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The Death of General Richard Montgomery

May 24, 2013 in American History, general history, History

Richard Montgomery is famous for leading the American invasion of Canada in 1775. Born in Swords, Dublin in the Kingdom of Ireland in 1738, he served in the British Army, but then joined the American patriots and became a Major General in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Taking over the invasion of Canada when Phillip Schulyer fell ill, General Montgomery  captured Fort St. Johns and  Montreal in November of 1775 and then advanced toward Quebec City. On December 31, 1775, General Montgomery led an attack against Quebec City but was killed in battle.


The Death of  Montgomery by John Trumbull from Wikimedia Commons

The man into whose arms General Montgomery has fallen in the painting by John Trumbull is none other than Aaron Burr. “We shall be in the fort in two minutes,” General Montgomery said to Burr just before he was hit by a volley of grapeshot and fell into Burr’s arms. According to Samuel Spring, Burr tried to rally the men behind him and push on, but his orders were countermanded by the General’s successor. As other Americans retreated from the advancing Canadians, Aaron Burr stayed behind,valiantly  trying to carry the body of General Montgomery to safety. Burr was a short, slighter man, and he sank deep in the snow as he carried General Montgomery’s larger, taller body for several yards, before it became clear his efforts would be futile and he fled to escape capture.

Richard Montgomery’s body was given a proper burial by the British, but  his story does not end there. He has been celebrated in words and paintings as a fallen American hero.



Milton Lomask, Aaron Burr: The Years from Princeton to Vice President, 1756-1805, p. 41

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The Journal of Esther Edwards Burr

May 13, 2013 in American History, general history, History

EstherEdwardsBurrShe was the daughter of the famous theologian, Jonathan Edwards, and the wife of the second President of Princeton University, but Esther  Edwards Burr is best known today as the mother of Aaron Burr, Jr., the third Vice President of the United States. What did she have to say about her famous son? The only significant words she writes about him are these:

Aaron is a little, dirty, noisy boy, very different from Sally almost in everything. He begins to talk a little, is very sly, mischievous and has more sprightliness than Sally. I must say he is handsomer, though not so good tempered. He is very resolute and requires a good governor to bring him to terms.

That she had little more than this to say about her son results from the fact that Esther Edwards Burr died when Aaron was only two years old. That we know she said this much is because she kept a journal since she was nine.

Northampton, February 13, 1741.

This is my ninth birthday and Mrs. Edwards, my mother. has made me stitch these sundry sheets of paper into a book to make me a journal. Methinks, almost all this family keep journals: though they seldom show them. But Mrs. Edwards is to see mine, because she needs to know whether I improve in composing; also whether I am learning to keep my heart with all diligence, which we are all constrained to be engaged.

Born into a busy household of a famous evangelical preacher, Esther Edwards was given quite an education at home. Both her parents were as interested in her writing ability as they were in the purity of her soul. The journal she kept was subject to parental scrutiny, so we can be sure that she exercised self control and did not express all her thoughts and feelings. Still, considering all this, her personality does come through in her writing.

 Northampton, December, 1741.

Mr. Samuel Hopkins, who has just been graduated from New Haven College, and who pleads to study divinity with Mr. Edwards, came to our house to-day. He looked to find father at home and is in some trouble of mind. …We girls, Jerusha, Mary and I, seeing his immense frame, his great honest face, and hearing his ponderous voice, have maliciously nicknamed him “Old Sincerity.”

Esther wrote about ordinary things that happened around her, but she also sometimes expressed original thoughts about serious topics in passing. Notice how the following passage starts with an ordinary domestic scene, but ends up making a commentary on slavery.

Northampton, June, 1743.

My mother has just come into the house with a bunch of sweet peas, and put them on the stand where my honored father is shaving, though his beard is very slight. We have abundance of flowers and a vegetable garden, which is early and thrifty. Our sweet corn is the first in town, and so are our green peas. My honored father of course has not time to give attention to the garden, and so Mrs. Edwards looks after everything there. Almost before the snow has left the hills, she has it plowed and spaded by Rose’s husband, who does all the hard work there. She is our colored cook. We hire her services from one of the prominent people in father’s parish, who owns both her and her husband. That word “own” sounds strangely about people.

