Brookeville, Maryland: Capital for a Day

The War of 1812 is commonly known as a forgotten war. It may have given us our National Anthem, but beyond that, it’s pretty much been skimmed over. But being raised in Maryland, the War of 1812 surrounds us almost to a degree of suffocation. Washington, D.C. and Baltimore bore the brunt of the battle in 1814, and even drove President Madison and his babe of a wife, Dolley, from the White House. Hey, speaking of the Madisons…

“Come on James,I’ve got the Declaration of Independence, put on your coat, let’s go!”

If you ever wondered where our shortest president scurried off to while his home was being turned to ashes by British soldiers, wonder no more.  The escaped to a small, quaint town a little over 20 miles outside Washington, D.C.

Before Dolley famously saved the a portrait of George Washington, her husband was observing the soldiers advance on Washington. As the city started to burn, President Madison fled south to Virginia before turning around and hightailing it back to the Old Line State (that’s Maryland) and finally reached Brookeville late in the evening on August 26, 1814.  (Don’t worry y’all, Dolley was safe first in Georgetown and then escaped into Virginia.) Rumor has it that Madison lugged a safe that carried the entire U.S. Treasury during the entire journey.

Madison reached the home of Caleb Bentley, whose wife Henrietta Thomas was a close friend of his wife Dolley.

Here,  President Madison stayed up all night, dictating orders to his officers while American soldiers kept watch outside. The next morning, President Madison learned that the British had moved on to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, and so he thanked his hosts for the lodging and returned to the smoldering Washington and his lovely wife.  Today, the Bentley home is now known as the Madison House. The home was purchased and restored in 2007. (You can read more about it here)

Today, Brookeville remains a small, quiet town of less than 200 residents. But for those that pass through it, it holds a very important piece of history.

Do you have any areas of historical significance in your hometown?


Spotlight on Forgotten Founders: John Dickinson

You’ve been drilled on the names of the men who signed that famous piece of parchment in 1776. Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Hancock are cemented in the American canon but there were sixty four men who fought and argued and begged for John Adams to shut up during that hot American summer. It would be impossible for schools to devote time in the already packed curriculum, so that’s why you have me. Dying to know about the men who weren’t  American superheros but still made impacts that we still feel today? Buckle in, kids, this could take a while.

Meet John Dickinson.

“Hey, Ladies.”

Dickinson was born November 13, 1732 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in Talbot County.  Like most members of the future Congress, he was born well-off, and studied law at the Middle Temple in London for three years.  After his father died, he inherited one his Delaware plantations, known at Poplar Hall. (It’s open for tours!) Seems pretty average for a man of his time so far, right?

If he sounds familiar, you probably remember him as the guy who got into the wicked cane fight with John Adams in 1776.

“Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The 1770s hit America kicking and screaming. And it also hit Dickinson’s social life. In July 1770, Dickinson married Mary Norris, whom he affectionately called Polly. Mary was well educated, owned a 1500 volume library, and ran her own property in Philadelphia. Dickinson was smitten. The two moved to Mary’s Philadelphia property, called Fairhill, and with their combined income, the couple was stupidly wealthy.

Poplar Hall, one of the Dickinson’s many residences

Dickinson was a member of both the First and Second Continental Congress starting in 1774 and 1775, respectively, as a representative from Pennsylvania. Oh yeah, and he was adamantly against declaring independence from Great Britain.

Wait, how could a Founding Father be against independence? No wonder we’ve forgotten him!

First of all, rude. And second, chill out and hang on.

Dickinson was far from a Loyalist. (Hell, he wrote a song called “The Liberty Song“) He repeatedly fought for an Olive Branch Petition to be sent to King George, which passed and obviously failed. On July 1, 1776, Jefferson presented his Declaration of Independence while Dickinson continued to rally that it wasn’t quite time. And when you think about it, he wasn’t stupid to think so. Great Britain had the largest, strongest Navy in the world and, at the time, were squatting right outside the Island of Manhattan, poised to attack. America had no navies and no foreign alliances. If we declared independence, we would be declaring war and would be left defenseless on the seas.

