In 1781, Jamie Stuart is a twenty-three-year-old soldier serving amongst Jews, free slaves, Catholics, Native Americans, and others grouped together in a “Foreign Brigade.” They are part of a larger Pennsylvania Line that is forced to fight without pay, re-enlist without end, and survive without basic provisions. Enslaved and abused, Stuart and his friends join the mutiny of the entire Pennsylvania Line against its officers, holding their superiors accountable to the principles promised by their developing nation. In The Proud and the Free, Fast brilliantly imagines a forgotten moment in American history that marked one of the nation’s earliest struggles for freedom against tyranny. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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The Proud and the Free
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1950 Howard Fast
All rights reserved.
Wherein I describe how it came about that I am telling this tale, which no other has told.
IT IS an uncertain thing when an old man sits down to write a tale of his youth, in the long ago; for even if he remembers well, his memory will be cold with time; and no matter how well he remembers, he is making a drama in which the players are dead and the scenes have been shifted....
I remember not so long ago that we were in New York and saw a production of King Lear, where Hammond Drice played the old man so well that I was moved to return the next day to tell him how much I understood, and how much I was touched by him. I would perhaps have gone backstage that same evening, but I was awed at the thought of the grand and glamorous personality of the actor – since we have no theater in York in Pennsylvania, where I still live – and I put it off until the next day. But the next day, my wife urged me to it and I went; for even if I was not at ease with large city things, I was twice representative in the State House, and never playing a stick of politics to get there, and once in Congress too, and the law I practiced was law in which I tried to find justice at least as much as I tried to find a living.
... But you see that already I am off and drifting, the way an old man drifts when he sets out to put down a simple sequence of events, and I mention this simply because the show had finished the next day. The flats were taken down and piled around the big, bare stage, and the costumes had that awful, deflated and lifeless look which comes to old-fashioned dress cast off and aside. Thereby, I lost all desire to meet any of those who had looked so gallant and fine under the bright lights of the evening before; and I went away as I had come, only a little sadder.
I said that was not so long ago, but it was six years, the way time passes, and in those years my wife and many other good friends passed away; so that more and more I get to feel that I, Jamie Stuart, have overstayed my leave. For that reason, with what strength I have for concentrating on so exhaustive a task, I would write down the one tale I have always meant to tell: the tale of the foreign brigades of Pennsylvania in the faraway days of my youth. I would write it down as nearly as I can in a truthful way; for I know of no one else but myself who remembers what took place in those old and trying times, and the story is one which should not be forgotten.
Well may you ask, Who is Jamie Stuart, that we should listen to him? And why should we be bored with the ramblings of these ancients, who will not consider that the world moves on?
It moves on, that I know; but a little from the old along with what is new, and there is the taste. Like those good Pennsylvania housewives who could never tolerate food wasted. In the corner of the stove they kept a pot of soup – and very good and peppery soup it was – and each day's leavings went into the next day's pot. So there was ever fresh soup for eating, but always a taste of the old as well.
And of myself, when my wife died and left me an old and lonely man of seventy-seven – I am past eighty now – I had little desire to live any more. It was less grief than a sort of absolute hopelessness. Day in and day out, I sat and counted the passing of time. Life is like a moment, and you can sit in the gathering cold and eat your heart out, if you are so minded; and that way I was sitting one night, filled with a sort of senile pity for myself, when there was a quick and angry hammering at the door. I went there and asked who it was.
Does Lawyer Stuart live here?
He lives here. He does live here. And this is Lawyer Stuart; and who the devil are you at this hour of the night?
Well, open the door and see, by God! We're on quick business, so would you yammer with us all night long?
I opened the door, because there was nothing much that I had to be afraid of, and if they wanted to rob an old man like myself, or break my head, why that was as good a way as any to put an end to the fright of sitting alone and waiting for death. Six of them there were altogether, two white and four black men, and the two white men carried guns. They were young, hard, quick-talking men who laid it right out in front of me that they were a part of the underground line for taking black men out of slavery in the South, and this was four of a group they were running through to the border of British Canada. Their regular contact was Pastor McGilcuddy and the manse of the Presbyterian church was their regular station; but a band of armed men from below the Virginia Line had broken a link of contact at some point and now were waiting for these at the manse; and what would I have? Would I have a bloody slaughter here in the peaceful village of York – for, as they said, they were determined not to give up their cargo without laying down their own lives first and making a real price of it – or would I grant them shelter for the night, a stable for their horses, and a chance to bind the links of their chain together again?
