. In April 1804 Burr, knowing he would not be renominated for vice president, ran for governor of New York. Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the Treasury, had come to hate Burr, and Hamilton’s rage was reflected in his intensely personal campaigning, which included indiscreet personal remarks reported in the newspapers. Burr was heavily defeated.

Burr seized upon correspondence published in the Albany Register. Dr. Charles Cooper wrote, “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man,” and “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Burr.”

Burr requested an “acknowledgment or denial” of the “still more despicable opinion” of himself attributed to Hamilton. Two days later, Hamilton evasively replied with a dissertation on the meaning of “despicable.” Burr responded, “…the Common sense of mankind” affixed to the words “the idea of dishonor.” He then demanded that Hamilton generally disavow “any intention… to convey impressions derogatory to the honor of Mr. Burr.”

Hamilton was trapped. This meant denying most of his political conversations, speeches, and correspondence for nearly two decades. Hamilton now feebly offered that he could not recall using any term that would justify Dr. Cooper’s construction.

Burr again demanded a disclaimer. Hamilton refused. On June 27, 1804 Burr challenged and Hamilton accepted. On Wednesday, July 11, at 7 a.m., the two men stood ten paces apart on the Weehawken shore, pistols in hand. Hamilton missed. Burr did not.

Burr was indicted for murder in New York and in New Jersey. While his lawyers and friends worked to quash the indictments, he returned to Washington, where he resumed his duties as vice president. On March 2, 1805 his last day in public office, Burr rose from the chair. He stood before a hall of professional politicians familiar with every rhetorical device, many of whom despised him. Without changing his customary conversational tone, he spoke briefly of the United States and the Senate itself, “a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty.” He implored Divine protection upon the Constitution and having spoken from the heart then stepped down, walked across the chamber, and went out the door.

Behind him, the Senate sat in absolute silence. Senator Samuel Mitchill of New York wrote, “My colleague, General Smith, stout and manly as he is, wept as profusely as I did. He…did not recover…for a quarter of an hour.”

Even before leaving office, Burr had begun a conspiracy. Precisely what Burr planned remains “a mystery, a puzzle, a lock without a key.” He told his first biographer, Matthew L. Davis, that the scheme he called “X” was intended to “revolutionize Mexico” and settle some lands he held in Texas. Perhaps it was.

But the legends remain and the papers tantalize: the maps of New Orleans, Veracruz, and the roads to Mexico City and the correspondence hinting he would not liberate but seize Mexico, draw the Western states from the Union, and, combining them into one nation, stand at the throne of the Aztecs and crown himself Emperor of the West.

“The gods invite us to glory and fortune,” Burr wrote to his co-conspirator, Gen. James Wilkinson. John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, most ferocious of politicians, called Wilkinson “the mammoth of iniquity… the only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.” Wilkinson, whose self-designed uniforms, encrusted with gold braid and frogging, failed to conceal his massive girth, was then general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He was also a paid agent of Spain. At some point, Wilkinson told President Jefferson everything. On November 27, 1806 Jefferson issued a proclamation that led to the collapse of the plot and Burr’s arrest and indictment for treason by levying war against the United States.

Burr was tried in Richmond, Virginia before Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s third cousin (they detested each other). The United States attorney insinuated during the trial that Marshall would be impeached if he did not rule for the prosecution on the evidentiary motions. Marshall noted the threat in his decision. He also noted the Constitution required that treason be proven by the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of treason. Of the dozens of witnesses presented by the government, not even one had testified to an overt act. Marshall then excluded all evidence presented by the government as “merely corroborative and incompetent.” Within twenty-five minutes, the jury found Burr not guilty.

He had beaten the treason rap and quashed the murder indictments.???you didn’t say above that his lawyers were successful. If so, why did he have to leave office??? Now, in a self-imposed exercise in discretion, Burr left for Europe, traveling to England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, not to return for four years. At first, he sought financial support for “X” from the British and then the French. Nothing came of it. From the beginning of his exile[self-imposed?], Burr recorded his experiences in his private journal, in which he reveals himself as he does nowhere else. Perhaps its saddest revelations [fix repetition?] are that this vital, charming man was so easily bored. Yet, as Lomask writes, “There was a limit to how many parties he could attend, how many ceremonies he could watch, how many books he could read, how many bright and articulate people he could draw within the radiant circle of his charm.”

He devoted increasing energies to fornication, often with prostitutes and with other women whenever possible. Lomask notes he described his amatory encounters as muse, “a French hunting term meaning ‘the beginning of the rutting season in animals.'” Thus, in Copenhagen, after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter (bad muse), Burr returned to the hotel where the chambermaid occupied his time: “not bad; muse again.” During one busy morning in Stockholm, “ma bel Marie” came by after breakfast, a Hanoverian woman at nine, and “Carolin” at two p.m. The former vice president admitted he would have been happier if Carolin had deferred her visit to the next morning. Then he ordered a bath, noting “nothing restores me after too much muse like the hot bath.” In Paris, he noted muse was plentiful, but not always to his liking: he found the Parisiennes cold and calculating, with their passions in the head and not the heart. Yet some principles remained untainted despite boredom and lack of money. He never descended to drinking cheap wine.

After his return to the United States, he only dabbled in politics. In 1812, he was pulling strings for “an unknown man in the West, named Andrew Jackson, who will do credit to a commission in the army if conferred upon him.” When Jackson became President in 1829, Samuel Swartwout, whose hospitality Burr had enjoyed on his return from exile, was appointed Collector of the Port of New York with Burr’s help. As M. R. Werner relates, Swartwout later “hurried to Europe when his accounts showed that he had borrowed from the government’s funds… the sum of $1,225,705.69… The public, with that charming levity which has always characterized its attitude towards wholesale plunder, made the best of a bad situation by coining a new word… when a man put the government’s money into his own pocket, it was said… he had ‘Swartwouted.'”

In 1833, Burr married Eliza Jumel, probably the richest American woman of the time, for her money. Within the year, she began divorce proceedings upon the grounds of adultery, a remarkable, even heartening charge against a man of 78.

On September 14, 1836 the old man died in a second-floor room at Winant’s Inn, 2040 Richmond Terrace in Port Richmond, Staten Island. Two days later, he was buried by his father and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey. Lomask writes, “For nearly twenty years the grave went unmarked. Then a relative arranged for the installation of a simple marble slab.”

December 24, 2015   No Comments

The Best Man

On November 7, 1876 Samuel Jones Tilden, Democrat, of New York, won the election to succeed Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States. On March 5, 1877 a Republican from Ohio placed his hand on the Bible, looked the Chief Justice in the eye, and repeated, “I, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, do solemnly swear…” The elections of 1876 are unique: the only time when we know the result was fixed and the loser entered the White House.

Tilden was sixty-two when he began his great adventure. He was born in New Lebanon, New York. His father was a wheel-horse of the Albany Regency, the Democratic machine created by Martin Van Buren—“the Little Magician” —that dominated state politics from 1820 to 1840. Tilden grew up among the Regency’s leaders. Having inherited his father’s knack for analysis and deduction, Tilden simply listened to their conversations on great issues and low politics. By eighteen he was publishing political articles in the Albany Argus, by nineteen essays and pamphlets on taxes and banking. He often advanced his agenda with the pen: his research was thorough, his logic impeccable, and his prose cool, unemotional, logical, and persuasive.

The writing reflected the man. Tilden was cold and aloof. His only passions were politics and the law. He never married. He probably had no interest in sex at all. Harry Thurston Peck, a close observer, wrote, “He treated his friends as though at some time they might become his enemies.” Peck may be overstating it: Tilden had no friends.  He did not need them.

With a few scraps of formal education, including a term at Yale, he clerked in a law office while attending what is now New York University Law School. In 1841, he was admitted to the bar and two years later became New York City’s corporation counsel. Two years later, he was elected to the State Assembly, where his land reform legislation ended the Patroon Wars between the great upstate landlords and their tenant farmers and won him a reputation for statesmanship.

On returning to private life, he specialized in reorganizing railroads and over two decades made a fortune in salvaging, rearranging, and combining sickly corporations. He was loyal to Van Buren’s anti-slavery Democrats, the Barnburners. As the Little Magician moved left, Tilden went with him, even bolting the Democratic Party when Van Buren ran for President in 1848 on an anti-slavery third-party ticket.

Tilden’s public personality largely concealed a shy, cold hypochondriac behind a façade of worldliness and good manners. One had to know him well to dislike him. He could do nothing about his appearance: sallow, with a prominent nose and jutting chin, graying hair, and a pronounced stoop. His voice was hoarse, even unpleasant. Yet the voice carried, and the mind behind it manufactured a kind of stripped-down rhetoric, clear, logical, and persuasive, that struck sparks in the minds of Tilden’s listeners. Few so cold have ignited such passion in their followers.

Tilden cautiously supported the Civil War effort, though he considered the Republicans revolutionaries, trying to create an excessively powerful federal government to impose their social agenda without regard to its effect on individual freedom.

During the 1860s, as William M. Tweed dominated the New York City Democratic Party through Tammany Hall, Tilden quietly noted the organization’s growing corruption—he observed everything—until Tweed began raiding the City treasury beyond reason and good taste. When The New York Times, then a Republican partisan rag, broke the scandals in 1870, Tilden was initially cautious. Then he decided to help destroy Tweed to save the party. He personally financed much of the investigation that made Tweed’s prosecution inevitable and successful.

The Democratic Party needed a gubernatorial candidate who could distract voters from the scandal. Tilden, who now believed he was the only man who could clean up the state, was available. In 1874, Tilden was elected governor. He exposed and shattered the Canal Ring, a conspiracy of contractors and officeholders who had grafted millions from the state waterways. The local hero became the presidential contender.

As the Centennial opened, the Grant administration was exhausted by eight years of scandal. The President, a lion among jackals, was blind to his friends’ dishonesty and incompetence. Like most revolutionaries, the Republicans knew how to enjoy power once they’d seized it, and their corruption created a backlash for change.

Tilden won the Democratic nomination on the second ballot. The Republicans deadlocked for seven ballots before compromising on Rutherford B. Hayes. For once, compromise was a good thing. Educated at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, Hayes was a successful lawyer-politician. In 1861, he marched off with the 23rd Ohio as a major (one of the privates was future President William McKinley). In 1865, he returned a major general. He led from the front because that was where a leader belonged (he was wounded five times, seeing more front line fighting than any other President). He was a competent, scrupulously fair administrator in later life because he had learned an officer’s first duty was his men’s welfare and so, throughout his political career, his most faithful supporters were the men he had led in battle.

Hayes was elected to Congress and then three terms as Governor of Ohio. Hayes, good-humored and kindly, was attractive, clear-eyed, eloquent, magnetic, and generous. Men admired Tilden. They loved Hayes.

An American presidential campaign is really a series of campaigns and much of it, like an iceberg, is invisible to a casual observer. In 1876, the Civil War had only been over for a decade. Much of the South was still ruled by Republican puppet governors upheld by the Army. As the Republicans were the party of abolition, Southern whites flocked to the Democracy.

Southern elections had become times of terror. Outside the state capitals and the lines of communication held by federal troops, as numerous government records, newspaper files, and collections of private correspondence make clear, white extremists conducted a secret war of fire and blood against Republicans. Unlike the lumpenproletariat comprising today’s Klan, these terrorists were often community leaders bitterly determined to destroy the Republicans, disenfranchise the blacks, and restore white rule.

They intimidated tens of thousands of former slaves from voting. Republican activists who didn’t get the message, whether former slaves or carpetbaggers, including the white women teachers who had come south to teach former slaves how to read and write, were burned out, murdered, lynched, or raped. The nightriders, believing they were entitled to rule, acted on their irrational resentment of anyone who even seemed to threaten their entitlement.

