“I smell revolution in the air.”
A match flared. Light splashed on a face browned and weathered by a lifetime in the sun. The tobacco in the bowl of the man’s pipe took hold of the flame and burned orange. Beside him a short, plump figure, little more than a silhouette in the night, took a pinch of snuff.
The two men, dressed for a formal dinner, stood beneath a strip of stars in a Philadelphia alley. Bright light and the sounds of a banquet spilled out a door left open a crack.
“What do you make of Minister Genet?” asked the shorter man. “He’s an interesting individual, isn’t he?”
“The man’s got the pulse of the nation racing, that’s for sure,” said the captain. “Just look at what’s happened since he arrived twenty-eight days ago. Artillery salvos. Jacobin clubs springing up all across the nation. His journey here from Charleston was one long string of toasts, ovations, and fraternal hugs. I tell you, rebellion’s in the wind.”
A roar of applause erupted from the banquet room. A second later a heavily accented French voice sang:
Liberty! Liberty, be thy name adored forever,
Tyrants beware! Your tott’ring thrones must fall;
Our int’rest links the free together,
And Freedom’s sons are Frenchmen all.
A second round of applause, twice as loud as the first, erupted from the hall, followed by a drunken shout for a toast to Madame Guillotine.
“To Madame Guillotine!” the guests shouted.
The captain motioned to the door as evidence of his point. “See what I mean?”
“I recognize that glint in your eye. You have something in mind, don’t you?”
The captain’s pipe had gone out. He relit it. “A new government.”
The matter-of-fact way in which he said it made the statement all the more shocking.
The squat man’s mouth hung open. “You’re not serious.”
From his coat pocket the captain drew a folded sheet of paper. “Found this on the street.” He handed it over. “They’re all over Philadelphia.”
The shorter man unfolded the paper. He let loose a low chuckle.
The handbill had a drawing, a woodcut of George Washington being led to a guillotine.
“I understand Jefferson himself would pull the rope,” said the short man.
“To applause louder than anything we’ve heard tonight.”
“You’re serious about this?”
“To quote Mr. Jefferson, ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ ”
From the street came huzzahs and applause.
“Sounds like the party is breaking up,” said the captain.
As the two men entered the street from the alley, they saw that a surprising number of people were gathered in front of the banquet hall to wait for Citizen Genet of France to make an appearance.
The street exploded with more cheers and huzzahs as Genet appeared. The steps to the hall formed a natural platform with a wrought-iron railing.
Genet raised his arms to quiet the crowd. “Merci! Merci! Merci!”
The assembly hushed.
“It warms my ’eart to see that Americans love liberty az much az zee French love liberty!”
People cheered and waved French and American flags.
“I only wish your President Washington could be counted among us. But, alas, I fear ’e cannot.”
Catcalls and boos replaced the cheers.
Genet nodded his agreement. “It saddens my ’eart that your Prezeedent Washington eez not zee crusader of freedom that ’istory ’as painted ’im. For I spoke with ’im this afternoon, and what did I find? An old man and an enemy to liberty!”
“I expected I would meet a man of zee people. Instead, I met a man who would make ’imself king!”
The crowd erupted into a frenzy.
“You do not want this?” Genet shouted.
“Nooooooo!” they shouted with one voice.
“Then what do you want?”
“Liberty! Liberty! Liberty! Liberty!”
“Don’t tell me!” Genet cried. “Tell your prezeedent!”
The crowd moved with a single mind. It was an amazing and terrifying sight.
The two men followed the raucous mob past Independence Hall to High Street and a three-story structure that was considered the grandest house in Philadelphia. It was now the working residence of the president of the United States.
The mood of the crowd grew angrier as it reached the front of Washington’s house. Bottles were thrown at windows. Men took turns running up to the front door and banging on it. One man shouted that they should storm the house and drag the president into the street. While there was plenty of verbal agreement to the plan, for the moment the people seemed content just to make noise.
Not even a curtain in the house rustled in response.
The captain observed from a safe distance. “They still have a taste for revolution in their mouths.”
“What do you propose?” His compatriot had to shout to be heard over the crowd.
“All they need is a little encouragement, and streets will run with blood. Then after a time, when they’ve had their fill, they’ll be ready for a new government. Only this time it won’t favor the Boston merchants.”
