A Place in History: Albany in the Age of the Revolution, 1775–1825
Albany, New York State, American Revolution, Saratoga
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 to suggest analytical connections between the two upheavals. We learn that angry crowds in Paris mutilated and dismembered their enemies. We also learn that riots in the American colonies involved much less violence. If thousands of women took to the streets in Paris in protest and anger, we would like to know why colonial women did not take to the streets in the same way during the American Revolution. We understand that sexual rules in France were more blurred than in the colonies. If Paris of the 1790s was an “indulgent and sexually free society,” the thirteen colonies most definitely were not (219). Roberts does not help us understand why the sexual and political revolutions coincided in France but not in the colonies. [End Page 562]
Because Roberts’s work is based almost entirely on secondary sources, much of the revolutionary material will be familiar to early Americanists. But there are jarring moments. In his eagerness to emphasize the place of Albany at a pivotal moment, Roberts overreaches. He writes, “when Burgoyne lost Saratoga, Britain lost North America” (60). Revolutionary specialists would agree that if a battle lost North America, it was the battle at Yorktown in October 1781 and not Saratoga in 1777. In another context, he observes that the Erie Canal—by causing differences between the economies of the northern and southern colonies—”contributed to tensions that ultimately culminated in the Civil War” (226). He also notes that the “the Erie Canal marked a new stage of history, carrying forward the work of an earlier generation . . . and introduced an age of liberty” (243). How could the Erie Canal lead to the Civil War and also usher in an age of liberty?
The majority of the American population did not partake in the liberty that Roberts glorifies. This uncritical celebration of the revolution and its consequences is the most problematic aspect of Roberts’s work. Neglecting so much recent historiography on slavery, native dispossession, and the white loyalist experience, Roberts depicts the American Revolution as a romantic struggle of freedom from imperial enslavement. He describes the Revolution as “a political process carried out by a republican people who would throw off the shackles of despotism and tyranny” (75). Likening the aristocratic mores of French society with the manners in American society in the eighteenth century, Roberts writes that the most important division “was between those who worked with hands and those who did not” (80). Looking only at the parallel development of elite manners across the Atlantic world, Roberts does not consider that elite status, in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America, was restricted to whites. In the American context, race, as much as class, divided the elites from the commoners, and the free from the unfree.
Nevertheless, Roberts’ richly detailed and dramatic stories illuminate an Albany overlooked by most readers. Indeed, his work encourages us to think anew about how stories of cities simultaneously narrate the histories of nations. [End Page 563]
Ruma Chopra is an assistant professor at San Jose State University. She is the author of Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution (Charlottesville, VA, 2011).