Above all this, the two major candidates fought it out on a high plane. Beneath them, the campaign sank lower and lower. The reports indicate that Tilden was accused of having been a miser, a tax dodger, a traitor, a secessionist, and a supporter of slavery. There were many suggestive references to his bachelorhood.

Nonetheless, on November 7, 1876 Tilden polled 4,300,590; Hayes, 4,036,298; Peter Cooper, the inventor, financier, and founder of Cooper Union on Astor Place, polled 81,737 on the Greenback ticket, and other candidates polled 12,158. Hayes went to bed believing he had lost. Zach Chandler, the Republican National Chairman, went to bed with a bottle of whiskey to console himself.

Hayes’s managers had a better idea. With the cooperation of The New York Times, they planted stories in the mass media casting doubt on Tilden’s election by claiming Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina for the Republicans. The Republican National Committee converted that doubt to reality by challenging and invalidating returns from Democratic counties. Tilden’s 7,000 vote majority in Louisiana vanished when the certifying board threw out 13,000 of his votes.

In Florida, the certifying board apparently determined Hayes’s electors had won despite Tilden’s majority. In South Carolina, where the governor regularly executed state papers between entertainments in one of Charleston’s finer whorehouses, anything was possible. The new results threw the electoral votes of those states to Hayes, giving him a margin of one vote: 185 to 184.

When the Electoral College voted in December 1876, the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives could not even agree on how the votes should be counted. Tilden fought with the weapons honed over a lifetime: precedent, analysis, and reasoned argument.

He wrote a brilliant series of articles and studies arguing that the votes should be counted before the House, so coolly logical, sensible, and persuasive as to prevent the Senate leadership from unilaterally accepting the contested results and proclaiming Hayes the President-elect. It is uncommon to find politicians shamed from doing what they want by mere writings, but there it is.

Meanwhile, the nation slid toward civil war. There were rumors of violence and military coups. Demonstrators chanted, “Tilden or Blood.” Democrats began drilling. Army officers began hinting that restive troops were ready to march on Washington, to win a second time at bayonet point the victory already won in the ballot box.

We do not know when the moment’s ripeness was made clear to Samuel J. Tilden. Nevertheless, for a few days in the winter of 1877, he held the power to ignite a second Civil War. No one could have blamed him. He had won the Presidency, only to have it taken from him by one vote in a shabby burglary. It would have required a single word, a nod, perhaps only a moment’s convenient silence.

It did not come. He publicly denounced even the suggestion of the use of force. He insisted that he would take power by law.

To end the deadlock, on January 29, 1877, Congress created by a bipartisan Electoral Commission to resolve the dispute. Oddly enough, both Hayes and Tilden denounced the Electoral Commission as unconstitutional. Both announced they would accept the result. The Electoral Commission began deliberating on February 2, 1877. Inauguration Day was on March 5.

At some point, the Commission chose not to go beyond the returns. This served both parties. The Republicans did not want the corruption of the official results investigated. The Democrats did not want an examination into their relationship with the nightriders. Perhaps, as some have suggested of more recent national elections, neither party wanted an honest exploration of the other party’s misconduct.  Such an investigation might have gone out of control and spoil the game for the players, if not the people.

On February 26, 1877, four Southern Democrats and five Ohio Republicans, including future President James A. Garfield, met at the Wormley House, a Washington hotel. Nothing was put on paper. They agreed that, if Hayes was inaugurated without disruption, Federal troops would be withdrawn from the South.  The Reconstruction state governments would collapse in favor of rule by the Southern white elite.

Then by party lines, eight to seven, the Commission voted for the Hayes electors, thus making Hayes the 19th President. The results were announced on March 2, 1877. Hayes was privately sworn in at the White House on March 3, 1877, just in case, and went through the public ceremony two days later.

On learning of the Commission’s decision, Tilden smiled, murmuring, “It is what I expected.” Later, he said, “I can retire to private life with the consciousness… of having been elected to the highest office in the gift of the people, without any of its cares and responsibilities.” Withdrawing into his Gothic Revival brownstone townhouse on Gramercy Park South, Tilden died in 1886, leaving most of his fortune to create what is now the New York Public Library.

Few men so unloving have done so much for their country. By breaking up the great Dutch land grants, his land reform laws created thousands of independent farmers. The Tweed Ring was smashed with his money and not one dime of his expenditures was ever repaid. At the great moment of his life, he refused to let his followers install him by force in the Presidency he had won by right. His posthumous gift that created the New York Public Library has enriched millions of lives, including mine.

Rutherford B. Hayes kept his part of the deal. On April 24, 1877, less than two months after taking office, Hayes ordered the Federal troops back to their barracks, ending Reconstruction. He retired after one term and died at his home in Spiegel Grove, Ohio on January 13, 1893, aged 70. Only a few still called him “His Fraudulency the President.”

Over fifty years ago, Irving Stone published They Also Ran, a collection of essays on losing major party presidential candidates that is something of a minor classic. He summed up the election of 1876 thus: “It had been a photo finish, with history serving as the infallible camera. By the time the film could be developed, the wrong people had collected their money and gone home, the stands were deserted, the track dark. Yet there remains the picture for all time, with Tilden out front by a nose.”

New York Press, November 28, 2000

November 28, 2015   No Comments

No Substitute for Experience

“Are you a politician, Roscoe?”
“I refuse to answer on grounds that it might degrade or incriminate me.”
~ From
Roscoe, by William Kennedy

In Roscoe, William Kennedy continues working the vein prospected by two minor classics, William Riordan’s Plunkett of Tammany Hall and Edwin O’Brien’s The Last Hurrah. The seventh Kennedy novel set in the author’s hometown of Albany, New York, is elegantly crafted, often uproariously funny, and betrays both a profound understanding of human frailty born of original sin and the sure knowledge that man born of woman is doomed to sorrow.

His characters, of course, enjoy themselves as best they can, usually at each other’s expense. Thus, one of Roscoe‘s numerous memorable minor characters, Mac, one of the cops who assassinated Legs Diamond when the racketeer failed to understand that the Albany County Democratic organization was far more powerful than the mob, reflects on the stabbing murder of an informer: “Robbed and stabbed, and he dies naked, broke, full of holes, and covered with blood. I like it.” Later, just before a fixed cockfight between birds owned by two brothers and party bosses, Patsy and Bindy McCall, Bindy introduces Roscoe to his cock.

“This is the Swiggler,” says Bindy. “You ever been swiggled?”

“Not by a chicken,” answers Roscoe.

“Blame Roscoe,” the novel’s closing sentence, is not an evasion of responsibility but an admission of artistry. Kennedy closes the book with his author’s note, expressing his gratitude to numerous persons, living and dead, whose stories and knowledge helped him to form his work. Kennedy may have begun with facts. His novel is full of historical figures, from FDR and Al Smith to Herbert H. Lehman to John McCooey and John Curry, the one-time Democratic bosses of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Of course, these are all invented characters, just like the other invented characters.

Yet having been born and raised within ten miles of the city of Albany, I know that many of his other invented characters are closely modeled on once-living persons. A knowing Albanian might read a William Kennedy novel merely to pick out the old pols, pimps, and hangers-on. This would be vulgar and more than a bit of a mistake. I admit indulging in it anyway. In reflecting on Kennedy’s fictional political boss, Patsy McCall, I think of the great Dan O’Connell, who ruled Albany’s Democratic party and thus Albany for over half a century. He had a certain knack for massaging election results. A story Mario Cuomo once told had Dan marooned on a desert island with another fellow, and only one coconut between them. They voted on who should eat it, and Dan won by 110 to 1.

Happily for the rest of us who may not know the “Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels,” the book stands on its own. It has been five years since his last novel: Kennedy has used his time well. He is among the handful of important contemporary novelists trained in the old school of journalism: the discipline of publishing facts with an economy of words to a daily deadline. And it is honorable praise to note that even his lesser books are exquisitely finished and all have integrity, for they are the work of an honest man.

Roscoe is a novel set in the summer and fall of 1945, in which Roscoe Conway, lawyer, orator, and Democratic political operative, attempts to escape from the life he has made. This summary does not hint at the amazing tangle of subplots, from fixing elections to child custody suits, suicides, payoffs, assaults, brothel raids, cockfighting, murder, sibling rivalry, and gambling rings. Yet, the narrative is not confusing. Kennedy’s art captures the essence of life—just one damned thing after another, with nothing ever finally resolved but merely overcome for the moment.

In reflecting on the novel, I flipped back to his author’s note. I found it poignant for personal reasons. One of his sources was the first politician to give me an interview, when I was writing for the Shaker High School Bison in 1971. Erastus Corning 2d (he preferred the Arabic to the Roman numeral) was elected mayor of Albany eleven times before his death in May 1983. No American mayor has served longer.  As Kennedy notes in his offbeat history of the city, O Albany!, Corning held power “longer than Trujillo, Franco, Peron, Batista, Somoza, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ethelred II, and…Augustus Caesar.” Even at sixteen, I found the urbane man across the table from me both a great gentleman and one of the toughest guys I would ever meet. Thirty years have passed, and I am still right—on both counts.

Corning’s unusual first name (after forty years in office, some believed his real first name was “Mayor”) is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning beloved. He was brilliant (Yale ’32, Phi Beta Kappa, with a dual major in history and English literature), precocious (Assemblyman at twenty-six, State Senator at twenty-seven, Mayor at thirty-two), and hardworking (he routinely worked a sixty-hour week). He inherited wealth and made more through his political connections (his insurance agency, Albany Associates, wrote ninety percent of Albany County’s insurance, meaning some $1.5 million in annual premiums; as he was a city official, not a county official, the law found no conflict of interest).

At the height of his power, his authority over the city and the county of Albany was absolute. A local newscaster once told him on camera, “…you hold such power that if you told the Common Council to meet in pink lingerie, they would.” Corning replied, “I think you go too far. Blue lingerie, perhaps. But pink is too much.”

Kennedy has written elsewhere that Corning was uninterested in the truth. I disagree: Corning’s capacity for deceit was merely another weapon in his intellectual arsenal. Like Talleyrand (who would have found him a kindred spirit), Corning believed language existed to conceal truth.

Most people who rely on lies to get through the day eventually lose touch with truth. Corning never did. After all, you do not have to believe your own lies. When lucidity was required, his gifts for written and oral expression made him utterly, often brilliantly, clear. The same gifts let him obscure, obfuscate, and evade. At the height of his power, he played the press and the people like grand pianos.

Even Kennedy was not exempt, apparently. The story goes that some forty years ago, as a working reporter for the Albany Times-Union, during a mayoral press conference, Kennedy told Corning that a recent visitor had said the abandoned buildings in Albany made it look like a ghost town or a demolition project, and how did he respond? The Mayor replied that a well-known television commentator had come to Albany and seen all the construction and said it was one of the most vital, growing cities in the Northeast. After the press conference, Kennedy asked the Mayor, “Who was the well-known television commentator?” And the Mayor asked, “Who was the recent visitor?”

I can still imagine the Mayor’s sparkling joy as he declaimed his most famous epigram, “Honesty is no substitute for experience.” How could any intelligent man with a sense of humor resist a politician so brazen, so magnificently audacious, so in command of his wit that when asked his favorite color he replied, “Plaid.”

Corning, who was elected Mayor in 1941, did not seek a draft deferment and served as a combat infantryman in Europe. In Roscoe, Kennedy creates a character, Alexander Fitzgibbon, whose personal and political careers are nearly identical with Corning’s. The resemblances are purely intentional. So are the resemblances between numerous persons and characters. Dan O’Connell seized power over the Democratic party and then over the city and the county of Albany with the help of his brothers between 1919 and 1921. So had Patsy McCall, the crude, violent, corrupt party boss in Kennedy’s novel, who has been “in politics since he was old enough to deface Republican ballots.” But to suggest that Kennedy has merely copied the facts and changed the names is wrongheaded. In fact, Fitzgibbon and McCall, despite Kennedy’s artistry, are simply not as tough or as coarse as their models. It would be difficult for them to be. No one would believe it.

