Monthly Archives: July 2016

Home Makeover: Loyalist Estate Turned Patriot Headquarters


In July 1775, George Washington chose a house on Watertown Road near the Charles River as his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a stately manor owned by loyalist John Vassall. John and Elizabeth Vassall, and their six children ages 12 – infancy, left their Cambridge estate in September 1774 to seek the protection of British soldiers stationed in Boston. John Vassall’s Cambridge estate of nearly 90 acres was the largest and most elegant in the area. Vassall’s wealth was inherited and came primarily from farms in Jamaica where slaves tended vast plantations. The Vassalls also owned slaves that worked in the home and gardens at their Cambridge estate. At first glance, Washington and Vassall don’t seem all that different. Both were plantation and slave owners. Both had inherited substantial sums of money, Washington’s wealth coming from his marriage to Martha. Perhaps these similarities are what drew Washington to pick this recently abandoned estate as his military headquarters.


Cambridge Map

Map of Cambridge showing Col. Vassall’s home along Watertown road

Despite their social similarities, the time had come in the colonies to pick sides. Washington chose the patriot cause. Vassall chose the King. John Vassall did not declare his loyalty to the Crown until 1774, when it became apparent that he could not remain neutral. He was a prominent member of the Anglican church, relied heavily on British trade to support his family’s wealth, and was well-connected in London. As most loyalists, Vassall was trying to preserve his way of life by siding with the British. As a prominent member of society, Vassall’s declaration to side with the Crown, put his family in danger. The danger primarily rose from the potential for patriot mobs to storm loyalist homes suspected of providing British General Gage with intelligence. Thus, as loyalists John and his family left their Cambridge estate in the hands of their slaves, and traveled into Boston where British soldiers controlled the city. It’s clear that John Vassall believed he would simply return to his Cambridge home after the British put down the tumultuous behavior of the patriots. How wrong he was. John Vassal never set foot in his Cambridge home again. In March 1775, he left with the British fleet as it fled Boston. He and his family went to England where he remained the rest of his life.


John Vassall’s Uncle William (seated) and Nephew Leonard Vassall

It’s hard to imagine George Washington being anything other than the leader of the American Revolution. However, had things gone just a little bit differently in Washington’s life he, like John Vassall, would have likely sided with the British. In his early military career many years prior to the Revolution, Washington’s great ambition was to become a commissioned British officer. Time and again Washington was rejected by the British Royal Government. This rejection fueled Washington’s resentment of the establishment that shunned those unconnected in British Royal circles. We will never know what might have been, but most commissioned British officers stood by their King in the Revolution. Fortunately, Washington sided with the rebels and transformed the loyalist Vassall home into his headquarters.

Washington’s arrival at the Vassall house would have brought a whirlwind of activity. Many of the Revolution’s key figures would have stepped through the door to the beautiful home on Watertown road: Nathaniel Greene, Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, Israel Putnam, Artemas Ward, Henry Knox, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to name a few. Washington’s “makeover” of the Vassall home turned a quiet English gentleman’s estate into the brain center of the rebellion.


The front stairs in Washington’s headquarters. Many of the Revolution’s finest would have stood here.


The room used by Washington as his office. The decor is from Longfellow’s era in the mid-1800’s

Washington’s headquarters has been preserved and now stands as part of the National Park Service. We visited this spring while on my book tour for The Drum of Destiny. Washington’s headquarters later became the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the mid-1800’s. Most of the furnishings and decor currently in the home are part of the Longfellow Trust. Longfellow knew the home’s history and loved the fact that so many key revolutionary characters had been inside his home. To stand inside looking into the room where Washington kept his office is like stepping back in time. What Washington accomplished in this home, taking it from loyalist estate to patriot headquarters is truly amazing.

For more about the Vassalls and Washington’s early days as the commanding general you can read the Historic Resource Study by J.L. Bell published by the National Park Service.


Death by Duel – The Irony of Hamilton’s Death


The duel that left Alexander Hamilton dead happened on this day, July 11, 1804. Aaron Burr killed Hamilton with a shot to the lower abdomen just above the right hip. Hamilton shot high into the air over Burr’s head, likely on purpose, although there is some debate among historians as to whether Hamilton intentionally aimed high. Regardless of Hamilton’s intentions, the best way to survive a duel is to not get into one in the first place. Hamilton died to protect his honor. While our modern sensibilities tend to think of honor as synonymous with integrity and good character, historically speaking, duels involved a very different type of honor.


