A Place in History: Albany in the Age of the Revolution, 1775–1825 (review)
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Albany, New York State, American Revolution, Saratoga

A Place in History: Albany in the Age of the Revolution, 1775–1825. By Warren Roberts. (Albany, NY: State University of Albany Press, 2010, Pp. 335. Cloth, $29.95.)

With photographs of churches, monuments, and mansions in today’s Albany and with stories of his ten-year personal journey uncovering the richness of Albany’s past, Roberts lovingly reframes the city on the Hudson. For Roberts, Albany is a place filled with memories of transformative revolutionary battles, a city once inhabited by elite families who lived in opulence and sustained long-term aristocratic friendships with colonial notables and French revolutionaries.

Roberts emphasizes the ties between Albany and France. He begins with the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777, “the turning point of the American Revolution” (1) and considered by some to be the “most important battle of the last thousand years” (84) because this battle brought the French into an alliance with the rebels. Although Saratoga was 25 miles to the north of Albany, Roberts suggests that the shadow of the victory at Saratoga set Albany’s shine in motion, and established a long-term exchange between Albany and Paris.

According to Roberts, Albany’s geography and river systems contributed to the revolutionaries’ victory in 1777. Its elite inhabitants invited the attention of rebel military commanders and future founding fathers. As important, Albany served as the eastern terminus for the Erie Canal, a project that inaugurated the transportation revolution and helped to lay the foundation for the global economy. By following the terrain, aristocrats, and construction projects in Albany, Roberts traces the political, cultural, and economic development of the United States. He portrays the formation of an emerging democracy, of a culture of urbanity and manners, and of an industrializing economy.

Roberts’s early Albany stories are full of interest and complexity. The cast of characters is vast. They include familiar revolutionary figures such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benedict Arnold, General John Burgoyne, and Marquis de Lafayette, as well as less familiar New York elites such as Gouverneur Morris, Philip Schuyler, and Stephen Van Rensselaer. Stubbornly drawing attention to Albany’s connection with France, Roberts devotes one full chapter to the discussion of the French aristocrat, Madame de La Tour Du Pin, who fled the French [End Page 561] Revolution and spent two years in Albany (1794–1796). What connects this trans-Atlantic cast is sophistication, refinement, and elite standing. Of course, each notable spent time visiting Albany’s elite or living in the vicinity of Albany’s inner circle. The book could easily be titled “Albany and its Aristocrats: 1775–1825.”

At times, Roberts attempts to elevate Albany’s historical status seem forced. For instance, Alexander Hamilton appears here because he married the daughter of Philip Schuyler, an Albany aristocrat. Roberts’s exploration of key men in the founding era—and especially their sexual liaisons—is fascinating reading. We learn about Alexander Hamilton’s affair with his sister-in-law, Angelica, and with Maria Reynolds; his later repentance and loyalty to his wife; and too briefly, his turn to Christianity. But it is unclear why we are told in such detail that Angelica and Alexander worked out a secret “code in their correspondence” (129) or that Maria Reynolds was a woman “of no worth or character whatever,” and Hamilton “had shamed himself ” in his involvement with her (135).

Because the Battle of Saratoga led to the French alliance with the revolutionaries, Roberts observes that the American and French Revolutions are joined “at the hip” (13). Yet the connections seem artificial. Gouverneur Morris appears in the book because he visited Albany in July 1777, and because he was in Paris for five years, “a period that coincided almost exactly with the French Revolution” (101). It is unclear why we are told about Morris’s relations with prostitutes and especially that his lover’s mother “had been kept girl of Louis XV” (112). What should readers make of Hamilton’s affair in New York and Morris’s affair in Paris?

Although incidents in both the American and French Revolutions appear in the text, Roberts misses the opportunity...