At its heart, the novel lives in a corrupt world. Thus, Kennedy quotes Roscoe’s dead father, Felix Conway, a disgraced ex-mayor, in a passage, “Felix Declares His Principles to Roscoe”:

“Never buy anything that you can rent forever.”


“Give your friends jobs, but at a price and make new friends every day.”


“People say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they’d all be Democrats. Just because they’re dead don’t mean they’re Republicans.”

Finally, Kennedy’s pols, though drawn with affection, are never twinkling benignities out of a Frank Capra movie. This is as it should be: machine politicians liked to think of themselves as means of rough justice, bringing coal and food to the poor. They never considered that the reforms they opposed might have obviated the handouts. Albany’s machine bosses were tough, ruthless men for whom democracy was always spelled with a capital D and politics merely another way of making a living.

Stendhal used the word crystallization to define the process by which the creative mind transforms mere fact to fiction. The analogy was drawn from certain German salt mines, where one might leave behind a tree branch and on returning some years later, find it encrusted with salt crystals. So Kennedy’s memories of a small American city have been transformed by time and imagination into enduring art.

March 5, 2015   No Comments

How I Got Out of Politics

“Ah, Frank,” he said softly. “You’ve done grand things. Grand, grand things.”
“Among others,” Skeffington said.

Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah

Eleven percent of all eligible New Yorkers voted on Tuesday, November 2, 1999. I was among them. I was also among a smaller minority. I was a candidate myself—for Richmond County district attorney on the Right to Life ticket. How did an Irish Catholic regular Democrat come to this?

I was a professional politician for the first nineteen years of my working life. I wrote speeches, newsletters, press releases, and brochures for several city officials, most of whom I remember fondly.

On my first day in the Manhattan borough president’s press office, I used the men’s room. Like the rest of the Municipal Building back in 1982, it was something of a museum piece, with massive five-foot-tall marble urinals that Toulouse-Lautrec could have comfortably used as a shower stall. (It is there, legend says, that the great editor Gene Fowler once asked of the cliché-ridden politician standing beside him, “Do you view with alarm or point with pride?”) A colleague passed me, stepped up to the plate, and gazed down. “I feel so inadequate,” he sighed.

The director of communications was a florid ex-tabloid reporter. He still looked like one of your classic Irish muckers, with a beer in his hand and a “fuck” on his lips. But his drinking days were over. They had been the stuff of  legend. He had won a well-deserved award for reporting. Colleagues had helped him celebrate with enthusiasm, and he had come to consciousness in a Philadelphia house of carnal recreation—alone, I might add, and still in his clothes. He had $20 and a return ticket in his wallet, no recollection of the previous two days, and the kind of hangover that makes death an attractive option.

He had staggered from the Congressional Limited to the IRT #1. Emerging at West 72nd Street and heading for home, wishing West End Avenue a few blocks farther away, he’d passed the local laundry (ah! Anything to put off the inevitable) and picked up his shirts. He arrived home, finally, to find his wife fixing dinner. When she put down the knife and looked at him, he hefted the shirts and replied to her unspoken question, “He runs a great laundry, but the lines are so long.”

He was old-school, and his invective tended to be old-school. I never thought twice about it. But I recall once when he was ranting about a political opponent whom he kept referring to as “a cocksucker,” being surprised when another colleague—a quiet, reserved gay man—objected.

“I am a cocksucker,” he said, “and I really find this offensive.”

New York City politics seems sordid, petty and corrupt. Well, it is. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. As Donald T. Regan has said, “Power corrupts. Absolute power is a real gas.”

Occasionally, this truth spills into a public forum like the City Council. (“The difference between the City Council and a rubber stamp,” former councilman Henry Stern famously quipped, “is that the rubber stamp occasionally leaves an impression.”) Once, when the late Ted Weiss closed a speech to the Council by urging colleagues to “do the right thing,” the Honorable Dominick Corso of Brooklyn weighed in. “You think that takes guts?” he jeered. “It doesn’t take guts to do the right thing. What takes guts is to stand up for what you know is wrong, day after day, year after year. That takes guts!”

Most politicians are gray men: gray in their clothes and temperament, blending into the background. It’s protective coloring. I worked for only one colorful politician, an imposing, avuncular municipal statesman. Once, the statesman and I were going to City Hall. This was in early 1986. The gay rights bill was before the City Council. My statesman polled his district, found his constituents opposed and came out against it. The local gay-bashers, enraged by oncoming defeat, lobbied him anyway.

We had reached the escalator to the Woodside stop on the 7 line when a local scholar, a woman, slipped between the statesman and me to rant about the bill. My boss, probably irritated at my failure to body-block her, played the jolly fat man, chuckling benignly as we rode up the escalator. A train pulled in. People crowded the down side of the escalator. We were within five feet of the top.

At this point his face flushed. He roared, “No, lady! I won’t buy cocaine from you!” and rushed for the train. I followed. She remained, stunned on the platform. It’s been 13 years. She may still be there.

The statesman was opposed for Democratic district leader by an affable right-wing candidate who had unsuccessfully sought office some ten times. The rightist and his wife had seventeen children. He and I were passing out literature at a corner as an older woman came up. She took my stuff. She took his. She noticed the photograph of the candidate, his wife, and their brood. She flung the flier into his face, snarling, “You pervert!”

This job lasted about a year, until the statesman’s driver and I had a disagreement. The driver belted me in the face after I called him an asshole. (He was: he couldn’t resist graphic conversations with his girlfriend, then a discouraged use of the airwaves, and the statesman’s car phone had been disconnected as a result.) In a fatal moment, I told the boss that the driver went or I went.

I went. Good drivers are hard to find.

I enjoyed many such adventures until that life ended on December 31, 1993, when my then-employer, the last City Council president, left office and his successor chose not to retain my services. He and I had tangled before: I had expected it.

I am intolerant of political appointees who whine when a newly elected official fires them in favor of his friends.  Having lived by the sword, I expected to die by it, and I did. Sic transit.

To a regular politician, silence is the paycheck’s price. If one’s opinions are not shared by one’s employer, remain silent or resign. But as a ronin, a masterless samurai, I now had no loyalties commanding discretion.

My opinions are largely conventional: I prefer solving immediate problems to enunciating long-range policy, most of which is bullshit anyway, and there is a lot of truth in the cliche that there is neither a Democratic nor Republican way of picking up garbage.

A few of my opinions, though, are outside the norm. For instance, I believe that despite the ranting about welfare, far more local government spending is largely the investment of public capital for private benefit, i.e., publicly funded improvements to privately managed facilities for immediate private profit and ill-defined public benefit, such as stadium projects for the West Side, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. This merely redistributes wealth from the working classes to the rich.

Issues represent not problems to be solved, but bloody shirts to inflame the rabble. V.O. Key Jr., in his classic Southern Politics in State and Nation, wrote of the Mississippi demagogue James Kemble Vardaman—aka “The Great White Chief”—that “His contribution to statesmanship was advocacy of repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment, an utterly hopeless proposal and for that reason an ideal campaign issue. It would last forever.” In the same vein, adequately funding Social Security, passing a state budget on time, or resolving rent regulation are never resolved. The politicians would then have to invent new issues.

Too many political activists use their activity as therapy: a licensed release for frustrated ambition, hatred, and need to control others. Politicians manipulate these fools to get elected, and later patronize them with little plaques for civic work, unpaid appointments to meaningless boards, or even unimportant paying jobs. Meanwhile, the pols enjoy the perks of office while shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions so their own good times won’t end.

Expressing in mixed company my belief that unborn children are human beings entitled to the right to life quickly placed me in outer darkness. So be it. One step led to another. The laws permitting abortion on demand, being wrong, should be changed by constitutional means. These include peaceful agitation, which includes running for office.

So I became a candidate.

I had advised the Right to Life Party’s state chairman in February that I was available if the party wanted a candidate. One week before the July deadline for filing designating petitions, the local organization got back to me. The Staten Island Right to Life Party organization really isn’t. Organized. Seven or eight volunteers gather sufficient signatures on the party’s designating petitions to qualify its candidates for the ballot.

For the first day of filing, I was the only candidate in the book. Visions of lucky clerical errors danced through my wee little head. Then the others filed before the deadline. Damn.

The campaign was relatively quiet. William Murphy, the pleasant four-term incumbent Richmond County district attorney, had been nominated by the Democratic, Independence, Conservative and Working Families parties. If you went by his political support, he was running farther to the left and to the right than anyone since Norman Mailer ran for mayor on the slogan, “End fluoridation, free Huey Newton.” Catherine DiDomenico, the Republican challenger, though bright, spunky and articulate, was knifed before the campaign began by someone in the GOP apparatus who leaked that four or five other persons had turned down the nomination. And then there was me, Bryk, the lawyer.

The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, a starchy, self-congratulatory professional organization, interviewed the candidates through a committee of self-important men and women. I chose not to participate. I found the questionnaire intrusive.

My lack of faith in the integrity of the enterprise was rewarded when a committee member leaked its confidential deliberations to Murphy’s campaign, who leaked it to the local media. The association approved Murphy’s reelection, and did not approve his Republican opponent. Somehow “Not Approved” became “Not Qualified” in Murphy’s newspaper ads. DiDomenico’s friends counterattacked with a full-page newspaper ad accusing Murphy of favoring the Atlanta Braves over the New York Yankees, which seemed a little desperate to me.

My friends, I found, remained my friends regardless of their opinions on abortion. And audiences were generally polite. In my case, this is probably because (a) I’m polite, (b) I’m articulate and (c) everyone knew that I was going to have my clock cleaned on Election Day.

With the other candidates, I spoke at community forums, from the Staten Island Coalition of Women’s Organizations to the New Brighton Citizens Committee. Murphy calmly recited his accomplishments in office. DiDomenico attacked him as a weak prosecutor and advertised her experience as a legislative counsel and crime victims’ activist. I briefly talked about my background and argued for competent administration and the prosecution of environmental crimes; I occasionally answered questions about the death penalty (I’m against it) and the narcotics laws (I favor relegalizing drugs).

On Election Day, Murphy polled 62 percent, DiDomenico 37 percent and Bryk 2 percent.

Say not that the struggle naught availeth. I had fun, and besides, every man in politics deserves his last hurrah.


New York Press, December 21, 1999

February 17, 2015   Comments Off on How I Got Out of Politics

J. Thomas Heflin, Democrat

Some claim that Mother’s Day was invented by Frank E. Hering, a district governor of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, who first called for Mother’s Day in a 1904 speech in Indianapolis on February 7, 1904. Others hold that Anna M. Jarvis, a wealthy Philadelphia spinster, thought it up. Yet if any man fathered Mother’s Day, he is the Hon. James Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin of Alabama, who as a representative in Congress introduced a joint resolution to designate the second Sunday in May as a day dedicated “to the best mother in the world: your mother.” In 1914, President Wilson signed Cotton Tom’s bill. There are those who argue that this was Heflin’s major contribution to American life. If so, it would be more than we get from most politicians.

He was born on April 9, 1869, the second son of Dr. Wilson and Lavicie Catherine Heflin. After his 1893 admission to the Alabama bar, Heflin practiced law for about a year and then found a job as a clerk in the county courthouse. He would not leave the public payroll for nearly four decades.

For a politician, the ability to entertain an audience may be more useful than intelligence or common sense. Tom Heflin was a great entertainer. He had been a storyteller from childhood, developing a standup comic’s sense of timing, and combined this skill with a great natural instrument, described by The New York World on January 29, 1928 as “a voice of marvelous flexibility and power which he used with conscious and calculated effect. He can be strident when he is denouncing his enemies, or his voice can sink to the soft diapason of an organ when he grows gentle.”

