Chronicle of an ‘ordinary’ man in revolutionary times

“Election Day at the Statehouse, 1815,” by John Lewis Krimmel.


“Unsinkable Patriot: The Life and Times of Thomas Cave in Revolutionary America,” by Michael Schreiber, 2016. Available from Amazon, 737 pages, $25.95.

Thomas who? If Thomas Cave’s name does not ring any bells, it does not indicate a deficit in your education. He was not an outstanding historical figure in any sense, and his name was lost to history until Michael Schreiber recently undertook a prodigious effort to restore it to our collective human memory. So why would anyone want to read a lengthy biography of a thoroughly ordinary person named Thomas Cave? I can think of several good reasons.

One is that even ordinary people often live lives that have their extraordinary aspects and moments, or at least produce the material for interesting stories, and Thomas Cave’s was exemplary in that respect. His is an epic saga of war, battles on the high seas, revolution, the birth of a new nation, imprisonment and escape from prison, epidemic disease, love, financial ruin, and triumph. Everything a novelist could want, with the added bonus that it is, as movie publicity often boasts, “based on a true story.” The chapters devoted to Cave’s maritime adventures, for example, are as drama-packed as the sea novels of Patrick O’Brian.[i]

Another reason is that the very act of rescuing a forgotten-for-two-centuries life from oblivion can itself make for a fascinating tale. The subtext of this biography—the author’s sleuthing in the archives—is a detective story worthy of Agatha Christie.

But the book’s primary virtue stems from the fact that it is not only a biography—a “life”—but a “life and times.” The times Thomas Cave witnessed and participated in were among the most transformative periods in all of human history. It was the era of what some historians have called the Atlantic Revolution, which combined the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the liberation of Haiti by a slave uprising, the Great Rebellion in Ireland, and a powerful radicalization in Great Britain. As is generally acknowledged, three of these historic upheavals, the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions, resulted in irreversible social change that—for better and for worse—created the world we inhabit today.

Irish revolutionary leader Wolf Tone found refuge in Philadelphia. He returned to Ireland and was executed by the British in 1798.

Furthermore, the other two social cataclysms, generally perceived as unsuccessful revolutions, nonetheless also indelibly affected the futures of their countries. The divisions in Irish society that were exacerbated by the 1798 Rebellion have to this day not fully healed. The resistance of the rebels to British savagery was so courageous that today, more than 200 years later, Irish nationalists still derive inspiration from the spirit of 1798. And the lasting relevance of the deep radicalization in late-18th-century Britain is encapsulated in the title of E. P. Thompson’s well-known history of the epoch, “The Making of the English Working Class.”

Schreiber gives attention in several chapters to the activities of Irish rebels who sought refuge in Philadelphia, and reports on the prejudice and repression that some of them were subjected to while in exile.

Students of the history of France will find valuable material on that country and its people throughout the volume. There are two major sections on France; the first discusses Thomas Cave’s visits to Nantes and Paris as a seaman, and the second has to do with French visitors and immigrants in Philadelphia. The latter included acrobat and pastry chef Etienne Simonet; the balloonist Jean Paul Blanchard; the controversial French ambassador Edmund-Charles Genet; French doctors, including Jean Deveze, who treated victims of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic; and French colonialist refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution.

Thomas Cave’s very “ordinariness” meant that he was as representative a participant in the Atlantic Revolution as anyone could possibly have been. He was born in Ireland to a family of “middling” social status, emigrated to America as an indentured servant, served in the American navy during the Revolutionary War, was imprisoned in England for a number of years, and found his way to France, where Benjamin Franklin helped him and other revolutionary fighters return to America.

After the Revolution, Cave settled in the capital city of the newborn United States, Philadelphia; politically supported the democratic opposition to the conservative Federalist party; defended the Revolution’s gains as a lifelong militiaman; felt the impact of the Haitian Revolution as fleeing French colonialists sought refuge in Philadelphia; and wound up, at the time of the War of 1812, in charge of Pennsylvania’s main arms depot, the State Magazine.

Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia, site of the First Continental Congress. In 1805, Thomas Cave testified in court as a witness on behalf of blacksmith Patrick Lyon, accused of robbing bank vaults in the building.

Meanwhile, like most ordinary people, Thomas Cave married and had children, and had to find a way to provide for them and himself. He began during his term of indenture as a semiskilled artisan, developed his skills first as a miller and later as a brewer, and eventually transformed himself into a small businessman by opening his own breweries in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and even New York City. His career as an entrepreneur, however, was fraught with rapid swings between success and failure. Just as in earlier life he had survived servitude, extreme difficulties at sea, and years of harsh imprisonment, he likewise rose repeatedly from bankruptcies and debtors’ prison to embark on new commercial ventures. That, combined with his devotion to the American Revolution, explains the book’s title: “Unsinkable Patriot.”

