Author Archives: Bellboy

Living In Another World, Living In Another Time

Living in Another World, Living In Another Time

“Just like a pioneer in a new frontier I don’t know where to begin, because nobody cares when a man goes mad and tries to free the ghost within.”

Robbie Robertson

Jupiter Hollow (Livin’ In Another World)


The great hack Chief Justice John Marshall owned a lot of slaves, many more than previously assumed. Such is the discovery of the insightful legal historian Paul Finkelman. In his new book, Supreme Injustice[1], Professor Finkelman dissects all of the decisions relating to slavery during the period when John Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1801-1835) and provides incontrovertible evidence which casts doubts on the reputation of “the Great Chief Justice” as a neutral force in the formation of the slavery jurisprudence of the new nation. This information and analysis is sure to meet with yawns by most and surprise by the some that care about such things. Not me. I have been suspect of the life and work of the man known as “the great Chief Justice” for a long time. His concept of “judicial review” and its evil stepchildren “original intent” and more recently “originalism” have evaded analysis of their roots in slave owner doctrine for over two hundred years. It is time to consider these concepts in their true historical context.

To truly understand early American History, especially its legal history, a good place to start is on the streets of London in the mid to late 18th century. That is where British subjects from America were bringing their property, human beings of African descent, and treating them as harshly as they did back home. Slavery had never been common in England, yet it was a country made wealthy in part by its participation in the trade that brought human chattel to its colonies. Thanks to a growing awareness, many in England found it appalling when, in 1767, a black man named Jonathan Strong was beaten to within an inch of his life by a white man and left to die on a London street. The white man was not prosecuted, as even in England it was not in vogue to prosecute a man for damaging his own property. Were it not for an idealistic young lawyer named Granville Sharp, and his brother the physician, William Sharp, Jonathan Strong would have died on that street and that would surely be the end of his story. But Strong did not die and was nursed back to health by the good doctor. An again robust Jonathan Strong was then recognized by his “owner” as the human chattel he once had been. A suit was brought in the British courts to have this man named Strong submit again to his master. The Sharp lawyer named Granville argued that beating a man to within an inch of his life constituted abandonment of property and the courts of England agreed. In the years 1767 to 1772, the court system of England was a place where slaves of the colonies had legal rights including the right to assert their freedom, a truly befuddling development to the loyal British subjects of the Americas. The learned judges of the British legal system were exploring and debating the philosophies of their time, Natural Rights and the yearning of all people to be free, and applying these concepts to slaves and their plight on distant shores.

The Sharp idealistic lawyers of England put forth all kinds of arguments to have their clients declared free from their bondage. Not every slave was beaten to a pulp, so the argument used in the case of Jonathan Strong, while useful, was not of universal application. Some slaves, when in England for the business of their owners, were surreptitiously taken from their owners and Baptized in the hope that the courts would recognize that a soul once dedicated to Jesus Christ could no longer inhabit the body of a slave. That thought had been grappled with in the colonies well back to 1667, when the colony of Virginia passed a law which explicitly decreed that Baptism did not exempt a slave from bondage. In England, where there was no such law, that legal strategy worked sometimes but not all the time. A showdown was brewing between those who thought that owing to the concept of Natural Law there was no place in England, or anywhere in the civilized world, for slavery, and those who were going about their business in a world which for hundreds of years protected the rights of one privileged person to own another human being.

Perhaps the greatest legal mind ever to sit on any court was destined to address the slave controversies. Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of the British High Court, had practically invented Commercial Law and codified British Insurance Law and Maritime Law and Property Law. He was considered a friend of the monied interests of Great Britain which included those who owned slaves in America or had grown wealthy through the slave trade. Yet Lord Mansfield also recognized the concept of Natural Law as did his contemporary, the legal philosopher William Blackstone, who summed up the term nicely…

“This is what is called the law of nature, which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course superior in obligation to any other.  It is binding over all the globe, in all countries at all times.  No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.”

Much debate has ensued over the breadth and significance of the holding by Lord Mansfield in the case of Stewart v. Somerset in which the great jurist declared the obvious, that the institution of slavery was “odious” and against Natural Law.  Lord Mansfield asserted that the laws of England and not the laws of the colonies would control the slave issue in England, even as to a slave from the colonies. He noted that the institution of slavery, as an affront to Natural Law, could not exist without positive law permitting it. There was no such positive law in England. He therefore set free the slave, James Somerset and with him perhaps every slave in England. It remains unclear what Lord Mansfield would have decided were there some positive law in England permitting slavery. Would he rely on the supremacy of the Natural Law or would he defer to the will of the legislature? Somerset was a major victory for the Sharp lawyers, but it still left open the issue of the legality of slavery in the colonies, where numerous positive laws permitted the existence of the peculiar institution.

The significance of this 1772 case to prerevolutionary America was debated then and still today. Many historians share the view of Benjamin Franklin that the case had little significance, having only freed one slave of the colonies who happened to make his way to England and get a good lawyer. Other legal historians, most notably the Blumrosens in their book Slave Nation[2], argue that in America, or at least the South, the decision was viewed as significant and a possible first step towards the dismantling of the institution of slavery. In this view, the Somerset decision was a driving force to persuade the now nervous southern colonies to join the perpetually dissatisfied north in the American Revolution, basically asserting that but for the Somerset decision the Revolution might have never happened. (Note: I share this view

It is not my role here to relitigate Somerset or to give it more significance than has history. Here I will only assert that the decision raises the issues of Natural Law and Natural Rights in the context of the laws concerning slavery. As was fashionable in the 18th century, we can debate Locke and Blackstone in an attempt to determine the parameters of Natural Law and Natural Rights. I have heard many clearly political issues wrongly defended on a purported argument of their requirement under Natural Law. The question I ask is whether the law of slavery has any such doubt. I think not.  Slavery is odious and against Natural Law. We don’t need a genius like Lord Mansfield to tell us that, anyone can tell us that. But it takes a clever hack like Chief Justice Marshall to devise a system where the obvious is ignored in favor of the expedient and the politically repulsive. “Let justice be done though the heavens may fall”, asserted Lord Mansfield in the Somerset decision. “Maybe not”, (not a direct quote), is the response from the pen of Justice Marshall throughout his period as Chief Justice. In decision after decision, the great hack Chief Justice Marshall ruled in favor of the slave holder.

The concepts of judicial review, original intent, and originalism have their origin, or at least their operative instinct in the decision of Chief Justice Marshall in the seminal case of Marbury v. Madison decided in 1803. In that decision, the Supreme Court asserted the supremacy of the Constitution as the law of the land. Under that ruling, the courts would be the arbiters of what the Constitution permits the other branches of government to do and could strike down laws of Congress or acts of the executive as unconstitutional. On its surface this not only makes complete sense, but it also seems to have absolutely nothing to do with slavery. It seemed like a neutral ruling for new country, a country which was the first to have a debated if not a perfected Constitution. A deeper view shows this surface analysis to be all wrong.