The honor of the duel was tied to nobility. Only nobles had honor. Honor was given at birth. A person couldn’t earn honor, you could only lose it. The worst way for a noble to lose honor was to be considered a coward. The best way to show one’s self brave was to challenge the offending party to a duel and hope you didn’t die in the process. Make’s perfect sense, right?

It is ironic that Hamilton died as a participant in a system based on monarchical principles, when he had spent all of his life fighting against this noble/class based society. Hamilton’s death brought to light the senselessness that surrounded the duel and it’s list of rules that must be followed. The Code Duello laid out twenty-five rules for dueling. The Code involved the use of “Seconds”, usually friends of the dueling participants, to try to negotiate a resolution to the dispute. The Code also set out rules on when an apology could be accepted and when a duel must proceed. Many challenges to duel were just for show with no shots ever being fired. The Seconds would work things out. However, one could not back down from a duel without losing honor, case in point Hamilton and Burr. Thus, some duels ended in bloodshed and death. The Hamilton-Burr duel left many realizing that as an “enlightened” people duels were archaic forms of brutality that should be cast off just like the monarchical forms of government that had inspired them. The practice of dueling nevertheless lingered on throughout the Civil War and into the western frontier.


Hamilton was a brilliant man, yet he failed to see the sheer stupidity of throwing his life away in the class-based and unenlightened practice of dueling. It is a true loss that he was not able to continue to shape the Republic that he had worked so hard to establish.

What I Love About The Guy Who Didn’t Write The Declaration of Independence


John Adams was a member of the Congressional committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence. All the members of the committee, including Thomas Jefferson, thought Adams should write the first draft. Needless to say, the author of a document declaring independence from the British Empire would have instant worldwide fame. Adams could have easily seized this opportunity to solidify a position of power in Congress and around the world. Adams, however, refused to write the first draft. He insisted that Jefferson write it.


John Adams

Adams gave three reasons why Jefferson should write the Declaration. Each reason shows how Adams put his love of country above his own self-interests. If only more of our current governmental leaders could follow in Adams’ footsteps.

Reason 1:  Jefferson was a Virginian. Adams recognized that for all the colonies to support such a declaration the words must come from the pen of a Virginian. Virginia was the largest, wealthiest, and most influential colony. If Adams, a New Englander, was to write the declaration, it might not get the support needed from the southern colonies. Adams told Jefferson “you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business.”

Reason 2: Jefferson was more popular than Adams. John Adams had a way of stirring up conflict. As a result, many fellow congressmen didn’t like him. Adams knew this. Rather than trying to use the Declaration as a tool to gain some popularity among his peers, he instead told Jefferson that he must write it because Jefferson was more popular. Adams gave up an opportunity for self-advancement because again, above all else, he wanted all the colonies to support the Declaration of Independence. Adams told Jefferson, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”

Reason 3: Jefferson was a better writer that AdamsThomas Jefferson was an amazing writer. Adams was not. Adams knew that the document which was about to be drafted had to be able to convince the colonies, and the entire world, that these colonies were now independent from the British Empire. Not only that, but it had to explain why these colonies must declare their independence. The declaration had to succinctly and eloquently send a message to King George III that the colonies were serious about breaking away from his empire. Adams told Jefferson, “you can write ten times better than I.”


Thomas Jefferson

From Adams’ three reasons it’s clear that he held the advancement of his country above the advancement of his own political career. Jefferson and Adams would later become political enemies. While not enemies at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams had many opposing ideologies. Slavery being one of the most contentious differences. Adams abhorred slavery. Jefferson was a slave owner. These differences didn’t prevent Adams from recognizing that Jefferson was the better man when it came to drafting one of the most important documents ever written, The Declaration of Independence. Adams willingly put his own self-interest aside, and in an act of astonishing humility, told Jefferson to draft what would become the document that set democracy in motion. For this, I love the guy that didn’t write the Declaration of Independence.

You can read Adams’ letter to Timothy Pickering where he recounts the drafting of the Declaration of Independence here.

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