J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sorting Out the Gossip about Horatio Gates

I’ve been exploring the rumors that Gen. Horatio Gates was secretly the son of a British aristocrat, most likely his mother’s employer, the Duke of Leeds. In The Generals of Saratoga, Max M. Mintz writes:

Enemies and detractors of Gates, skeptical that the son of servants should receive a commission in the British army, have alleged that he was Leeds’s illegitimate son. . . . The unanswered questions haunted Horatio all his life. When he aspired to advancement, he was accused of illegitimate pretensions. If he earned a promotion, it was ascribed to his birth.
Really? This is one of the passages in Mintz’s book that goes beyond the sources cited.

The eighteenth-century British genteel class loved to gossip. Indeed, it often appears that the society was held together by gossip. The third Duke of Bolton’s affair with the actress Lavinia Fenton was talked about almost immediately, and retold often. It appears in a delightfully dishy 1779 publication called The R—l Register, which also says of “the D— of B——“:
no man was ever more indebted to rank and title than this nobleman; for no man stood more in need of the consequence which is derived from them. Weak and whimsical, but persuaded, like many other good mistaken people of the same kind, that he possessed the opposite qualities, he naturally became no infrequent subject of mirth, raillery and cajolement.
Other chapters of that volume discuss the “E— of H——,” “Ld. D—,” “B— of Carlisle,” various monarchs, and so on. (The authors have good things to say about “E— P—,“ or Earl Percy.)

In 1751 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote that the Duke of Bolton’s first wife “failed to give passion”—i.e., wouldn’t have sex with her husband—“and upon this plan threw away her estate, was despised by her husband, and laughed at by the public.” Montagu wrote that with some sympathy, referring to “My poor friend the Duchess of Bolton,” and she wrote it in a letter to her own daughter.

That daughter was the wife of the third Earl of Bute, George III’s favorite minister in the early 1760s. John Horne and others suggested Bute was having an affair with the king’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales. Georgian gossip reached very high.

In October 1777, as Londoners were wondering how Gen. John Burgoyne’s attack on the rebel colonies from Canada was going, Horace Walpole wrote of that officer:
He is a natural son of Lord Bingley, who put him into the entail of the estate, but when young Lane [George Fox-Lane, Bingley’s son-in-law] came of age the entail was cut off. He ran away with the old Lord Derby’s daughter, and has been a fortunate gamester.
Walpole and his contemporaries would have been equally interested in sharing the juiciest gossip about Burgoyne’s conqueror, Gen. Horatio Gates.

But the worst they could come up with was that he had no claim to aristocratic status at all.
  • Israel Mauduit, though supporting the American cause, reminded London readers that Gates had been “in the service of Charles Duke of Bolton, was never thought to possess an understanding superior to other men; and…[was] scarce equal to the command.”
  • Horace Walpole recorded in his diary that Gates “was the son of a housekeeper of the second Duke of Leeds, who, marrying a young husband when very old, had this son by him.”
No biographer of Gates has quoted any eighteenth-century British source suggesting that the general was the secret love-child of a peer.

The first recorded hint that Gates had noble blood in his veins surfaced in America after his death, in guesses by the Stevens family of New York. They had weak evidence, and guessed totally wrong. Only decades later, after Walpole’s diary was published, did writers suggest that Gates had a biological connection to the Duke of Leeds.

As I wrote before, the Stevenses were admirers of Gates, and heirs of his second wife. I also suspect they heard hints about Gates’s father being more than an army captain, “respectable victualler,” or clergyman, as authors wrote in the mid-nineteenth century.

Who was the source of those hints? I think the search has to start with the question of who in America would benefit from people believing that Gates wasn’t simply an ambitious child of hard-working servants who convinced their employer to help him become a British army officer. Who in American would like people to think that the retired general, remarried to a wealthy British heiress, was actually the son of a British lord? I can’t help but think that that list starts with Gen. and Mrs. Gates themselves.

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