‘Supremacy over what?’ is the important question. Read again the above quote about Natural Law from Blackstone. By asserting the supremacy of the Constitution in Marbury v. Madison, Marshall was arguing for the submission of Natural Law to a piece of paper, one that had been drafted largely by slave holders. ‘Impossible’ would say Blackstone. ‘Impossible’ should say any student of legal philosophy. Judicial Review is but a clever ruse. It denies the purpose of any system of laws in favor of the words contained in one Constitution.

It did not have to be that way. There has always been a sense, going back to the bible, that good judges find a way to do what is right. Great Britain has no constitution, yet it has succeeded in being a civilized nation. Great Britain managed to end participation in the slave trade and slavery in its domain both before America, and it managed to do so without anything close to judicial review. The reliance on the constitution, as argued in Marbury v. Madison, managed to impede the progress of America towards a more perfect union.

America’s founders did a pretty good job of airbrushing race and slavery out of the founding documents. There is barely a reference to these issues that drastically affected the lives of all colonists and the earliest Americans. One needs a magnifying glass, a stiff drink and an accurate compass to find the laws which govern race relations in either the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the laws passed by early Congress, or the decisions of the courts, including the Supreme Court. There is a quote attributed to James Madison which says it all…“[The Convention] thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”– James Madison, Records of the Convention, August 25, 1787. There were millions and millions of humans in America owned from birth or importation and worked to death from the time of the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War. About 750,000 Americans died as a result of the conflict largely fought about this one issue. How much of it would have been different if the issue had been dealt with in a forthright manner at the inception of the country? That question is impossible to answer. Still I believe that much of American History would be different for wont of eight words that I think Chief Justice Marshall left out the penultimate paragraph of his decision in Marbury v. Madison, words that a large slave holder like Marshall would not have considered…

Thus, the particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written Constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void, and that except as to rights derived from Natural Law, courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.

In the first paragraph of our initial founding document, Thomas Jefferson tells us why a new independent nation had to be formed. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserts that it is an outcome “which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them”. In 1776, the significance of Natural Law was expressed in that founding document. The new country would be an achievement of Natural Law over whim. Jefferson’s dilemma, indeed the dilemma of the founders of the country, was that the economic engine that powered the new nation was tied to an evil institution which could not be justified under any notion of Natural law. Natural Law required an end to the pernicious notion that a person could be born a slave, live his whole life as a slave, have children that were owned at birth, and then die a slave, repeated again for generation after generation. Such a concept could not be more in opposition to the requirements of the Natural Law which the founders purported to be the driving force behind the creation of the new nation, arguably the main reason that the nation came into existence at all. In Marbury v. Madison, the great hack Chief Justice John Marshall abandoned the notion of Natural Law, and decided that the Constitution would be our bible, not the immutable laws of Nature’s God. Original Intent and Originalism are the religions that worship this false god. It is no wonder then that the worship of the laws of men did what they always do, they led to contradiction and strife, slavery and war, slavery and war, slavery and war.

[1] Professor Finkelman generously provided me with material from his upcoming publication. He provided much inspiration for this piece in his seminar given for the New Jersey Institute of Continuing Legal Education.

[2] Alfred W. Blumrosen and Ruth G. Blumrosen, Slave Nation, How Slavery United the Colonies & Sparked the American Revolution (Sourcebooks Inc., Naperville Illinois 2005).

Chapter 3- King of the Circle

Chapter 3


Missus Catherine told me to try writing about the things I like best so here I am writing about circling. Circling is the game we play together with all the boys who are around after church. Every Sunday after taking care of the horses and going to Church the Reverend lets us do whatever we want. Sometimes we go fishing. Sometimes we go in the woods and try to catch us some squirrels, but the thing I like most is when we play games. And the game I likes most is called circling. In circling, we all stand around in a circle and instead of using a name we all give ourselves numbers from one to the last number. So if there are eleven of us the last number is eleven. One time we had twenty two but that was when we had a lot of people visiting the Reverend from England. Somebody calls out two numbers and the two boys with those numbers go in the circle and try to throw the other boy out. When they call out your number you would go in the center of the circle and try to become king of the circle. To stay king you had to throw everybody else out. So when I get in the circle I call out numbers and that boy would step in the circle until I threw him out. Then I would just call out another number and the same thing would happen. I got so good at the game that nobody would call out my number. Sometimes a big kid would be playing and everyone would yell to call my number but if he did it he would be sorry. So one day I got this great idea and when I finally got in the circle I called out “seven and nine”. Nobody had ever called out two numbers before. I threw both boys out of the circle. So I called out “two four eight” and the three boys got thrown out of the circle. So I calls out “one three six seven ten eleven” and those boys tried to get me to lose but I was the one who was left standing and I was still king of the circle. So I call out “Everyone! And when everyone came at me I dove to the ground and everyone dove on top of me. Everyone in the pile of boys was laughing and shrieking. We had so much fun.

“Bill your story about circling is a little confusing but we can work on that. Let me ask you something. Do you know what the date is?” Catherine asked after reading his story.

“Well I believe it is Tuesday cause this all happened the day before yesterday.”

“No, that is the day and yes, it is Tuesday as you say. But every day that ever was has a date that no other day ever had or ever will have again. There is a year that is based on the sun and the earth. The year starts when it is cold just after we celebrate Christmas and then it keeps going through winter and then the spring and then the summer and then the fall and when it gets cold again we start a new year. This year is 1774 which means that it was seventeen hundred and seventy-four years since the Lord Jesus Christ was born and told us the Good News about our salvation.”

“Wow, seventeen hundred and seventy-four years!” said Bill in amazement. “That is sure a long time for us to know such an important thing. You would think that we could do some things better given that we know about the Lord Jesus for all this time.”

“Well Bill,” Catherine went on. “The point I was making is that every time you write something you should put the date on it. That way when someone reads it they will know exactly when you wrote it.”

“But why would anyone care about the day I became king of the circle?” Bill responded. “Maybe if I did something great like won a war or caught the biggest fish ever I could see putting the date on it. But I don’t see why the date matters that a boy won a game of circling.”

“Still it is a good habit. We never know what is going to matter to important people when they read about it. When Columbus first came to America I doubt that anyone then thought it was of any particular importance but now we all study about it and know that he came to America in 1492. He wrote about it and now we study it and know exactly where he was and when he was there. We know that his Royal Highness King George III became the King of England on September 22, 1761. Everyone likes to know when something happened.”

“But that is just what I mean.” Bill thought out loud. “When someone becomes King of England that is an important thing. But when a child becomes king of the circle what difference would it make if it was seventeen hundred and seventy-four years after the birth of Christ or a hundred thousand years after the birth of Christ. It is just a game after all.”