On July 2, he was either not present, or abstained, from voting for or against the Declaration. He also refused to sign the document.

One of the dramatic, yet touching, moments in 1776 is when Dickinson refuses to sign. He stands and says:

“I’m sorry, Mr. President, I cannot, in good conscience, sign such a document. I will never stop hoping for our eventual reconciliation with England. But because–in my own way–I regard America no less than Mr. Adams, I will join the army and fight in her defense–even though I believe that fight to be hopeless. Goodbye, Gentlemen.”

And Adams starts a slow clap and everyone cries and it’s great.

But actually, Dickinson did just that. Though we have no way of knowing what his exact words were (except for his Speech Against Independence, delivered July 1, 1776) he did join the Pennsylvania militia at the rank of a brigadier general, and lead 10,000 to defend Staten Island from the British.

But his story doesn’t end there. He resigned from service in December 1776 and by 1777, he was Delaware’s wealthiest farmer and largest slaveholder. And during this time, he freed each and every one of his slaves. He was the only Founder to do so prior to 1786. However the process was not done overnight and took until 1787 until his slaves were legally free.  Many continued to work for him for pay.

So he’s more than funny quips in a  (fantastic) musical.

dickinsonBut Dickinson’s fabulous life didn’t end there. He prepared the first draft of the Articles of Confederation way back in 1776. donated his library to John and Mary’s College (now known as Dickinson College), represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention, and served as President of Delaware from 1781-1785.

John Dickinson died on Valentine’s Day, 1808 and is buried in a modest Quaker grave.

Who’s your favorite forgotten Founder? Leave a comment below!

Reasons Why Edwin Booth is the Saddest Man to Ever Exist

Ok so I might be being dramatic. But if melancholy be the food of dramatics, read on.

If you recognize his surname, it’s thanks to his brother. You know, the man who shot President Lincoln? Yeah, Edwin was the big brother to John Wilkes Booth. Both were actors, both were incredibly wealthy, and both were incredibly famous in their day. But thanks to the events of April 14, 1865 the Booth name is no longer synonymous with an acting dynasty but with tragedy.

Edwin Booth was more famous than his brother, but his life was far more depressing. What reads like something out of a lonely Lifetime movie actually happened to a real man who really existed (and most of it, far before John Wilkes ever knew Lincoln’s name).

1. Edwin left home at age 12– to babysit his alcoholic father.

Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin’s father, was the most famous actor in America. He also had a drinking problem and was known to down an impressive number of drinks, streaking through public streets, or pass out immediately before curtain, rendering him incapacitated. While Edwin’s siblings stayed home on the family farm in Bel Air, Maryland, hismother sent him to tour with his father to “keep his eye on him.” That’s right, a tiny, adolescent boy was expected to keep tabs on a burly 50 year old man.

“I got you, Dad.”

For seven years, Edwin was his father’s keeper and even once stepped into his shoes when Junius was too drunk to perform. In 1852, Junius struck ill and was sent on a steamboat back to Baltimore. He died of cholera on the voyage. When Edwin’s mother found out her husband was alone when he died, she blamed Edwin and forbade him from returning home.

Edwin returned to Baltimore in 1856 with his pockets full of gold to repay the family’s debts. Forgiven, his mother was overjoyed to have him return and his sisters fawned over his stories from California and Australia, where he had most recently toured with famed actress Laura Keene.

In later life, Edwin noted that his childhood died the day he left to tour with his father.

2. He married the love of his life–only to have her die three years later.

In the late 1850s, Edwin met Mary Devlin, a gorgeous, talented actress, and the two soon fell in love. The two married in 1860 and their daughter, Edwina, was born in 1861.

Mary Devlin Booth and Edwina

The two were passionately in love. In 1863, when Mary was only 22, she became incredibly ill. Edwin was in New York, and was sent urgent telegrams regarding her condition. However, like his father, Edwin was an alcoholic and was too inebriated to even read the telegrams. By the time he was sober enough to reach Mary in Boston, she had already passed. The death of his young wife sent Edwin into a tailspin. He swore off drinking and threw himself into his work.

