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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Saturday, January 07, 2017

John Barker Church: “the mere man of business”?

So was the marriage of Angelica Schuyler (shown here) and John Carter/John Barker Church happy? We don’t have a body of correspondence between them as we have for, say, John and Abigail Adams. But their marriage lasted until their deaths, and they certainly enjoyed good circumstances.

In 1780 Carter became partners with former Continental Army commissary general Jeremiah Wadsworth (1743-1804) of Connecticut as the main supplier for Gen. Rochambeau’s troops in North America. The French needed food and supplies for thousands of men.

Unlike the Continental Congress, whose paper money was rapidly losing value, France could pay in specie. Wadsworth and Carter got a cut of everything they supplied. They also gained excellent credit they could use for their other ventures, and money they could lend other businessmen. As a result, by the end of the war, Wadsworth and Carter were very rich.

In August 1782 James McHenry wrote to Alexander Hamilton from Baltimore:
Mr. Carter is the mere man of business, and I am informed has riches enough, with common management, to make the longest life very comfortable. Mrs. Carter is a fine woman. She charms in all companies. No one has seen her, of either sex, who has not been pleased with her, and she has pleased every one, chiefly by means of those qualities which make you the husband of her Sister.
The next July, the Carters and Wadsworth headed to France to collect their final payments. Sometime in 1783, Carter revealed his real name: John Barker Church. There’s no evidence of when he told his wife about that part of his past. By that fall, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay knew about it, though the couple still went by “Carter” for a few months longer.

Finally, the family headed to Britain, and at that point they came out permanently as the Churches. At the end of 1784, Abigail Adams wrote to a sister from London, “Mr. and Mrs. Church are here too, alias Cartar. Mrs. Church is a delicate little woman. As to him, his character is enough known in America.”

Back in Britain, Church quickly paid off the debts that he had left behind in 1774 and reestablished himself in business. He bought a house on Sackville Street in London. He bought a country house near Windsor. The couple entertained widely, not just among the American community—one of John Barker Church’s gambling friends was the Prince of Wales.

We might think that a rather boring, aristocratic life compared to the drama of nation-building that brother-in-law Hamilton threw himself into in America, but John Barker Church was also interested in politics. He was part of the radical Whig faction, causing George III to call his principles “avowedly enemical.” In 1787 he ran for Parliament and lost. The following year, Church took another approach: he bought a rural estate which came with a parliamentary seat, and put himself up for that seat in 1790.

By then the French Revolution was roiling Europe, and Church was decidedly on the side of reform. He opposed Britain’s war measures and hosted French exiles at the height of the Terror. In addition, he:
  • financed Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig left, with big loans he was never able to collect on.
  • bankrolled an attempt to break Lafayette out of a Prussian prison on 1792. (One of these days I’ll tell that story.)
  • helped Talleyrand sail to America in 1794 after Britain suddenly expelled him.
After six years in Parliament, Church gave up his seat, sold his estate, and headed back to the U.S. of A.

In 1797 Robert Morris went bankrupt. Church was one of his creditors, and to settle the debts he took over a great many of Morris’s western land claims. A few years later, the Churches’ oldest son Philip went to a tract in western New York and founded the town of Angelica, named after his mother. John Barker Church himself commissioned a mansion in Belmont called Belvidere.

Meanwhile, Church kept busy in the New York business world. He underwrote loans and was a director of the Manhattan Company and the Bank of North America. The Churches had eight children between 1778 and 1800, most of them living a long time. And still their life was full of drama. John Barker Church fought a duel with Aaron Burr five years before Hamilton did. In fact, Church was the family expert on affairs of honor, supplying the pair of pistols that his nephew Philip Hamilton and his brother-in-law used in their fatal confrontations.

Angelica Church died in 1814. John Barker Church returned to his native Britain and died four years later. He wasn’t a brilliant writer or political theorist, but he certainly wasn’t boring.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

Wow. An 18th century Zelig. As always thank you Mr. Bell for opening my eyes to a fascinating element of our collective past.

HemlockBob said...

I live near Angelica and never had any idea as to the history of its name. I must say, though, the history of the name is much more exciting than the town itself.