Although the Edwards children were encouraged to read the Bible and engage in piety at all times, they were not kept in the dark about all forms of contemporary, non-religious culture. For instance, they were allowed to read novels, if their parents approved of their content.


We have just been permitted to read Richardson’s novel: “Sir Charles Grandison”. Our father and mother have first read it, and regard it as a wholly suitable book as to morals and character. Our honored father has gone so far as to express admiration for its literary style…

Jonathan Edwards was a strict father, and there were no parties till midnight for his children. But not everyone in town felt the same, and despite the dutiful adherence to the parental edicts, one senses a wistfulness when Esther reports on festivities that she was neither invited to attend, nor would have been allowed to go to in the event of an invitation.

Northampton, January.

Great excitement has been occasioned by a New Year’s sleigh-ride and ball for dancing, that has just occurred here. It was a gay party for young people, some of my more intimate friends among them, who drove to a hotel in Hadley and spent the hours till midnight in dancing the Old Year out and the New Year in. …To my honored father and mother it was a time of great grief. And when with morning light, the great sled-loads drove up through the streets, with their laughing, giddy freight, I saw the tears in the eyes of them both. I am only too glad that none of the children of this household were invited to go; or had they been, would have so far departed from the wishes of their parents…

You might think that with such impediments to socializing with the opposite sex as the Edwards household put up, Esther would have had to wait a long time before a beau materialized. Not so. She was just seventeen when she received her first and only marriage proposal.

 Stockbridge, May, 1752.

This has just happened to me: Mr. Burr, President of New Jersey College, who has visited our house, both in Northampton and  Stockbridge for many years — as a little girl I have romped with him and sat on his lap — rose this A. M. to take an early breakfast and start for home again, betimes on horseback for the Hudson. And it was my week to care for the table. I had spread the breakfast for him, no other member of the household having yet arisen. The cloth was as white as snow, for I had taken out a fresh one with its clean smell for the occasion, and there was not a crease in it; the room was full of the aroma of freshly made tea… The newly churned butter was as yellow as gold… Mr. Burr partook with the greatest relish, keeping up a current of gracious speech every moment; and finally fixing his flashing eyes on me, as I sat rapt and listening at the other end of the board, he abruptly said: “Esther Edwards, last night I made bold to ask your honored father, if I can gain your consent, that I might take you as Mrs. Burr to my Newark bachelor quarters and help convert them into a Christian home. What say you?” Of course, although from my early girlhood, Mr Burr had treated me with favor, I was wholly unprepared for this sudden speech, and blushed to my ears and looked down; and stammered out, as we are taught to say here: “If it please the Lord!” Though when we came to separate, I could not help playfully saying: “Was it the loaves and fishes, Mr. Burr?” He laughed and kissed me for the first time.

Today, we tend to think of women being less educated in times past, but when we read the journal of Esther Edwards Burr and compare her education with that of the average young woman of today, she comes off as rather a learned scholar. We are taught that one of the reasons young women should wait to marry later is so that they can complete their education.  Even though she married young, Esther Burr’s education did not end upon her marriage. In fact, her husband saw to it that she learned things she might never have been taught in her father’s house.

Newark 1752

My husband, Mr. Burr, has persuaded me to take up Latin with him. I had learned it a little in our home in Northhampton, where there  was much teaching of the classics. And last evening he read with me a letter of the Roman orator, Cicero. addressed in his exile ‘To his dear Terentia, his little Tullia and his darling Cicero.’ Mr. Burr believes it to be genuine. Mr. Burr was speaking of Cicero’s surprise that great calamity should have overtaken one, whose wife had so faithfully worshiped the gods, and who had himself been so serviceable to man…

Cicero was not the only orator quoted in the Burr household. nor were political events closer to home ignored.

 Newark, January 1, 1755.