In 1869, he married his acting partner, Mary McVicker. She was far less talented than his first wife, and her poor performances combined with a failing economy drove Booth’s company into bankruptcy. The two had incredibly clashing personalities and the marriage was not a happy one.

Mary McVicker and Edwin

3. He was the target of an assassination.

Though Edwin was a known Union-supporter (he only voted once in his life, and that vote was for Abraham Lincoln), he took the brunt of hatred directed towards his brother. On April 23, 1879, Edwin was performing the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II. During his final soliloquy, a man in the balcony was holding a pistol and a copy of the script, following along with Edwin. The man fired three times, and Edwin calmly rose and pointed in the direction of the shots. Audience members restrained the man and Edwin silently left the stage. The man was found to be Mark Gray, a traveling salesman from Iowa. A letter was found in Gray’s hand stating he intended to murder Booth.

4. He had to live in his brother’s shadow.

Edwin was far more talented than his younger brother, but after 1865 he was forever living with his ghost. He withdrew from the stage for eight months after Lincoln’s assassination, fearing for his own life. Even though he never spoke his infamous brother’s name in public, he repeatedly wrote to President Johnson for his body so he could be interred in the family plot in Baltimore. Shortly after his brother’s death, Edwin wrote to their sister, Asia; “Think no more of him as your brother; he is dead to us now, as he soon must be to all the world, but imagine the boy you loved to be in that better part of his spirit, in another world.”

Though the two frequently fought over political views, one instance even involved Edwin picking John up by his shirt collar and literally throwing him out on the street, Edwin was forced to repeatedly take the blame for him after John’s death, as if being the elder brother, he could have done something to prevent it.

5. Pretty much everything he did was dripping with melancholy.

“I’m Edwin Booth and I’M SAD.”

Sometime after the assassination, Edwin attended a New York party, when he noticed a bronze cast of someone’s hands on the mantel. He picked them up, and asked the host who they belonged to. When the host said “Abraham Lincoln,” Edwin silently placed them back on the shelf.

Even his onstage persona was full of sadness. His Hamlet was so revered because of his new acting style. While his father was loud and dramatic, Edwin was more subtle, quiet, and softer–popularizing realism.

There are numerous accounts of John Wilkes’ womanizing ways and his charm. Edwin appeared to be the exact opposite, quiet, withdrawn, and dedicated to his work, especially after the death of Mary Devlin. Though I suppose a lifetime of heartache and the fast road to adulthood won’t make you the life of the party.

Though the Booth name is thought to be traitorous today, in New York City, Edwin is remembered and respected within the theater community. The city that Edwin called home for much of his life holds numerous monuments to the famed Shakespearean actor. The Booth Theater on West 45th street was named after him in 1913 and remains to be the first and oldest theater named after an actor. (Though one of their first productions, however, was Our American Cousin- the comedy Lincoln was attending when assassinated). Near Union Square is Gramercy Park, a small private 2-acre park that is only accessible by residents who pay an annual fee or Player’s Club members, which holds a statue of Edwin at the center. Booth founded The Player’s Club in 1888 to promote “social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts . . .” His apartment, which lays upstairs from the actual club, remains the same as it did when he died on June 7, 1893.

Edwin’s bedroom. Unseen, but a photo of his infamous younger brother is placed on the mantle.

Further Reading:

Prince of Players: Edwin Booth by Eleanor Ruggles
My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry That Lead to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln by Nora Titone
Genius, and other essays: Edwin Booth by Edmund Clarence Stedman
The Player’s Club website

“Remember the Ladies.”

Men have written history books, but the women set the score. Here is a small sample of my favorite historical ladies.

1. Abigail Adams

There’s a reason Laura Linney was chosen to portray her in the John Adams HBO miniseries: it was simply perfect casting. Abigail tops many a badass ladies list not only because she married one president and gave birth to another. Abigail was unlike any woman of her time.