Heflin’s eloquence was more a question of manner than content. Derived from the full-blown bombast current in his youth, his orations were filled with showers of rhetorical sparks and Roman-candle phrases, rich with alliterative generalities and mellifluous polysyllables that were meant to glow and expire. One supporter said, “He can take any two words you mention and turn them into the Declaration of Independence and have enough left over to write the Book of Revelations.”

Thus, he eulogized Alabama’s leading crop: “Cotton is a child of the sun; it is kissed by the silvery beams of a southern moon, and bathed in the crystal dew drops that fall in the silent watches of the night.” He denounced his opponents as those who would “tear the stars from the flag of Alabama and leave the stripes as a token of her shame.” Whether his audiences were edified or stupefied by his magniloquence is another question.

He dressed the part, affecting white linen or cotton suits in summer, with ivory double-breasted waistcoats. In winter, he wore spats, frockcoats, and pin-striped trousers. Around a high, stiff collar, Heflin knotted a huge flowering bow tie and topped off the ensemble with a black, broad-brimmed slouch hat. And, as was said of Warren G. Harding, “the son-of-a-bitch looked like a United States Senator.”

He was elected mayor of his hometown of Lafayette in 1892, register in chancery of Chambers County in 1894, state representative in 1896, delegate to the State Constitutional Convention in 1901, and Alabama secretary of state in 1902. In 1904, he went to the U.S. House of Representatives. He favored free trade and a progressive income tax, opposed high railroad freight rates, and denounced corporate monopolies. Later, he supported the League of Nations, whose detractors he considered tools of arms merchants.

He also defended lynching as a natural response to interracial rape and called for racial segregation on public transportation. One March evening in 1908, Heflin was aboard a Washington trolley. As the car stopped, he noticed a Negro passenger taking a drink of whiskey only a few seats from a white woman. The outraged congressman dragged the drinker from the streetcar. Witnesses said that the Negro cursed at Heflin and reached into his own pocket. Heflin thought he was going to be attacked. Like any self-respecting Southern gentleman of the day, Heflin was packing heat, and drawing his revolver fired on the man, hitting him in the neck and an innocent bystander in the leg.

The police arrested Heflin for assault with a deadly weapon. Allan A. Michie, in Dixie Demagogues, describes the scene at the stationhouse:

“What’s your name,” growled the sergeant.
“J. Thomas Heflin.”
“I’m a Democrat.”
“Oh! Well, what’s your occupation?”
“I’m a Democrat.”

Eventually, the charges were dropped.

When Senator John H. Bankhead died in 1920, Heflin was elected to the vacant seat and won reelection in 1924. As a freshman senator, he launched a crusade against the Federal Reserve when it raised the discount rate, causing a deflation that threw five million people out of work. Heflin denounced this as a deliberate plot of the Money Kings. He regaled his constituents with humorous anecdotes.

A man said to a Republican, “Harding and his crowd put me on my feet.” Well, the Republican interrupted him with delight. “You didn’t let me finish,” the man said. “When the Democrats were in office, I could afford a car. Now I have to walk.”

Heflin’s oratory was most attractive when ironic—as when Sen. William E. Borah, the self-proclaimed Lion of Idaho, roared in disingenuous opposition to a bill to raise senators’ salaries. “Senator Borah,” the Alabamian purred, “reminds me of John Allen, an old soak who pretended he had no taste for the mint julep his wife was preparing.” He want on:

After protesting long enough, John Allen took that mint julep, with frost on the sides of the glass, a bank of sugar an inch deep on the bottom, and three strawberries nesting thereon like so many eggs in a robin’s nest, while the mint leaned lovingly over the rim of the glass; John Allen took that mint julep in his hand, and the amber-colored liquid flowed over the velvet folds of his stomach like a dewdrop sinking into the heart of a rose.”

During the 1920s, the Mexican revolutionary government began nationalizing its American-controlled oil industry. Some investors, believing that American foreign policy existed to ensure their profits, demanded an invasion to regain their property. Heflin opposed any intervention, charging that the Knights of Columbus were conspiring with Big Oil to interfere with Mexico.

The charge was not wholly unfounded. The Knights of Columbus openly favored the overthrow of Mexico’s anti-clerical regime. Wealthy Catholic oilmen financed some of its propaganda. But Heflin soon lost all credibility with wilder accusations of bewildering irrelevance. He charged that a Catholic employee of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving had engraved a rosary on a new dollar bill (it was the filigree work around Washington’s portrait). He attacked the White House for purchasing scarlet drapes—cardinal red, of course—which he claimed was further proof of the Vatican’s ascendancy in the United States.

Heflin campaigned against Catholicism across the country, drawing thousands to Klan-sponsored meetings for $150 to $250 a speech. When the 1928 Democratic national convention nominated Alfred E. Smith, Catholic governor of New York, for president, Heflin brought his campaign to the Empire State, addressing thousands at a meeting sponsored by the United Protestant Alliance in Richmond Hill, Queens, amidst posters reading, “KEEP THE ROMAN MENACE OUT.”

Bigotry was one thing; bolting the party was something else. The Alabama Democratic State Executive Committee ruled that only loyalists who had supported Smith in 1928 could be candidates at the 1930 state primaries, which barred Heflin from seeking the Democratic nomination. After an unsuccessful appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, Heflin ran as an independent.

The Democrats nominated John H. Bankhead II, son of Heflin’s predecessor and uncle of actress Tallulah Bankhead. In those days before television completely altered the nature of campaigning, Heflin stumped the state in person, going from town to town, drawing and amusing enormous crowds with set-pieces like the story of Uncle Johnny and the telephone. It seems that Uncle Johnny was afraid of the contraption and didn’t believe it would work. One day his friends put a call through to his wife several miles away and dragged him to the telephone. Just as he picked up the receiver, a bolt of lightning struck the building, followed by a blast of thunder. Uncle Johnny was knocked ten feet. “It works!” he yelled. “That was my old woman all right—it sure was.” Then Heflin would say, “It takes a good bolt of lightning to wake up some people. Maybe some of us need a shock like Uncle Johnny to realize that behind the strange doings of Alfred E. Smith is their master’s voice in the Vatican at Rome. The Pope is ready to try again in 1932.”

Bankhead defeated Heflin by 150,000 to 100,000 votes. Cotton Tom contested the outcome, arguing that he had been illegally barred from the primary and that the general election had been fraudulent. After an investigation spanning fifteen months and costing over $100,000, the Senate’s Privileges and Elections Committee found Bankhead had been validly nominated and had no direct link to any irregularities, and that the disputed votes would not have changed the outcome.

On April 26, 1932, as the Senate considered the committee’s recommendation, Heflin sought permission to speak from the floor. It was an extraordinary request. By now, Bankhead had been seated. Nonetheless, over the fierce objection of the majority leader, the Senate granted Heflin its permission—by one vote. Red-faced with emotion, Cotton Tom held the floor for five hours. As he thundered to a conclusion, the gallery audience, packed with his supporters, jumped to its feet with a roar of approval. Heflin’s great performance was nonetheless his last hurrah: two days later, the Senate voted against him, 64 to 18.

Heflin never lost hope of a comeback. He ran for Congress in 1934 and lost. He scraped out a living on patronage, serving as a Federal Housing Administration special representative and a special assistant U.S. attorney. When FDR nominated one of Alabama’s U.S. senators, Hugo Black, to the Supreme Court, the old war-horse ran for the vacant seat at a December 1937 special election. He lauded FDR as the greatest man who ever lived and attacked the Federal Reserve as the “great money masters of the East [who] shear us with panics like the shepherd does his sheep.”

In the last days of the campaign, Heflin developed pneumonia. He was delirious in a hospital bed during the voting and did not know he had lost by nearly two to one for several days. “When I told him,” his secretary said, “he wasn’t bitter at all. He just said, ‘The Lord takes care of his children, and there are other things to be thankful for!'” By the spring of 1938, Heflin was out campaigning again, this time for Congress, and again he lost. He managed to get his job back at the Federal Housing Administration, where he remained until 1942. Whenever he was in the nation’s capital, he found time to use his privilege as a former senator of access to the floor, often finding a vacant seat and sitting quietly with his eyes closed, listening to the debate.

In his last years his mind wandered, and he believed himself still a senator and needed at the Capitol. His relatives occasionally had to come down to the Greyhound station in Lafayette and gently take the old man, dressed in his threadbare frock coat and battered slouch hat, off the Washington bus. He died in Lafayette, the town where he’d been born, on April 22, 1951.

New York Press, May 14, 2003

February 16, 2015   No Comments

Napoleon of the West

From that day… succeeded the scenes of blood and extermination until the horses of the north arrived to trample the smiling level fields of the beautiful valley of Mexico, and the degenerate descendants of William Penn came to insult the sepulchers of our fathers.

Ramon Alcaraz, The Other Side

New York was mother of exiles long before Emma Lazarus bestowed that accolade on the Statue of Liberty. Some merely sought respite from the struggle. Giuseppe Garibaldi, between commanding the armies of the revolutionary Roman Republic in 1848 and the unification of Italy in 1860, spent a quiet year or so in Rosebank, Staten Island. Many Latin American revolutionaries also spent time in New York: the father of Cuban independence, Jose Martí, for instance, whose dashing features now adorn rum advertisements.

In the late spring of 1866, one might have met another Latin American exile—a lesser man but a more successful politician—limping up Broadway from the Staten Island ferry to yet another meeting with his rapacious lawyers or hangers-on. Eleven times Mexico’s president, Antonio Lopez de Santa-Anna Perez de Lebron—His Serene Highness; General-in-Chief of the Liberating Army of the Mexican Republic; Well-Deserving of His Country; the Hero of Tampico; the Hero of Vera Cruz; the Benefactor of the Fatherland; Napoleon of the West (he had proclaimed himself all of these)—was plotting yet another comeback.

In this country, Santa Anna is known solely as the man who massacred Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. His capacity for cruelty was only one aspect of a character so complicated that one biographer called him “the enigma who once was Mexico.” He had first taken power in the 1830s over what was then one of the largest countries in the world. From 1836 to 1847, through his faults as a soldier and statesman (as well as American expansionism), he had lost half the nation’s territory: nearly one million square miles of land, comprising what is now most of the Western United States. Despite this, he had again served as president from 1853 to 1854 and felt he might serve again.

Santa Anna was still handsome, with fine dark eyes, sensual lips, and a full head of dark hair. Restless and energetic, he was usually involved in a revolution, plot, or coup attempt—one nearly every year. His great strength came from the Mexican street, where (paradoxically) his pseudo-aristocratic poses had overwhelming appeal to the illiterate masses.

He was born at Jalapa, Vera Cruz on February 21, 1794 to a family of middle-class creoles: Mexican-born Spanish whites. Uninterested in school or business, the younger Antonio was appointed in June 1810 to a cadetship in the Spanish colonial army, where he fought bandits, insurgents, and Indians. He was repeatedly decorated for valor and barely escaped court martial for embezzling regimental funds.

As long as the right held sway in Madrid, the insurgents in Mexico remained weak. But in 1820, the Spanish Liberals came to power, summarily abolishing the economic, legal, and social privileges enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church and by the army. Suddenly, quietly, large numbers of the Mexican colonial establishment changed sides, sensing they might safeguard their perquisites by ruling their own country.

On March 29, 1821, at 4 AM, troops under Santa Anna’s command defeated a force of insurgents; the Spanish promoted him to lieutenant colonel on the spot. At 2 PM, he changed sides; the insurgents made him a full colonel. His timing was impeccable: within weeks, the Spanish regime in Mexico crumbled.