Catherine’s voice grew insistent. “Still, today is May 17, 1774. The year is divided into twelve months and May is the fifth month. It is my favorite month because everything seems to bloom around here in May. Every month has thirty days except for some reason some months have thirty-one and February, the second month, has either twenty-eight or twenty-nine days depending on the year. Some smart men set it up that way so that everything happens the same time of year. If they did it any different, Christmas might be in the summer and Easter might be in the winter and that would just make no sense. So today is May 17, 1774 and I think you should put the date on top of anything that you write. Otherwise nobody will ever know when you wrote it.”

“Well I still don’t see why anyone cares that I wrote about being king of the circle on May 17, 1774, but if you say I should put the date on it, I will do it because you say. It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

“Yes Bill,” Catherine said with a voice showing her little victory. “You do not know what will be important to people in the future. You will also learn that not everything makes sense. That you will learn for sure.”

Our Friends, the Scum

Spoiler alert: Graham Parker line of the day contained at the end.

I was watching one of those American History/book review channels that nobody ever watches and was amazed by a theory put forth by a History Professor Emeritus. It was her theory, and the HER being somewhat relevant, that all American History might be different but for the fact that Dolley Madison wanted to keep the slaves of James Madison after his death. She posited, on the flimsiest of evidence, that James Madison had a will that freed his slaves but Dolley destroyed that will in favor of an earlier will which was probated and did not free his slaves. It was Professor’s theory that had the Father of the Constitution freed his slaves, America would have grown into a better place and might have found a better solution to its national disgrace (my words…holocaust is better) and perhaps might have avoided its civil war. What bullshit!


On better evidence, I am a true Blumrosian, convinced that the American Revolution was fought specifically or at least partially for the very purpose of preserving slavery against the movement in England against the institution (see Slave Nation by Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen). The Declaration of Independence and Constitution reek of concern for the preservation of local law in the face of national concerns. Yet the Blumrosens, and my work applauding theirs, , has been held in universal contempt, only recently getting some grudging acceptance from some historians. In this context, the work of this Professor, who seems to actually blame a woman for the civil war, is just more avoidance of the truth of the matter…that some of the men who founded this nation…. specifically, Washington, Jefferson, Marshall, and Madison, were lying scum who never could acknowledge their blindness to the horrors that they perpetrated.


And one word about Dolley Madison. She was a straight shooter who acknowledged her privilege as a southern slave owner. She had her faults, but hypocrisy was not one of them. She did not cause the civil war, nor did she corrupt otherwise incorruptible men. We did not inherit her world, but we did inherit the world of the Founders and that affects us to this day. And speaking of scum… here is the Graham Parker line of the day. From Ambiguous on Don’t Ask Columbus…”and the meek shall inherit the earth from their friends the scum.”

The Graham Parker Duo featuring Brinsley Schwarz at the Kate 5/4/17

The Graham Parker Duo featuring Brinsley Schwarz

“The Kate”


According to Graham Parker, Brinsley Schwarz does not like to play behind anyone else. I can see why. With GP he not only gets to recreate some of the most memorable guitar lines in rock history, but he also can let his lyrical side flow freely. I normally do not like shows where the performers are “up there” and the listeners are “down here” but “The Kate” (The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, with some connection to Katherine Hepburn which I did not pursue) manages to maintain an intimacy with perfect sound, unfortunately missing at some of the dive bars GP has been known to frequent. So it was a beautiful show. We all have our favorites…GP dusted off Devil’s Sidewalk, Between You and Me, and Lunatic Fringe (why ever would that one be relevant now?). Just a magnificent Disney’s America and Long Emotional Ride and well, everything else. Since there are no NY shows in this short tour, why not play New York Shuffle? Brinsley’s song, You Missed Again, was a high point, tough to do when you are standing next to formerly America’s, first and again England’s, greatest song writer. Here then is the set list:

Watch the Moon Come Down

Between You and Me

Stop Crying About the Rain

Fools Gold

Devil’s Sidewalk

Lunatic Fringe

Socks & Sandals

Disney’s America

You Missed Again

Stick To Me

Heat Treatment

Discovering Japan

Long Emotional Ride

Pub Crawl

New York Shuffle

Don’t Let It Break You Down

White Honey


You Can’t Be Too Strong

Hold Back the Night



(Wish I’d been there…sounds like a blast!)



Mother Seton, James Smithson, and Bill Richmond

Mother Seton, James Smithson and Bill Richmond

Mother Elizabeth Seton was America’s first saint, known for her tireless help to the poor women of America in the early 19th century. James Smithson was likely the bastard son of a British Duke who had never been to America yet bequeathed an enormous sum to fund an institution of knowledge there. Bill Richmond was born a slave and went on to live the life of a leading sports figure in 19th century England. What could they possibly have in common?

Bill Richmond was born a slave on Staten Island and was likely owned by the Reverend Richard Charlton, who happened to be the grandfather of Elizabeth Seton. He was taken to England by the Second Duke of Northumberland, who was a British General in the early part of the Revolutionary War. In England he likely met a young man his exact age, who was likely the bastard son of the First Duke of Northumberland, that young man being James Smithson. The ties between these three great world citizens has never been recorded.. I fictionalized them in my novel I AM BILL RICHMOND.

The end of Marbury v. Madison (as we know it)


The End of Marbury v. Madison (as we know it)

“There’s nothing to hold on to, when gravity fails you and every kiss enslaves you…” Graham Parker


Does President Trump have to divest his assets? Is he subject to the emoluments clause? Does he have to disclose his tax returns? If you answered yes to any of these questions I think you are in for a rude awakening.

Ask most Americans which branch has the ultimate power to interpret the Constitution and they will answer that it is the Judicial Branch. Some will even suggest that the issue was settled by Chief Justice John Marshall in the case of Marbury v. Madison decided in 1800. Well, if that was my answer on my Constitutional Law exam, I think Professor Schwartz would have given me partial credit. Maybe a C.

First, as I am wont to do, I will point out that Marbury v. Madison was decided by a slaveholder (Marshall) for the benefit of slaveholders (President Jefferson and his Secretary of State James Madison). In the waning days of his administration, President John Adams tried to appoint officials to various positions including William Marbury as a Justice of the Peace in Washington DC. The fact that slavery was permitted steps away from the corridors of power in Washington was considered a blight on the government by the fledgling antislavery movement. Presumably, a Justice of the Peace who had no allegiance to slaveholders could have curtailed that great injustice. Slaveholders resisted the appointments. Through some mumbo jumbo, Chief Justice Marshall ruled in favor of the slaveholders and denied the commission to William Marbury, allowing Jefferson and Madison to appoint their own Justice of the Peace, presumably one who would agree with their political ends. The idea of judicial review was born here, in the decision by Marshall. It was a byproduct of the decision; the end justifying a means.

The Constitution sets up three branches of government. It spells out the relationship between the branches. The President appoints the Supreme Court justices with the advise and consent of the Senate. The Congress can impeach the President. etc. Nowhere in the Constitution does it provide that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter in disputes between the branches or as to the “constitutionality” of a piece of legislation or executive action. Depending on your viewpoint it is either ultimately logical or totally illogical that the branch that is furthest away from the direct selection by the People has this ultimate power. In any event, I suggest that Marbury v. Madison and judicial review is not the settled law that many think it is. Perhaps it was just a self-serving power grab by one branch, subject to resistance by another.

So now President Trump faces a lawsuit which argues that he must divest his business holdings or he is in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. It seems logical that as part of that lawsuit he will again be requested to turn over his tax returns. So what happens if he loses the case and then just says NO.

Such a response is not out of the question for this president. He can point to the Constitution and ask where it says that the Supreme Court has power over the executive branch. He can assert that the People have the ultimate power and the People elected him to do the job and don’t care about his business holdings. He can suggest that if Congress or the People don’t like him, their recourse is to impeach him. Despite musings to the contrary, this viewpoint is not without merit. Had I answered same to Professor Schwartz, I think I would have gotten an A.

As we ride through untested waters, I suggest that in a world where nothing is sacred, Marbury v. Madison may be the next ball to drop.

The Whoosit Club

Chapter 2




Frances Burrell was beyond excited to attend this particular meeting of the Whoosit Club. The Whoosit Club was a members only group of proper young ladies who one Sunday a month would meet at the Gentleman’s Club in Piccadilly. The Gentleman’s Club did not allow women to enter but for the afternoon of the first Sunday of every month when the ladies would have a speaker of interest. The selection committee prided itself on its choices from Prime Ministers to poets to artist to politicians. Some were quite famous but the real catches were the “up and coming but not yet famous” and it was quite prestigious for the speaker to be selected. The artists Thomas Gainsborough, Benjamin West, Joshua Reynolds and Angelika Kauffmann spoke there. As did notables including Dr. Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke. It was no secret that by the 1770’s Ladies of the Whoosit Club had a political cause that they supported, the worldwide elimination of slavery and its most ugly sister, the slave trade. Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton all spoke eloquently there about its elimination. Lord Mansfield spoke of his recent decision in the Somersett Case, which declared slavery “odious” and against British Law, and the effect the decision might have on slave owners in America in a talk he entitled “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

Frances preferred not to attend alone and often cajoled her older sister to accompany her. The interests of the sisters Burrell had grown to be quite diverse. As young children they were inseparable, often spending the entire day together working in their garden at Langley Park or on their horses riding off together for hours. As they grew older, when they would ride Isabella habitually would break into a gallop and Frances could not keep up and found herself alone in the countryside of County Dunham until Isabella would return with some hurtful remark about how unadventurous Frances was. Frances took to spending hours grooming her horse and would decline to ride with Isabella. Now that their father accepted a seat on Parliament and the sisters moved to London, attending the Whoosit Club was about all they did together.  Isabella preferred hearing from the swashbucklers; the soldiers and explorers who talked of their wild adventures. Frances liked the thinkers whether they be poets or playwrights or philosophers or preachers. She liked the world of ideas and the people who debated them. It was they, according to Frances, who really moved the world forward. By this time in 1774, Isabella’s thoughts were somewhere else, contemplating her future as spouse of the second son of the Duke of Northumberland, a wedding already set for the couple to take place in 1775.

On this particular Sunday, the guest was an American poet named Phillis Wheatley. It was not Wheatley’s poetry that Frances looked forward to discuss, as she had not read any. It was the fact that Phillis Wheatley was a living breathing slave, who as a girl from Senegambia had been kidnapped and sold and was now owned by the Wheatley family in Boston Massachusetts. Now here in London Phillis Wheatley was trying to fulfill the wishes of her mistress and drum up support for the potential sale of a book of her poems. She had a few things going for her. The London literati truly liked her work, though they were divided as to whether her naiveté was endearing or clumsy. But even more to her benefit was the politics of it all. The antislavery movement was fledgling; mostly a thought among some well to do that England had committed great sins in profiting from the slave trade and in establishing colonies in the Americas that were dependent on slavery. Led by the Quakers, there was a new awareness that it was time to end such abominations and Frances wanted to be part of that movement. Frances had never met a slave before, the institution being historically disfavored in England, and she wanted to see what a cultured slave looked like, although she would have been just as impressed to meet an illiterate working slave.

When the subject of a Whoosit Club meeting had to do with slavery, the meeting was run by the Quaker women who were an important part of the group. These ladies insisted that the meeting be run somewhat in the style of a Quaker meeting. The group would gather in silence and not a word was to be spoken until the leader commenced the gathering, which could take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, which was an interminable time to sit quietly for poor Isabella who did not want to be there at all.  Phillis Wheatley sat facing the club members, sitting with Elizabeth Corman, the Quaker lady running this meeting. The members of the Whoosit Club used the silence to look over Phillis Wheatley, who was a little bit of a thing. She looked younger than her nineteen years and when the silence broke she told her story, explaining to the gathering of mostly wealthy women that she was saved from the toil that most slaves had to endure by her sheer luck. She happened to end up in the house of a Boston tea merchant who had an intelligent worldly daughter named Mary Wheatley who loved poetry and read it aloud whenever she could. As a young child Phillis Wheatley would hear the wondrous words of William Shakespeare and John Milton and would recite portions of their work aloud herself from memory. Secret, at first, but then openly, Mary taught the slave first to read and then to write and then to write poetry. By age sixteen Phillis had written much poetry in English and some in Latin to the amazement of many in Boston. She was encouraged by her mistress Susanna Wheatley to write poetry although when she attempted to sell her work many in Boston labelled her a fraud, arguing that it was impossible that a dark girl from Africa had the ability to write such things. “It must have been the mistress’s words”, so many would say that a trial was held in Boston and Phillis acquitted herself well with her poetry on demand. At the trial, John Hancock, the lead judge, requested a few lines about spring and Phillis Wheatley wrote:

In vain the feather’d warblers sing

In vain the gardens bloom

And on the bosom of the spring

Breathes out her sweet perfumes.


That was good enough for the eighteen gentlemen of Boston who signed off on her authorship although it was unclear if they adjudged that there was any value to her work.

Frances Burrell was mesmerized by this little woman. Seventeen years old herself, Frances too had dabbled in poetry but knew in her heart she lacked the finesse of the young slave girl. But her questions that day were not about poetry, they were about life.

“Where did you get the name Phillis Wheatley from?” Frances asked.

“Wheatley is the family name of those that own me now and they have owned me since I was but a child.” Phillis responded.

“What about Phillis?” Frances continued. “Is that a common name amongst your people?”

“Phillis was the name of a boat”, Phillis Wheatley continued. “It was the boat that brought me from Africa to America.” Phillis Wheatley said this so matter-of-factly that its significance was lost to many in the room.