Where most men in the 18th century considered their wives only as cooks and baby makers, John Adams constantly sought out his wife’s opinion on many political matters. When John was in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, she wrote to her husband, urging him to “remember the ladies” during America’s fight for independence. If you love a good romance, a selection of the hundreds of letters they wrote to each other can be found in My Dearest Friend. It’s because of these letters that we have such a documented grasp on the amazing woman she was. Abigail was also an advocate of a woman’s right to own property and education. She believed that women should not submit to their husbands, but should be educated and treated more as equals.

Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Abigail to John Adams, March 1776

Abigail is the definitive woman of the Revolution due to her wit, charm, and intelligence. She was unmatched during her time and still revered today.

2. Martha Jefferson

Unlike Abigail, we know practically nothing about the woman who stole Thomas Jefferson’s heart. We aren’t even completely sure the above silhouette is hers. But we do know she was supposedly incredibly beautiful and kind. She was described as exceedingly intelligent, very musical, advanced in needlework, and ran Monticello when her husband was away.

She started the production of beer at Monticello, which Thomas continued for the rest of his own life. Neighbors and even their own slaves adored Martha, and she was often found in the kitchen helping prepare meals when she wasn’t ill. During her term as First Lady of Virginia, she raised fund to support the American troops and joined with the Ladies Association of Virginia to raise $300,000 for linen shirts for Washington’s freezing army.

Martha died when she was 33, after being married to Jefferson for only 10 years. Jefferson never remarried. Her kind and caring nature lives on throughout the numerous places in Charlottesville, Virginia named after her, including Martha Jefferson Hospital.

3. Elizabeth Hamilton

Elizabeth (or Eliza or Betsey, as Hamilton called her) was the envy of all 18th century women when she won the heart of Solider heartthrob, Alexander Hamilton. Together they had eight children before Hamilton’s untimely death in 1804 (See Duel!). Eliza outlived her husband by fifty years, passing away at the age of 97 in 1854. Throughout her life, she staunchly defended her husband against critics and even stood by him during personal scandals. She devoted her life to protecting her husband’s image, hired assistants to sort his papers and recruited biographers to tell his story.

Even though her husband left her with a brood of children and mountain of debt, Eliza never remarried. Instead, she focused her energy on helping those less fortunate by co-founding New York’s first private orphanage, the New York Orphan Asylum Society. In her later years, Eliza lived in Washington DC, where she and Dolley Madison raised money to fund the Washington Monument.

4. Sybil Ludington

We all know the rhyme, “Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” But Paul Revere wasn’t the only midnight rider, though he is the most famous.

On April 26, 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington mounted her horse, Star, and rode 40 miles, more than twice the distance Revere rode, from Carmel, NY to Mahopac, to Kent Cliffs anad Farmers Mill before returning home, warning residents of the British marching on nearby Danbury, Connecticut.

During the nearly nine hour ride, she galloped through mud and rain, and defended herself against a highwayman with a large stick. Though the soldiers arrived too late to save Danbury, Sybil was hailed as a hero and was even congratulated by General George Washington.

Since 1979, the Sybil Ludington 50k Footrace is held in Carmel, NY and traces her famous route.

Do you have a favorite historical lady? Leave her name and cause in the comments below!





July 11, 1804. Weehawken, New Jersey. Two men arrive, only one walks away. One is Aaron Burr, the Vice President. The other, Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury and a signer of the Constitution. You would think that two forty-somethings that helped form our nation would handle personal disputes in a calm rational matter. Well you’d be wrong because these two fought like toddlers.

"Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself."

“Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.”

Both men were orphaned in adolescence and faced extraordinary strife in childhood. Hamilton was born in Nevis, an island in the West Indies. His father abandoned their family when Alexander was 10 and his mother died two years later.  After her death, Hamilton worked as a clerk in a counting house, impressing his bosses so much that they raised money to send him off to school in America. In New York, he attended King’s College–known today as Columbia University.

