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Lyman/Lafayette Project Blog #3: The Journey So Far

This post is contributed by Taylor Stoermer, Visiting Curator of Public History, Newport Historical Society

There is a sword lying in the main vault of the NHS. But it’s not just any sword. As far as aesthetics go, it is a lovely work of art, the result of a felicitous collaboration between the master artisan who worked its ornate, solid silver open network hilt, and the swordsmith who forged its elegantly tapered triangular blade. In that context, it deserves a place next to the 18th-century silver tea services on display at the MFA. But it was not created for its form to be admired. It can also serve its function — to kill. It is strong, flexible, and perfectly balanced along its length, so that one can hold it steady in the air perched simply on one finger, placed under the blade about an inch below the hilt.

It also came to the NHS with a story. In the lore of the family who generously donated it, the sword, and an accompanying set of silver spurs, were given to their ancestor, Newport’s Daniel Lyman, at the close of the American Revolution by none other than the Marquis de la Fayette, in recognition of their friendship and the many special services that Lyman rendered to the cause of freedom during the struggle. Such a valuable gift obviously pointed to the nature of Lyman’s contributions, which must have been commensurately considerable. And so the sword’s return to Newport was celebrated with much appropriate fanfare two years ago, as even Governor Raimondo turned out to mark the occasion.

And so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that creative minds associated with the NHS, saw it as an opportunity to develop that story into a documentary film, one that explained the background of the sword in more depth, just as it explored the craft of historians in uncovering its origins and tracing its original journey from France to Newport. That’s where I came in, as research director of the project, freshly enthused with the potential of documentary medium as a public history tool, after spending perhaps too much time with Ric Burns over the spring term. Armed with the support and vision of Ruth Taylor, and the assistance of two Harvard grad students, we embarked on an effort to discover more about the sword and spurs as objects, and the people who shaped their history.

The goal was not to tell the sword’s complete story, but to present its outline, along with the methods employed by historians to sketch it. Armed with a detailed plan that focused on Lyman, La Fayette and “the French connection,” and the sword and spurs as objects, Ruth and I thought that six months of intensive, targeted research would probably do it. The cameras would capture our journey on two continents as we gathered information and distilled our findings.

The project got off to a promising start. Our initial conversations pointed to the broader possibilities of the project to tell us much that we didn’t then know about the revolutionary world that produced the sword. Our knowledge of Lyman’s wartime career was, admittedly, shallow, but the basic facts of his Continental Army service were there, along with some tantalizing hints that pointed to something more, such as a reference in a letter from Lyman to George Washington to “confidential appointments” that Lyman received during the war. [Lyman to GW, 31 May 1790, GWP]

The secondary sources told us, with some perceived authority, that Lyman was a native of Connecticut and a Yale student at the beginning of the Revolution. He was part of the expedition under Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen that captured Fort Ticonderoga, where he received the sword of British commander William de la Place in surrender, had a horse shot out from under him at the Battle of White Plains, and then became aide-de-camp to Major General William Heath, in which position he remained for the rest of the war, participating in the Battle of Rhode Island and then facilitating cooperation between the Americans and the French, largely through his close friendship with La Fayette, and was the first American officer to meet the French army on its arrival in Newport. In 1780, marching down Broadway in Newport, he saw young Polly Wanton as she waved to the passing troops from her perch atop the front steps of her prominent home. Struck by her beauty, and then overwhelmed by her charm and intellect, he competed for her hand with her many other admirers. They were married in Newport on January 10, 1782. Afterwards, they made their home in Newport and he became a successful attorney and the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Lyman built the first bridge connecting Aquidneck Island to the mainland, created one of the first major textile mills in North Providence, and helped found the Society of the Cincinnati. When La Fayette returned to America in 1824, they renewed their friendship as Lyman participated in the festivities, which included his reading of the Declaration of Independence from the steps of the State House in Newport. Polly died in 1822 and he followed her in 1830, the father of 13 children with Polly and one of the most prominent figures in Rhode Island. As for the sword, the available secondary sources supported the story. It was even displayed as “Lafayette’s sword” in the colonial exhibit at the Rhode Island Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, La Fayette “having given it at Newport, in 1780, to Gen. Daniel Lyman.” [New England Magazine 50 (1894), 433] In that bare informational structure we saw enormous potential for learning more about Rhode Island’s role in the war, the life of young women in colonial Newport, the experience of La Fayette and the French in securing American independence, and the legacy of the Revolution for our collective memory, all of which would help us build a more informed interpretation of the Revolution House (the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House).

