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, February 17, 2007

More on Washington’s Visit to Easton, Pennsylvania

Last week I made several postings about the legend of Gen. George Washington learning about Hanukkah at Valley Forge. As that series drew to a close, I had the unforeseen chance to examine one of the sources involved, held in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. So I’m quoting some more material here for the sake of a more complete record.

This book is Consider the Years: The Story of the Jewish Community of Easton, 1752-1942, by Joshua Trachtenberg, published in 1944 in a run of 300 copies by the Centennial Committee of Temple Brith Sholom of Easton, Pennsylvania. Local histories often retell stories of local importance without skeptical scrutiny, and histories focusing on a particular family, business, or sect can be even more credulous. But this book struck me as above average for such a history. Trachtenberg had done a lot of research in primary sources, he included transcripts of many of those sources, and (most important) he was willing to acknowledge ways that his deductions could be wrong.

Earlier I quoted John Adams as saying that Easton contained some “Dutch Jews” in the Revolutionary period. According to Consider the Years, Louisa B. Hart wrote that her father Michael was from Germany, and Trachtenberg concluded that he was Ashkenazic (he celebrates Hart’s marriage to his second wife, who was Sephardic, as a union of the two main branches of European Jewish culture). Michael Hart would not have been the only German settler in Pennsylvania to be labeled “Dutch” instead of “Deutsch”; that’s where our term “Pennsylvania Dutch Country” comes from.

Michael Hart married his first wife Leah in 1773, when he was thirty-four years old and she nineteen. Trachtenberg laments that very little is known about her beyond the information on her tombstone. So it’s possible that she was Ashkenazic also, and thus aware of latkes, discussed earlier. But this book doesn’t mention her cooking.

About the fabled Washington visit, Trachtenberg writes on page 71:

No more telling tribute to his [Michael Hart’s] position in the community could be desired than the unique privilege—unique for Easton, at any rate—that fell to his lot during this period, of entertaining the Commander in Chief in his home. Whether this happened on Washington’s first or second visit to the town, both very brief (in 1778 and 1782), the family tradition does not say.
This book doesn’t seem to offer any documentary evidence for those two Washington visits; perhaps Trachtenberg relied on a previous local history. In a footnote on page 311 he settles on 1778 as the most likely year because “Reverend George A. Creitz has pointed out to me that Washington’s itinerary left room for a luncheon stop in Easton on his earlier visit, in 1778, rather than on the later date.” Creitz was pastor of the First Evangelical and Reformed Church of Easton. (It’s marvelous what you can learn from Google.)

It’s not clear what part of Washington’s itinerary for 1778 those men were examining. The general’s papers show that he was aware of Easton and had rearguard troops stationed there. The town preserves traditions that he visited the Bachmann Tavern (above) and what’s now the First United Church of Christ. But the dates for those visits are still unclear to me.

Trachtenberg wasn’t troubled by such lack of information:
But there seems to be no reason to doubt the authenticity of the tradition itself, that George Washington was Michael Hart’s guest at lunch in the house on the public square. The chair which the great man then occupied was preserved in the family until quite late in the nineteenth century.

This was, perhaps, a unique experience for General Washington as well as for his host. Hart was a strictly observant Jew, who, on his daughter’s testimony, unfailingly adhered to the minutiae of Sabbath and festival observance, and to the dietary laws “although he was compelled to be his own shochet.” Tradition has placed the Father of his country in many an out-of-the-way spot, but probably nowhere but at Michael Hart’s was he privileged to enjoy a Kosher meal.
For this paragraph Trachtenberg cites the Louisa B. Hart writings published in the Jewish Record, 11 Oct 1878, and Henry S. Morais’s The Jews of Philadelphia, which I quoted earlier. It’s a sign of when he wrote that he treated the word “kosher” as foreign.

The following page states:
A further circumstantial detail of this family tradition lends it special credibility. We cite it here in the chronicler’s words: “The generous guest of the excellent Jew would not bid his entertainers farewell without leaving behind him some token of good-will; the monetary value of the silver coins which he slipped into the hands of Mr. Hart’s three sons was nothing to them, compared with the glory of a personal remembrance from the celebrated chief. As may be imagined, these precious bits of silver were laid away with the other family valuables in the strong-box, but unfortunately, sometime after, the dwelling was entered by thieves, and the boys’ treasures were carried off with the other silver.”
The book provides no citation for this paragraph, but I suspect that Trachtenberg expected his readers to recognize that his “chronicler” was once again Louisa B. Hart in the Jewish Record. It certainly reads like her style. She was, after all, a Sunday school teacher.

Neither Hart nor Trachtenberg says anything about Hanukkah in connection with Washington’s visit. Unlike later writers, they don’t tie the coins to the gelt tradition, they don’t have Leah making latkes, and they don’t mention a menorah. All those details are interpretations, interpolations, and overlays on Hart’s account, which itself is a secondhand family tradition.

The story of the silver coins is, of course, unprovable: even if those coins had survived, how could we be sure that Washington had given them to the Hart boys? And I think we should also consider the children’s ages. Leah gave birth to her eldest son, Naphtali, in 1774. It would have been biologically possible for her to have had Jacob and Simeon by 1778, with colonial women’s births usually spaced two or more years apart because of breastfeeding.

But would Washington have given silver coins to an infant and a toddler? He had no biological children of his own, but surely he understood the danger of choking—not to mention the danger of his gesture being meaningless or scary to the coins’ recipients. Furthermore, Louisa B. Hart doesn’t seem to have written this anecdote about such tiny boys; she writes of their feelings of glory, meaning they had to understand who Washington was. In sum, I think this anecdote points to a later date for Washington’s visit than 1778. But then I’m not sure any such visit took place.


Anonymous said...

This is all fascinating. I came across the story of Chanukah at Valley Forge some years ago and have been wondering ever since if there was any historical reality to it. Just one observation: among the perhaps 1,000 or 2,000 Jews in America at the time of the Revolution were at least some from Poland. The most notable example was Haym Salomon, whose role as a financier of the revolutionary cause is itself a matter of historical debate.

I teach a course in American Jewish History at a Jewish high school in Rochester, NY. One thing I try to impress on my students is the importance of "how we know what we know." I'll plan to share your material with my class.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the mention of Haym Solomon and his Polish roots. I'm not surprised that some of the Jews in colonial America came from eastern Europe. In the legend of Washington's legend, however, they all seemed to.

The documented presence and importance of Jewish Americans like Solomon and David Franks begs the question of why we create stories like Washington's Hanukkah. But I think stories themselves—the way they organize events—have an appeal of their own.

As for Poles, I've come across records of a ropemaker in Boston noted as "Stannish Laws." I keep wondering, was that a Yankee rendering of "Stanislas"?