"I'm better than you."

“I’m better than you.”-Hamilton, age 14

Meanwhile, Burr was an orphan at age two. He was sent to live with an uncle who whipped him. Aaron ran away time after time, but his uncle found him. At age 16, Burr graduated from the College of New Jersey (today, Princeton) as a student of theology, but later turned to a career in law.

Tensions rose between these two men during the American Revolution. Both men were war heroes, either being one of two men of their regiment to survive a battle (Burr) or having their horse shot down from under them and walking away unscathed (Hamilton).

General George Washington heard about Hamilton’s victories and invited him to be one of his aide-de-camps. Though Hamilton was moving up the ranks, he was extremely temperamental. Because he was born in the West Indies, he felt many people judged him for it, causing him to lash out with his peers and even Washington himself.  Burr was invited to become an aide as well, but was almost immediately fired and sent to work for General Israel Putnam.

“George likes ME more!”

After the war, the two were friendly to each other in public, but were rivals in New York City courtrooms, where they both worked as lawyers. In 1791, Burr beat out Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for a U.S. Senate seat. Hamilton lashed out, thinking Burr ran just to spite him. He wrote letters to lawmakers, hurling insults at Burr.

"Aaron Burr is a stupid, silly, poopy head."

“Aaron Burr is a stupid, silly, poopy head.”

In 1800, Burr ran for President. He tied with Thomas Jefferson and the House of Representatives had to choose the next POTUS. As the House chose, Hamilton once again wrote notes slandering Burr’s name and intentions. Burr was defeated, and he believed it was because of Hamilton’s words. The feud between the two had been given more fuel.

Always the VP, never the P.

Always the VP, never the P.

When Burr’s Vice Presidency was coming to a close, he decided to run for governor of New York. Burr caught wind that Hamilton was once again planning to run a smear campaign against him. Burr lost the election for governor and was infuriated, once again blaming Hamilton for the loss. He wrote his falsifier and requested that Hamilton apologize or Burr would challenge him to a duel. Hamilton chose the duel.

The location would be the Weehawken dueling grounds, across the Hudson River from New York City. The location was the same where, just three years before, Hamilton’s son Philip died from, you guessed it, a duel.

He inherited his father's good looks, too.

He inherited his father’s good looks, too.

Hamilton shot first, but missed. To this day, the jury is out on whether he purposefully missed or misfired. Burr returned fire and hit Hamilton in the lower right abdomen above his right hip. The bullet fractured his third false rib and ricocheted through his liver and diaphragm before lodging into his spine. He collapsed immediately and Burr started to approach his fallen comrade, seemingly out of regret, but he was rushed away to his rowboat.


Hamilton drifted in and out of consciousness and died the following day. Burr was tried for treason in 1807 but was pardoned. He lived in Europe from 1808 to 1812 and never regained political power. He remarried in 1833 at the age of 77 and frequently remarked about the duel, referring to Hamilton as, “my friend, whom I shot.”

Dueling grounds monument

Dueling grounds monument

Today, a road runs through the original dueling grounds site, but along the bank of the river is a monument with a statue of Hamilton’s bust and a boulder where he is believed to have rested after being wounded. Hamilton’s face is plastered on the ten dollar bill and statues of him are in almost every major city on the East Coast. Burr remains a forgotten figure from history for an act that both men shared equal blame.

Currently, Broadway actor, composer, and lyricist is composing “The Hamilton Mixtape,” a concept album based on the life of the former Secretary of the Treasury. The first song, performed by the character of Aaron Burr, can be watched here:

In addition, Nick Cardiff- who portrays Alexander Hamilton in the YouTube series “I Made America”, performed a response to Miranda’s rap, where he mentions more of the details of the duel (It’s also hilarious–if you have the time, watch the entire series, it’s great. Just great.):

Further Reading:

Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg
Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser

The Man America Forgot: Marquis de La Fayette


You’ve likely driven down a road bearing his name. Perhaps you’ve spent some time in the park across the street from the White House. (Hint: It’s named after him) Statues of him are littered across the world. But chances are, your childhood social studies classes passed him right by. Meet Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, known simply as Lafayette.  And you can thank him for your freedom.

