As I wrote here last week, the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA is filled with stories, large and small. Like all good storytellers, the museum's exhibits often show their message instead of telling it, and leave it to visitors to make meaningful connections between historical artifacts. Here are two exhibits featuring handcrafted silver, and while their purposes couldn't be more different, their stories are nonetheless intertwined.
To the above are two of an original dozen camp cups, elegantly displayed by the Museum in a tumble of gleaming silver. According to the museum's placard, Philadelphia silversmith Edmund Milne supplied Washington with "12 Silvr Camp cups," fashioned from "16 Silvr Dollrs" in August, 1777. The cups would have been used by Washington as a hospitable commander-in-chief. To be sure their glorious pedigree would never be forgotten, a later owner (the cups descended through the Washington family) had each one engraved with the inscription "Camp Cup owned and used by General Washington during War of the Revolution."
Of course, given that I still have the characters of my next book,I, Eliza Hamiltonmuch on my mind, I thought of young Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, an aide-de-camp to Washington. I wondered if he ever drank from one of these cups, or if they were reserved only for exalted guests - other generals, visiting dignitaries, foreign diplomats, members of Congress - rather than lesser officers serving as part of the general's military family.
Regardless, it's easy to look at the cups and imagine them being used by Washington and his guests, a determined effort to maintain gentlemanly appearances no matter how grim the circumstances or meagre the camp fare. That silver would have reflected the candlelight or fire, and the toasts to liberty and freedom that were drunk from them would have helped seal the camaraderie of these elite men who were risking so much for the sake of the Revolution. Afterwards the cups would have been washed and polished and carefully put away, most likely by one of the general's enslaved servants who were brought with him from his plantation household at Mount Vernon.
In another gallery not far from the cups is another example of the silversmith's art, below. John Drayton (1738-84) of Drayton Hall Plantation in South Carolina was a gentleman of great wealth and taste, a devout member of his church, an ardent patriot, and a loyal supporter of General Washington. Like the general, he was a planter and a substantial landowner.
And, like General Washington, he was also a slaveowner.
This was his branding iron. Here's the information from the museum's placard:
"Although the Continental Army fought to secure independence and liberty, these rights did not extend to all members of society. Many Americans owned slaves. In 1770, an estimated 61 percent of South Carolina's population was enslaved. This branding iron is marked for Revolutionary John Drayton of Drayton Hall Plantation, located near Charleston. A gruesome reminder of slavery, this silver-headed brand was used to mark Drayton's slaves as his property."
Although this branding iron is a modern reproduction of the original in the collection of Drayton Hall, it's still a "gruesome reminder." Crafted either in London or Charleston, the original brand (and the reproduction) was made of silver - a precious metal here used for the basest of purposes. The cast letters of John Drayton's name were bold and unmistakable, as was the brand's message, burned into an enslaved person's flesh: I own you.
Liberty and freedom, indeed.
Above: Camp Cups, made in Philadelphia by Edmund Milne, 1777. Museum of the American Revolution. Below: Branding Iron (reproduction), made in South Carolina or England, c1790. Reproduced from original courtesy of Drayton Hall, National Trust for Historic Preservation. Museum of the American Revolution. Photographs courtesy of Museum of the American Revolution.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.