The short man agreed. “Are you certain you want to do this? It would mean coming out of retirement.”
The captain shrugged. “Greenfield is too quiet and too far from the sea. Do you think the others will join us?”
While the short man mulled over his answer, he dipped a second helping of snuff. “They’d grab their muskets and march on Boston themselves if it meant wrestling control from Hamilton and his friends.”
The captain smiled. “We’ll assemble in New Haven.”
His friend nodded. “When I contact them, what’ll I tell them?”
The captain studied the mob that clamored for George Washington’s head. “Tell them we’re going to start a second American revolution. Only this time we’re going to do it right.”
Asa gulped at the sound of his name, his prayers having gone unanswered.
He’d prayed that this moment would never come—that the two fellows preceding him would jabber the class away and there wouldn’t be time for a second disputation. He’d prayed that the administrators would conclude that class disputations were inhumane and strike them from the Yale curriculum, giving him a last-minute reprieve. He’d even prayed that the Lord would return and time would be no more.
“Rush? Is there a problem?” Jacob Benson, the tutor, asked.
“No sir. I’m . . .”
Hugh Backhouse and William Park took their seats, grateful to relinquish the front of the classroom to someone else. On the topic “Was Samson a Self-Murderer?” their give-and-take had been far from spirited. Asa had been more entertained watching wood warp. Even so, he’d pretended to be interested, even offering a comment—something about Samson maybe believing he might survive the crush of the massive temple columns. But it was nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to prolong the proceedings in hopes there would be insufficient time for a second disputation today.
“We’re waiting, Rush.”
Benson was a lean fellow. Thin as a rail stretched between two posts. Only instead of posts, he was stretched between two chairs. Amiable, friendly, and brilliant, Benson had graduated from Yale two years previous. He spoke with a French accent, even though his family hailed from Westerly, Rhode Island.
Under the tutor’s gaze Asa slid out of his chair, uncertain whether his trembling knees would buckle under his weight. This was his first disputation at Yale, and he wanted to make a good impression. But the odds were against him. He had so little natural talent at his disposal.
Look up the word average in the dictionary, and it would say, “Synonym: Asa Rush.” Every time he saw his reflection, he was reminded of how unremarkable he was. Short brown hair. A round face. Common nose. Not thin. Not fat. Not short, but not tall either. There was nothing remarkable about him. He did not have the regal bearing of a George Washington, the brilliant mind of a John Adams, or the poetic nature of a Thomas Jefferson—the men who most inspired him. Instead, he figured that by the age of forty, he would be potbellied and bald like Benjamin Franklin . . . without the wit.
What chance did average have in an academic setting that produced the likes of Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight, who had been Asa’s mentor while he was at Greenfield in Connecticut? Dwight had known enough Latin at eight years of age to pass the Yale College entrance examination and had been admitted into the college when he was thirteen. He was the current president of the school.
Four other Yale graduates who had disputed where Asa was scheduled to dispute had gone on to sign the Declaration of Independence. So what were the administrators thinking, letting someone as average as he into the college anyway? It had taken him three attempts to pass the Latin requirement for entrance. If he had any sense, he’d turn toward the back of the room, walk out the door, and keep walking until he was back at Greenfield.
The front of the classroom beckoned, needing a body to fill the void.
This morning, when he’d pictured himself standing in front of his peers, he was confident, eloquent. He marshaled his facts, lined them up in strategic fashion, and drilled them until they responded at the speed of thought. He’d been impressive, even witty.
But somewhere between Connecticut Hall and class, his well-drilled facts had scattered in every direction, and his wit had deserted him. Consequently, his goal changed. No longer did he hope to impress. Now he hoped to survive.
The plan was simplicity itself.
Say what you have to say.
Sit down and live to see another day.
But now that Asa’s time had come, his lesser goal seemed lofty and unattainable. He would have sold his birthright just to be able to take a deep breath.
“Courage, Citizen Rush,” said the tutor from the back of the room. “This is a disputation, not an execution. You have the appearance of a man mounting a scaffold to Madame Guillotine!”
The class laughed. Asa laughed with them. Not a real laugh, mind you, but some alien sound he didn’t recognize that gurgled in his throat.