“A day set apart for fasting and prayer, on account of the late encroachment of the French and their designs against the British Colonies of America.” President Burr preached what was largely a historical discourse, giving the French progress from the time of Henry the IV. These were the closing paragraphs: “Shall we tamely suffer our delightful possessions to be taken from us? Become the dupes and slaves of a French tyrant? God forbid! Tis high time to awake, to call upon all the Briton within us, every spark of English valor, cheerfully to offer up our purses, our arms, and our lives to the defence of our country, our holy religion, our excellent constitution and invaluable liberties. For what is Life without Liberty? Tis not worth having….”

Reading this today, one is reminded of the wording “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” The historical influences that contributed to the making of the American Revolution run deep, and in reading Esther Edwards, we realize that the British colonists were well rooted in a long, long tradition of honor and love of liberty. Modern day Americans, in comparison, are historically rootless, able to quote very few of their predecessors.

In time Esther Burr gave birth to a daughter and then a son. But she was not to have the privilege of raising her children, for she succumbed to the small pox when she was only twenty-three, following the death of her husband,  leaving behind two little orphans.  Although the life she led was short, Esther Edwards Burr packed a lot of living into those years and she left her mark on the literary history of  Colonial America by means of her own writing.

Frugal Use of Resources in Privateering: How Dominique You Got His Start

May 6, 2013 in American History, Caribbean History, general history

The privateer Confiance in battle with the Kent by Robert Surcouf From the Wikimedia Commons

Letters of marque were granted by governments to successful privateers, because this was an economical way to engage in war without a heavy outlay — and without burdening the populace with either taxation or conscription.

In privateering, the profit motive required that every expenditure on equipment should ultimately result in a return on investment that would justify it. Because of this, it was not enough to win a battle — It was necessary to do so while expending less than was gained in the exploit. Privateers, unlike regular navy ships, were required by market forces  to engage in frugal use of resources and to use good business practices while plying their trade.

While some privateering outfits had financial investors who shared in the profits and were  not involved in the day to day operations of the privateer, smaller privateering operations were run directly  by those who invested the money in the venture, and the profits were shared by the officers and crew alone. Enterprising young men with the skills and courage required could expect to earn a handsome living with a minimal investment.

Regardless of who the real author of  “The Journal of Jean Laffite” may have been, his accounts concerning the business end of being a privateer do shed some light on the issue of how it was possible to earn a living while waging war as a private individual, despite the fact that most governments went into debt when they engaged in war.

The author describes how his elder brother Alexandre, (later known as Dominique You), prepared for his first outing as a privateer. Alexandre was the son of a tanner, and neither his father nor his grandmother encouraged him in his plans to become a privateer. However, he did receive training in the martial arts and in sailing and navigation from his great uncles who were independent corsairs.

The Journal of Jean Laffite describes how Alexandre refurbished a run-down ship that would not even hold water and brought it to the point when it was just barely seaworthy. He then assembled a crew and stealthily sailed out on his first run as a privateer.


…Alexandre was twenty-two years old and he had a small moustache. He took it upon himself to equip and repair a brig as a corsair. It was an old “coque”, good at most for sailing along the coast in a calm sea. But he did the impossible The vessel had two masts and four excellent cabins..

Despite the disapproval of his father, Alexandre put on a brave air, sang a sea chanty and sailed off stealthily in the middle of the night, because he still did not have a license to do what he was doing — and no investor would likely have gambled on him at this early stage in his career.


All that our father wanted to say was that Alexandre whistled for a few minutes and sang while raising the big sails, to say: “I am going to sea without fear to capture a great prize. Goodbye, Father.”

When Alexandre returned, he had captured two fine vessels even though his own ship sank. The first thing he did was to present himself at the local bank, where an appraisement was made of his prizes, and he soon obtained enough  cash to buy a better ship and had enough prestige to secure a privateering license. From this small story, we are afforded a glimpse into the financial side of privateering, and how it was possible to have a rags to riches — or rags to respectability transformation overnight.


The next day after Alexandre’s arrival was passed with bank authorities and officials to take an inventory and convert his prizes into specie.