Independent Mexico was first an empire, ruled by Augustin Iturbide, another ex-Spanish officer. The Emperor failed to promote Santa Anna to full general. Worse, he ordered Santa Anna’s removal from command at Vera Cruz. The young brigadier mustered his troops and called for a republic. (He later admitted he had not known what a republic was.) By happy coincidence, the Emperor had disappointed many in his brief reign.

Numerous generals also rose against him. Abdication followed. Once again (and perhaps he perceived this) Santa Anna’s timing in changing sides had precipitated change itself. Now, under the Republic, he was a general, his uniform encrusted with gold braid and festooned with the numerous crosses, medals, and stars he had won fighting for and against Mexican independence and for and against the Empire.

The new Republic was not blessed in its leaders, who seem to have been a mélange of fanatical ideologues and cynical adventurers. History’s indictment is that Santa Anna was the most effective of the lot. The Republic was torn by endless factional struggles, not merely between cliques or parties, but even the different rites of the Masonic order. Santa Anna flourished in this revolving-door politics: having been a Loyalist, then an Imperialist, and then a Republican, he would soon have been a Federalist, a Liberal, a Centralist, a Conservative and a follower of the Scottish and the Yorkist Rites.

In the twenty-two years between 1833 and 1855 Mexico enjoyed no fewer than thirty-six presidencies, eleven of them Santa Anna’s.

Changes of power were a process nearly as orderly as an American election. A general called together his troops and read a pronunciamento, a fire-breathing proclamation against the government, usually calling for freedom and liberty. Next he published his program, or “plan.” Then the insurgent and government forces would face each other. They fought only rarely. Much more frequently, they felt each other out, feinted and negotiated. If the government forces remained loyal, the insurgent commander “depronounced.” If the government forces changed sides, the insurgents marched into Mexico City while the incumbent president booked passage on a fast boat out of Vera Cruz.

Santa Anna loved gambling, whether with dice or at cards. Mexican politics, too, was a game of chance. The payoff could be tremendous. A lieutenant who had brought over a few ragged privates might find himself a general overnight; a general who had changed sides at the right moment might find himself a cabinet minister; the fellows who hadn’t might find themselves in exile, waiting for the next change of fortune. Santa Anna’s genius for this kind of politics led him to the governorships of Yucatan and then Vera Cruz.

In 1829, the Spanish landed an army at Tampico to reconquer their lost colony. Santa Anna assembled an army by seizing all weapons in Vera Cruz and forcing loans from the local merchants, commandeered six ships and sailed for Tampico. Within three weeks, through bluff and audacity, he had misled the Spanish into believing his forces much stronger than they were and negotiated a surrender. He crowned himself with glory by writing the official dispatches, emerging as the Hero of Tampico, even further bemedaled, with a trunk of jeweled swords from the various Mexican states.

He overthrew the government in his own right in 1833, becoming president as a Liberal. Within the year, proclaiming Mexico unready for democracy, he was governing as an autocratic Centralist.

One result of his dictatorship was the practical abolition of slavery. Texas, then a Mexican state largely populated by American immigrant slave-owners or pro-slavers, found this intolerable and rebelled. Santa Anna’s response was as ruthless as Lincoln’s in 1861: he marched north to suppress the rebellion, proclaiming that all opponents taken in arms would be put to death. He even claimed that if the Americans supported Texan independence, he would advance until he raised the Mexican flag over the Capitol in Washington.

On February 26, 1836 he rode into San Antonio, Texas, where he found an insurgent garrison in a fortified monastery called the Alamo. Santa Anna besieged the fort for just over a week. At 5 AM on March 6, 1836 the Mexican buglers sounded the deguello, the ancient Spanish call (its name derived from the verb meaning “throat-cutting”) that signifies no quarter to the losers. The Mexicans got over the wall on the second try to find the Texans barricaded in every building. The Mexicans took four hours to capture the fort; the white male survivors were bayoneted. Santa Anna probably sustained 500 casualties.

Santa Anna fought as he had been trained as a colonial officer in ruthless colonial wars. From his point of view, the rebellion itself was an act of treason: the Texans were Mexican subjects rebelling against lawful authority. And, after all, the Texans fought in much the same way. (Santa Anna’s treatment of the women, children, and slaves taken prisoner at the Alamo was most humane, with many being passed through Mexican lines to the insurgent forces.)

Commanding superior forces at San Jacinto, Santa Anna caught up with General Sam Houston and the 800-man army of Texas. It was a hot afternoon. Santa Anna ordered his men to siesta, a custom sacrosanct in Mexican warfare—so much so that the Napoleon of the West failed to post guards against the enemy.

Houston was in no mood to honor Mexican customs. Only a few of Santa Anna’s army were on their feet when Houston’s artillery opened fire and the Texans, screaming, “Remember the Alamo,” slaughtered every Mexican they could get their hands on. Quickly sizing up the situation, the Hero of Tampico grabbed a horse and galloped off.

Within the hour, the Mexicans lost 400 men, leaving 200 wounded and 730 taken prisoner, while Santa Anna, a few miles away, abandoned his horse and discarded his uniform for some clothes stolen from a farmhouse. A scouting party captured him, unaware of his identity. It wasn’t until they had brought him into Houston’s camp, past the stockade where the prisoners of war were held, the Mexicans murmuring recognition, that they realized whom they had taken.

He was brought before Houston where, legend has it, he gave the Masonic signal of distress to some of the Texan officers. It is unclear whether Houston said, as the official version puts it, “Ah, general, take a seat,” or uttered, as the unofficial version has it, a less friendly and more profane greeting. Yet even in defeat, Santa Anna could still sling it: “The man may consider himself born to no common destiny who has conquered the Napoleon of the West, and it now remains for him to be generous to the vanquished.”

Houston dictated the terms of victory on the spot. He compelled Santa Anna to order an armistice, all Mexican forces to retreat from Texas, and all Texan prisoners released. Houston also forced him to sign the treaty of Velasco, whereby Texas became independent. The treaty ensured the Hero’s personal survival, albeit at the price of Mexican territory.

Two years later, a French citizen, claiming his bakery in Mexico City had been looted during a riot, demanded compensation from the Mexican government. The French, who were pressuring Mexico into a trade agreement, sent a fleet to bombard Vera Cruz. Santa Anna rode out of disgrace to command the city’s defenders with dash and courage. Several horses were shot out from under him before a French blast shattered his left leg below the knee. Though the limb was lost, honor was regained. He became acting president in 1839 and overthrew the government again in 1841, effectively ruling as dictator until 1845.

Most of Santa Anna’s term was dedicated to furthering his cult of personality and replenishing his personal finances. His greed was equaled only by his extravagance. To raise money, he raised taxes exponentially and even sold phony mining shares to foreign investors. In 1842, he unearthed the remains of his leg, which were paraded through Mexico City and placed in a giant urn in the public square. The good times ended only after he had emptied the treasury and left his soldiers unpaid. The new regime sentenced him to exile. He would be back.

The United States annexed Texas in 1845, which the Mexicans denounced as an act of war. The U.S. responded by blockading Vera Cruz (also an act of war then as now) and moving troops to the Rio Grande. In February 1846, Santa Anna entered into negotiations with President James K. Polk, offering a peace settlement in exchange for assistance in regaining power. Polk took the bait. On August 16, 1846 Santa Anna and his staff landed at Vera Cruz, having been allowed to pass through the American blockade. Polk now learned what various Mexican politicians had learned before him: Santa Anna was a terrific double-crosser.

On arriving, he declared, “Mexicans! There was once a day, and my heart dilates with the remembrance…you saluted me with the title of Soldier of the People. Allow me to take it again, never more to be given up, and to devote myself until death to the defense of the liberty and independence of the Republic!” Upon the declaration of war, Santa Anna took the field as generalissimo of the Mexican forces. His intelligence service learned that one American army under Zachary Taylor would advance from the north and a second, under Winfield Scott, would land at Vera Cruz to march on Mexico City.

Santa Anna first dealt with Taylor at Buena Vista on February 22-23, 1847. His attack enveloped Taylor’s left and shattered three American regiments. Taylor fell back on Monterrey, where he remained for the rest of the war. Having effectively neutralized Taylor, Santa Anna turned to face Scott, who smashed him at Cerro Gordo, on April 17-18, 1847. The Mexican then began secret negotiations with Scott, demanding a $1 million bribe to make peace. Scott actually paid a $10,000 advance. Santa Anna double-crossed Scott too, pocketing the money and raising another army. They fought again, at Churubusco. Scott drove Santa Anna from the field and took Mexico City. Once more, Santa Anna went into exile. Any other man, in any other country, would have been glad to leave with his life. He would be back.

The Conservatives seized power in January 1853. They wanted a monarchy ruled by a European prince. But choosing one would take time, and the rightists in the government believed Santa Anna could keep order until the choice was made. Fools that they were, they made him president on April 20, 1853. How the old man must have laughed! Within months, he had squandered the treasury, much of it on pleasure. He sold the Mesilla Valley-what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico-to the United States as the Gadsden Purchase for $10 million. In 1854, the Liberals overthrew and exiled him.

For eleven years he plotted his return. In 1864, when the French invaded Mexico to install the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as Emperor, Santa Anna returned home, proclaiming himself a monarchist. Maximilian had learned from others’ experience: he exiled Santa Anna almost immediately.

In January 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward, on a tour of the West Indies, paid Santa Anna a visit in St. Thomas. Santa Anna interpreted the visit as an indication of official support from America and retained various Washington lobbyists. At least one of these sensed that the aging fox could be outfoxed.

He sent a letter to Santa Anna, forged with Seward’s signature, reporting that the House of Representatives had approved a $50 million loan for Mexico, $30 million of which had been earmarked to finance Santa Anna’s return to power. A ship was leased. Before the General left St. Thomas, he had paid out $70,000 in cash. He may not have understood that his name had meanwhile been signed to some $250,000 in notes for supplies. Certainly, he was surprised on arriving in New York on May 12, 1866 to find no one from the State Department at the dock to greet him, and that the guns of the harbor forts did not fire a salute in his honor, and that the cash was not immediately available.

Various suits and countersuits commenced over the procurement of the ship, the enforcement of the notes, and even the terms of the General’s room and board. His legal fees were reportedly $30,000. Eventually, his nephew, suspecting that the old man was being swindled, wrote directly to Seward to ask whether in fact the United States government had undertaken to finance Santa Anna’s return to power. Seward replied in the negative. The old rascal had been outfoxed, the conner conned.

On March 22, 1867, with Maximilian’s fall at hand, Santa Anna left New York aboard the merchant ship Virginia. He attempted to land at Vera Cruz on June 7, 1867, only to be intercepted by an American warship. He tried again four days later at Yucatan, where he was arrested, jailed, tried by a military tribunal, and sentenced to exile.

In 1874, they let him come home. There were no crowds as he landed at Vera Cruz; the railway to Mexico City carried him into anonymity. He sought back military pay and the return of his estates. He was refused. The nation celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of Churubusco with speeches and parades; the man who had commanded Mexico’s troops that day was not invited. His health, eyesight, and mind failed, and he died of chronic diarrhea on June 21, 1876.

One last thing. During his sojourn on Staten Island, Santa Anna had hired a certain James Adams to act as his interpreter and secretary. During the many hours they spent together, Adams often noted the General’s habit of cutting and chewing thin slices from an unfamiliar, exotic plant—not exactly palatable yet elastic enough to tire the most persistent jaws. The General called this plant chicle and left some behind on his departure. Adams experimented with it, blending it with various sweeteners and flavorings. The results were wildly popular: it has never left the American mouth. The Hero’s enduring legacy is chewing gum.