Come inside, I said, and don't stand outside there yelling, as if this were the first pot of tea you ever tipped over.
And all the while I was trying to straighten out in my mind the fact that the gentle and soft-spoken Pastor Lyton McGilcuddy was one of the Devil's brew of Abolitionists, and here were two more of them right in my own hallway, the first I had ever seen or spoken to in the flesh – that is, not counting the Pastor.
Who told you to come to me? I asked them, looking them up and down now and seeing that they were not much different from other men – dirty in boots and overalls and cotton shirts, with three days of beard on their cheeks, but otherwise plain-looking lads, and the black men behind them were tired and dirty and frightened too, but no menace in them; they brought back to me memories I had not dabbled with this long, long while – memories of other lads who had had a wild venture in freedom; and this you will see if you read through the tale I set down here.
... The Pastor, they answered; the Pastor, he said: When it comes to a pinch, go to the old man, Jamie Stuart.
Well, you have come to me, I said, so leave the black men here and go out and stable your horses....
It was that way that I fell in with them, and became one of the underground chain, a way station on it, a stopping place for men who fled through the nights for their freedom; and it is that way too that I, Jamie Stuart, an old man in the twilight of his life, have become a part of the little, hated – well-hated, well-loved – group of men and women who call themselves Abolitionists.
There is a tale – but for others to tell. I have a little bit of it, but I am an old, old man, and when I see the young ones come in and out of my home – when I see the black men, whom I see only for the moment, coming and going and bold for liberty – I am filled with a different kind of sadness than I had before. I want to know the end of this, and I realize that such knowledge is for others, not for me. Little use I am to them, crouched by the fire in the cold days, trying to warm the ache from my bones; but my house is theirs and all else that I have. In another way, I am joined to them, and it is of this other way that I would tell.
It has often seemed to me that while man cannot look into the future, he can make a good deal out of the past; and in my own past, there is an adventure not wholly without meaning. How many lies have been told about those times! But how many lies have been told about the young men who call themselves Abolitionists today! So it may be that if I look back, it will not only be the rambling memories of an old man, but a clue to that which lies ahead. Or so I tell myself.
In any case, there is no other left alive today – of whom I know – who can tell the tale of the great revolt of the foreign brigades.
They are all dead, my comrades, scattered like leaves to the four winds, and their time is dead with them. They were not men eager for growing old, for the winter of their lives came with the springtime; and the fruit I have tasted was not for them, but a more bitter fruit indeed. What a strength they had, that wasted away and went sighing off; and sometimes it seems that their cold bodies were filled with honey, such a swarm of activity and wealth arose from them!
They were soldiers, you know: the men of the Pennsylvania Line of the Continental Army, a rock for those strange and troubled times. I was one of them. Eleven regiments of us there were, hard soldiers of hard times; and I myself, Jamie Stuart, was master sergeant in the 11th Regiment. Originally, I was part of the 1st Regiment, and then I was only seventeen years old; but later on, when the 11th and last regiment was formed, they took me and Danny Connell, and made us sergeants in it; and there I was when the great rising took place.
Often enough, as time went past, as the war slipped into the faraway and everyone tried to forget and wanted to forget, I brooded over the circumstances of our revolt, so that I might extract some meaning from it. But the meaning apparently became more and more difficult to grasp. I found a way of life; I worked and studied and became a lawyer. Here, I said to myself, you have done this, Jamie Stuart, and therefore you are an outstanding man and unlike that devilish rabble that fought in the brigades – for where are they? Scattered like chaff, they are. But you, Jamie Stuart, you have reaped a real harvest and you have married your own sweet Molly Bracken and made a home and watched your children grow and blossom, and buried some children too, and tasted a little of this honor and that honor – and therefore what is right is right.
Could you also say that what is wasted is wasted, and that the dreams and the pains of the men I once knew were wasted? For when I was left alone in my old, old age, my life was bereft of meaning as well as companionship, and it was not until those two young men came to my door, and with them the four black men in flight, that I had a glimmering of a story unbroken and continuous.
That is why I have determined to set down my part in it, and the adventures which befell me in the year 1781, so that you may see some of the meaning of the eleven foreign brigades which stood for the country of Pennsylvania in the old times, before there was such a union as we have today.
* * *
I must tell something of myself first and of my beginnings, so that I may establish a part of the logic I believe in; for I believe that neither in the lives of men nor in the lives of nations is there a lack of reason. This is a matter I once discussed with a very wise man, a physician in Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush by name, and it was he who first said to me that given sufficient facts and a truthful method to apply them, almost anything is knowable. And this I intend to do, putting down a narrative of our adventure as well as I can recall it.