You think that today’s conservative Republicans are America’s biggest fanboy? Wrong. Lafayette loved America so much, he sent himself Stateside to fight alongside George Washington.

Nicknamed Le Héros des Deux Mondes, or The Hero of Two Worlds, is no small feat. Born September 6, 1757 into French aristocracy, Lafayette was orphaned by the age of 13 and inherited 145,000 livres, approximately 22 million dollars today.

In 1775, Lafayette first heard of the rumblings of war across the Atlantic. He was so moved by the American plight and passionate about the freedom the American’s sought, Lafayette acquired his own ship and sailed to America disguised as a woman to keep British spies at bay.

"Nothing to see here..."

“Nothing to see here…”

In America, Benjamin Franklin heard all about the Parisian wunderkind and wrote to George Washington advising him to choose Lafayette as his aide-de-camp. Washington accepted and at age 19, Lafayette was the top aide to the future POTUS. (What were you doing at age 19? Complaining about that 5 page book review you had to write for your college elective class? That’s what I thought.)  Lafayette saw Washington as the father he never had, and Washington saw Lafayette as the son he’d always wanted.


“Uhhhh, Monsieur Washington, take zis big cloth as a token of my amour. Oui, Oui.”

Lafayette was a badass in battle. In the Battle of Brandywine, he was shot in the leg and rallied the troops to a safe retreat before accepting treatment. Keep in mind, this was the first time he was experiencing American warfare. Battle after battle, Lafayette was noted for his valor and skill.

In February 1779, Lafayette returned to France. When he arrived, he was given two weeks house arrest for disobeying the King by going to America. Regardless, he was showered by gifts from the adoring public. While he was in France, his wife, Adrienne, gave birth to Lafayette’s first son, Georges Washington Lafayette. Lafayette continued to push for more French support to aid the Americans. Before returning to America in March 1780, he had secured 5,500 men and 5 warships to help the Continental Army.

In the fall of 1781, Lafayette and his men took Yorktown redoubt 9 from the British, while Alexander Hamilton and his men charged redoubt 10 in hand-to-hand combat. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19. The Americans had won. Lafayette returned to France and was greeted as a hero.

Suck it, Cornwallis.

Suck it, Cornwallis.

While in France, Lafayette was granted commander-in-chief of the French National Guard.  The French Revolution was brewing and Lafayette sought to maintain order. When an angry mob came to Versailles, Lafayette saved the Royal Family from danger. In 1792, France declared war with Austria and took command of the army. As the Jacobin influence gained power, Lafayette was replaced and fled to Belgium. The Austrians captured him and he was jailed until 1797. He returned to France in 1800 and found that his fortune was gone.  Feeling betrayed by the country he called home, he declined many social and political offers for nearly a quarter of a century.

In 1824, President James Madison invited Lafayette to tour America. Lafayette accepted and was greeted like a rockstar  during his two month trip. During that time, he visited every state, visited Mount Vernon and the tomb of Washington, met with his old friend, Thomas Jefferson, and attended public banquets in his honor. The frenzy that met him at each stop rivaled the celebrity frenzy of today. While visiting Jefferson in Monticello, one of Jefferson’s slaves noted 50 years later that, “Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightly hold ownership of his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money on behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle – the freedom of mankind; that instead of all being free a portion were held in bondage (which seemed to grieve his noble heart); that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated, and so on. …This conversation was very gratifying to me, and I treasured it up in my heart.”

Up until his death, Lafayette kept fighting for the rights of people, slaves, poor, and religion. Lafayette died on May 20, 1834 of pneumonia. He was buried at Picpus Cemetery with dirt from Bunker Hill, joined forever by the two countries he loved.


“Humanity has won its battle. Liberty now has a country.”

Further Reading on Lafayette: