When William Henry Smith edited the gubernatorial papers of Arthur St. Clair in the early 1880s, he was faced with a dilemma. St. Clair, a major-general in the Revolution, president of the Continental Congress and governor of the Northwest Territory, was clearly an important historical figure, and by nineteenth-century standards, a hero. Smith needed a suitable biographical sketch to use as a preface for his impressive two-volume edition of St. Clair’s public papers. But curiously, St. Clair left very little evidence about his life before his 1760 marriage to Phoebe Bayard of Boston. So Smith did what many other biographers have done over the centuries—he invented an appropriately noble early life story for a man whose later life certainly seemed heroic. Since then, no one has seriously questioned Smith’s account. Surely he would have done due diligence with the records at hand, and produced the most truthful account possible, wouldn’t he?
Alas, the answer to that rather rhetorical question is no. We should take caution from the fact that from the first line of Smith’s biography, he cites as evidence Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” What follows is a sketch reliant on poems, legend, hearsay, and family lore. It is a powerful piece of mythology, and one which speaks to the needs of its 1880s audience. Americans at that time were less concerned with factual evidence than with setting a heroic example. The nation was simultaneously looking back with admiration at the “greatest generation” of the War for Independence, and trying to mend the social fabric rent during the recent Civil War. The nation needed sterling examples of heroes to emulate, even if their stories were not, strictly speaking, true.
More than a century has passed since Smith faced his biographical dilemma, and both the nation and the science of history have changed. We ask different questions, use new and frankly better tools to investigate and answer them—and importantly, we have a more sophisticated view of what it means to be a hero. Today we seek heroes who reflect our own uncertainties and potential. Looking back, we find them in men and women, flawed as we all are, who made the best they could of decidedly unheroic situations. Join us then, as we delve into the archives to find evidence of Arthur St. Clair’s early life, and difficult choices.
Location: Ferguson Theater located in Smith Hall on the campus of The University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
This event is free and open to the public. Please call 724-836-7980 to ensure a seat.