Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"In all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern": Questioning the Crafted Identity of our Founding Fathers

by Ian Mumpton

We were out of the office on Monday, so we missed a “This Day in History” Facebook post on the 27th. This gives us the perfect excuse to turn that Facebook post into a short blog article! On February 27th, 1769 Henry Van Schaak of Albany wrote his brother a letter revealing a side of Philip Schuyler that one does not often see in the history books:

The dispute between Col. Schuyler and the brewer Anthony… was briefly this: the latter had said, at the Coffee House, that the aim of the Colonel’s motions in the House was popularity, and added something which I forget. The colonel immediately armed himself with his sword, went to the Coffee House and other public places thus arrayed. I saw him come in this manner into the house of Assembly, ‘tis said in search of Anthony, not meeting with him, he called upon his at his own house where [Anthony] says he asked [Schuyler’s] pardon.

We mentioned this letter a few weeks ago in a blog article on 18th century Colonial Swordsmanship (you can read it here), however today we will be discussing it as it relates to concepts of public perception and the crafting of an appropriate and refined identity in the late 18th century.

At the time of his death in 1804 (just three days shy of his 71st birthday), Philip Schuyler was a well-respected and highly esteemed gentleman, praised for his public service, sharp intellect, and cool, elevated demeanor. The announcement of his death described him as follows:
A man eminent for his useful labors in the military and civil affairs of our country…Among all those grand actors in the heroic history of our country whose shadowy outlines are now but faintly visible through the smoke of revolution and the haze of an intervening century surely none should be more proudly recognized than General Philip Schuyler… He was a practical not a theoretical statesman, an active not a visionary patriot. He was wise in devising, enterprising and persevering in the execution of plans of great and public utility. The death of such a man is truly a subject of private and of public sorrow.
For a man of Schuyler’s position, this carefully cultivated air of gentility was as important to his public presentation as his expensive clothing and elegant house. He was not alone; a moderated outward expression was considered a praiseworthy ideal by many of the landed gentry, who saw their behavior as a badge of good breeding and civility. As a young man, George Washington recorded his advice on proper behavior and etiquette, which included such maxims as, “Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile” and “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for 'is a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern”.

Horatio Greenough's 1832 idealized depiction of Washington
conveys the sense of reserved authority and cool
gentility which Washington himself actively cultivated
in his daily activities.
Often, the popular image of our founding fathers is as calm and collected gentlemen, stern yet moderated in their every action, handing down our fundamental American legislation with benevolent tranquility. This is a crafted image however, both in its own time and today, as the ideal which these men evinced to the world replaces the intricacies of their human passions and motivations. For example, while Horatio Greenough sculpted Washington in majestic serenity a la Zeus himself, Washington was known for powerful outbursts of temper, one instance of which Alexander Hamilton cited as his reason for leaving Washington’s staff in February, 1781, to resume his field commission.
Philip Schuyler is reported to have been subject to even more violent rages. During the retreat from Ticonderoga in 1777, Chaplain Hezekiah Smith reported in his journal:
...Lord's Day and very awful Day on the Account of Gen. Schuyler's conduct who acted more like a mad Man than the Commander in Chief. He beat some of the Soldiers who were performing their duty. He cursed, damned swore, profaned the Name of God in a most horrible manner, and Swore by his Maker that if he could light of the Major of our Brigade [Peter Harwood] that he would split his Head Open and scatter his Brains about the Ground. He attempted to thurst [sic] an Officer thro', and afterwards made his brags of it, that it was happy for the Officer and unlucky for the service that he had not killed him, many particulars of like conduct.

While Smith’s account is anecdotal, it does raise the issue of perception. Men like Philip Schuyler or George Washington’s characters and personalities were perceived by different people in very different ways within their lifespans, both positively and negatively, and yet today only that image which they desired be projected to the public has survived in our collective imagination. The past is often used as a resource by the present, whether to understand our own experiences as part of a larger narrative or to influence our actions and perceptions based on our relationship with the past. Every time we ask ourselves, “What would our Founders think of ______?” we participate in this process. That is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact it can be an important and enlightening activity, but we must always remember that things are not always what they seem to be, and we cannot always take the public perception of the time to be an accurate reflection of an individual’s life or actions. As we explore our shared past, especially when we find that past a little bit too comforting, it is important to remind ourselves and each other to actively question those things we would maybe rather not. The answers may not necessarily need to change the overall narrative, but they will almost always yield a richer, more complicated story.

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