“The boat that brought you from Africa to America?” Frances continued. “You mean that today you bear the name of the slave ship that took you from your native land to the colonies.” There were gasps from the ladies of the Whoosit Club

“That is correct m’lady”, Phillis said. “On that ship the woman to my left died at sea as did the child to my right. I told them that I would never forget them and I never have. Were I to write this book it will surely be dedicated to them and all the others of similar fate.”

“Yet your poetry is full of grace and love, not bitterness and hate. If it was me I would not be able to write what you do, that I can say for certain.”

“M’Lady”, Phillis engaged. “Here we sit in London England a long way from the suffering of so many. The fine things that surround us here may hide the blood that runs through them, and they are beautiful things nonetheless. I am thankful every day for my life and that I have come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as you have. Whether I am free or a slave today would not have saved that woman or child. I am not here to save them or even to save myself, I am here to do what I was sent to do, which is to recite my poetry.”

An older woman in fine clothing spoke next. “Miss Wheatley, there are men among us in London who can bring your circumstance to the courts who will surely declare you to be free. No woman with a Christian soul such as yours was meant to be a slave. We have successfully petitioned our courts on behalf of others to acknowledge the value of a Christian soul. We stand ready to act on your behalf.”

“I thank you madam for the kind offer and thank you all for the chance for you to hear my poems. I am afraid I must return to my home at the soonest that I can. I received a message just today that my mistress Susanna Wheatley has taken ill and has asked for my return. I wish nothing more than to return to Boston forthwith.”

“Even if that means your return to slavery? How can this be?” Frances blurted.

“M’Lady”, Phillis Wheatley looked at Frances Burrell with a stare that she would never forget. “You and I are both quite young and many adventures await us. I do not fault you for the comforts you admire. Please do not fault me for the life I choose. I know hardships await and my fate will not be as yours. I have learned much in my youth and above it all I have learned that an easy life awaits no woman so I do not aspire to it. I am confident in my path.”

Frances did not know what to make of this woman. She could not stop thinking about Phillis Wheatley for days and weeks long after Phillis Wheatley took leave of England to return to Boston, her book never having been sold and some of her poems perhaps never having been written. Frances kept the book that was presented as a sample of the work. She could not know that Phillis Wheatley was soon a slave no more. Susanna Wheatley died before Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston and freed Phillis Wheatley by her will. Still Boston was not kind to the freed slave and it is true that Phillis Wheatley never did have an easy life. Back in London, Frances bored Isabella for days with her constant talk of Phillis Wheatley, poetry, slavery and freedom. Isabella put it out of her head and was relieved to learn that the next meeting of the Whoosit Club was to feature Lord Clive, the great soldier who was to share the tales of his adventures to India and such other places.

Chapter One- The Writing Lesson



Chapter 1


I am Bill a slave born in the house of the Most Reverend Richard Charlton and his wife old Mary and their daughter Catherine. I’ve heard tell that I am likely a child of the slave Mae a woman who I cannot recall having ever met. I’ve heard stories on who my father is, that for sure. Missus Catherine teaches me about the Lord and how to read and write. She told me to write something about myself to explain to her who I am but that is harder to do than I thought. I like to work hard for the Charltons so next to that I thought this would be easy but it’s not. Truth be told, I would rather go fishing with my friends or even tend to the farm.

Catherine interrupted Bill’s reading. “Bill if you call mum ‘Old Mary’ she’s never gonna like this. No woman likes to be told that she is old. Women are funny that way.”

“But you told me to write what is true and it is true that we call her old Mary, not disrespecting her or nothing but we do that so we know who we’re talking about. We call Old Mary ‘Old Mary’ and Young Mary ‘Mary’ or sometimes ‘Young Mary’. That is just how we do it so that is how I wrote it.”

“’Anything’…not ‘nothing’.” Catherine corrected Bill.  “Sometimes when you write you have to pick between telling the truth and not hurting someone’s feelings. But that’s what you have to learn. Well alright just keep going and we’ll fix it later.”

Bill continued his reading.

Missus Catherine told me that if I got stuck I should say something about my friends. I got a great friend named Richmond which is funny because we live here in Richmond although the British call it Staten Island. Maybe it isn’t so funny ‘cause lots of slaves who pass through here have names from the places they from. Just yesterday I met a boy named Orleans who said that was a big place like New York but that no slave child should ever want to see it. He said if they ever say they gonna take you to Orleans you just better run away. Better to be dead than to be in Orleans. That is what he said, but I don’t right know about that. Not that any place is so great for a slave I think, but I don’t get chained and I don’t get whipped like they do in Orleans. At least not so far but I’ve heard tell. I also am friends with Mary who I call young Mary cause she is much younger than old Mary. She is the child of Missus Catherine and gets to live in the big house of course since she be a Charlton. She plays all kinds of music on some struments they have at the big house and she teaches me some songs about the Lord. I been told that I can sing like a bird although to me I don’t sound like a bird. I think I sound more like the old working men I see on the farm every day. We sing other kinds of songs out there and they are not at all about the Lord. I don’t tell the Reverend about that cause he would just tell me that I’m gonna go to hell for that although we both know that he don’t mean it. Maybe one day I will be free and I will be a singer or a soldier instead of someones slave. I ain’t complaining though. According to Orleans some peoples got it worse, way worse.

“Well Bill, it is interesting and a good start given that it’s the first thing you ever wrote about yourself.” Catherine said.  “I see we have to work on your punctuation and spelling and some of your sentences but I think you’re doing very well explaining who you are.”

“Well thank you”, Bill replied. “I don’t know why you think I should be learning about all this stuff like punchiation but I do want to learn how to read real bad. They say a slave who knows how to read is a terror but I don’t get that at all. I see you reading all the time and you don’t seem to be a terror. How can me learning how to read be a bad thing?”

“Well let’s just say some folks are scared of their own shadow and those are the people who think what I’m doing here, teaching you to read and write is a bad thing.” Catherine responded. “Some white folks would want to send me to jail for this very lesson, but I don’t pay them any mind. Anyway, I think this is very good, very good indeed for a ten-year-old slave boy who is just learning to read and write. We will keep working on your skills and one day you’ll show people that even though you are someone’s slave you still have your thoughts and feelings to write about.”

“Well ain’t it true that one day I will be a free man? Down at the dock I hear the men talk about freedom all the time. And most of them are white folks who seem free to me. I just want to be as free as them to work for pay and buy me some nice things and have a boy child who knows who his mother and father are.”

“Well Bill”, Catherine said. “I don’t know what our future holds. It would not surprise me if one day you grew up to be a free man. And if that were to happen then you can say that you learned how to read and write and about the Lord from me, Catherine Bayley, daughter of the Right Reverend Richard Charlton and his wonderful wife Mary. While you are still a slave it might be best to keep such things to ourselves. But when you are free you can say that even though the Charltons kept some slaves that we were good people who tried to do the Lord’s work here on earth and that if we failed it was not because we did not try our best to serve the Lord. I want you to say it often and to write it down, because I know I won’t be on this earth for long and neither will mummy or the Reverend, and I don’t want us to go to Hell.”

Bill was always a bit afraid when Catherine started with her serious talk about hell. “I will do what I can Missus, but I am just a slave child”, Bill replied and then he added, “Missus Catherine, is it true what white folks say that I have no soul?”

“You sure are a boy with a lot of questions, aren’t you? I wouldn’t listen too much to what people say. Poppa says that most folks will lead you the wrong way. What do you think?”

Bill knew that if they were right and he had no soul then there was no hope. He would remain a slave all the days of his life. But if he did have a soul that meant that there was a God and if there was a God then anything was possible. The God that gave him a soul would see to it that he was free. Why else give a person a soul? “I don’t know nothing about how God works. I got me enough troubles figuring out people let alone figuring out God.”

“Anything”, said Catherine. “I don’t know anything about how God works. You can’t say nothing when you mean anything or you mess up the whole sentence.”

“Well it is true that I don’t know anything about nothing or nothing about anything”, Bill said cleverly. “I just don’t know why God would give me a soul and put me in a place where I can’t use it.”

“You sure can be clever Bill that is for sure. I don’t know where you get half the things you say.”

“What about the other half?”

“Yes that concerns me as well!”

When Bill’s lesson was over, he returned to his work. He especially liked taking care of the Charlton’s horses and would see to the needs of the animals from dawn to dusk. Even as a ten-year-old child, Bill would do the work of several grown men which was greatly appreciated by the aging Reverend, who insisted on calling him William, since much needed to be done. The Charltons not only ran the large Church and catered to the spiritual needs of their community, but they also had a little farm that provided for their sustenance. With the help of six slaves on the farm the Reverend was free to do God’s work knowing that his small family and the slaves would be fed and there would be plenty left should a widow or orphan or stranger find themselves in need. His wife was free to spread God’s love and the sickly Catherine was tasked to do God’s other work, which included marrying well and raising and teaching the slave children as well as her own daughter. Many thought Catherine favored Bill over her own child, young Mary, who loved Bill like an older brother. When teaching Bill how to read the bible, Catherine would say that she learned as much about God’s love from Bill as she did from the bible or her mother or father, quite a thing to say about a young slave boy. Catherine’s husband, the doctor Richard Bayley, made his best efforts to treat Catherine’s ailments, but the family knew that her constitution was weak and she was probably not long for the world. Catherine did not want for love for she was adored by all around her and she returned the same tenfold when and how she could. Catherine was again with child in early 1774 and the pregnancy was not going well stressing the entire family just as events around them were stressing all the institutions on Staten Island and all of British America.

By 1774, there was much talk of freedom and independence in the Colonies, even on Staten Island, which for the most part was loyal to Great Britain. The Charlton family was steadfastly loyal to the King and like many in Britain and America considered the talk of revolution to be the empty prattle of those who could not know how difficult it was to run anything. Bill would ask Catherine about independence, whether that meant that if the British were kicked out of America he would be free to have a life that he could choose for himself instead of a slave life chosen by his owners. “I am sorry to say”, she would tell him, “but the people around here I know who talk about freedom the most will never let go of their blacks. They would go to war and shed their last drop of blood rather than letting the blacks live free among them.”

Bill was quite disturbed by this talk. “Why should I be a slave my whole life?” he would ask. “What did I do wrong? It is not fair and it is against everything you taught me about being a Christian.”

Catherine would explain that the problem was that everyone had their own ideas about what it meant to be Christian. Bill remained uneasy and unconvinced. He may have been taught as a Christian and may have felt God’s love through Catherine and both Marys and The Reverend, but still he was a slave child. “What about England?” Bill asked Catherine. “I heard tell that they freed all their slaves there because they decided there that owning slaves was unchristian. Why is it that in England, people cannot own slaves but here their cousins can? If it is not a Christian thing to do there, why is it Christian here? If you and The Reverend and the Missus wanted to you could send me to England to be a free man, right? I think that would be the Christian thing to do.”

Catherine answered that she had thought about it but could not bring herself to let him go. “What would we do here without you, Bill? I think everything here would just fall apart and I myself would be heartbroken.” Bill understood the lesson; he was too valuable for them to let him go. Still he had to find his way out of America to freedom in England with the blessing of the Charltons. Bill’s thoughts in 1774 were not that of most ten year olds, but everyone who knew him knew that Bill was no ordinary ten-year-old. Like many others in America, the thought of his own freedom began to consume him.

Bill had heard several stories of how he came to live with the Charltons. There were no records of his birth or past so he had to make up his history from the stories he was told. The Reverend himself told Bill that as a baby he had been exchanged for a sack of potatoes in a deal with a hungry trader that benefited both sides. On the rare day when Bill was resting from being tired out from working the farm the Reverend might chide him, “C’mon William get up and show me you’re worth a sack of potatoes.” And instead of taking offense, Bill would get up and work to sheer exhaustion. He became fond of taking some of the potato sacks and fashioning shirts from them, shirts he alone would always wear. But Bill had reason to doubt the story that he was traded for a sack of potatoes as well as the stories told to many of the slaves he came to know.  He had heard from one of the older slaves that he came to live with the Charltons as a baby because he was a Charlton, son of a union between the Reverend and a slave named Mae who was sent away soon after his birth. Bill was told that Mae consented to the arrangement with the Reverend in the hope that with some Godly intervention she would bear a Moses who would free her people from their oppression. Bill did not put much credence in this tale of his creation either. For one thing, his skin was dark making the fair-skinned Reverend an unlikely father. He also knew he was not going to be doing much liberating as a slave on Staten Island. Bill figured that it was more likely that his creation resulted from a union between his mother and one of the muscular slaves that were working for the Charltons or a neighbor. As a slave, she could not marry or control her family but she could not be stopped from being human. Although it was never spoken of, it may have been that kind of behavior that got his mother in trouble with the Charltons and eventually lead to her removal from their household. There was one other story, also told to him by an older slave, which he could not discount despite his dark skin. According to this story, the Charltons did own a slave named Mae who was very hard working and of a happy sort. She sang like a bird, just like Bill.  Mae, being quite sturdy and attractive to men, was noticed by some of the locals who returned from the North and West as heroes for fighting in the British Army defeating the French and the Indians in the war which finally provided security to the British subjects of America. These hero soldiers were left to do that which they wanted especially in regard to the local slaves. One day, the story goes, they cornered Mae who punched and kicked and bit each and every one of them with a boundless relentless fury that still ended in her rape and pregnancy. Bill believed that this event did happen to his mother, whether or not it was the event that resulted in his creation. After all, in his ten years Bill had seen countless horrible things happen to slaves and he heard tales of even worse. It was not that Bill wanted to think about such a horror happening to his mother but it did explain to him his rage at so many things. It explained why he would get into so many fights, even with his friends, where his tempered rage would make him always the victor. Old Mary would warn him that such anger would not serve him well so she taught him to pray first before striking out in anger. “Pray that you do not hurt anyone. Pray that your anger does not overcome your goodness. Pray that the Lord protects you and takes care of your soul.”

