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Archive for '- Revolutionary War'

Thomas Jefferson: Governor of Virginia

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Zeender,  senior registrar in Exhibits at the National Archives.

This week, we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 270th birthday—April 13, 1743—and look at one particular year in his life, 1781. That year did not begin auspiciously for Jefferson, and on April 13 he would have matters on his mind more weighty than his birthday.  He was in the second of his two terms as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The 10 months that preceded the great American victory at Yorktown were harrowing ones for the Governor, the General Assembly, and the rest of the Virginia government. Once in January and again in May, the British attacked and forced the evacuation of the new state capital at Richmond. To make matters worse, the initial British assault was led by none other than Benedict Arnold, the traitor who had escaped the Continental Army only months before, when his plan to turn over West Point to the British was discovered and foiled.

Before becoming Governor, Jefferson had spent 15 months in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he drafted the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. In September, he returned home and was elected to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. Three years later, at the age of 36, Jefferson was elected governor. Jefferson was reelected in 1780.

During this period, Jefferson and … [ Read all ]

In their own words: Franklin, Adams, and Vergennes (part IIb)

John Adams arrived in Paris arrived to find Benjamin Franklin being showered with attention (Ben Franklin at the Court of Versailles, ARC 518217)

This is part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand. Jim is a senior registrar in Exhibits.

In the last post, we introduced the story of Adams and Franklin coming into conflict over the handling of U.S. relations with France. More specifically, Adams’s unsubtle and sometimes contentious conversations and correspondence with the French Foreign Minister, the Count de Vergennes, who was dealing with problems with his own government and a troublesome Spain.

Vergennes had little time for advice and questions, but Adams’s commission authorized him to enter upon peace and trade talks with Great Britain, and he felt it was within his authority to do so on his own. Vergennes argued the time would not be right until the military position of the U.S. and France was stronger. The Adams-Vergennes correspondence from February to July of 1780 came to an abrupt halt with this crushing letter from Vergennes:

I have received, sir, the letter which you did me the honor to write on the 27th of this month. When I took upon myself to give you a mark of my confidence by informing you

[ Read all ]

Descendants of the signers to read the Declaration of Independence on July 4

With Independence Day around the corner, we caught up with a few of this year’s speakers to get their thoughts on the Declaration of Independence, their connection to history, and celebrating at the National Archives.

Four descendants from the original signers will read the Declaration of Independence this year.

Three are members of the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and one is a member of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). While the Declaration of Independence holds special value for all Americans, the document holds a personal significance for the descendants of the signers.

“I feel a great sense of pride in this beautiful document,” said Laura Haines Belman, who is related to three of the Founding Fathers. “I’m happy to know it and to be reading it. There are certain phrases that have their own lives: ‘We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.’ As Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, when we gather three times a year in Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence is read aloud at least twice a year. That phrase is something we all know—it just rings in the ears.”

Belman is descended from three signers: Samuel Chase of Maryland, William Ellery of Rhode Island, and Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut. Her son, John Chase Belman, will … [ Read all ]

In their own words: John Adams and Ben Franklin, Part I

This is part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand. Jim is a senior registrar in National Archives Exhibits.

John Adams of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania crossed paths during “critical moments” in the earliest days of the republic. They met for the first time at the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1774, the first joint meeting of 12 American colonies (Georgia did not attend). Both were supporters of independence, Adams most publicly and Franklin more behind the scenes, though both were equally masterful wordsmiths.

During the Revolutionary War, Adams and Franklin worked together in Paris to obtain French support for the American cause, sometimes clashing on how best to do so. ­And they successfully negotiated peace with Great Britain. They saw each other for the last time in 1785, when Adams left Franklin in Paris for his assignment as the first Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain from the United States. During the years in between, their relationship had its ups and downs.

Their most intimate experience probably happened during an unsuccessful peace mission in September 1776. The British forces had recently raced across Long Island (New York) and almost destroyed the American Army. The British commander, Adm. Lord Richard Howe, then offered peace. Congress sent Adams, Franklin, and … [ Read all ]

In their own words: President George Washington

This is the first part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand.

As a registrar in the Exhibits Division of the National Archives for over 25 years, I have had the good fortune to work with many dedicated professionals at the National Archives. It has been a privilege to have access to the holdings, including the rarest of the rare. However, I always return to my favorites, the letters of the Founding Fathers.

Some of the most revealing letters come in a series of records blandly called Miscellaneous Letters in Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State. Thanks to the irregularities of early recordkeeping, personal and official correspondence were sometimes mixed. These are draft letters or short notes with crossouts and annotations that illuminate the thoughts and work habits of the authors. The letters usually have to do with policy issues, but the topics are sometimes private and political. From the 1789 to early 1820s, there are hundreds of letters written by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

In the official files of the early U.S. Government, we expect to find letters and memos on the subjects facing a youthful country: diplomacy, Indian relations, land settlement, taxation, roads, canals, domestic and international commerce, building government … [ Read all ]