But you, of course, know what Burns wrote about “[t]he best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.”

All sound historical research plans start off with a set of questions that an historian wants to answer in pursuit of a thesis. Those questions are based on the foundation, however fragile, of what is initially known, the information that sparks the inquiry, and the research avenues laid out to answer those questions. But that foundation is only a guide as to where to start looking. An historian must not accept that information as Gospel, but examine the sources anew, with fresh eyes. In that sense, the practice of history is, in part, about deconstructing and then rebuilding what we know about the past. As the research proceeds, and evidence is collected, the thesis goes through sometimes seemingly endless revisions in light of new knowledge. Often (certainly in my case), the thesis at the end of the process bears strikingly little resemblance to what it was at the beginning. But it is critical for the historian to never be so beholden to the original thesis that it shapes analysis of the evidence (the reverse must be true), a willingness to follow whatever direction the evidence points to (even if they depart from one’s initial impressions), and the discipline to know when to stop (when a line of inquiry is no longer in pursuit of one’s goals). I write all that not as a primer but as predicate, for there is where our scheme, indeed, went “agley.”

In one respect — examining the sword and spurs for evidence of their origins — the research plan went swimmingly well, but took the first of many unexpected turns. With the help of last summer’s NHS Fellows, we quickly learned that the spurs were silver and made towards the end of the 18th century. But they weren’t French, they were English, probably made in London in the 1790s. More to the point (or contrary to it, rather), as an especially clever NHS Fellow discovered, they were made for a woman, not a man. That was hardly a setback, as making history — as an historian — is a process, not a race. To win is to sufficiently answer the question and the prize is to be able to move on to the next question that answer generates, even, or perhaps especially, when that answer is “no.”

The sword, however, gave up secrets more consistent with the thesis, after a pursuit of them with top experts in the field in Britain, France, and the United States. On the face of it, the sword is a “small sword” of a form popular throughout Europe in the period. The blade is a fairly commonplace example, probably forged in Solingen, Germany. But the maker’s and tax marks on the extraordinary hilt told us that it was made in Caen, a town near the coast in northwest France, probably in the 1760s. La Fayette was known to have given swords to his friends and fellow officers during the Revolution, including one as a gift to Washington, and dozens of them survive in museums and private collections. Was the Lyman sword consistent with those? No, it was not. The swords known to have been presented by La Fayette during the war were much more utilitarian and can easily be traced to a set of manufacturers who supplied Louis XVI’s armory. Even the gift that La Fayette gave Washington, although elegant and a small sword, was much more simply rendered than Lyman’s. After examining more than 300 contemporary swords, many with a La Fayette connection, one thing became quite clear: the exquisite pierced silver hilt is a highly distinctive stylistic element. In fact, only one other extant sword is similar, it could almost be called a twin, but it has a murky, although intriguing, provenance. The family story of the twin sword is that it was a gift to a Continental Army officer (Ephraim Douglas, an aide-de-camp to Benjamin Lincoln) from George Washington, for special services. A French small sword, given to an aide-de-camp by a prominent patriot leader, for special services. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, that’s all the sword could tell us. Although we discovered that there was one silversmith working in Caen in the 1750s and 1760s who could have done such accomplished work (Jean Baptiste Perrin), pursuing that line exceeded our resources. That’s where the discipline to know when to stop comes in. The sword itself was exactly what it was purported to be — an exceptionally valuable 18th-century French small sword. It had told us all that it could, for now.