“Soul?” Bill would think. “Maybe it’s true what those people say about me. Maybe it is true that I am just a well-trained animal. Maybe it’s true that I have no soul.” Still, before sleep every night all the Charltons would say their prayers and Bill too would say his; the prayers he would repeat every night of his life. “I pray that I have a soul. I pray that I have a soul.”


Day after Day, Year after Year, Century after Century,

Bondage without rest, Toil without reward.

These are the Children of Misery, the Afflicted, the Hopeless, the Oppressed.


Exodus, the Movie





Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.


Attributed to Frederick Douglass





There’s a lot of versions of the honest truth….


Graham Parker






Fire at the Smithsonian, January 25, 1865


“Papa, nooooo.” Anna cried out to her father, Joseph Henry, America’s greatest scientist. She had followed him to the upstairs room afraid for what he was about to do.

“Oh, Anna. I’m glad you’re here.” Joseph Henry replied calmly. “Someone should be here to witness.”

“There must be a better way to make your point. You told me that Jeff Davis himself wishes it all were different and that we could just live in peace.”

“I have done little to help my country and now it is late. Soon the war will be over and all will be lost. This is the only useful thing left for me to do.”

Joseph Henry was the caretaker of the Castle in Washington, which housed the entire Smithsonian Institution. He lived with his family in the downstairs apartment. He toured the entire structure daily obsessed with his fear that flaws in the construction of the building could lead to massive fire. He was convinced that the apartment would be safe from the conflagration that was soon to begin, soon to begin at his own hand.

A few months before, Confederate troops gathered in Alexandria for what was thought to be an assault on Washington. Joseph Henry climbed the extra staircase up to the top of the tallest tower of the Castle in an ill-fated attempt to establish a way to signal to his friend, Jefferson Davis, to help the Confederate cause. Joseph Henry was caught but spared due to the intervention of President Lincoln. Today he had a different mission. Joseph Henry hated living in the Castle. Against his strong objection, this room on the upper floor was recently opened to the public as an art museum, soon to be showing the brilliant portraits of Indian chiefs painted by John Mix Stanley. “They shall traipse through my house no more,” Joseph Henry said to Anna. Henry hated the art museum, hated John Mix Stanley, hated people, and hated much of what was passing for knowledge in America. “This will be a place for science as God intended.”

Joseph Henry found the book of poems written by Phillis Wheatley, which she brought to England in her unsuccessful attempt to sell her work. It was the only known copy still existing, and had been given to the Smithsonian by a Duchess of Northumberland. He went to the crates that contained many of the unpublished works of James Smithson, works that only he, as their caretaker, knew existed. He pulled out the only known copies of Smithson’s The Equality of the Races, and The Evils of Slavery, and a book that Smithson wrote with a former slave called The Worthy Life and Times of Bill Richmond. He threw them in the pile of books and papers that he was building in the center of the room.  “They told me this was to be a place of knowledge, not nonsense,” Joseph Henry muttered. “Teach slaves how to read and this is what happens. Look what America has come to. No one will know of this nonsense,” he said to Anna.

He removed the paintings of Indian chiefs that had already been hung on the walls and threw them in the pile. “They should burn just fine,” he said. “A fitting end for the savages.”

“Please, papa, not the paintings,” Anna implored. Joseph Henry was not listening.

James Smithson had been a scientist of little note until he bequeathed his fortune to America to establish a place “for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” A debate as to what that meant raged in Washington from the day the money arrived in America in 1838. In 1846, a young architect from New York, James Renwick, Jr., whose brilliant father was a friend of Joseph Henry, was brought to Washington to build a Norman castle in honor of the Northumberlands of England, of whom Smithson was thought to be a bastard son. Renwick’s vision was that the building would have many uses; laboratories for scientists, galleries for the arts, and lecture rooms for the curious. Those opposed to slavery also had another idea, that the Institution would serve their purposes by educating the nation on the evils of slavery. By the time Joseph Henry was appointed as the first Secretary of the Institution, the building was near completion. Joseph Henry immediately requested that it be torn down, to be replaced by a practical building of laboratories. He almost had his way but was thwarted by the Renwicks, who Henry grew to hate as well. Over the objection of Joseph Henry, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists spoke at the Smithsonian Institution and helped turn much of the nation against slavery, even as that brought the nation to certain war.

“Anna, see here how poorly this building was constructed. The other day the workman brought this stove to fight the chill and instead of venting it out the flue, they vented it into the attic. It would have started a fire then if I had not intervened. How I should have just let that happen. That is what you must tell your sister to put in her silly diary. The workers started the fire. A sad day for Washington indeed.”

“Oh, father, you mustn’t!” Anna pleaded to a stoic Joseph Henry.

“Savages,” he said, as he gathered embers from the stove and lit the waiting pile.



The Corcoran Gallery of Art

The Corcoran Gallery of Art

I wouldn’t read much into it, it’s progress knock it down, it’s the Last Bookstore in Town
Graham Parker

Learning and writing about Art and History are my serious hobbies. In fact, my main credential for writing this piece is that, like many other people, I am an avid museum goer and also a frequent tourist of Washington D.C. So when I read that the present plan concerning the Corcoran Gallery of Art is described as an act that would have been frowned on by William Corcoran, I could not help but to recoil. This allegation seems to ignore the basic facts of the situation as I understand them. While any change affecting any great institution is sad, my gut tells me that maybe this one is for the best.

I studied the life and times of William Corcoran and the beginnings of the Smithsonian Institution for three pieces I wrote, all of which now appear on this website  ( Dedicated To Art;Why Jackie Kennedy Saved the Renwick at; The Smithsonian Castle: An Allegory at and Follow the Money- The Legacy Perhaps of James Smithson at ). I read Corcoran’s self-published book and cited it. I am familiar with the documents creating  the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In fact, William Corcoran was dead when the present Corcoran Gallery of Art was built, and therefore he could not have any intention as to the present building. As to the art it contains, it seems to me that the plan as I understand it is more of a fulfillment of his wishes than a violation of them.

