Ted Kennedy, History Buff
By Thomas Fleming, Contributor
August / September 2010
As the first anniversary of Ted Kennedy’s death approaches, Thomas Fleming recalls the late senator’s fascination with American history and his desire to share that love with America’s children and his own family.
“Is there anyone you’d like to dedicate this book to?”
The voice on the telephone was my publisher, David Kane, president of American History Press. He was about to start printing copies of the 50th anniversary edition of the book that made me an historian, Now We Are Enemies: The Story of Bunker Hill.
For a moment I was back a half century, reading letters and diaries at the Massachusetts Historical Society, talking to people who had ancestors in this battle, which had made the American Revolution and independence possible. I was writing the first book on Bunker Hill in almost 100 years. Two World Wars had overshadowed the story of the nation’s founding. It had become a shadowy mix of myths and glittering phrases, unattached to the realities the men of 1775 had confronted.
I had been determined to change that grossly deficient mindset. To a considerable extent I succeeded. Now We Are Enemies had been glowingly reviewed in over sixty newspapers and magazines. The Chicago Sunday Tribune gave it the front page of its book review. It was a main selection of the Literary Guild and Reader’s Digest condensed it, winning the attention of an estimated 40 million readers.
Suddenly I had an answer to my publisher’s question. “I want to dedicate it to Senator Ted Kennedy.”
I could sense David Kane’s surprise. He was aware of the senator’s recent death, of course. But he did not realize Mr. Kennedy was part of a dimension of this book that was intimately linked with my identity as an Irish-American writer.
In my mind, I was back six years now – in 2004. I was picking up the telephone to hear a woman asking me a question: “Do you have a few minutes to talk to Senator Kennedy?”
“Of course,” I said.
In ten seconds the senator’s wonderful baritone, tinged with a rich Boston accent, was on the line. “Tom? David McCullough says you know more about the American Revolution than anyone else in the country. Would you like to take me and my wife and thirty or forty other Kennedys around Philadelphia and out to Valley Forge?”
The senator explained why he was doing this. As a boy, his grandfather John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the former mayor of Boston, used to take him around the city, from Old North Church to Faneuil Hall to Paul Revere’s house, and out to Bunker Hill where a soaring granite obelisk commemorated the battle. Honey Fitz filled young Teddy’s head with stories about the men and women who had made each place important. The senator had never forgotten the experience. Now he was the senior Kennedy and he was trying to pass on this tradition to the next generation. For more than a decade, he had been taking the family on these “history-trips.”
I told the senator how my interest in the Revolution had begun in Boston, with my book on Bunker Hill. I added how amazed I had been to discover that there were some 400 Irish Americans at Bunker Hill. Until I made this discovery, I had thought of the Revolution as a struggle between two groups of Englishmen. I added that my four grandparents were born in Ireland. “Now I know I’ve found the right guy!” Ted said.
A month later, I met Caroline Kennedy and her three children in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. We chatted for an hour or so about their interest in American history while waiting for the other Kennedys to arrive on a bus from Washington, D.C. I had read the collection of great American speeches that Caroline had edited — a superb piece of historical research, with vivid prose on every page. Several of the best speeches were by her Uncle Ted.
The senator and his wife soon arrived, along with the senator’s two sisters Eunice and Jean, and Ethel Kennedy with many of her grandchildren. We toured Independence Hall while I told stories about the Continental Congress and their struggle to find the courage to declare independence. I gave stumpy, eloquent John Adams credit for supplying a lot of that courage. I portrayed a Thomas Jefferson so anxious about his wife’s refusal to answer his letters that he almost went home and abandoned his rendezvous with history. I told how Jefferson’s great manifesto was read to the people on July 9, 1776 in the yard of the Philadelphia State House by Colonel John Nixon, son of Irish-born Richard Nixon.
I could see that the name Nixon made Senator Kennedy uneasy. “Tom,” he said. “Maybe you should point out those were good Nixons.” Though we were deep in the 18th century, the senator was still the senior spokesman of the Democratic Party.
We had lunch at the City Tavern, another historic site. Before the food was served I gave a talk, “Yankee Doodle with a Brogue,” about the Irish in the American Revolution. Everyone was amazed and delighted to learn that an estimated thirty-three percent of George Washington’s army was Irish. I told them about Commodore John Barry, “father of the American Navy,” who was from County Wexford.
I discussed at length one of my favorite characters, Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress and close friend of Ben Franklin. Born in County Derry, Thomson was known as “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia.”
When Parliament passed its first attempt to tax the Americans, the Stamp Act of 1765, a discouraged Franklin wrote Thomson from London that “the sun of liberty is set, and Americans must light the lamps of industry and economy.”
Thomson replied: “Be assured that we shall light torches of a very different sort.”
I added stories about the Irish at Bunker Hill, focusing on Colonel John Stark and his New Hampshire regiment, which had Irish names by the dozen on their muster list. Stark changed the course of American history by foreseeing the British plan — to attack along the Mystic River beach and assault the Bunker Hill fort from the rear. If they had succeeded, the Revolution would have collapsed.
Stark put two hundred of his best sharpshooters behind an improvised stone wall on the beach and cut this “flying column” to pieces. The dismayed British were forced to resort to a costly frontal assault on the fort and the men behind a rail fence at its base.
After lunch we boarded our bus for a visit to Valley Forge. On the way, I talked about the importance of George Washington and his regular army. They were the soldiers who had won the war. When the struggle began, Congress thought they could rely on militia — amateur soldiers called from their homes for a few months’ service. But they were often intimidated by Britain’s professional soldiers, backed by cannon and cavalry. Soon the militia grew reluctant to serve.
I told how the New Jersey militia had been called out in 1776 when Washington and his soldiers were retreating after their defeats in and around New York City. Only one thousand out of 17 thousand men on the state’s muster rolls had responded. The reason, Washington saw, was “the want of a regular army to look the enemy in the face.” Keeping regular American army in the war became the centerpiece of his strategy.
At Valley Forge, I had arranged for the younger Kennedys to be allowed to pick up and examine muskets and other artifacts at the Visitors Center. The boys had a marvelous time imagining themselves sniping at redcoats. I told how grim life had been at Valley Forge in 1778 — food had run short, uniforms and shoes had deteriorated. Over 300 officers had resigned and 2,000 men deserted to the British army, which was living in relative comfort in nearby Philadelphia.
But the ordeal had a marvelously happy ending — the arrival of the news that Ben Franklin had signed a treaty of alliance with France, making the most powerful nation in Europe our ally. I told how an ecstatic Marquis de Lafayette had rushed to Washington’s headquarters when he heard the news and kissed the startled commander in chief on both cheeks.
On the bus back to Philadelphia, Senator Kennedy was in a jovial mood. He told me how much they all had enjoyed the day. Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he asked: “Tom, I have a question about those sixteen thousand militia guys in New Jersey who didn’t turn out in 1776 — they were all Republicans, right?”
That was an easy question for an historian who had grown up with a father and grandfather who never voted anything but the straight Democratic ticket. “Senator,” I said. “I didn’t realize you’d been doing such deep research. Of course they were!” It was the perfect Irish-American ending to a day I would never forget.
I sat down at my computer and e-mailed the dedication of Now We Are Enemies to American History Press: “In memory of Senator Edward Kennedy, my favorite Bostonian and a fellow admirer of America’s Revolutionary heritage.”