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, June 01, 2013

Stuart on Defiant Brides in Worcester, 6 June

Defiant Brides: The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Women and the Radical Men They Married is a new book by Nancy Rubin Stuart, who previously wrote a biography of Mercy Warren.

The defiant brides of the title are Lucy Flucker and Peggy Shippen, both heiresses from Loyalist families who married striving men on the Patriot side of the Revolution.

Or rather, Lucy Flucker’s husband, Henry Knox, became a firm Whig when the war broke out. As I’ve written in the past, the evidence of his political activity before 1775 is sparse, and I suspect her family thought they might be able to bring Henry around to becoming a friend of the royal government.

But by May 1775 Henry and Lucy Knox had slipped out of besieged Boston, he was soon working with the provincial army, and by the end of the year he commanded the Continental artillery. Lucy Knox never saw her Loyalist relatives again, though she did inherit a substantial amount of land from them—the basis of the Knoxes’ postwar life in Maine.

As for Peggy Shippen, in 1779 she married a man who seemed passionately committed to American independence: Benedict Arnold, Continental general in charge of Philadelphia. Like Knox, he had started his career as a boy in precarious circumstances, unable to rely on his father, and worked his way up in business. Like Knox, he was one of the subordinates Gen. George Washington felt he could always rely on.

But in 1780 Arnold arranged to switch sides and surrender the West Point fortress on the Hudson. Peggy helped her husband escape to the British lines by distracting Gen. Washington with hysterics—whether sincere or feigned we’ll never know. The couple eventually moved to England. Peggy Arnold received a pension from the Crown and lived long enough that historians calculate she earned more from the British government than her husband did.

Booklist’s reviewer wrote about Defiant Brides:
With the seemingly endless parade of books devoted to both founding fathers and revolutionary rascals, it’s nice to see some attention paid to the fervor with which some remarkable women navigated the romantic, political, and wartime challenges of the era.
In its review, Kirkus Reviews said:
Flucker’s correspondence with Henry shows a loving couple who longed for each other when separated—though it’s not terribly enticing reading. Nor are the tales of their extravagances and scrambles for means.
But there have been very few studies of Lucy Knox and her choices, so any attention is new. Plus, social climbing and hanging on were a big part of these couples’ stories.

Stuart will speak at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester on Thursday, 6 June, at 7:00 P.M. This event is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase and signing.


Joe Bauman said...

Reading Joseph Plumb Martin's "A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier," I lost a lot of respect for Gen. Knox, considering how roughly he treated Martin vis-a-vis that Maine estate you mention.

J. L. Bell said...

Alan Taylor wrote a whole book on the conflict between big Maine landowners like Knox and the small farmers they sold or rented land to: Liberty Men and Great Proprietors.

I think that because Knox had risen from such a precarious childhood, he was particularly sensitive to matters of social rank, recognition, &c. That lies behind his support for the Society of the Cincinnati, for a stronger national government, for the landed class in Maine. It somewhat goes against our picture of him as a jolly general, but that was real, too.