New York Press, September 10, 2002

February 10, 2015   1 Comment

Common Sense: Tom Paine, Pt. 1

He started as a fourteen-year-old corset-maker, and would be a sailor, tax collector, schoolteacher and Fleet Street hack. His parents’ generosity gave him eight years’ schooling; he made himself a political writer of force and eloquence comparable to Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and wrote three of his century’s bestselling books, all of which remain in print. The most notorious radical of his time, a feminist and abolitionist, his name inspired fear, contempt, and admiration on two continents.

He held office in three different countries and was elected without his knowledge and on reputation alone to the legislature of a nation whose language he never learned to speak. He died in squalor, denied the vote by his neighbors in the country for whose sake he had marshaled the English language and sent it forth into battle. Nearly two centuries after his death in Greenwich Village, Thomas Paine is more alive through his thoughts and words than are most men and women who breathe.

At the time he became famous, Paine was about five feet, nine inches tall, slim and well proportioned, with a mass of dark, wavy hair, good skin, a high forehead, and a bold nose. Most observers noted his uncommonly large, brilliant, and animated eyes. Deeply shy, Paine was nonetheless a witty conversationalist, perhaps because he listened well.

Thomas Pain (he did not change the spelling until 1774) was born at Thetford in Norfolk, England on January 29, 1737. His father was a Quaker corset-maker, his mother an Anglican and the daughter of an attorney. His grammar school taught him history, mathematics and science. It was enough. Even then an omnivorous reader, he believed along with most intelligent people that “every person of learning is his own teacher.”

Paine began working in his father’s trade at fourteen. He loathed it and ran off to join a privateer, the Terrible, commanded by one Captain Death. Though his Quaker father caught him the first time, Paine ran off again to the King of Prussia. He jumped ship a year later to make corsets in London and Sandwich. He then joined the Excise, the equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and about as popular as the modern agencies are now. He was fired for a careless clerical error, taught school, and then finagled another exciseman’s post at Lewes, in Sussex.

Meanwhile, Paine taught himself about science, philosophy, and politics, a remarkable accomplishment in an age before free lending libraries. He read Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, and as he wanted to effectively communicate his ideas, imitated their crisp, plain style. He believed plain language could communicate complicated ideas. As John Keane noted in Tom Paine: A Political Life, Paine aspired to “avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.” His prose became concise, rigorously excluding the superfluous, and using no more words than necessary—a simplicity not only elegant but thrillingly modern. He also argued in a local debating club, where he revealed astonishingly radical views: he denounced dueling, slavery, war, and monarchy and favored equality for women.

Taproom oratory was one thing, organizing his fellow excisemen to demand higher wages was another. The Board of Excise found an excuse to fire him.

At thirty-seven, Paine was surviving in London as a Fleet Street hack when he met Benjamin Franklin. Then the London agent for Pennsylvania, Franklin suggested Paine’s opinions might be more welcome in America and provided him with an introduction.

On November 30, 1774, Paine landed in Philadelphia. In January 1775, he became managing editor of Pennsylvania Magazine. His first article called for the abolition of slavery. However, Paine was a sound professional journalist as well as a radical: he wrote on science, commerce, trade, and literature as well as politics. Good writing attracts readers, and during his first three months as editor, he increased the magazine’s paid circulation by nearly 150 percent.

Paine’s radicalism made him a separatist almost immediately. On January 10, 1776, barely a year after his arrival, he published Common Sense at two shillings a copy. The pamphlet is short: perhaps fifteen minutes’ reading. He exposed the claims of George III (“the Royal Brute of England”) to a degree of power over the colonies that he did not possess in England, showed the necessity of breaking away from the corrupt British government, and called for a constitutional republic. The Englishman had an American grandeur of vision: “We have it in our power to begin the world all over again.” He also had a sense of the nation’s special promise: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all Mankind.”

To be sure, the pamphlet is also scurrilous, abusive, seditious, and sparkling. Paine’s sinewy prose seized the time, communicated his sense of urgency, hammered his points home:

The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. It is not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent… It is not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of continental union, faith, and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full-grown characters.

Common Sense sold out in its first two weeks of publication. By the first week in February an edition had been published in New York. By April, it had come out in Salem, Hartford, Newport, Lancaster, Newburyport, Albany, and Providence. Over the course of the next year, the pamphlet was brought out in England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland and reviewed in Dubrovnik and St. Petersburg. Paine wrote (and he did not exaggerate), “the number of copies printed and sold in America was not short of 150,000.” It was the greatest sale of any publication since Gutenberg’s invention of movable type. It transformed the American debate from taxation to independence and converted George Washington to the cause of independence.

Here in New York, Common Sense was wildly popular. In March 1776, Samuel Loudon, a printer, published The Deceiver Unmasked, an attack on Paine by the Rev. Charles Inglis, loyalist assistant rector of Trinity Church. Late one night, a gang of some forty revolutionaries—either Liberty Boys led by rebel leaders Isaac Sears, Capt. John Lamb, and Alexander MacDougall, or militants from the Mechanics Union led by its chairman, Peter Duyckinck—stormed the print shop, destroyed the press, seized every copy of Inglis’ pamphlet, and burned them on the Common. The Declaration of Independence, approved six months after publication of the tract, though drafted by Jefferson and revised by Congress, reflected the sea change in American politics wrought by Common Sense.

After Washington’s withdrawal from New York, Paine marched with the retreating army from Fort Lee to Trenton, New Jersey. From notes jotted down on the road, Paine composed a new pamphlet, published a week before Christmas 1776: The American Crisis. Its opening lines are immortal:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

In the late afternoon of Christmas Day, American officers assembled their troops into squads and read them the pamphlet. Then they marched for the Delaware which they crossed that night in open boats, to fall at dawn upon the Hessians at Trenton. In combination with Washington’s victory, the pamphlet’s effect was astonishing: recruits flocked to Washington’s force. (The opening lines “were in the mouths of everyone going to join the army,” Charles Biddle later wrote.)

Congress then appointed Paine secretary to the Committee on Foreign Affairs. An able administrator, he held office for two years until he publicly exposed a crooked arms deal with France, outlining the graft taken by Silas Deane, the American agent, and his partner, the rakish courtier Caron de Beaumarchais. Yet, even as the ingenious and unscrupulous Beaumarchais ripped off the Americans with one hand, he was writing The Marriage of Figaro with the other. A decade later, Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, transformed his brilliant play into the perfect opera.

Paine now learned an eternal truth: No one likes whistle-blowers. Fired by Congress, he was hired as clerk of the Pennsylvania state legislature. He either drafted or helped draft the assembly’s proclamation of the emancipation of African-American slaves. He published new issues of The American Crisis as needed and even served as a diplomat, negotiating a new loan from the French in 1781. He was not unrewarded for his services. Congress granted him $3,000 as a token of his unpaid arrears of salary as a committee secretary; New York granted him a house and farm at New Rochelle; the University of Pennsylvania granted him an honorary degree; and Pennsylvania granted him 500 pounds.

In 1787, having developed a plan for a long bridge with a single span of 400 to 500 feet (like many of the Founding Fathers, he was strongly interested in practical engineering) and finding Americans unwilling to construct it, Paine decided to visit France and England for a few months to raise money for a full-scale trial of his scheme. He sailed for Paris from New York on April 26, 1787, expecting to be away for a few months at most. He would not return for fifteen years. His adventures had only begun.

New York Press, February 6, 2001

February 8, 2015   No Comments

The Rights of Man: Tom Paine, Pt. 2

In 1789, two years after Thomas Paine’s return to Europe with a prospectus for a 500-foot long single span bridge (like all his business schemes, it was a nonstarter), the King of France called the Estates-General into session for the first time in nearly 200 years to increase taxes. Despite their limited agenda, the members publicly demanded greater reforms. In July, a Parisian mob seized an ancient fortress turned minor prison. The fall of the Bastille, though unimportant in itself, revealed to the world the French monarchy’s inability to maintain public order.

Paine, like most democrats, rejoiced at the events in France. Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament whom Paine knew well, did not. Intelligent, ambitious, a practical politician, Burke had been secretary to the Prime Minister and paymaster-general. Burke, who disdained ivory towers, elevated his pragmatism, which he called empiricism, to philosophy: “Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations.” Burke saw society as a living organism, infinitely complex in its relations, representing an exquisite balance of social forces resulting from centuries of effort, not to be trifled with. Thus, the French Revolution, its leaders ignorantly disdaining tradition in favor of untried philosophical abstractions at any cost, horrified him.

On November 1, 1790, Burke published Reflections on the Revolution in France. More than a pamphlet, Reflections was perhaps the first modern conservative polemic. The Irishman attacked the revolution as puerile agitation for mindless radical change:

No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm and cheating hope have all the wide field of imagination in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.

Paine replied in his Rights of Man. He hit hard, even dismissing Burke’s career thus: “As he rose like a rocket, he fell like the stick.” He contrasted Burke’s compassion for the King and Queen of France with his apparent indifference to the impoverished and tax-burdened French people: “He pities the plumage, and forgets the dying bird”; Paine denounced aristocracy as “a kind of fungus growing out of the corruption of society.”

The book was good journalism, too: Paine’s research into British government finances paid off in exposures of uncontrolled government spending on no-show jobs and luxuries for the royal court. A fact-based attack on profitable government corruption is more dangerous than any invocation of abstract liberty. Paine was indicted for offenses against the dignity of the Crown, having suggested that George III who periodically went mad was barely competent to be a constable.

The French Republic had granted honorary citizenship to Paine and other American revolutionaries for their services to liberty. At the French elections in September 1792, four constituencies elected Paine to the National Convention. He had not known of his nomination, let alone his election, and did not speak French.

At a gathering later that month, William Blake, poet and visionary, drew Paine aside and told him not to return home. The literature suggests Blake, who often saw angels and demons, had foreseen Paine’s impending arrest. Paine took his advice and left for Dover, whence he sailed for France some twenty minutes before a dusty king’s messenger galloped up with the warrant. The convention seated him amidst wild applause.

It soon faded. King Louis XVI had been deposed and then indicted and tried for treason. The radicals sought death. Paine, who loathed violence, argued for imprisonment and exile. Translator in tow, Paine energetically lobbied his colleagues and even opposed the death penalty in a brief, carefully memorized speech in French. Despite the radicals’ strength, deputy after deputy rose, admitting they voted with Paine because they believed him incorruptible, disinterested, and humane. Paine lost by one vote. When he attempted to overturn the sentence, Paine, with prepared remarks in his translator’s hands, stood nearly alone to plead for the King’s life. He argued the republic should not stain its hands with blood and recalled that Louis had helped America shake off the “tyrannical yoke of Britain.” However, with Paine’s first words, the demagogue Jean-Paul Marat, self-proclaimed “Friend of the People,” rose and bellowed that Paine spoke as a Quaker, not as a revolutionary.

Paine was a political animal: one of those for whom politics alone is the breath of life. He could schmooze brilliantly, and even after opposing the King’s death he successfully lobbied the French government to release detained American sailors, ships, and cargoes. This irritated the American minister to France, Gouverneur Morris. (Morris, a politician by occupation, was an amorist by avocation. Legend has it he had lost one leg in love’s cause: as the wife of an acquaintance entertained Morris on the second floor of her house, her husband prematurely returned. Morris climbed naked through the bedroom window, slipped, fell into the courtyard and broke his leg. Gangrene ensued, requiring amputation.)

Morris apparently viewed his appointment as a sinecure, providing an income sufficient to satisfy his needs, and did not overexert himself. Paine, finding Morris useless, asked him, “Do you not feel ashamed to take the money of the country and do nothing for it?” Morris would make him pay for the remark. Toward the end of 1793, as the revolution moved further left, Maximilien Robespierre’s new government imprisoned Paine as an oppositionist. Morris did nothing. He convinced President Washington that he had done everything possible for Paine. He even falsely advised Robespierre that Paine was not an American citizen.