Of myself, I must say to begin that I was born here in this same place where I will, in all probability, end my life – in the village of York in Pennsylvania. I was born in the year 1759, out of a mother and father who had been bound over as servants from Glasgow in the old country. I am not ashamed to state this, for my mother and father were good and honest people, for all that they were held in chattel slavery for a matter of twelve years. Nor am I ashamed to say that I was born out of parents who were slaves. It is the habit of thinking today that only black men are slaves or fit for slavery, such a proud and arrogant fetish have we made of our own freedom. But we know little enough today of the purchase price of this freedom, and, in my childhood, many of white skin were slaves, as well as those whose skin was black.
My mother was a MacAndrews of the Highlands, the daughter of a poor crofter; my father was a weaver by trade and a free man until he took sick with a condition that made it impossible for him to use his fingers for some months – nor did he ever regain the full dexterity of them. Because of this, to avoid death by starvation for my mother and himself, they both of them sold themselves into bond slavery in America for a sabbatical, or seven years. But when costs and sick charges and birth charges were added, it came to twelve years that they labored for their freedom on a Virginia plantation, and in that time, a boy and a girl were born to them, both of whom died. When they gained their freedom, they came to York, where my father thought he would set up a loom and go back to his trade of weaving, and there I was born; but my mother's labor over me gave her a lesion which killed her in two years. For the next eight years, my father raised me as best he could, which meant that without a mother's care I ran like an animal in the woods and the streets. Then he died of smallpox, and, ten years old, I was an orphan in the world.
So I was an orphan, without father or mother, and all the wealth I got from them you could press into a thimble. Nor had I letters or anything of that kind, for this was before Pastor Bracken took a fancy to me and taught me to read and write.
My father was in the church, so the Presbyterian elders had me before them and they said: Well, Jamie, here you are, alone in the world by God's mercy, without kith of kin to lend you a hand, and what do you think of your future?
I'll be a robber, I answered, which seemed to me to be the only practical way of keeping body and soul together, and already I had had some indication that unless a little thievery was mixed in with an honest man, he did less than well in the world.
The elders, however, were unimpressed. They pointed out to me that this was hardly the attitude for me to take, if I hoped to be adopted into some good, God-fearing home, and they also pointed out that the likelihood of such was not too great, considering how my father had let me grow up. I stood in front of them, my toes coming out of my shoes, my knees coming out of my pants, my elbows coming out of my sleeves – a ragged, bony, unprepossessing little boy, I suppose; and to this day I remember well my bitterness and resentment against them, those pious, hard-jawed, sharp-nosed trustees of the Almighty who were sitting in judgment upon a lad of ten summers. A Scottish pout, they were thinking of me, no doubt, a wild one, an animal like all the young of the miserable Highland beggars and gillies who thought that gold was turned up at every step in the new country. My speech in those times was thick and broad and their own was sharp and narrow. So they looked at me as at some insect, and my own heart was full of repayment in kind.
Do what you will with me, I said to myself, but never will I rest with what my mother and father had, going to their graves in such sorrow! Do it and be damned!
I went home and lay down alone in the little shack my father had rented, with his loom and his bench and the two or three sticks of furniture he had in the world, none of it mine but all of it in pawn for back rent. And the next day I was called to Stephan Dobkin, the church head; and with him was Fritz Tumbrill, the cobbler, a monstrously large and fat man, pig-eyed, with a rolling collar of his own flesh in which his head sat like a pudding in gravy.
Here is good Master Tumbrill, and he has agreed to take you in and keep you for apprenticeship and teach you the trade, said Stephan Dobkin. Such is the charity of Jesus Christ, our own Master, he said, and God help you if you should ever prove ungrateful.
My father's trade was weaving! I cried. I'll be a weaver and no damned shoemaker!
So I learned my first lesson in the weight of Fritz Tumbrill's hand and the nature of his ethics. From the floor where he sent me with his blow, I listened to his instructions on language to be used in his presence and in his household.
Thus I went to serve him and to learn cobbling, and a full sabbatical I served before I threw his leather apron in his face and walked out to join the 1st Regiment of Pennsylvania, then being raised to march north and help the farmers in the siege of Boston town. I mention this because in the narrative I propose to tell, concerning what befell myself and my comrades in the winter of 1781, you may be moved to ask, now and again, How does one account for these men? What made them and what moves them, and why do they endure what they endure?
Excerpted from The Proud and the Free by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1950 Howard Fast. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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