So much for the objects. What about the people? That’s were things went awry, at least in light of a coherent short-term project. In hindsight, it should not have been a surprising outcome (but then, in hindsight, what is?). If there is anything I’ve learned as an historian, especially one who works to make the past intelligible and meaningful in the present, it is that people, then and now, are messy. The only law that applies is that of unintended consequences. In short, as we retraced the lives of Lyman and La Fayette, we soon discovered that almost everything we thought we knew about Daniel Lyman was wrong. Actually, we learned that we knew almost nothing about him. As we plunged into the available archives, spending hours pouring over letters and diaries, the evidence revealed by the manuscripts — even by Lyman himself — transformed the secondary sources and family history into just so many words, still valuable for the lessons they might teach us about memory, but no longer reliable for a proper understanding of the past the stories are meant to explain. Our thesis unraveled and the project captured much of its collapse, as stories once accepted as fact turned into myths before our eyes.

Lyman was not at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775; he was finishing his studies at Yale (Isaac Senter, a friend of Lyman’s who was at Fort Ticonderoga and left as comprehensive an account as there is, including a participants’ list, does not mention Lyman). His command was at the Battle of White Plains in October 1776, fought just days after his appointment to it, but Lyman’s role in the fight is recorded nowhere, much less the tale of the horse. Although he and La Fayette knew each other, and they spent a few days together after the French nobleman’s return to America in 1780, Lyman and La Fayette were not close friends. Lyman also was not the first to greet the French army at Newport later that year, but arrived with Heath shortly after Rochambeau sailed into the harbor. La Fayette did not visit Newport during his celebrated tour of 1824-1825; he spent a few hours in Providence before moving on to Boston, and it appears that Lyman participated in the festivities there, but not in a major role. And there is no mention of a sword in any of the materials. In fact, none of the stories about his Revolutionary War service or the sword appears in any source before 1881.

So much for everything Lyman was not, distinctions attributed to him by others, which he never claimed. He doesn’t seem to have ever discussed his service during the Revolutionary War, outside of a handful of letters written to Washington and others when he solicited a job from Washington in the 1790s. How about who he was? In short, as is often the case, he was much more interesting than any of us expected. Born to a close-knit Durham, Connecticut family in 1756, he was an accomplished Yale student who graduated in 1776. He then joined the Continental Army and a series of staff appointments revealed him to be a popular, congenial officer. Several commanders lobbied for his time until William Heath secured it in 1778, with headquarters in Boston. He was detached to Sullivan’s command on Aquidneck Island for the Rhode Island campaign later that year, where he acted as an observer for Heath. After the battle, he returned to Boston and remained there until Heath’s command was shifted to the Hudson Valley in 1779. There Lyman remained until July 1780, when he went with Heath to connect with the French commanders already in Newport. Then there is silence in his materials for the next two-and-a-half months, until he left Newport to return to New York, following Heath who had been ordered back to the banks of the Hudson River by a Washington worried about what Benedict Arnold’s defection might bring. Except for occasional visits to Newport to see Polly, he stayed in New York for the rest of the war, until he was mustered out in 1782. After the war, the orthodox story is fairly consistent with the reality: he was appointed a customs official in Newport by Washington (but later removed by Jefferson), became a well-known lawyer and political figure, was active in the formation of the Society of the Cincinnati, Chief Justice of Rhode Island, and a leader in developing the American textile industry. He was also a delegate to the secessionist Hartford Convention.

Those are the broad strokes of his life. There is also the personal character that a close reading of the sources reveal. He was definitely a man of his time, young and vibrant at the beginning of a revolutionary age that practically reverberates across the pages of his, it must be said, entertaining journal and correspondence. He was a “man of feeling” and romanticism, who wrote poetry and quite enjoyed the company of women before his marriage — both genteel and of ill repute (a personal history that later got him into hot water with Polly). His letters to Polly reveal a passionate spirit whose attention was wholly captured by the precocious Newport teenager, so much so that his revolutionary fervor was almost entirely replaced by an intense desire for the war to end so that he could return to her (and made him constantly fret over the return of French officers to her town while he wasn’t there). Next to Daniel Lyman, Alexander Hamilton looks tame. And then there is the remarkable, but equally little known Polly. Her name appears in enough contemporary sources for us to confirm her well-deserved popularity, and her few surviving letters show a level of literary style, intellect, humor, and cultural literacy remarkable for a person at any age, and striking for one who was just 17 when she began writing them.