There are two particular aspects of Michael Schreiber’s writing that make “Unsinkable Patriot” simultaneously an enjoyable and an educational reading experience. First is his narrative skill—a gift for storytelling that elevates a mass of detailed data above its mundane context and commands a reader’s attention. And second is that he is a historian with social consciousness and a social conscience, joining the likes of C.L R. James, William Appleman Williams, Mary Frances Berry, Howard Zinn, and the aforementioned E. P. Thompson, to name just a few. As such he does not simply parrot the standard patriotic foundation myths that are taught to American schoolchildren, but clarifies the deeply contradictory nature of the Revolution.

Mountain pass leading into Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley, where the young Thomas Cave served as an indentured servant to a miller.

Thomas Cave paid for his passage from Ireland to the Land of the Free by agreeing to be unfree for four years as an indentured servant in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley. “By the time Thomas was brought to the valley in 1771, almost all of the local Indian peoples,” Schreiber writes, “had been wiped out by warfare and disease or pushed west.” In the war against the Indians that had preceded Thomas’s arrival, the whites’ strategy had shifted early on “from defense to extermination, as some settlers formed armed death squads.” At the same time, “British army commanders authorized germ warfare against the Indians, giving them blankets laden with smallpox.”[ii]

Schreiber illustrates the state of contemporary relations between the settlers and the natives with an anecdote about a white woman who made the difficult journey from the Cumberland Valley to Philadelphia carrying the scalp of a dead Indian: “Money was given for dead Indians much as it was for the tails of wolves, big cats, and squirrels—all of which were marked as competitors for the land’s resources.”[iii]

When the American Revolution erupted in 1776, it undeniably represented a major step forward in the history of human progress, but its moral and political paradoxes were equally undeniable: “Some of the men who in years past had participated with … vigilante groups against the Native American people quickly transformed themselves into ardent revolutionists and advocates of popular democracy.”[iv]

Some historians have labeled the genocide of the Native Americans, not unjustly, “the American Holocaust.” But perhaps an even deeper contradiction was the presence of slavery within an ostensible movement for universal human liberation. Describing Thomas Cave’s social environment in the early 1770s, Schreiber writes: “Most of the Cumberland Valley residents of that era would have thought it unremarkable that their pastor, who preached ‘the brotherhood of Man,’ would have held another human being in permanent bondage. In fact, most of the large landowners of the district, the core supporters of the Presbyterian Church, were slaveholders themselves, and hardly feared the wrath of hellfire for such actions. Dominance by the white race, they reasoned, was the natural order of things.”[v]

Even Thomas Cave himself, for one period of his life, was a slaveholder. After the death of his first wife, Catherine, in 1795, he remarried two years later. His second wife, Lydia, was the daughter of a large landholder, and she apparently brought some slaves with her into the marriage. Although Schreiber has quite a bit to say about the sociology of slavery in the Revolutionary era, he was unable to unearth much information about the specific circumstances of the Cave family’s human property.

Cave’s death in May 1815 neatly coincided with a major watershed in world history. “Historians frequently focus on 1815 as the year in which the revolutionary era … was at last reduced to embers,” Schreiber writes. “The clarion call of egalitarianism, sounded first in the American Revolution and far more distinctly in the French, was now muffled. … And so, as America heedlessly raced toward its ‘manifest destiny,’ slavery was expanded into new cotton-producing territories in the West, exclusion and terror were redoubled against Black people in the North, and the Native peoples were uprooted and massacred.”[vi]

By focusing on the life of Thomas Cave, Michael Schreiber has created a meticulous portrait of the era as seen through the eyes of a rank-and-file American revolutionary. This is, therefore, an exemplary “people’s history”—a comprehensive and highly coherent account, from an essentially working-class perspective, of the American experience from the 1770s through the War of 1812.

Clifford D. Conner is the author of “A People’s History of Science” and other studies of history.

[i] The first of twenty in Patrick O’Brian’s “Aubrey-Maturin” series of sea novels was Master and Commander, which was made into an acclaimed 2003 film.
[ii] Unsinkable Patriot, pp. 57–59.
[iii] Unsinkable Patriot, p. 58.
[iv] Unsinkable Patriot, p. 94.
[v] Unsinkable Patriot, p. 80.
[vi] Unsinkable Patriot, p. 698.

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