By Lucie Levine
Can I touch it? The thrilling answer: Yes. I reach out with a little awed trepidation. It’s smoother than I thought it would be. I run my index finger over the cherry-red wax. Nearly 250 years might have made it supple, but archival treatment keeps the seal on James Rivington’s correspondence cool and firm.
Rivington, agent 726, was one of George Washington’s master spies. A newspaper man, and originally a Loyalist, he was one of the last to join the Culper Spy Ring, the Continental Army’s best trained and most successful espionage outfit, which operated out of Lower Manhattan. Fittingly, Rivington died July 4th, 1802, and Rivington Street was eventually named in his honor.
The New York Public Library holds a collection of his papers, and I’m sitting in the Manuscripts and Archives Division on the third floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, pouring over the parchment.
Here are letters, newspaper subscriptions, and even a screed from The Committee of Observation for the Town of Hartford addressed to the “Friends of America” decrying the “"Servile Wretch commonly known by the name of James Rivington, who is daily by his conversation, paper and pamphlets, insulting, reviling, and counteracting this whole continent...in the most rancorous and malevolent manner."
It is a privilege and a joy to get to see these papers. Each one makes New York’s Revolutionary history a little more vivid. As a historian, I know that New York isn’t just made of steel, it’s also made of stories, and it’s my job to find and share them.
Luckily, New York is the perfect place to take a deep dive into the archives, because there are so many wonderful resources available to the public. For example, the New York Public Library holds Revolutionary records from the sacred to the soused: in the Archives Division you’ll find not only Washington’s Farewell Address but also his recipe for beer.
The New York Historical Society is Revolutionary to the core. It was founded in 1804 by John Pintard, a friend of Washington’s, who served during the Revolution as assistant agent For American prisoners in British occupied New York. The collection includes letters from Hercules Mulligan, the nation’s first Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, as well as more substantial items like Washington’s camp bed from Valley Forge.
If you’re searching for battles that took place here, head to The Museum of the City of New York, where you can find Illustrated maps of the Battle of Brooklyn, the great showdown in what’s now Prospect Park that drove Washington out of the city, and made New York the British stronghold and base of operations until the end of the war. If, to follow it up, you’d like to watch the British and their Loyalist brethren leave New York, check out the museum’s De Lancey family papers.
Or, stay where you are. So many of these treasures are available online. The digital collections of all these repositories, and others including the Smithsonian and the National Archives allow any interested person to be an armchair historian.
From the archive or the armchair, research is a revolutionary act, because finding and sharing the widest possible variety of stories helps ensure that the widest array of people see themselves reflected in our historical narrative. Ultimately, history is the most egalitarian thing there is, because there is a history of everything, and everything is history. It belongs to us all, and includes us all. All we have to do is find it.
Liberty. Equality. History: Vive La Revolution!
Lucie Levine leads Sypmathetic Spies: George Washington’s Eyes and Ears in Lower Manhattan during Fraunces’ Tavern’s Spy week. She is writer, historian and New York City tour guide. She founded Archive on Parade, a historical tour and event company that takes New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She has collaborated with institutions including The Municipal Art Society, the New York Public Library, The 92nd Street Y, The St. Regis Hotel, and The Brooklyn Brainery to offer exciting tours, lectures and community events all over town. She is also a Contributing History Writer at 6sqft, and News Editor at Greenpointers.