Contrary to popular legend, George Washington COULD tell a lie. And the nation’s first president, it seems, was a first class tale-teller, according to David Emerson, one of several experts on Revolutionary War history scheduled to take part in Trenton’s upcoming Patriots’ Week, Tuesday through Saturday, December 26 to 30. At several locations throughout the state capital’s State House Historic District, the third annual festival of mostly free events — lectures, musical performances, tours and living history demonstrations — is a bonanza for history buffs and a shot in the arm for the capital city.
History has become a marketable commodity in Trenton, which is, after all, one of the most important sites of the Revolutionary conflict. “This is where Washington turned the war around,” says Eric Maywar of the Trenton Downtown Association, one of the sponsors of the festival. “Even the British generals as early as 1777 were saying, ‘If we had just won Trenton, we would have won the thing by now.’”
But back to the fibbing General Washington.
“He was brilliant. There are certain things now being used in the spy game that he practically invented,” says Emerson, whose lecture on “Spies in the American Revolution” takes place on Friday, December 29, at the Masonic Temple Library, at Front and Barrack streets in Trenton. Emerson will take on the character of Washington in another lecture, “George Washington and the Masons,” on Wednesday, December 27, also at the Masonic Temple Library.
“Washington was brilliant at disinformation,” Emerson continues. “He could tell a lie, and some of them were whoppers. He was very good at it. That will be part of our discussion — the disinformation he passed to the British, and the brilliant and subtle ways in which he did it.”
Washington was his own spy-master though he had several intelligence officers, says Emerson, and credits him with three exceptional talents. “He excelled at administration, maybe over-managing a little bit sometimes. He was brilliant at public relations. And he was an excellent, excellent spy-master, entirely self-taught. Had Washington been alive today he would have been head of the CIA before he became president.”
Emerson is an expert on the nation’s first president. He has researched Washington extensively, down to the subtleties of his accent and way of speaking. A partner with Stacy Roth in a company called History on the Hoof, he recreates historic characters for presentations at schools, festivals, museums, and libraries. He and Roth have been part of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities’ speakers bureau. Emerson works at Trenton’s Old Barracks; Roth at the city’s Historic Trent House Museum.
Impersonating Washington was something Emerson avoided for several years. While his regular characters include Steven Hopkins, who came over on the Mayflower but was not a Pilgrim; Benjamin Franklin; John Hancock; Col. Edward Hand; a Revolutionary War recruiting sergeant named David McCaffrey, and his distant relation, Leland Emerson, a whaling captain from 1844; Washington was not in his repertory — for a reason.
“The Barracks begged me to do George Washington but I was reluctant because largely when you do a first person character, you’ve really got to know him cold,” he says. “There is so much to know about Washington, some of which is true and some of which is not. Someone comes up and asks you, how is your brother so-and-so, and you think, do I have a brother so-and-so? What year is this?
“A lot of people will do historic characters and do them a disservice, because they are not really true to the character. And I really didn’t think it would be proper to do someone as august as George Washington. But they finally convinced me to do it for the 225th anniversary (of the Revolution) in 2001.”
Emerson went to the Tidewater region, specifically Tanger Isle (where people are known as “tangerines”), to research the 18th century dialect that Washington would have spoken. “It’s a little southern and a little bit English,” he says, demonstrating with a sentence. “The dipthong “oy” was used for the long “I,” as in “I loyke you.” Now you hear it Cockney English for a long “A,” as in “Let them eat coyke.”
A resident of Burlington, Emerson grew up in New York and studied history and philosophy at Oxford University, SUNY-Oswego, and the College of William and Mary. His father was a guidance counselor for public schools in Nyack, N.Y.; his mother was an accountant.
Performing arts figure heavily into Emerson’s background. He sang for the Bronx Opera and Syracuse Opera theaters, and was assistant artistic director of the Oswego Opera Theater. He played trombone in the company’s pit orchestra. “I carried a spear, I did props, I did it all,” he says.
Before coming to the Old Barracks, Emerson worked for Colonial Williamsburg and Plymouth Plantation. He and Roth, who will lead an audience sing-along at a Saturday, December 30, screening of the movie “1776,” began creating historic characters soon after.
Washington has fascinated Emerson since he began to study him a few years ago. Emerson has been particularly struck by Washington’s genius at public relations and illustrates the point with an example involving the Hessians. “They have a huge reputation for being incredibly brutal fighters because the British had told them the Americans were barbarians who didn’t take prisoners, but ate them,” Emerson says. “When Washington discovers this while capturing the Hessians here in Trenton, he finds some of them expect they are going to be eaten. So what does he do? Splits them up. He sends officers to the Shenandoah Valley to get them away from the enlisted men. And he sends the enlisted men to be farm laborers in Pennsylvania Dutch families in the Lancaster area “so these people can speak to them in German, their own language. And they tell them that it’s just not true. It worked. Many of the men actually joined the American forces. That’s PR at its best.”
Emerson’s spy lecture will include descriptions of an elaborate code system. His program on Washington and the Masons will discuss the general’s reputation as “a very good joiner,” Emerson says. “Here again, it was PR. Masonry was a very important part of Washington’s personal philosophy. Many things advocated by the Masons he very much took to heart, including a spiritual but not religious point of view.”
Emerson’s presentations are among some 50 events that are part of the Patriots’ Week agenda, expanded from previous years. The festival was built three years ago around the annual re-enactment of the First Battle of Trenton, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The festival’s highlights include a lecture on contemporary patriots by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, a Trenton native, on Tuesday, December 26, at the Masonic Temple in Trenton; a concert of music played on Benjamin Frankin’s invention, the glass armonica, also on Tuesday, December 26, at the Old Barracks Officers’ House; a Colonial feast on Wednesday, December 27, at the Trenton Marriott, recreating a meal at the home of merchant Abraham Hunt; a Trenton Battlefield walking tour on Thursday, December 28; and a performance by the comedy group, the Capitol Steps, a troupe of current and former Congressional staffers who take a satiric look at serious issues on Capitol Hill, in the Oval Office, and around the world, on Thursday, December 28, at the Marriott Hotel.
“So many people are interested in Revolutionary history,” says Maywar. “There was sort of an untapped need that pre-existed the festival. It was just sort of waiting to happen, and now it’s growing every year.”
Spies in the American Revolution, Friday, December 29, 11:15 a.m., Patriots’ Week, Masonic Temple Library, Front and Barrack streets, Trenton. George Washington interpreter David Emerson gives a first person lecture on how military intelligence was gathered for use against the British. 877-PAT-WEEK. For full schedule of events, map, and diections visit www.patriotsweek.com