Topic: Lynn Price

The Circus Comes to Town

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
September 11, 2017

Exterior view of Astley’s amphitheater, engraving by Charles John Smith (1777). © Victoria and Albert Museum.

On Wednesday, April 24, 1793, George and Martha Washington responded to an invitation from Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Their letter read, “Mrs Washington is so much indisposed with a cold as to make her fear encreasing it by going to the Circus this afternoon. The President & rest of the family propose to be Spectators at the exhibition of Mr Rickets.” The family members who presumably did attend were Martha’s grandchildren, Nelly and Wash, who were living at the presidential house at the time. The grandchildren living with their mother, Eliza and Patsy, could possibly have attended as well. Martha’s indisposition, however, came at an unfortunate time, as it prevented her from attending a key moment in American entertainment history—the introduction of the modern circus.

Philip Astley created the concept of the modern circus in England in 1768. A skilled horseman, Astley learned to ride standing on a horse’s back. He discovered that riding in a circle helped him balance during the trick, and thus he has been credited with inventing the first circus ring. By 1770 Astley had built an amphitheater and added a clown, musicians, and additional entertainers to his show.

Twenty-five years later, John Bill Ricketts, a Scottish horseman, introduced Americans to Europe’s new form of entertainment. His exhibitions were held in Philadelphia and New York. Though Ricketts offered a clown, tumblers, and other acts familiar to the twenty-first century reader, his horsemanship was the true highlight of the show. The March 27, 1793, issue of the Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser invited readers to experience Ricketts’s “unparalleled EQUESTRIAN PERFORMANCE.” Ricketts’s first circus was reviewed in Philadelphia’s Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser on April 4. The reviewer exclaimed that the “upwards of seven hundred Spectators” were treated to a performance “beyond expectation, beautiful, graceful and superb, in the highest extreme.”

Astley’s Amphitheatre in London, as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (c. 1808-11). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington’s attendance at the circus did not go unnoticed. The April 24 issue of the Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser informed readers that, “This Afternoon, The President of the United States and Family will honor the Circus with their Company.” Although it seems that she missed this one, Martha Washington may have had a second chance to witness the first American circus two months later. The July 16 issue of Philadelphia’s General Advertiser noted that at a benefit for the poor thrown by Ricketts, “The President of the United States and his family were among the company who visited the circus.” In his financial papers, George recorded on May 24, 1797, that he had paid 2 shillings, 3 pence for “Circus exp[ence]s going to George Town.”1

Did George and Martha Washington enjoy this new form of entertainment imported from Europe? Although no specific comments from either has been found, an advertisement in the January 23, 1797, issue of the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser stated that Ricketts offered a performance “BY DESIRE OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES,” suggesting that George Washington, at least, was indeed amused.

 

Notes

  1. George Washington’s Financial Papers, Ledger C, 1790-1799, pg.29, line 24.

History Has Its Eyes on Hamilton

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor and Elisa Shields, Research Specialist
June 27, 2017

New York City’s Times Square starkly contrasts the small, quiet town of Charlottesville, Va., where The Washington Papers is based. Throngs of tourists pack the streets, performers vie for attention, and video advertisements overwhelm the eyes. In the midst of this sensory overload, an escape to a side street is a relief. Choose the correct street, and the Richard Rodgers Theater, the home of Hamilton the musical, will quickly appear on your left. Before you know it, you may find yourself humming a tune about Thomas Jefferson or quietly reciting George Washington’s Farewell Address in a rhythmic fashion. A far-fetched scenario just a few years ago, Hamilton has catapulted revolutionary history into the stratosphere. In the words of one teenage fan, “This is, like, crazy cool.”1 And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.

Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address is one such example. In “One Last Time,” Washington informs Hamilton that he will not be running for a third term as president because the nation is ready to move on. The president asks Hamilton to revise a draft of his address to the people in order to “teach them how to say goodbye” and to express his hopes for the new nation. In an impressive display of history reimagined, the resulting lyrics seldom deviate from the actual address. The following lyrics are drawn from the musical, with additional text from the historical address in brackets:

Assistant editor Lynn Price (left) and research specialist Elisa Shields (right) waiting in anticipation for the show.

Consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest . . . I anticipate with pleasing expectation that retreat in which I promise myself to realize [, without alloy,] the sweet enjoyment of partaking, in the midst of my fellow-citizens, the benign influence of good laws under a free government, the ever-favorite object of my heart, and the happy reward, as I trust, of our mutual cares, labors, and dangers.2

Hamilton ushers spectators through a veritable maze of laughter, sadness, excitement, and political intrigue. Hamilton creator Lin-Manual Miranda originally portrayed the character of Alexander Hamilton in the musical. Before Miranda (who is of Puerto Rican descent) brought Hamilton the historical figure to Broadway, most Americans likely did not know that the first secretary of the treasury was born in the West Indies. He was, in other words, an immigrant. It is doubtful that Americans considered the Federalist Papers, co-written by Hamilton, a captivating read. And in the story of the infamous Burr-Hamilton duel, Aaron Burr was not liable to receive a sympathetic assessment. Today, however, both Hamilton and Burr are starting to receive the attention and recognition they deserve—the former for being the mastermind behind the nation’s financial, legal, and political systems, and the latter for being a more nuanced and multifaceted figure than most history books acknowledge (not to mention an essential player in Hamilton’s short but intense life). While Hamilton is the namesake and star of the show, Burr remains its central figure. Not only does he narrate almost every song (the Hamilton song “Dear Theodosia” best exemplifies the more humanistic view of Burr), but the events often spiral around him.3 Leaving the theater with a new appreciation for the maligned figure known principally for killing Alexander Hamilton was only one of many delightful effects of an exceptional and inimitable Broadway experience.

In the development phase of his hit musical, Miranda extensively researched historical figures for context. This process included visiting the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, a journey that many of the show’s fans now repeat. If you were unaware that it was in the neighborhood, you would never guess that Hamilton’s estate, The Grange (his “sweet project” as he liked to call it), humbly stands a few blocks away from the campus of the City College of New York in Harlem.3 Other than a Hamilton Terrace street sign, there are no indications of the site’s presence as you stroll along West 141st Street. And yet, there it is: a charming yellow house, cozily surrounded by trees and what used to be bare land. Inside, the charm continues as visitors are encouraged to visit the house’s first floor, which consists of four rooms, most of which are incredibly luminous and welcoming. It is intriguing to visualize the house being moved—twice!—in the last 200 years in response to a growing city. Even as Hamilton’s old neighborhood becomes unrecognizable to his era, this piece of history remains.

It is difficult to dispute Hamilton‘s Schuyler sisters when they chant that New York is “the greatest city in the world.”4 One can only imagine how it must have felt for a young Alexander Hamilton, fresh off a ship from Nevis and arriving in a place of such excitement and opportunities. Perhaps some things don’t change over time. We arrived and left New York City with a “head full of fantasies” (and Hamilton songs on repeat).5

All photos courtesy of the authors.

 

Notes

1. Erica Milvy, “Hamilton’s teenage superfans: ‘This is, like, crazy cool’,” The Guardian, June 22, 2016, accessed June 14, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jun/22/hamilton-teenage-superfans-this-is-like-crazy-cool.

2. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” accessed June 14, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp; Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)—Act II Booklet, 14-15, accessed June 14, 2017, https://warnermusicgroup.app.box.com/s/98o13fgs1vrb2wxqe1zel2ugw7ppryv9/1/4712017338/38329308850/1.

3 Leslie Odom, Jr., and Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Dear Theodosia,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

3. “From Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Hamilton, [19] November 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-22-02-0154. Also available in print: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 22, July 1798 – March 1799.

4. Phillipa Soo, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, “Schuyler Sisters,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

5. Christopher Jackson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom, Jr., “Right Hand Man,” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording).

George Washington’s First Visit to Colonial Williamsburg

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
April 14, 2017

While Virginia was still a British colony, its capital, Williamsburg, presented a variety of amusements. Residents and visitors alike could enjoy a pint at the tavern after an evening of dancing, noise and excitement in the streets during a town fair, or the debut of a popular play at the local theatre. Modern Virginia residents and history buffs may find these pastimes familiar. While modern-day Colonial Williamsburg offers visitors a recreated past, George Washington experienced the original colonial city.

George Washington’s first recorded visit to Williamsburg came on the heels of his return from Barbados at the end of January, 1752 (according to the Julian or New Style calendar). Upon his ship’s landing at Yorktown, he traveled to Williamsburg to meet Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

A print of the Bodleian Plate, which depicts features of colonial Williamsburg, particularly architectural style. Courtesy of Cornell University Library.

In 1752, the capital of Virginia boasted fewer than 1,000 residents. The new capitol building was under construction after a 1747 fire, and well-known landmarks still recognizable to the twenty-first century eye were already standing: Bruton Parish church, the College of William & Mary, and the main street.

After what was likely his first theater experience in Barbados, George may have chosen to attend a performance in Williamsburg. A new theatre had been built in the Virginia capital just a few months before George’s visit. In an advertisement in the Aug. 29, 1751, Virginia Gazette, subscribers were asked to support building a playhouse for the Company of Comedians. And so the second theatre ever in Williamsburg was erected, with shows offered to the public by the middle of October 1751.

