The 1776 Celebration at the Conference House

The following describes the 2010 1776 Peace Conference Celebration at the Conference House on Staten Island. It is by Nicholas Zvegintzov, whose many interests and projects are visible here:

I successfully but sleepily caught the 11:01 train in St. George, about 45 minutes to Tottenville, the end of the line, where the front of the train almost ends in the water at a long-abandoned ferry landing.

I first took this trip in 1979, when there were still some old wooden rail coaches on a siding and on the street approaching the ferry a boarded-up porticoed building, perhaps part of an old hotel. Both are gone, but otherwise it is very much the same – well, more clustered town houses on the far side of the Kill van Kull.

Reenactors with soup tureen

I walked through prosperous tree-lined streets past some pleasant houses built on the shore, and got directions from a man who was exercising two dogs and two teenage daughters. He comes here every Sunday, but had little idea what the Conference House was or the Conference. ‘In 1976? Ah, 1776. Tell my daughter, she should learn.’ His daughter of course not very interested.

Inside I found camp fires and women bustling in long dresses, some nice teenagers making a carrot pudding and selling an apple-and-bacon boiling on cornbread (the best), some vegetable soup from a giant iron tureen, and what was billed as ‘churned butter on bread’–churned by the kids, but not enough to get it beyond faintly whipped cream–so no real buttermilk to sample.

An acid woman who had churned butter herself years and years ago (I have too) said ‘The kids these days, they’re lazy, they just don’t want to continue’. That really wasn’t fair, since nobody showed them that if you persist you can form butter and pull and pat it out with wooden spatulas.

The black girls in costume looked uncomfortably like illustrations of slave times, but they were cheery.

Period musicians and toy dancer

Outside the stone house there was music and dancing. We were introduced to this little dancer but of course I forgot his name. He was introduced as ‘The most popular member of our troupe’ and danced on a chair arm.

After a while people started filtering down to the foreshore, down a scraggly parched lawn, to look excitedly for the rowboat on the other shore. That was in itself quite participatory, I thought, since it must have been a big excitement on September 11 1776, though at that time it would have been an armed camp, Admiral Lord Howe’s main encampment.

Soon the rowboat was spotted leaving the far shore, and then a voice-of-god siren filled the air. Harbor traffic!

The rowboat in the channel

The crew rowed desperately!

Rowboat at left, the Ship Hercules at right

Collision averted! A lot of harbor traffic considering that the rebels and the British are said to be exchanging musket fire and insults across the river….

Safe on the Conference House side of the container ship

The little boat, quite overloaded, reaches the beach. The crew turn out to be bumboat women! Well, also a youf controlling a new-fangled outboard motor! Good thing too, maybe.

The rebels and hostage make it to the Conference House shore

The rebels are in the middle of the boat. The man in a red coat is the hostage officer sent by Admiral Howe when he sent the dinghy across. The hostage was from his staff and would assure the rebels of their safe conduct during the truce.

This hostage was of advanced years, which seemed to be a verisimilitude problem with the re-enactors of Staten Island.

The first meeting, on the lawn

The distinguished rebels came ashore and I, in harmony with Staten Island’s ever progressive image, shouted loyally ‘Long live King George!! Long live King George!!’ The crew stayed in character, with Edward Rutledge of South Carolina giving an angry sneer and the hostage crying ‘Hear! Hear!’

It was quite a pageant, with the bystanders accompanying the characters up the lawn to the house.

At the foot of the lawn the delegation was fitted with new-fangled wireless mikes, and Admiral Lord Howe’s Pretty Narrator (everybody should have one of these) came over the P. A. at the top of the lawn. Howe, who had been friends with Benjamin Franklin before the late unpleasantness, had invited the rebel leaders to parley under a flag of truce–‘otherwise, if they were caught, they would have been hanged as traitors’.

Howe, with an honor guard of (?) Hessian mercenaries, and his lovely Narrator, greeted the delegation mid-lawn and Franklin introduced Rutledge and Adams, whom Howe had never met. Some of the dialog and discussion is said to be taken from notes made by Howe’s secretary (a man, as seen in a genre 19th C painting), though I’m not sure about all the banter (I must ask Susan, who I didn’t see yesterday). Note: The banter is verbatim as well. –SLF

Howe: ‘I see you have brought with you my hostage.’

Franklin: ‘Yes, sir, we are entirely confident to rely upon the word you yourself have given.’

Howe: ‘I trust you had a comfortable journey?’ (2 days on the road from Philadelphia)

John Adams (lanky future President from Boston): ‘Yes, My Lord, though last night I was forced to share a bed with Dr. Franklin, whose girth greatly exceeds mine. And he subjected me to one of his scientific theories.’

‘Which one of my friend Dr. Franklin’s many theories are you speaking of?’

‘That fresh air will cure a cold. I had the beginning of a cold and Dr. Franklin insisted on leaving all the casement windows open. And now, as you can hear, my cold is worse.’

Franklin: ‘Ah, but my theory is correct, because you see I do not have a cold.’

They came up the hill together and, according to the Narrator, had a hearty lunch of beef, mutton, and good wine, and then sat down to the parley, presumably indoors in 1776 but outdoors today.

Howe urged the many advantages of being in the Empire. The delegates repeated that the entire 13 colonies, assembled in a Continental Congress, had voted for independence, and rehearsed the many indignities, unbefitting free men, suffered under colonial governors. And argued what a resource a free and independent nation the new America would be, able to take care of trade, piracy, and the colonial Spanish without burdening the Empire’s long supply line.

Howe said the word ‘independence’ was completely unacceptable. The rebellion had gone badly for the colonists–they had been chased out of New York and Long Island and defeated in Massachusetts–and his scouts had shown him how ill prepared and ill equipped were General Washington’s troops.

The delegates retorted that the fighting was costing the British crown a fortune, and the King had even imported thousands of foreign mercenaries to fight against the colonists.

Howe said he was empowered to offer a compromise–a full amnesty for all rebels if they laid down their arms.

John Adams, standing left, and seated, l to r, Franklin, Howe, Rutledge

John Adams stood up angrily. ‘I have been informed that there is a secret protocol to the amnesty–that if one John Adams of Boston is caught, he will be hanged.’ Note: This was true. Howe was under orders to hang Adams, amnesty or not. –SLF

Home: ‘I know of no such protocol, sir.’

The delegates offered their own compromise–that the King should withdraw British troops and mercenaries, and no harm would come to them.

So it was an impasse. Howe said regretfully: ‘If there are hostilities, it will be a bitter and painful struggle for you, and I assure you you will lose’.

So they regretfully adjourned, and Howe and his lovely Narrator accompanied the delegates to the top of the lawn and had his soldiers escort them to their boat on the shore.

So ended the last attempt to mediate the war, which lasted 8 more years, and dragged in France and Spain and others (the real first world war?).

Howe commanded naval forces for 2 years, then resigned because regarded as too pro-American in his sentiments. But he returned to command during the French revolutionary wars (‘the glorious 1st of June’) and subsequently mediated the Spithead Mutiny.

Benjamin Franklin became the colonists’ emissary to Paris, where the French entered the war on the colonists’ side.

John Adams became the second President, after Washington.

Edward Rutledge, who was quite a racist, was captured during the Siege of Charleston (South Carolina), and survived the war to become Governor of South Carolina.


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