While imprisoned, Paine wrote The Age of Reason, a secular analysis of the Bible. Paine was a deist. He acknowledged a divine creator, yet discarded organized religion and its theology in favor of a “natural morality” or “religion of nature,” a code of beliefs and conduct founded on the “repugnance we feel in ourselves to bad actions, and disposition to good ones.” Paine found the notion of the Bible as the Word of God blasphemous: “When I see throughout the greatest part of this book scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices, and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales, I cannot dishonor my Creator by calling it by his name.” The Old Testament was filled with “obscene stories and voluptuous debaucheries.” The New Testament was internally inconsistent. Christianity was “a system…very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears.” St. Paul was “a manufacturer of quibbles.” The Book of Revelation required a revelation to explain it. Tales of miracles, instead of proving a system of religion true, merely showed it fabulous.

Happily for Paine, as Hesketh Pearson noted, “not all miracles were fabulous.” When a jailer marked Paine’s cell door for death, it had been momentarily open, flush against the wall. When closed, the mark was inside the cell. Thus, “the destroying angel passed by.” In August 1794, James Monroe became the American minister. He won Paine’s release and cared for him in his own home.

The Age of Reason, published shortly after his release, garnered its author widespread denunciation as atheist and blasphemer, from critics who obviously had not read the book. Paine returned to the United States after Thomas Jefferson became president. When he reached New York City in March 1803, his supporters hailed him with a formal dinner at the City Hotel. On moving to the New Rochelle farm granted him after the American Revolution, Paine found that his neighbors shunned and insulted him in public, local preachers denounced him from their pulpits, and the local paper vilified him. Paine leased the farm and largely remained in the city. He had begun drinking heavily during the French Revolution and now lived on bread and rum, often skipping the bread.

At the elections of 1806, Paine went to vote in New Rochelle, which remained his legal residence. The election inspectors held that as neither Gouverneur Morris nor President Washington had claimed him as an American during his imprisonment in France, the United States had determined he was not a citizen. The author of Common Sense was turned away from the polls. Worse, when he sued, his case was dismissed. He asked Jefferson to help him. Apparently, there was no response.

Thereafter Paine lived here, moving from 85 Church Street to 63 Partition Street (now Fulton Street) in 1807 and to 309 Bleecker in 1808. He wrote prolifically for two newspapers, The American Citizen and the Public Advertiser. In old age, his vanity, fueled by a sense of being “the neglected pioneer of a successful revolution,” made him nearly unbearable. He became uncouth: his body odor was “absolutely offensive and perfumed the entire apartment.”

Nearly crippled by gout, Paine drank even more to deaden the pain of his body and his loneliness. Strokes left him an invalid. He became incontinent, with bedsores infected by the urine he involuntarily passed in bed.

Religious fanatics broke into his rooms to seek his deathbed conversion. Finally, in May 1809 he begged Marguerite Bonneville, the wife of his French publisher, to care for him. She rented a house for Paine at 59 Grove Street, adjoining her own. There he died on June 8, 1809. He had asked to be buried among the Quakers: even they rejected him. Two days later, he was buried on his farm. Madame Bonneville and her son; Wilbert Hicks, an old friend; and two black men who had not known Paine but wanted to honor him for his opposition to slavery were the only persons at the graveside. Neither France nor the United States sent a representative.

In 1817, an English admirer of Paine’s, teh radical journalist William Cobbett, landed in New York. A a vigorous, blunt, self-educated John Bull of a man with an undeferential damn-your-eyes attitude toward authority, Cobbett had left England under threat of arrest. The Americans’ disdain of Paine amazed him. He dreamed of raising money among radicals in England to build there a mausoleum for Paine’s body. Cobbett persuaded Madame Bonneville to permit exhumation. When Cobbett returned to England in 1819, Paine’s body went with him.

The money was never raised. Paine’s remains were lost and never found.

New York Press, February 20, 2001

February 6, 2015   No Comments

“A Grand Old Hero He”

Congress, as Mark Twain tells us, is our native criminal class. Most of us believe Congressmen can get away with murder. Few get away with it in the first degree. In 1859, the Hon. Daniel Edgar Sickles, Democrat of New York, did.

Dan Sickles was a Congressman, diplomat, and soldier. He executed secret missions at the direction of three Presidents. A Queen of Spain would be his mistress, and not even his worst enemies questioned his iron courage, confirmed by the Medal of Honor. But the New York World called him a thief, perjurer, murderer, and pimp without fear of a lawsuit. (The paper withdrew the last charge.) Diarist George Templeton Strong wrote, “One might as well try to spoil a rotten egg as to damage Dan’s character.”

He was born in 1819 (later, he claimed 1823, 1824, and even 1825) in New York. Dan Sickles read law and hung out his shingle at 79 Nassau Street in 1843. He was indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses before he was old enough to vote. The Court of General Sessions later ordered him to show cause why he should not be prosecuted for misappropriation of funds. Later still he would be accused of raising campaign funds only to pocket them.

According to W. A. Swanberg in Sickles the Incredible, Dan was “a tough Democrat; a fighting one; a Tammany Hall Democrat.” He tampered with ballot boxes, brawled (he was once thrown down a flight of stairs at Tammany Hall during a caucus and fought his way out at gunpoint), and even robbed the U.S. mails (he broke into a post office and stole an opponent’s campaign mailing).

He also, as Swanberg puts it, “drank to the dregs the cup of dissipation.” Sickles lived for several years with Fanny White, a voluptuous brunette who ran a classy love store on Mercer Street. After his election to the Assembly in 1847, he even brought her into the Assembly Chamber. Several legislators recognized Fanny, which must have raised some cynical questions even then, and the Assembly censured him.

In 1852, Sickles married Teresa Bagioli, a sweet-natured, inexperienced girl of sixteen. (Teresa had been raised at 91 Spring Street, in the house of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist for Le Nozzi di Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutti, and Don Giovanni.) During the following year, after brief but lucrative service as New York City’s Corporation Counsel, Dan was appointed secretary of legation in London by President Franklin Pierce. He became fast friends with the American minister, James Buchanan, a kindly political hack. Buchanan became fond of Teresa as well. Some newspapers later speculated that Dan had pimped his wife to Old Buck, whose tastes were probably otherwise inclined.

After returning to New York in 1855, Sickles was elected a state senator, where he helped pass the legislation creating Central Park and persuaded Governor Horatio Seymour to sign it. In the following year, Sickles, who was among Buchanan’s earliest supporters for President, ran for Congress from the Third District, which encompassed Manhattan south of City Hall Park and west of Broadway up to Houston Street.

Both Old Buck and Young Dan were elected. Sickles rented a house on Lafayette Square in Washington, moved in Teresa and their daughter Laura, and began getting jobs for his buddies, including a new acquaintance, Philip Barton Key, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. He was the son of Francis Scott Key, of “Star Spangled Banner” fame. Both Swanberg and Nat Brandt, in his The Congressman Who Got Away With Murder, describe Key as a tall, handsome, swaggering lecher who once boasted he needed a woman’s acquaintance for only thirty-six hours to work his will with her.

Sickles was busy with politics and the law and paid little attention to his wife. Key and Teresa began a flirtation in early 1858. In April or May they first made love—on a large red sofa in Sickles’ Washington residence.

On February 24, 1859, Dan received an anonymous letter. It read in part, “[Key] hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you he has as much the use of your wife as you have.” On the night of February 26, Sickles confronted Teresa. She confessed, writing, “There was a bed…I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do….I…undressed myself, and he also; went to bed together.”

Sickles seemed nearly demented. According to his friends’ testimony, they found him pacing, eyes “bloodshot and red,” uttering fearful groans, that “seemed to come from his very feet.” On the next morning, Key made his last mistake. He was signalling Teresa with a handkerchief from Lafayette Square when Sickles saw him. Dan seized two derringers and a revolver and dashed downstairs. Brandt describes the Congressman running toward the U. S. Attorney, shouting, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house, you must die.” He fired. The shot grazed Key. They wrestled. Sickles, dropping the gun, fell back into the street. He pulled out a second weapon.

Key screamed, “Don’t murder me!” Sickles fired again, striking Key in the body. As Key fell to the ground, pleading for his life, Sickles pulled the trigger. Misfire. He recocked and pulled again. Misfire. Sickles recocked, put the weapon to Key’s chest, and fired a bullet through his body. One witness, a White House page, ran to tell the President. Old Buck immediately gave the boy some money and sent him back to North Carolina.

Despite a dozen witnesses, the U.S. Attorney’s office would lose the case to a new-fangled defense: temporary insanity. As Brandt points out, insanity as a defense goes to the question of intent: whether the accused had the mental capacity to form the intent to commit a crime. Sickles’ lead counsel, James T. Brady, took this a step further: whether Sickles had been temporarily insane at the time he killed Key.

Having allowed Sickles’ lawyers to plead the defense, the judge permitted them to put in evidence about the illicit affair, which became relevant for the effect of learning about it on Sickles. Thus, by proving Key and Teresa guilty of adultery, the defense persuaded the jury to find Dan not guilty of murder. Nonetheless, Dan was shunned. He did not seek re-election in 1860.

The Civil War saved him. He raised a brigade of New Yorkers, was commissioned a brigadier general, and led his men at Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Chancellorsville. According to Ezra J. Warner’s Generals in Blue, by June, 1863, Major General Sickles commanded the Third Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

The Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, had advanced into Pennsylvania. On July 1, 1863, the Union and Confederate forces stumbled into each other at Gettysburg. Meade expected Lee’s assault on his right. He placed Sickles on the extreme left, holding two small hills, Round Top and Little Round Top. Sickles’s scouts and pickets kept telling him of heavy enemy activity in his front. By the morning of July 2, Sickles had persuaded himself the Round Tops were best defended “by putting myself in front of them.” The Third Corps moved 2,000 yards forward, out of the Union line, to take positions in places we now call the Peach Orchard and the Devil’s Den.

Around 3:30 PM, General Meade and his staff galloped up. Rarely had Meade’s meager gift for self-control been so tested. Meade said, politely, “General, I fear you are too far out.” Sickles expressed, with equal grace, his disagreement. Then the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia opened fire on Sickles’s front, the Confederate buglers sounded the charge, and the rebel yell rose beyond the wheat fields. General James Longstreet, “Old Pete,” had shifted his troops during the night. Sickles’s instincts had been correct: the attack would come on the left.

Meade reinforced Sickles. The Third Corps stubbornly yielded ground. One of every three men would be a casualty. Swanberg states that in one of Sickles’s regiments the commanding colonel was shot. The major who took command was immediately wounded. Command devolved upon a captain, who was killed, as were the other officers. When the firing stopped, the regiment was commanded by a corporal. But the Union line held.

Sickles had been under fire all day. At 6:30 p.m., a cannonball knocked him from his horse. They loaded him onto a stretcher for the trip to the sawbones, where the shattered right leg would come off. Sickles insisted on first lighting a Havana. Only then, jauntily puffing his cigar, did the old smoke leave the field.

In many ways, he never left it. Ever since, soldiers and historians have questioned his conduct at Gettysburg. After the war, Philip Sheridan, the Union cavalry commander, examined the battlefield “very carefully,” and said Dan “could have done nothing but to move out as he did,” for if he had not, “General Meade would have been forced…to withdraw the Army.” In 1902, James Longstreet wrote that Dan “had saved…the Union cause.” Horatio King, one of Sickles’s admirers, wrote:

I see him on that famous field,
The bravest of the brave,
Where Longstreet’s legions strove to drive
The Third Corps to its grave
The fight was bloody, fierce, and long
And Sickles’ name shall stay
Forever in the Hall of Fame
As he who saved the day.

When Sickles had recovered, Lincoln sent him on intelligence missions, first to the occupied South and then to the Republic of Columbia. President Johnson later appointed him military governor of the Carolinas. And President Grant made Sickles minister to Spain, where he exceeded his instructions by conspiring with local politicians of all factions. Then he went to Paris to intrigue with the exiled Queen Isabella II.

