Revolutionary War: Conventional wisdom and unconventional explanations

York prides itself on its Revolutionary War past. Parts of such a grand tradition can take on lives of their own. These stories can grow outward and upward from the events that spawned them.

This brief analysis by York County historian Jim McClure defines the modern common view of several such stories and seeks to place these stories in historical perspective.

Thomas Paine

Common view: The noted pamphleteer Thomas Paine stayed in the Cookes House, west of the Codorus. He kept the originals of the Declaration of Independence and other important documents with him there.

The cover of Thomas Paine's Common Sense pamphlet.

The cover of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet.

Perspective: Evidence exists that Thomas Paine worked on “American Crisis V,” a major series of pamphlets following “Common Sense,” in York Town but where he stayed is not known. Tradition and little else ties him to a then-isolated stone house – the Cookes House – off modern-day Penn Street.

The Declaration undoubtedly came with Congress to York Town. John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, on Sept. 30, 1777: “It was in order to convey the governmental papers with safety that we were induced to take this circuitous route in our flight from the British to York.” Secretary Charles Thomson probably had custody of the documents. Paine did not arrive in York Town until February 1778.

Some have doubted whether Paine ever made it to York Town. Some of Paine’s correspondence, with York Town penned at the top, is extant including a letter from the patriot to Benjamin Franklin in France that states: “I think we are now so safely landed that it requires more invention to go wrong than it ever did to go right.”

Walter Cruise’s captivity

Common view: The British captured Walter Cruise, a corporal in the York County Rifle Company, near Boston in 1775 and sent him to England as a prisoner of war. With freedom to move about, he enthralled the people with his marksmanship. In fact, his accuracy demoralized eligible soldiers in Britain and impaired recruiting. He then conducted a clandestine mission for Arthur Lee, an American in London: He delivered important dispatches to George Washington in New York.

Perspective: Records show the British, indeed, captured Cruise, but some modern researchers seeking to confirm the details of the England journey have been unsuccessful. Upon his release, Cruise returned to service as a captain in a Pennsylvania regiment.

Hard money brought to York Town

Common view: As part of its treaties with America, France shipped $600,000 in silver across the Atlantic Ocean to Portsmouth, N.H., where it was loaded onto a wagon and eventually transported to York Town. It was stored in a vault in the basement of Archibald McClean’s home on York Town’s Centre Square, where the U.S. Treasury Board had been meeting.

Perspective: This story has attracted supporters and dissenters throughout York’s history. Opponents argue that evidence to support the story is lacking, and France would not have risked shipping such a large amount of silver with the heavy British patrols on the seas. Most modern county histories do not include this story.

York’s Liberty Bell

Common view: The bell on display at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in York rang from the York County Court House after the reading of the freshly minted Declaration of Independence and to call Congress to session in 1777-78.

Tradition says the bell arrived in York Town for use in the church. The church had no tower at the time, so it rested on the ground in York Town until needed to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. The county co-opted the bell from that point until the razing of the courthouse in 1841. Some people believed the county should retain use of the bell, but members of St. John’s hid it until the controversy passed.

Perspective: Since church records and the Liberty Bell’s documentation are scarce, a great deal of confusion and speculation surrounds the bell. York artist Lewis Miller, sketching in the 1800s, captioned a drawing of the church with the bell in the belfry: “(I)t is known that this is the old court house bell hanging in the open air.” That is the bell on display today. But where did the county get the bell?

Researchers have gone down several paths in explaining the bell’s origins: The York County Commissioners paid about 55 pounds for a bell in 1769, but it’s not clear that is the Liberty Bell. The claim that a Queen Caroline donated the bell is a second avenue of inquiry, bringing uncertain results. Queen Caroline, wife of George II, died in 1737. Caroline of Brunswick married George IV (then Prince of Wales) in 1795, and the couple separated the next year. George III’s wife was named Charlotte. One possibility is Caroline Matilda, sister of George III and wife of Christian VII, King of Denmark. Caroline Matilda and Christian were married from 1766-1772. Some historians go a plausible third route, believing the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an organization sponsoring missionaries to St. John’s and other American churches, sent the bell.

Conway Cabal

Common view: The Marquis de Lafayette’s toast to Gen. George Washington represented the turning point in the Conway Cabal, a plot to overthrow the commander in chief and replace him with Gen. Horatio Gates.

Perspective: Lafayette undoubtedly met with Gates and other Board of War members for dinner in what is today called the Gates House on or about Jan. 31, 1778, in York Town. Most scholars point to evidence showing some members of Congress and the military were intensely dissatisfied with Washington before, during and after the Gates-led Continental Army’s victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Benson Bobrick in the popular, but scholarly “Angels in the Whirlwind” is typical of the commentators: “The cabal was probably not an organized conspiracy as the word suggests – though Washington himself used the term – but rather a loose association of men who had similar, doubtful views about the way the war was going and who complained to one another behind Washington’s back.”

Sometimes overstated is the importance of the toast as a pivotal point in France’s support of the United States and Congress’ backing of Washington as commander in chief. American statesmen believed that Lafayette held the keys to France’s support. Lafayette’s backing of Washington that night in York Town publicly confirmed his support in the presence of the man most likely to replace him – Horatio Gates.

But other factors contributed to Washington’s growing popularity, including an Army that grew in strength as the weather warmed. And negotiators of the treaties between France and the United States were working out details of their agreements an ocean away in France even as the toast was taking place. The treaties were completed on Feb. 6, and the Continental Congress received official word of the agreements on May 2.

Thanksgiving

Common view: Thanksgiving had its origin in York Town when Congress issued America’s first National Thanksgiving Proclamation while meeting here.

Perspective: Congress, indeed, approved a proclamation of thanksgiving and praise after the British surrendered at Saratoga – the first of seven such days set aside during the American Revolution. The proclamation, in effect, extended the New England custom dating back to the Pilgrims to all the states.

In covering the history of Thanksgiving, most national authorities discuss the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving of 1621, President George Washington’s proclamation of a national Thanksgiving Day in 1789 and President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation making the national day an annual event. American historians only occasionally give weight to the days of thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War as part of their work on the holiday.

This perhaps stems from the fact that these thanksgiving observances predate the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, a watershed event that established the U.S. presidency, and the fact that Thanksgiving didn’t become an annually observed national holiday until 1863.

The National Thanksgiving Foundation is one organization that treats the National Thanksgiving Proclamation as a seminal event. “That night he (proclamation writer Samuel Adams) gave each of us the national thanksgiving tradition which every American has known since infancy,” the foundation noted. “Thanksgiving could have died out a quaint New England custom, an accident of history, but Adams’ determination started this – our most beautiful national tradition.”

Hall & Sellers press

Common view: The Hall & Sellers press printed the initial run of the Articles of Confederation and Congress’ Thanksgiving Proclamation in York Town.

Perspective: Congress directed Francis Bailey, printing in Lancaster, to publish 300 copies of the Articles, which he delivered to York Town by the end of November.

Congress ordered the Hall & Sellers press to York Town on Oct. 17, but the wooden press did not arrive until early December. Cornelius Harnett, a North Carolina delegate, heralded its arrival in a Dec. 8 letter:

“… (W)e have had no press here until within these few days & no (Pennsylvania) Gazette as yet published.” The first Gazette came off the press dated Dec. 20.