“Cooper, get up there with him,” the tutor said. “Show him how it’s done.”
His opponent in this dispute, Eli Cooper, slipped out of his seat and strode to the front of the class with smooth, easy strides, his second-year camblet gown rustling with each step. A native of Kentucky, Eli Cooper was tall and broad-shouldered. His cheeks creased handsomely when he smiled, which was often. Asa, a robeless first-year student, had seen Cooper on campus. They had not been introduced yet, but the Kentuckian appeared to be someone Asa would like to have as a friend.
In his science class Asa learned that physical bodies attract one another. That fact came to mind at this moment because it was the sole way to explain how he found himself in front of the class. The body of Eli Cooper must have pulled him there.
From the back of the room, tutor Jacob Benson addressed the class. “The question for dispute is this: Were the religious revivals of this century of God or of men? Asa Rush has been assigned to defend the position they were of God. Eli Cooper, the position they were of men. As usual, each man will make a statement, after which the dispute will begin. Rush will go first.”
Asa tugged at his shirt as though it didn’t fit. He licked his lips, which had become parched. He summoned his opening thoughts to present themselves for duty but, cowards that they were, they remained in hiding in some dark corner of his mind.
He had to say something.
His training came into play. Restate the question of the dispute. That would give him extra time to coax his thoughts out into the open.
Just as Asa opened his mouth to utter his first sound, a student he didn’t know leaned over to another student sitting next to him and said in a voice too loud, “Poor devil. Whose mother did he murder to draw such an awful position to defend?”
The class laughed.
“Whittier, wait your turn,” said the tutor. But his grin revealed that he appreciated the humor as much as anyone.
The attitude behind the comment did not surprise Asa. He had known his Christian beliefs would be challenged. Although founded by ministers, Yale had forsaken its spiritual roots. Asa was one of four men on campus who held to traditional Christian beliefs.
“Like Daniel walking into the lions’ den,” someone at church had warned him.
“Not so,” Dr. Timothy Dwight had countered. “It’s much worse than that. Lions are brute beasts. Asa will be facing an adversary far more crafty but just as deadly. A better analogy would be Jannes and Jambres, the magicians in Pharaoh’s court who could charm snakes and win the Pharaoh’s ear and enslave a nation.”
Dr. Dwight, the new college president, was the reason Asa had applied to Yale. A conservative preacher, Dr. Dwight made no secret of the fact he was looking to recapture the spiritual ground that had been lost at the institution. To do so, he needed soldiers.
Asa had enlisted. Contrary to what the classroom wag had just said, Asa welcomed the challenge to defend the acts of God in colonial history. What they didn’t know was that he had a secret weapon for this dispute.
If only he didn’t have to stand in front of so many eyes when he used it.
He cleared his throat. “Events of . . . the decades . . . no, wait.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. Why did the same mind that hummed like a well-oiled machine alone in his room chug and start fitfully under public scrutiny?
“T-take . . . taking up the subject on general grounds, I—I mean, we—ask whether the religious revivals of this present century were of God or . . . of m-man. It is clear, once all the facts are assembled, that . . . it is not only reasonable, but . . . um, p-prudent, to conclude that the revivals were from God.”
Asa’s opening statement was painful for both speaker and listener, he knew. Yet somehow he managed to assemble the facts of his
argument—that in response to the influence of the declining morals of England, God had raised up men of courage to call the Colonies back to God. Men like Cotton Mather, Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent. And God blessed their efforts with the unmistakable outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
“So while human agency played a part—for that, um, is how God chooses to w-work in both the written record and verbal accounts that have been passed down to us, without blush or shame—the events in question are uniquiv—unquivic—” Asa paused, searching for another word. “Undeniably, from God.” Taking a half step back, he exhaled, letting his knotted shoulders slump.
He looked at the other students. Many of them were occupied by their own thoughts. Some scribbled on paper or in the margins of their books. A few watched him, as if expecting him to continue.
“Uh . . . that’s all.”
Eli Cooper stood to Asa’s left, facing him, arms folded. Saying nothing, he stared at Asa. He didn’t move. He didn’t even blink.
Asa nodded to indicate he was finished.
Asa motioned with a hand.
Eli continued to stare.
So Asa said, “I’m . . . done. Your turn.”
