Redcoats and Revolutionaries

British general John Burgoyne usually features in the American national memory as the great British loser of the Battle of Saratoga. The American victory at Saratoga in 1777 marked a turning point in the American Revolution, dashing British hopes of isolating New England from the rest of the American colonies and inspiring the French to support the American cause. Had Burgoyne not lost at Saratoga, he might be remembered today as the minor homme de lettres he was, the author of such now-forgotten works as The Lord of the Manor, displayed here. This copy was owned by the Virginia revolutionary and silver-tongued orator Patrick Henry, who signed the title page. Like other orators at this time, Henry may have practiced public speaking with a so-called prompt-book, a play marked up to help the speaker remember what to say and how to say it. Was Patrick Henry the one who fixed Burgoyne’s work to make it friendly to the American republican cause? On page 3, reproduced here, a pro-English and anti-French passage has been crossed out and amended.

John Dickinson is best remembered as the cautious revolutionary. A wealthy Pennsylvania lawyer, Dickinson championed conciliation with Britain before 1776 and refused to sign the Declaration of Independence. He signed the title page of Charles Rollin’s The History of the Arts and Sciences of the Antients with the possessive form of his name: John Dickinson’s, hinting at the widespread love of the classical world that made Rollin’s ancient histories bestsellers in America and Europe for a century after their first publication in the 1730s. Reared on authors like Rollin, Dickinson became among the most classically erudite of the major American revolutionaries. His influential political essays, such as the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767–1768), crackled with allusions to the great events of the ancient world as though they had happened yesterday. We have opened Rollin to show a charmingly anachronistic scene of the Roman army at war: a Roman crane hoists a soldier onto a castle that looks decidedly medieval. The problem of being about a thousand years off target would not have bothered Americans of the eighteenth century. To them, the great scenes of classical antiquity were timeless models of instruction and pleasure.