William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) was a dry goods store owner turned banker from Georgetown with untold influence in Washington DC. He made a fortune funding the Mexican American War in 1846-1848.  Although known to be sympathetic to the South in the years leading to the civil war, there is no evidence that Corcoran favored the institution of slavery. The best evidence depicts Corcoran as favoring the continued union of the states through the compromises on slavery and this may have led to his participation in the Mexican-American War. Corcoran was friendly with most powerful people in Washington including Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1846, Corcoran lent his considerable expertise to help build the Smithsonian Castle, a project abhorred by Henry. Joseph Henry wanted the Smithson bequest to fund pure science, but Congress felt that the building of the a large building which would contain a library, museum and art gallery was more in keeping with James Smithson’s unusual alternate residuary bequest “to the united states of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Henry denounced the Castle as a huge waste of money.


William Corcoran loved art and he collected art both for his personal collection and for the nascent Smithsonian Institution. He was probably using his own money for both collections as I have seen no evidence that he received a penny of the bequest monies before buying any art. When he retired from banking as a very wealthy man, Corcoran travelled to Europe with a note of introduction from Joseph Henry, who was becoming well known among scientific circles in Europe due to his groundbreaking scientific work. Corcoran returned from his 1855 trip with the beginnings of the nation’s first collection of art for public display. By this time, Joseph Henry was living in the Castle with his family and he was growing more irritated by the constant disruptions caused by the presence of a library and an art gallery. Corcoran, who lived nearby, kept many of his collected works in his home which, during the mid to late 1850’s, he freely showed to interested parties. As his collection expanded, and perhaps to accommodate Joseph Henry, Corcoran contracted with James Renwick, Jr., the architect of the Castle, to build an Art Gallery near his home. It was to be a structure “Dedicated To Art”, a phrase probably coined by Corcoran, and that was the inscription placed in its façade. This was the birth of the first Corcoran Gallery of Art which is now known as the Renwick Gallery of Art now part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Construction on the art gallery had begun in 1858. It was designed in Second Empire style, a Parisian architectural movement of the time. Although not nearly the size of its Parisian counterpart, the Gallery was dubbed “The American Louvre”, probably as a bit of promotion by Corcoran who showed a grand flair for the artistic and the dramatic. The building was near completion when the civil war broke out in 1861. Corcoran smartly sat out the war by travelling to Europe and his Gallery was taken by the Union Army and used as a supply depot until the war ended. It is unclear what happened to the artwork that Corcoran had collected…where it was stored and if it became further comingled, as obviously art was not the highest priority of the time. We do know that in 1865, the Smithsonian was to have an exhibit of the Native American portraits of John Mix Stanley. Joseph Henry blamed the preparation of that exhibit for the devastating fire of January 1865 which destroyed part of the Smithsonian and countless documents of scientific, historical and cultural significance, including most of the Stanley works and James Smithson’s personal papers. Henry, who never wanted the Castle to be a museum, used the fire as an excuse to jettison the library and the art museum, with many of the Smithsonian art works ultimately ending up in the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Upon returning to Washington after the war, Corcoran moved forward with the idea that an art museum was needed in Washington and in 1869, he deeded the Art Gallery and some of his works to the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, an entity he had set up and funded. Although the ownership of specific works in the collection may have been unclear, Corcoran was able to temporarily open the completed Gallery with massive fanfare in 1871. It later began its run as the first art museum in the new country. Corcoran continued collecting art and when he died in 1888 his art collection and that of the Corcoran Gallery proved too large for the building bearing his name. In 1897, a new building was constructed a few blocks away and it not only correctly took the name “Corcoran Gallery of Art” but also again used the inscription “Dedicated To Art” in its façade, as tribute to the vision of its original founder.

The 1869 deed for the first Corcoran Gallery of Art clearly conveys Corcoran’s purpose:

“…in the execution of a long cherished desire to establish an institution in Washington city, to be “dedicated to Art,” and solely used for the purpose of encouraging American genius, in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the “Fine Arts,” and kindred objects…”

Here Corcoran channels the language of the Smithson bequest but leaves no doubt that his building was to be “Dedicated To Art” and not to science or literature, perhaps freeing the Castle from those burdens. Corcoran specifically indicated that admission to the Gallery was to free of charge at least two days per week, a grand gesture of his intent that the inspiration provided by his Gallery might benefit even those who could not afford to pay admission. From the 1870’s to the 1890’s, his vision was fulfilled by the Gallery at Lafayette Square.

If William Wilson Corcoran’s vision was to have great art free and visible and accessible in Washington for the purpose of fostering American genius, he would be well pleased today. Between the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery of Art (currently closed for renovation), The Hirschorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Freer Gallery and the Sackler Gallery, the amount of phenomenal art one can see for free in Washington DC is unbelievable. Other art museums such as the Phillips Collection and, yes, the Corcoran Gallery of Art have contributed to my opinion that Washington DC is the premier city for art viewing in the world (note: as a native New Yorker even I am shocked by this admission; and yes, I have been to Paris and Rome and Florence and Amsterdam…Where is the American Art there?). Only in the National Gallery of Art can you stand in a room with 17 Cezannes…by yourself! I was in a room with more Vermeers than people! A Da Vinci that you don’t need binoculars to see! Don’t get me started on the American Art, from the Copleys to the Warhols…the genius is on display everywhere. And did I mention that most of it is FREE.

If I may digress, the wondrous thing about Washington for art lovers is that most of the tourists who go there, even those who might frequent the art museums of other cities, barely get to all the art museums. Americans and other tourists who have maybe a week to spend in Washington have their itineraries full of other things. Personally, my most poignant moment in visiting Washington was not in a museum, it was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where at 7 am a small group of tourists presumably from mainland China were admiring our 16thPresident and sharing their thoughts with each other in their native tongue. To my astonishment, one of them stood next to me on the place where Martin Luther King reestablished America’s Creed and as he looked out on the reflecting pool he said in near perfect English “Free at last, Free at last, great God almighty…we are free at last”. In my mind, somehow William Wilson Corcoran with his dedication to something great helped bring Washington to that moment, which still gives me goose bumps and brings a tear to my eye.

All of which brings me to where we are today. For me, ultimately the issue of the Corcoran Gallery is not so much about one man’s vision, it is not about a building and it is not even about art. It is about trust. Since I believe that the National Gallery of Art is the greatest art museum in the world and has helped establish Washington as the greatest city for art in the world, I trust that it will do right by the Corcoran collection.  Others who are against the plan may not share my trust, and perhaps I do not see all that they see or know all that they know.  I can only imagine how difficult it has been for the Corcoran Gallery of Art to function as an independent museum in a town that despite its incredible collections, is not really about art. That is the beauty of the Smithson Bequest and the Corcoran gifts…they have created something much greater than even they could have anticipated in a city that needs great art if only to counter the nonsense that is often associated with some of its other institutions. As times change and politics change and buildings rise and fall, it is the great ideas that move us forward as a civilization. Those ideas may be expressed in our founding documents, the speeches of our great leaders, the advancement in the sciences and in the great art of the world. I trust that this is a move forward and I suspect that William Wilson Corcoran would think so too.