We invited Phillip Papas on our blog for an exclusive Q&A session on his new book, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee. Happily, he obliged. Below, Papas discusses his inspiration for writing the book, shares a surprising moment in his research, and gives us the final word on Charles Lee in Assassin’s Creed. Read it, and if you haven’t already, check out the gorgeous trailer for the book!
What prompted you to write Renegade Revolutionary?
Phillip Papas: I came to the subject of Charles Lee through my doctoral dissertation which looked at the conditions that fostered strong Loyalist sentiments on Staten Island (subsequently published by NYU Press as That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution). In setting up the defenses of New York from February through March 1776, Lee had left the loyalist community of Staten Island at the entrance to New York harbor and by extension the Narrows, undefended. This did not mean that Lee had not thought about the island strategically. He had. Lee recommended that all of the livestock should be removed from Staten Island and that its residents be disarmed. If this approach did not work, Lee suggested Congress “secure their [the Staten Islanders’] children as hostages.”
I had heard of Charles Lee before working on my dissertation. More often than not, the references were to George Washington’s eccentric, egomaniacal second-in-command who was followed around by a pack of mangy dogs, who always challenged Washington’s military judgment, was captured by the British and offered them a plan that would keep them in the colonies, and faced a court martial after the battle of Monmouth in 1778 which eventually ended his military career. Of course, Lee was an avid dog lover and always had a few of them by his side, especially his favorite Spado. Lee also had an ego the size of Texas, but who else among the leading revolutionaries didn’t? And he did challenge Washington’s military judgment, he was captured by the British in December 1776 in New Jersey, and he did face a court martial after the battle of Monmouth, where Washington had famously confronted him on the battlefield. But who was Charles Lee? Who was this former British officer who had become an avid supporter of the American resistance against Britain’s imperial policies and who eventually became one of the earliest and loudest voices for American independence? Who was this intellectual who recognized America’s potential and characterized her as the “last asylum of liberty?” Who was this professional soldier who admired the fighting spirit and irregular tactics of the colonial militiamen? I found these questions interesting and they led me to do further research on Charles Lee.
What surprised you most as you conducted your research?
I think it would have to be Lee’s cosmopolitanism, his intellectual curiosity, his support for providing women with a formal education, his recognition of America’s potential, and his attempts to dispel the British media’s portrayal of the Native Americans. Lee’s confidence in a popular war of mass resistance against the British fought using a strategy of petite guerre or irregular warfare also caught my attention. Lee’s belief that a strategy of petite guerre carried out by small units of Continentals in cooperation with local militia and roving groups of partisans to effectively stymie the British war machine, neutralize Loyalists, and win American independence fascinated me because it seemed to portent certain aspects of modern revolutionary military strategy.
In your book, you write that Lee suffered from manic depression, experienced phases of hypersexuality, drank to excess, and preferred the companionship of dogs to humans. What is the biggest misconception about him?
That he was an “oddity” or an eccentric. For Americans, a true gentleman was a man of honor and integrity; someone who embraced rigid rules of etiquette and manners, demonstrated emotional self-restraint, exhibited a proper sense of decorum in public and displayed elegance in speech and dress. The impressions of Lee by his American contemporaries revealed a provincial misunderstanding about what it meant to be an English gentleman. Although Lee’s outward appearance and behavior did not meet with American standards of gentility, in his background, upbringing, financial independence, and classical education Lee was an English gentleman.
Moreover, much of Lee’s behavior evidenced signs of what modern psychiatry would classify as manic depression.
Charles Lee is featured as one of the main antagonists in the video game Assassin’s Creed. How accurate is this portrayal of Lee as the ultimate villain?
I first heard about the video game Assassin’s Creed 3 from one of my students at Union County College. I could not believe that the subject of my research was a key character in a video game set during the American Revolution. Perhaps the game designers chose Lee as the game’s ultimate villain because he lacked political savvy and throughout his career he openly challenged the decisions of his superior officers and, of course, during the American Revolution became Washington’s chief antagonist. Lee was ambitious and an opportunist; he was a person who was willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals. Many of Lee’s actions and decisions exemplified the saying “the end justifies the means.”
What do you hope readers learn from your book?
I hope that readers come away from the book with a new view of Charles Lee as a complex, fascinating person who made important contributions to the Revolutionary era as a propagandist and as a soldier and whose ideas on the education of women and on democratic societies set him apart from many of his contemporaries. I also hope that readers will gain new insights into the way the Americans waged the Revolutionary war and debated the question of the proper military organization in a democracy.