Last year at this time, we took stock of the project. With hundreds of research hours put into it, we had little usable footage. That’s mainly because it’s tough to film a process of almost continuous deconstruction. Or to capture an extended transatlantic e-mail exchange. Essentially, where we ended up, in terms of learning more about the sword and how it got into the Lyman family, was much less informed than when we began. But what we did know was more reliable. After a year of work, we had many open questions, a few solid answers, and a lost narrative. In fact, our own story was split between the actual history behind the sword and its people, and the powerful force of memory that created a legend around them.

But we were all, if possible, even more excited about the project’s potential, especially as we embarked on an effort to reconceive the NHS’s Revolution House — where Daniel and Polly met, loved, and lived for decades, and which their direct descendants turned over to the NHS in the 1920s — as a “history space” to engage Newport’s revolutionary stories and connect them to the present. Where better could we pursue a vision to promote and project the practice of public history than with the experience of Daniel and Polly and their family?

That has been the focus of our efforts over the past year, as Roger Williams University undergraduate students have stepped into the research fray and brought new insight to the project (including the first NHS-RWU undergraduate interns this summer), and I assumed the position of Visiting Curator of Public History at the NHS. We have continued and even expanded the scope of our research. That began with our re-examination of the papers that accompanied the original donation of the sword, where we found a handwritten note by one of the sword’s owners in the 1920s — but inaccurately transcribed by her daughter decades later. It told a different story of the sword’s origins: it was given to Lyman by La Fayette in the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House in 1780 after a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and Lyman acted as an interpreter between the American and French during the critical months of the summer of that year, as the alliance rested on tenterhooks. This had the ring of truth, but begged a question about the two-and-a-half months that are not yet accounted for in the sources, as that was the only time that La Fayette and Lyman were both in Newport (La Fayette arrived near the end of July). Daniel’s last journal entry was on July 19, when he dined with Rochambeau and entertained a charming “Miss Arnold.” Then virtual silence until his first letter to Polly, whom he had not yet met by July 19, from Providence on October 4. From then his correspondence with Polly is almost constant. What happened during those 12 weeks?

That has driven us to learn even more about Daniel and Polly’s progeny and the sources they left behind. It turns out that we were not alone in not knowing the reality of Daniel’s Revolutionary War service. Even several of his grandchildren knew so little about it that they had to resort to the same secondary sources in the 1880s that initially informed our work. Others, in their applications for Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution membership, entirely miss that he had served at all. Some even incorrectly connected their ancestry to other patriots. In pursuing these lines, we have created a database that currently stands at 1000 descendants to the present (that includes one winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a U.S. Senator, a Rear Admiral, a Major General, the inventor of instant coffee, an historical novelist, and, at last count, 20 Harvard graduates [one wonders what Lyman, the only Yalie in the database, would think of that]) and, through them, compiled, so far, 3400 records and identified six previously unknown repositories of Lyman manuscripts in universities from Virginia to Oregon. We even discovered a journal belonging to one of Daniel and Polly’s daughters that had been mistakenly labeled in the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House institutional records.

Demonstration by living historian and leather working expert, Roy Najecki, in the yard at Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, for “Life in 1777 Newport: A History Space Event” in July, 2017.

That’s where we stand today, as History Space at Revolution House begins to take off, with even more emphasis on the practice of public history, and the scholarly foundation of immersive programming and interpretation. As I transition to teaching public history at Johns Hopkins, but continue as Visiting Curator at the NHS and, teaching at Roger Williams, we are looking forward to more discussions, more programs, more insight, and more engagement between the past and the present in innovative ways. Reflected in that effort will be the ongoing findings from our continuing search for “Lafayette’s Sword” and the people who gave it meaning, at the time, over the centuries, and today — and, especially, of bridging that persistent gap between history and memory that it represents.

But we still don’t know anything about the “confidential appointments” he mentioned to Washington. At least not yet. Roll the cameras.