Eli Cooper turned to address his peers. “Do not be swayed by my opponent’s eloquence. God had little, if anything, to do with the events of the so-called revivals of the 1730s and 1740s.”
The classroom came apart at the seams with laughter. Asa’s face burned.
With a strong voice Cooper continued: “The events of those decades are a shameful smudge on our nation’s colonial history, the calculated invention of a band of unscrupulous New England ministers in an attempt to revive, not the people, but a dying Puritan religion that had been their bread and butter for almost a century.
“Facts? My worthy opponent dares to call his offering facts? I’ll give you facts:
“Fact. Upon careful scrutiny the so-called Great Awakening was not that great, and it failed to awaken much of New England. The geography of recorded revival events is checkered at best. While enthusiasm ran high in the Connecticut Valley, it was barely visible along the Hudson River Valley. In fact, one minister wrote, following the preaching of George Whitefield, that he could observe no further influence upon his people than a general thoughtfulness about religion. Had God shunned them?
“Fact. The so-called fires of revival spread where promoters of revival set them. The celebrated Mr. Whitefield followed a planned preach-and-print strategy. He employed a man by the name of Seward, who was a skilled and aggressive publicist, a stockjobber in London whose advertisements bore the same hyperbolic stamp as those he later placed for Whitefield. New England was papered with Mr. Whitefield’s sermons. I suppose Mr. Rush would have us believe that the very printing presses Mr. Whitefield used were possessed by the Holy Spirit!”
“Fact. In a popular handbook on how to promote revival through preaching, Isaac Watts stresses style and substance while using the art of oratory. Watts encourages would-be revival preachers to exert power over men’s fancies and imagination. He urges them to practice his prescribed methods until they can rouse and awaken the cold, the stupid, and the sleepy race of sinners. I ask you, why would an all-powerful God need to stoop to rhetorical tricks to spark the fires of revival, when in the Bible He managed to communicate well enough through the mouth of an ass? Or is it possible that, during the time in question, God used the same method as He did with Balaam?”
“Fact. While the revivalist historians are fond of portraying the revivals as unifying in nature, they were nothing of the kind, as the battle between Old Lights and New Lights attests. Indeed, the revival drove a wedge between churches, and between members and clergy within churches. Moreover, in that day, anyone who dared call attention to the harmful side of the revivals was singled out, harassed, humiliated, and vilified. This by so-called ‘renewed and refreshed souls’ within the revival movement.
“No, gentlemen. The revival was not of God. Generated by men, its fruit resembles nothing Mr. Rush and others would have you believe. Every aspect of the so-called fire from God can be explained away in natural and economic terms. It was nothing more than a combination of events, such as the increasing population of the Colonies, the growing number of printing presses, the increasing circulation of newspapers, and the rhetorical theatrics of a handful of men who were attempting to breathe new life into a dead religion. That, gentlemen, is the true history of the 1730s and 1740s.
“As for the Holy Spirit? All I can say is that there was little holy and nothing spiritual about those days.”
Eli Cooper stepped back and folded his hands behind him, signifying he was finished.
The other students in the room stared with slack jaws. Not a one of them was dozing or staring out the window. No one was scribbling mindlessly in the margins of their books. To the man, they leaned forward, eager to hear more.
Which was fine with Asa. He intended on giving them more. He, too, had been impressed with Eli Cooper’s rendition. The rendition, but not the facts. Cooper’s interpretation of events had goaded Asa to action. It was time to bring out his secret weapon.
The tutor cued him. “Citizen Rush, care to respond?”
But Benson didn’t mean it. The half grin on his face warned Asa that he’d be a fool to take this any further. The tutor—probably because this was Asa’s first disputation—was being generous, providing a way of escape.
With a nod and a sigh, Asa returned to his chair, the same chair that had been his secure island of anonymity moments before. Only he didn’t sit down. Reaching under the chair, he pulled an old leather-bound volume from his haversack.
Returning to the front, where a grinning Eli Cooper awaited him, Asa said, “I . . . have in my possession a journal. A firsthand account of revival events on the dates in question.”
He opened the journal to reveal page after page of elegant old-school penmanship. At that moment something happened. Just holding the book seemed to calm him. Seeing the words on the pages gave him courage. It was as though the spirit of the journal’s author had come to his aid, and Asa was not alone.
