By JAMES HUTSON
In the spring of 1999, John W. Kluge, chairman of the Library's James Madison Council, confided to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington that he had learned of a manuscript collection in a Scottish castle that might contain important new information about American history. Kluge told Billington that he had recently been entertained at Ballindalloch Castle (in Banffshire, northwest of Aberdeen) by his friends, the Laird of Ballindalloch, Clare Macpherson-Grant Russell and her husband, Oliver Russell, who had mentioned to him that the castle tower contained papers of an ancestor–a British Army officer–who had been active in 18th-century America. The Russells indicated to Kluge that they would welcome the advice of Library of Congress experts about the significance of the collection.
In due course, this author was dispatched to Ballindalloch Castle on behalf of the Library to examine what turned out to be the archives of Gen. James Grant (1722-1806), the first British governor of East Florida, 1763-1771, and an officer who served in increasingly responsible commands in the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. The Grant papers, it was immediately apparent, were a remarkably rich trove which provided an abundance of fresh information about a number of significant episodes in the administrative and military history of the future United States during the Revolutionary Era.
In the interests of scholarship, the Russells generously consented to transfer the James Grant Papers to the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh, where officials agreed to house and microfilm them. Robert Clyde, an expert in 18th-century Scottish history, was engaged to organize the collection and oversee its filming. Madison Council member Jay Kislak of Miami Lakes, Fla., a distinguished collector of pre-Columbian and early American artifacts and documents, agreed to fund the filming. The project has now been completed, and the Library has received 50 reels of microfilm representing more than 12,000 items in the James Grant Papers, conveniently organized for consultation by researchers.
James Grant joined the British Army in 1741, rose to the rank of major general in the 1770s, and was on the army payroll as late as 1805, the year before his death. Grant fought in America throughout the French and Indian War. He Apriled with Gen. Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne in 1755 and was captured, trying to cover Braddock's retreat. Although his records are silent about his comrades during this campaign, he must have encountered the young Virginia militia officer, George Washington, against whom he later fought in 1776 and 1777.
Grant was back in action in 1757 with the First Highland Division. As the "youngest lieutenant colonel in the American Army," Grant was ordered from Nova Scotia to South Carolina in 1761 to command an expeditionary force against the Cherokee, whom he reduced to terms by destroying their crops and driving about "5000 People including Men Women & Children starving in the Woods." The Cherokee campaign is well documented in Grant's papers as are his subsequent military activities. Grant's chastisement of the Cherokee served him well in later negotiations with the Creeks in Florida who preferred to stay on the good side of the man they called the "Cornpuller."
Grant shared the British regulars' scorn for the American troops with whom he served in the French and Indian War. He regaled British audiences with anecdotes belittling the Americans: "tis not astonishing," he recalled in 1775, "they were sickly–for they had their Provisions in one Corner of the Tent, a Barrel in the other which served for a necessary house which likewise for a Table, when the Head was put upon it." In notes for a speech before Parliament in 1775, Grant related that American soldiers marveled at "those Heathens the Regulars–they drink, they whore, they swear and they live–we don't drink, we don't whore, we don't swear but we pray and we dye."
Grant, on the other hand, was not so blinded by contempt for the Americans that he lost all perspective. "I don't mean to say," he told Parliament, "that the Americans from their numbers may not become formidable and I don't mean to say that they cannot be made soldiers. But I say Sir they are not soldiers at present and I should be sorry upon their account and ours that we had the making of them."
In 1763, Grant was appointed governor of East Florida, which Spain ceded to Britain at the Peace of Paris and which Britain retroceded to Spain in 1784. The Grant papers profusely document every aspect of the British settlement of East Florida and will be an indispensable source of information for all students of Florida history. When Grant arrived in St. Augustine in August 1764, with an entourage that included three French-trained chefs, he found "a New World in a State of Nature," which he energetically tried to transform into a thriving outpost of the British Empire. Throughout his tenure, Grant relied heavily on South Carolina for supplies, settlers and capital. East Florida was, in many respects, a satellite of the older colony to the north and, as a result, the Grant papers are filled with information about its politics and commerce. Of special note are the close relations Grant established with a future president of the American Continental Congress, Henry Laurens, who is represented in the Grant papers by more than 75 letters, many as long as eight pages and some containing bills for the sale of slaves in whom Laurens trafficked.
Grant's principal problem, as he saw it, in developing East Florida was the numerous gargantuan properties awarded to absentee proprietors by their political cronies in Britain. To encourage settlement, Grant resolved to set an example himself by becoming a "spur to people who I thought slow and dilatory." In practice, this resulted in Grant's establishment in 1769 of an indigo plantation, manned by a troop of 70 black slaves, which within two years was producing an annual profit of £1000 sterling. Others imitated Grant's initiative, as he hoped they would, and Floridians were soon producing a high-grade cash crop. As settlement began to increase, Grant believed that the success of the colony was assured, reporting to the Board of Trade that East Florida "has done more in [my] time, than any Continental Province ever did since the first establishment of the British Empire in America."
Whether Grant's East Florida was, in fact, a success has been the subject of much historical debate. Bernard Bailyn has recently criticized the colony's leaders for failing to develop a population of yeoman farmers. Grant would have welcomed industrious freeholders, but the free men and women who turned up in East Florida were, in his view, a contemptible rabble. White frontiersmen living off the land he derisively dismissed as "crackers." Individuals imported by various entrepreneurs were all too often the dregs of Britain's "gin lanes": "Sinkboys, Bunters, Cinder wenches, whores and pickpockets." The thousand or so Greeks whom Andrew Turnbull planted at his exotic New Smyrna settlement were a cut above the blighted British immigrants, but Grant, who diligently tried to help these "Minorcans," was never optimistic about their chances. To the general, it was axiomatic that "Africans are the only people to go to work in warm climates" and, therefore, he saw the future of East Florida as a plantation economy based on the enslavement of blacks.
The wealth of documentation in the Grant papers about the population and economy of East Florida will permit readers to reach their own conclusions about the fortunes of the infant province. At a minimum, they will conclude that the colony was not a somnolent wasteland, presided over by a "commissioner of the mildew," as a clever but misinformed earlier historian labeled Grant.
Grant left Florida in 1771 for treatment in London of a "bilious fever," doubtless brought on by years of high living (he presided over revels that routinely lasted until four in the morning). His health restored, Grant returned to America with the British Army in 1775 and was stationed initially in Boston, where he occupied John Hancock's house. Grant entertained with his customary gusto. "General Grant," wrote a comrade, "is going on in the old style–keeping the best table in the army–and seeing a good deal of company." In Grant's case conviviality was not inconsistent with military competence, as his performance in August 1776 as commander of the British left wing at the smashing victory over the Americans at Long Island attested. The next year Grant was in the thick of the campaign in the middle colonies, commanding the British right wing at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. By far the most intriguing military documents in the Grant papers relate to the American victory at Trenton, Dec. 26, 1776, and to the subsequent action at Princeton. Grant was the British theater commander in the Trenton area and, after "the cursed Affair happened," he explained to his superiors that he "had certain Intelligence the 24th at eleven at night of the Rebels intended attack" which he communicated to the Hessian commander, Johann Rall, at Trenton who received the information "the 25th at five o Clock in the evening." Yet Rall took no action and surrendered his whole command to Washington the next morning–an "infamous Business" that Grant could "not account for."
Grant's reports on the battle of Trenton raise several questions, the most urgent of which is the identity of the spy in Washington's inner circle. Grant explained that "No Man in America knows the Channel through which it [the intelligence] came," and there appears to be no clue to the puzzle in other espionage reports from British spies in the Grant papers.
The debacle at Trenton did not cost Grant the confidence of his superiors. On Oct. 27, 1778, he received orders to lead an expeditionary force to capture the French West Indian island of St. Lucia. Grant succeeded in taking the island and in repelling a subsequent French counterattack.
At the end of the Revolutionary War, Grant returned to Britain and received handsome compensation for his property losses in East Florida. He never returned to the North American continent.
The Grant microfilms may be consulted in the Manuscript Division Reading Room in the Library's James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and at the Kislak Foundation in Miami Lakes, Fla.
James Hutson is chief of the Manuscript Division.