.We learn from this story how little of an investment was required in order to get started in the privateering profession, but we also learn a little about profitability in general . It was true that Alexandre was motivated to take a risk on a vessel that was hardly seaworthy, because he was young and brave and strapped for cash. But consider what might have happened had he invested a great deal more in a better ship that may not have sunk, but might have sustained damage that would have required expensive repairs. A more solidly built vessel might have been less maneuverable and harder to ditch without regret. In later years, an established privateer may command a fleet of ships, but he can never afford to spend on them what a government might on its fleet, because he has to keep in mind the profit margin. The privateering business model puts severe limitations on spending, because the greater the investment,,  the smaller the return.

The reason many countries once issued privateering licenses or letters of marque rather than investing more money  in fleets of their own was that privateers were able to achieve useful military objectives without burdening the treasuries of the nations they served. When privateering went into disrepute and all privateers became conflated with pirates, the price of waging  war went up. The people shouldering the burden of that heavier price were ordinary citizens who ended up being conscripted and  taxed  to pay for services to their country that privateers used to provide willingly and free of charge..

The Diverse Interests of Jean Laffite: Money, Medicine, and Temperance

May 2, 2013 in American History, general history, History

It would probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the privateer Jean Laffite that he took a lifelong interest in the money market. He wanted to know how different currencies held up to each other, and how many Spanish Doubloons could be exchanged for a United States Treasury Note on any given day. Hence it should come as no surprise that a clipping about the New Orleans money market from around 1840 is kept in the journal and scrapbook attributed to Jean Laffite.


What might seem more surprising is that Jean Laffite had a keen interest in medicine, medical practices and the efficacy of hypnosis as a way to lessen the pain of a patient undergoing surgery.


The above clipping tells how hypnotism (then called “animal magnetism”) was used to sedate a woman undergoing a mastectomy for breast cancer so that she was entirely unaware of any pain or discomfort during the operation. The operation was a success, and fourteen days later the patient was walking around with no discomfort, but unfortunately she died soon thereafter of an infection.

Why would a privateer take such an interest in an operation on a patient suffering from breast cancer? It seems clear that the focus of the article was on the use of  “animal magnetism” to  sedate patients. In his journal, Jean Laffite expressed an interest in psychology.

Another preoccupation of the scrap-booker was temperance, and how it affected health and longevity. The following clip describes all the usual effects of  long term alcoholism, including both physical degeneration and eventual dementia. It also notes that of people afflicted with small pox during an epidemic in 1823-24, the alcoholics all succumbed, while other people sometimes recovered. The only alcoholics who could survive the small pox epidemic were the ones who had been vaccinated or inoculated. Interestingly, the author of this clipping was not advocating vaccination when he made this observation. Instead, the piece was meant to motivate people to abstain from intemperance.


On the pages of the journal attributed to Jean Laffite, the author  spoke of his own temperance and how he used the drunkenness of others to obtain information from them. He also spoke disparagingly of the drunkards rolling in the streets of St. Louis in the 1840s, and he boasted that in his commune, people did not behave that way.

Anyone past a certain age begins to wonder how long he has to live. It must then be of some comfort to see that the good habits we have cultivated throughout our lives can bear fruit. The following clipping is about a man who was alleged to be 133 years old at the time of his death. He is said to have arrived at that ripe old age on a diet of bread, cheese, and butter, and he drank nothing besides milk and water. However, upon being persuaded to eat meat and drink malt liquor, he soon took ill and died. While the modern reader will probably scoff at this story, doubting both the  alleged  longevity of the subject and the suggestion that his demise was due to this extreme change of diet at such a ripe old age, for whatever reason this clipping was deemed worthy of keeping. It is found toward the end of the journal, and it may well have been the case that scrap-booker was not well at the time and was grasping at straws about how to prolong his life.


Many people read the paper with assiduity. They listen to the latest news and are big believers in what they are told is medical fact. Jean Laffite may have been no different, Not everything we find in the paper is true, and the parts in the health section are full of the latest medical fads, rather than sound advice. However, there are many people who do look for guidance in the papers, and Jean Laffite, toward the end of his life, may have been one of them.

If you want to get to know a person, looking at his reading habits can tell you quite a lot about him. No article, no matter how seemingly trivial, should be entirely ignored when trying to understand the identity and psychology of the person who compiled the scrapbook in the “Journal of Jean Laffite.”

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