Though not a great queen, Isabella was a great personality, with presence, dignity, courage, and in nearly everything save her private life, common sense. She carried herself magnificently and exuded sensuality from every pore. To call her shamelessly promiscuous, though accurate, seems almost unfair. Her marriage had been arranged to a homosexual princeling, and of their wedding night, Isabella later murmured,  “What can I say of a man who wore more lace than I did?” Most historians of her reign suggest that each of her children had been fathered by a different man. A rake like Sickles was the kind of man she liked and they did not resist each other.

Thus, the minister of the United States became the lover of the Queen of Spain and the Indies. She was indiscreet: the Madrid press called Dan “The Yankee King of Spain,” and President Grant recalled him to an even more tempestuous life in politics, law, and high finance.

Some two decades later, despite Dan’s astonishing load of baggage, the voters sent Dan back to Congress in 1892. The old campaigner, hobbling to the podium, brought audiences roaring to their feet: “Who won the victory at Gettysburg? On the left fought General Slocum, a Democrat. On the right fought General John Reynolds, a Democrat…And in the Devil’s Den fought a man named Sickles…a Democrat.”

He died on May 3, 1914 in his townhouse at 21 Fifth Avenue. Five days later, a horse-drawn caisson left Washington’s Union Station, bearing Dan’s body in a mahogany coffin draped in the Stars and Stripes. A young officer led a riderless, prancing stallion, its saddle blanket bearing a major general’s two stars and a single spurred boot reversed in the stirrups.

Daniel Sickles lies at Arlington among the men he commanded at Antietam and Chancellorsville, in the Peach Orchard and the Devil’s Den. His leg is on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian, in a glass case.

New York Press, February 3, 1999

February 1, 2015   No Comments

Our Dear Queen

The Royal Governors of the Province of New York, the men who ruled here in the names of Britain’s kings and queens before the Revolutionary War, are forgotten. Place-names recall some. Fort Tryon Park bears the last royal governor’s name. Staten Island’s Dongan Hills commemorates Col. Thomas Dongan, who granted the Charter of Liberty and Privileges that would have extended religious freedom to non-Anglican Christians.

One more remains on the fringe of popular memory because of an oil portrait, painted by an unknown artist. Edward Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, hangs in the galleries of the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West at 77th Street. The captain general and governor-in-chief of the Province of New York and Territories depending thereon in America and vice admiral of the same from 1702 to 1708 has a faintly arch expression. The face is full, even bloated, with a double chin and heavy jowls, sensual lips and a suggestion of 5 o’clock shadow. The man whose choice of summer residence gave Governor’s Island its name toys with a delicate fan and wears, as one commentator observed, a woman’s exquisite blue silk “gown, stays, tucker, long ruffles, cap, etc.” If nothing else, the noble Lord’s taste in clothing adds a new shade of meaning to the closing line of Cornbury’s gubernatorial proclamations, proudly set in large type letters below his printed name: “God Save The Queen.”

The label affixed to the portrait’s frame bears a quotation from Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England, published in 1847: “Among other apish tricks, Lord Cornbury [the ‘half-witted son’ of ‘Henry, Earl of Clarendon’] is said to have held his state levees at New York, and received the principal Colonists dressed up in complete female court costume, because, truly, he represented the person of a female Sovereign, his cousin… Queen Anne.”

Only in the last decade has anyone questioned the identity of the person portrayed (Cornbury was also accused of tyranny, oppression and corruption, but those charges receive less attention). Perhaps there is only scandal rather than substance—if one considers crossdressing statesmen grounds for scandal at all. Patricia U. Bonomi’s delightful The Lord Cornbury Scandal (1998) notes that throughout Cornbury’s life and for some seventy-three years after, no one suggested the existence of his portrait dressed as a woman. In 1796, Horace Walpole and two literary friends were trading old gossip while visiting a country house. Walpole, a notorious gossip whose father had been prime minister, claimed Cornbury had once opened a session of the New York assembly dressed as a woman, defending his conduct because, as the representative of Queen Anne, a woman, he ought in all respects represent her as faithfully as possible. George James Williams, another guest, described a portrait of Cornbury dressed as a woman, which seems to have been the portrait on display at the Historical Society.

Bonomi argues that Cornbury’s historical reputation as a transvestite rests upon four letters written by three political opponents—Robert Livingston, Lewis Morris and Elias Neau—between 1706 and 1709. None claimed to be a firsthand witness or named a single witness of Cornbury’s crossdressing. Bonomi further notes that the Grub Street press, the scandalmongers of the day, apparently printed nothing that even hinted Cornbury was a transvestite. She further argues that as the lingua franca of politics at that time was defamation (charges of sexual misconduct and perversion were commonplace), exposing the Queen’s cousin as a transvestite would have received wild publicity.

Of these three agitators, Lewis Morris, lord of the Manor of Morrisania (now in the Bronx), seems the prime mover. Morris was money-honest. None denied it. He was also ambitious, manipulative, obstructive and vain. He had schemed for years to transform the proprietary colonies of West Jersey and East Jersey—in effect, two huge private developments—into a unified royal colony, directly under the Imperial government in London, with himself as royal governor. He was frustrated when Queen Anne appointed Cornbury governor of New Jersey. Within a short time, Morris began plotting Cornbury’s removal, motivated largely by his personal frustration. Yet Morris’s assessment of Cornbury, as “a wretch who by the whole conduct of his life has evidenced he has no regard for honor or virtue,” has prevailed.

Cornbury has been unkindly handled by American historians who, even today, seem more fascinated by his personal habits than his policies. Perhaps the greatest blot on his name is, as a political opponent claimed, that he dressed “publiqly in womans Cloaths Every day.”

Cornbury was born in 1661. His grandfather, the first earl of Clarendon, had been lord chancellor of England under King Charles II; his father, the second earl, had been lord privy seal under King James II. A paternal aunt was the first wife of James II; two future queens, Mary II and Anne, were his cousins.

After his matriculation at Oxford and his further education at Geneva, Switzerland, he entered the Royal Army and won a seat in Parliament, then an unsalaried post. As his ancestors’ extravagance had encumbered the family’s estates, he entered politics to obtain salaried offices, which was as common a practice then as as it is now.

In 1688, Cornbury’s uncle, King James II, a Catholic, was overthrown in the “Glorious Revolution” by his Protestant daughter Mary, who was also one of Cornbury’s cousins, and his son-in-law, Prince William of Orange, who would become King William III. Cornbury was a colonel commanding the Royal Regiment of Dragoons; he deserted James for William and Mary almost immediately, bringing part of his command with him.

In 1701, William appointed Cornbury governor of New York. Shortly thereafter, William’s successor, Queen Anne, another Cornbury cousin, with whom Cornbury had always been close, appointed him also governor of New Jersey. Most historians have argued this was mere patronage. Yet New York was too economically and militarily important even then, and neither William (who disliked Cornbury, as he did most people) nor Anne (who was prudish and incorruptible) would have given a responsible post on the fringe of the Empire to an incompetent.

Contemporary letters and journals indicate Cornbury was highly intelligent, literate and urbane; affable in public, with something of the common touch; a generous host; a good husband; a brave and competent soldier; and an Imperialist, which is to say he favored strong rule from London in the interests of the Empire as a whole, rather than the interests of the colonies themselves. He was passionate about political and religious questions. He was brusque with persons he believed dishonest or incompetent.

When Cornbury arrived in New York in 1702, the colony was still divided by Leisler’s Rebellion. Jacob Leisler had briefly seized power from the aristocracy in New York during the unrest stemming from the Glorious Revolution. The British government regained control and tried him for treason, and he was hanged and beheaded before a howling mob in 1691. His adherents, the Leislerians, were one of the two dominant parties in colonial politics. Although Cornbury found the Anglophile anti-Leislerians more sympathetic, as most royal governors had, he was conciliatory to all factions in distributing both public appointments and invitations to his receptions and dinners (no one denied Cornbury was a gracious and generous host).

In Cornbury’s time, religious toleration in New York meant merely tolerating religions other than the established churches, the Church of England and the Dutch Reformed Church. Cornbury freely entertained non-Anglican ministers at table. However, the law required that all preachers obtain a license from the governor before preaching to public assemblies and, while he granted a license to anyone who applied, he strictly enforced the law against all who did not. Nor did he permit the use of churches and chapels built with public money by unlicensed preachers. One Presbyterian minister, Francis Makemie, who had enjoyed Cornbury’s hospitality, refused to obey the law and was prosecuted for it: Cornbury’s enemies called his enforcement of the law an act of tyranny.

His record as governor was ordinary. He built a new fort at Albany and planned harbor defenses for the Narrows, which were left incomplete due to lack of funds. Local defense was locally financed, and in common with most royal governors in British America, as Cornbury’s term continued, he had progressively harder relations with the popularly elected provincial assemblies, who were unwilling to raise revenues for colonial defense against the French or the Indians.

Cornbury built a summer house on the high ground at the northeast corner of Nutten Island, several hundred yards off the Battery in Lower Manhattan. The cost of labor and materials was approximately £100, according to the records checked by Bonomi; Morris and his allies claimed that Cornbury had appropriated £1,500, all the money set aside for harbor defense, to build it.

In April 1707, the New Jersey assembly, controlled by Morrisites, opened an investigation of Cornbury’s conduct and drew up a list of grievances. The speaker of the house, Samuel Jennings, read the list in Cornbury’s presence, and the assembly sent a copy with supporting affidavits to London, petitioning for relief from “the oppressions they groan under by the arbitrary and Illegal Practices of his said Excellencie.” Cornbury presented substantial written evidence in opposition to the charges, which eventually were not sustained. However, they provided ammunition to Cornbury’s political opponents in London, who had gained power through a shift in the balance of parties in Parliament. Cornbury was relieved in 1708.

In common with most governors of New York until the early 19th century, Cornbury incurred personal debt to pay public expenses, such as military supplies. After 1706, the New Jersey assembly refused to pay Cornbury’s salary, and the New York provincial treasurer delayed payment of his salary and warrants. Accordingly, once news of his relief arrived in New York, his creditors had the New York sheriff arrest Cornbury for debt. This was fairly ordinary, too: Cornbury’s predecessor had also been arrested for debt, and his successor was threatened with debtors’ prison because he had borrowed money to feed refugees. However, the county sheriff permitted Cornbury to depart before discharging the debts he had incurred on behalf of the government.

Cornbury returned to London in July 1710. Queen Anne formally addressed him as her “Right Trusty and Entirely Beloved Cousin.” She granted him a residence and named him a privy councilor in 1711, first commissioner of the Admiralty in 1712, and envoy extraordinary to Hanover in 1714. He died on March 31, 1723, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. The media reported his death without comment on his character or reputation.

As noted above, Bonomi found only four contemporary documents attributing transvestitism to Cornbury, all written by political opponents, and no suggestions in contemporary journals or newspapers that the Queen’s cousin wore drag. The charges of corruption were vague and never proven.

Cornbury’s enduring reputation, then, indicts the laziness of historians over the last two centuries. Neither George Bancroft nor Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, ever thoroughly examined the original sources in describing Cornbury—the work historians are expected to do. Thus, the label on the portrait became the unquestioned truth, and the received knowledge—that Cornbury was a transvestite and a corrupt, incompetent governor—accepted at face value.

In 1995, the New-York Historical Society placed a second descriptive label by the portrait, admitting, “Recent research done on the painting has called the identity of the sitter into question.” The noble Lord is also commemorated in the Cornbury Society, of Vancouver, British Columbia, an organization of heterosexual crossdressers. Obviously, some of us still print the legend.

New York Press, October 16, 2001

January 30, 2015   No Comments