Thomas Paine published the first pamphlet of what would become known as The American Crisis in the winter of 1776. But it was the following winter, when George Washington’s battered and hungry troops were encamped at frigid Valley Forge, that its opening words truly reflected the desperation of the patriot cause: “These are the times that try men’s souls…” That includes their commander-in-chief as well. In “Valley Forge,” which almost qualifies as a bottle-episode, Washington suffers a crisis of confidence, and he enlists his dedicated slave, Billy Lee, to help him untangle his moral dilemma less he go mad and be forced to resign his commission.
Nearly a month has passed since Abraham Woodhull was imprisoned by the British for spying in New York City; the same day that Major Hewlett was captured by Connecticut rebels and sentenced to death for his presumed involvement in the savage murder of an American captain—orchestrated, of course, by Simcoe. On New Year’s Eve, Washington is not feeling well. The deadline to endorse Hewlett’s execution or parole him is imminent—and Washington’s conscience is torn, since Benjamin Tallmadge made it known that only Hewlett can testify to Abe’s claims and procure his freedom. When Billy Lee tells him that the last northern courier is leaving within a few hours, something in Washington finally breaks. After taking a bite of his dinner, he winces, reaches into his mouth and pulls out a bloody tooth. Washington famously wore fake teeth but this is not a typical dental emergency. To his horror, in the next moment, he spits out all his teeth—except he doesn’t really. In fact, he imagined it all. But that is enough for him to seek the army quack’s attention. The doctor’s 18th-century methods are relatively primitive—percussion of the chest and torso rule out any of the fatal lung and circulatory illnesses that ravaged the army. But the doctor’s diagnosis is pretty much right on—acute melancholia—though he can’t be certain whether it’s caused by demonic possession or just deep moral conflict. Let’s say it’s the latter.
One hundred and fifty years later, psychologists like Sigmund Freud would have a lot more to say about Washington’s textbook nightmare of losing his teeth. The subconscious theme is often a symptom of impotence, both sexual and metaphorical, general insecurity and anxiety about self-image, and the angst of facing a difficult dilemma, especially one that entails a costly compromise. Washington might be able to check every one of those boxes in Turn, circa 1777.
Washington commands Lee to “spare [him] no quarter” as the two men boil some coffee and pull an all nighter, reading and re-reading the letters from Tallmadge and Connecticut about Abe and Hewlett, respectively, playing cards, and doing their best to get at the splinter in his psyche. Shall he pardon a brutal murderer in order to save a failed spy?
The two prisoners in question are in dire condition. Abe is holed up in Livingston’s sugar house, a nasty and notorious New York jail, and nearing his physical and mental breaking point. When a fellow inmate named Gareth comes bearing a gift of bread and asking sympathetic questions about Abe’s alleged crimes against the Crown, it doesn’t take a genius to be suspicious about his motives. To his credit, Abe is guarded, admitting only that he was “just one man in the city trying to do something right,” hardly an admission of anything. But Gareth quickly rats him out and wins Abe the wrong kind of attention. The jailer doesn’t buy Gareth’s testimony, but Abe’s days could be numbered. Only the promise of sharing a bed with Anna again is keeping him going, though that hope is punctured when the Judge finally comes to visit. True to form, they don’t have a warm reunion, especially after the Judge tells Abe that Simcoe is back and that Anna belongs to him now. Their conversation quickly devolves into fighting with the Judge concluding, “Perhaps this is the safest place for you, until this war is over.” Abe very theatrically gets in the last word: “As long as I have air in my lungs, I will never ever stop.” But is it possible that their argument was staged? Obviously, the content of their disagreement is sincere, but might the Judge have been playing it up in case the jailer and his solders were listening? I ask because it seemed like the Judge left something from his satchel behind for Abe, a paper or two. Is the Judge aware of an imminent rescue attempt by Ben and Caleb Brewster
NEXT: Even Founding Fathers get the blues