“This journal describes in detail the spiritual condition of the town of Havenhill, before and after revival.” To his amazement, he spoke without stuttering. “The author of the account, Josiah Rush, my grandfather, describes the town as once happy and productive. However, having become infected with a spiritual malady that he termed soul sickness, the people became unhappy and unproductive. They lost the joy of living, the joy of relationships. Josiah Rush prayed for them, and after much prayer he recorded how the Great Physician cured the entire town. He relates that the change in them was so swift, so remarkable, that there could be no other explanation than that God did it. God, gentlemen. For no man can in a single meeting transform the hearts of an entire town so dramatically and so completely.”
“Nonsense,” Eli Cooper said. “It’s an old preacher’s trick, perfected by Solomon Stoddard and passed down to his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, who freely published it among the Colonies. It’s a simple method. First you prepare the people by telling them the signs of revival so they will recognize the visitation of God when it comes. According to Stoddard, these signs are threefold: the quickening of the saints, sinners converted in an extraordinary way, and the unconverted growing more religious. Notice how general these signs are, gentlemen.
“Then, having set the stage, you warn the people to be vigilant for these signs and to alert others if you should happen to see them, for no one should miss out on proclaiming the Acceptable Year of the Lord! Now, what do you suppose happens after that? The dear saints, eager for a visitation of God, primed and vigilant, will see signs of revival everywhere! And if they don’t see them, they’ll fabricate them! I daresay a people so primed and eager could look under their beds and see revival among the dust balls!”
Laughter ripped through the room.
“You weren’t there!” Asa shouted at Eli Cooper. “You couldn’t know. How easy it is to malign something you neither saw nor could comprehend!” He held up the journal. “This is the faithful record of an eyewitness to history!”
“Voltaire,” Eli said.
“What?” What did a French philosopher have to do with anything? Asa wondered. “My grandfather . . .”
Asa waited for Eli to continue.
Eli just looked at him.
So Asa continued. “This record of revival is penned by an educated man. A man without guile. A man who . . .”
Asa waited for more.
All he got from Eli Cooper was a grin.
“My grandfather, Reverend Josiah . . .”
Eli stared back.
Asa narrowed his eyes. “If you have something to say, say it!”
Eli bowed. “Thank you for asking.” Turning to the assembled students, he said, “Let me tell you about Reverend Josiah Rush. Something that his grandson would not want you to know. He was an arsonist. Preaching by day, setting fires by night.”
Asa recoiled as though slapped. “He was not! Those charges . . .”
“There used to be a saying in Havenhill: where there’s smoke, there’s Josiah Rush.”
Asa was beside himself. The dispute was now personal. His family honor was at stake. “My grandfather . . .”
Hands on hips, Asa cried, “My grandfather . . .”
Asa had had enough. “Would you be so kind as to . . .”
“I put it to you, citizens!” Eli Cooper boomed. “Given two testimonies, who would you believe? That of a preaching arsonist, or the great Voltaire, who said: ‘Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.’ Gentlemen, if ever there was a history of crimes and misfortunes, it is the history that we have been led to believe was a Great Awakening!”
Asa opened his mouth to reply, but he was outvoiced by a roomful of students who were on their feet:
The dispute was over, and there was no doubt who the popular winner was. Some of the students were standing on their chairs. Even tutor Jacob Benson had unfolded his long legs and was on his feet, caught up in the chaos, his fist pumping the air, his voice one with the masses.
Asa stood alone.
Then, as if his victory was not yet complete, Eli shouted over the din, “And what do we do to those who perpetuate the evils of our past?”
“Off with their heads!” someone shouted.
Everyone took up the chant.
“Off with their heads!”
“Off with their heads!”
“Off with their heads!”
Asa knew they didn’t mean him. They were just giving voice to the popular sentiment of the day to all things French. At least, that’s what he hoped they were doing.
But as the chanting continued, the faces of the men in the room changed, as though a dark cloud overshadowed them. Their voices sharpened to an edge, the kind that turns a crowd into a mob. It was as though evil was egging them on, looking for the slightest excuse to let loose the dogs of destruction.
At that moment Asa Rush knew his days at Yale College would be more perilous than he’d ever dreamed.