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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Monday, September 23, 2013

The Legend of “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne

The past couple of posts have explored the geneses of commonly-stated nicknames for Gen. Horatio Gates and Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend.

During the discussion of those names on the Revlist, Richard Patterson wrote:
Not only is the evidence of Gates being called “Granny” somewhat suspect, but I believe that there are no references to Gen. John Burgoyne being called “Gentleman Johnny” before George Bernard Shaw refers to him as “Gentlemanly Johnny” in his play The Devil’s Disciple.
Shaw’s drama, which premiered in 1897, contains this exchange:
Richard. A thousand pardons. I thought I had the honor of addressing Gentlemanly Johnny.

Sensation among the officers. The sergeant has a narrow escape from a guffaw.

Burgoyne (with extreme suavity). I believe I am Gentlemanly Johnny, sir, at your service. My more intimate friends call me General Burgoyne.
The Google Ngram Viewer indeed shows no references to “Gentleman[ly] Johnny” as a nickname for Burgoyne before the twentieth century. The name seems to have flourished in histories written in the 1910s and 1920s—i.e., enough time for Shaw’s reference to sink into the popular culture with its origin forgotten. Now “Gentleman Johnny” is a standard way to refer to Burgoyne, especially in the titles of biographies about the general.

In Inventing George Washington, Edward Lengel describes the early twentieth century as a period of “debunking” in American historiography, when authors delighted in breaking down the almost saintly descriptions of the nation’s Founders published during the Victorian period, especially around the Centennial. Part of that movement was based on new sources and more clear-eyed analysis, but the debunkers created some myths of their own.

That was the period when alliterative (or near-alliterative) nicknames like “Gentleman Johnny,” “Champagne Charley,” and “Granny Gates” appear to have become received wisdom in history books. Those authors may have been particularly fond of such references as a way to cut the Revolution’s military and political leaders down to size, to make them seem more human. Even if those nicknames were really bunk.


Sean Kelleher said...

Interesting, not to doubt my friend (and former Chief of Interpretation at Saratoga NHP) however in my interview with Doug Cubbison,http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2012/06/27/qa-douglas-cubbison-on-british-general-burgoyne/ he attributes it to English biographer, F.J. Huddleston in 1927 in his study: Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution

The other Burgoyne nickname is earlier - Sir Jack Brag attributed to Stone in 1893

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the links! Shaw’s phrase was “Gentlemanly Johnny,” so someone had to cut that down to “Gentleman Johnny.”

Hudleston was the first author to use it in a Burgoyne biography, but Google Books finds some earlier examples between Shaw’s play and Hudleston’s book. Among them are;
• Archibald Henderson’s critical biography of Shaw in 1911.
• Article about play-reading in the Bulletin of the New Hampshire Public Libraries for 1915.
A Handbook of New England from 1916.
• The Automobile Blue Book for 1917.
• paper by Samuel F. Batchelder in the Cambridge (Mass.) Historical Society Publications for 1918.

So we can trace the phrase from Shaw into New England popular history and finally scholarship.

I’ll work on “Sir Jack Brag” for tomorrow.