George arrived at an unusually quiet time in Williamsburg, as neither the courts nor the colonial assembly was in session. Court sessions, known as Public Times, were held in April, June, October, and December.1 During these months, the capital swarmed with visitors, doubling and possibly tripling the number of inhabitants. Virginians from all corners of the colony came together to enjoy amusements such as fairs with “a Side-play of Puppet shows, Contests in Beauty, Fiddling, and Dancing, with Foot Races from the College to the Capitol, Cudgellings, and Chases for Pigs to be caught by the Tails (which were soaped).”2 Taverns and inns were filled, merchants debuted fashions from London, and personal business was transacted. Slave auctions were also held.3

General Assembly meetings also increased the population of the capital and encouraged additional social events to entertain the visitors. A March 5, 1752, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, for example, invited ladies and gentlemen to purchase tickets to a ball held at Henry Wetherburn’s every Tuesday while the General Assembly was in session.

While George missed these times of visitors and thus many of the associated popular amusements of Williamsburg in 1752, his meeting with Governor Dinwiddie resulted in a career gain that more than made up for the loss of recreation. In July 1752, the death of George’s brother Lawrence left several militia vacancies in Virginia. Perhaps owing to an encouraging meeting in Williamsburg, George requested a commission from Dinwiddie. He received that commission as major and adjutant of the militia, horse and foot, for the Southern District of Virginia, in December of that year. And thus George Washington’s military career began.

 

Notes

  1. James H. Soltow, “The Role of Williamsburg in the Virginia Economy, 1750-1775,” The William and Mary Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1958), 469.
  2. Rutherfoord Goodwin, A Brief and True Report for the Traveller Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1936), 49.
  3. Ibid, 48-52.

Complicating the Enemy: Samuel Roukin on Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
February 10, 2017

SamuelRoukin

Samuel Roukin is used to strangers coming up to him and saying, “I hate you.” And he loves it. Roukin has portrayed the villainous John Graves Simcoe on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies for three seasons, and the British officer is a character fans love to hate. “My job is to humanize,” says Roukin. “That means it’s working.”

Roukin studied history in his native England before moving to the United States a year prior to joining the cast of Turn. Unsurprisingly, the American Revolution was not a part of his curriculum. “In England, as a kid, you don’t get taught about the Revolution,” he says. “It didn’t have the same impact.” So, upon earning the role of Captain Simcoe, the actor sought to gain a deeper understanding of the era. As events appeared in the script, Roukin would delve into them using secondary and primary sources. He examined documents about the war and asked questions about everyday life of the era. “The Washington Papers was a source where I could pull out directly relevant documents,” he notes. In December 2016, he visited The Washington Papers offices for further insights into the documents. But on Turn, his job is to make the past come alive again, and research is only one part of making that connection. Once the cameras began rolling, the history books were set aside, and Roukin began creating a real person for the audience.

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“Strongly Attacked”: George Washington Encounters Smallpox

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
December 2, 2016

It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.

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Lessons in Courage and Responsibility: Ian Kahn of Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Kim Curtis and Lynn Price
June 7, 2016

IMG_0205[3]Ian Kahn knows George Washington. For three seasons, he has played the General on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. An accomplished stage actor, Kahn has also appeared on Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City. Washington Papers editors Kim Curtis and Lynn Price recently spoke with Kahn about his work on Turn, what this season holds in store, and what George Washington means to him.

When he initially heard about the role of General Washington on Turn, Kahn says, “I thought how wild and wacky it was to play George Washington, but then I read the character description… and I thought, ‘I think I’ve got an idea about how to do this.’” As Kahn began working on the script during his first audition, his hopes were confirmed that he could indeed figure out how to play someone like Washington.

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The Rise and Fall of a Barbados Merchant

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
May 19, 2016

For me, history is the study of people, and I have “met” quite a few interesting folks while working on George Washington’s Barbados diary. Due to a lack of sources, most of these people will become vague acquaintances at best. However, one of those individuals has captured my imagination—Gedney Clarke. Because of his status of power in Barbados and elsewhere, he hasn’t quite faded into the shadows of an unknown past. Many aspects of his life, nevertheless, still remain a mystery.

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Beef, Liberty, and All Things Barbados

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
March 4, 2016

With George Washington’s Barbados Diary transcription complete, the next phase to accomplish is the all-important task of annotation. Placing the document into proper historical context is the backbone of documentary editing—a document on its own is only part of the story. Annotation is time-consuming, detail-oriented work that can require hours of research to compose one or two sentences. But perhaps more importantly, for this historian, it is incredibly entertaining.

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A Tale of Two Georges

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
December 3, 2015

“I cannot tell a lie.” A young George Washington allegedly spoke these words to his father after being caught cutting down a cherry tree, confessing his transgression. As we now know, this tale was concocted by Washington biographer Mason Locke Weems in the early 19th century. While it was meant to illustrate young George’s virtues as a worthy hero, it has also been used throughout the years as a moral lesson to American youth. If George Washington could tell the truth in such intimidating circumstances – shouldn’t you?

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