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David and Jeanne Heidler / October 13, 2021

Hidden Prompt for a Private Play — John André

A public execution is a ghastly form of performance art, and John André flawlessly acted his part.

Major John André had not been dead 24 hours before he took shape in memory as a boy of boundless promise, a loving son, a chivalrous suitor, a deep thinker, a poet, a philosopher, a dashing lad handsome beyond comparison, but a modest one inclined to jovial self-effacement and affable diffidence. This was true for both the Americans who executed him and the British who let him die. George Washington pronounced him “an accomplished man and gallant officer,” and Alexander Hamilton recalled how he “united a peculiar excellence of mind and manners.” Informed of André’s death, Major General Sir Henry Clinton was “distressed beyond words.”

The Crown put its money where everyone’s heart was. The British government provided his mother and sisters with an annual pension, and his brother became a peer solely as an expression of Britain’s gratitude for John André’s sacrifice and service. George III saw to it that a cenotaph was raised to honor André’s memory in the fabled “Hero’s Corner” of Westminster Abbey, and André’s remains were eventually brought from America and laid to rest under the figures of a mourning Britannia and her doleful lion. Not to be outdone, Americans placed a monument to André over his former grave. Almost immediately he had become their beloved enemy while they were still fighting the Revolutionary War, and according to some accounts at least one of the people responsible for his untimely end adored him before it and loved him ever afterward: for all her life, Peggy Shippen Arnold was said to cherish a lock of John André’s hair.

It was extraordinary that someone barely thirty could earn adulation as a courageous hero and merit recognition as a poet, scholar, artist, bon vivant, raconteur, gentle shepherd, and intrepid warrior, especially because John André really wasn’t any of these things except in recollection. That is to say, John André was one of those people whose life was defined entirely from the perspective of his death. A pleasant and vaguely promising young man of middling accomplishments became someone universally mourned, lavishly praised, and deeply missed. How?

John André was the oldest son of Swiss émigrés who resided in London, but that makes his youth sound more exotic than it really was. His father was a partner in a successful countinghouse that made the family affluent in the upper middle-class sort of way, and given the right circumstances, a place in the countinghouse would have been John André’s future. But his father died just about the time John was reaching his majority, and he used his inheritance to escape the ledgers and quills of the family business by purchasing a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. André cut a fine figure in his uniform, and for a time his peacetime travels on the continent threw him in with a gaggle of vagabond artists and idealistic scholars. They admired the sensitivity of a soldier who recited poetry while practicing with pistols. Men respected André’s martial flair, and women adored his long silky hair, delicate features, and harmless flirtations.

And yet, the only girl he ever wanted didn’t care for him and quietly moved on. Although he glossed it over — and his biographers tend to do the same — losing the delightfully named Honora Sneyd seems to have deeply injured the heart of a hopeless romantic. Honora was discerning as well as beautiful, so she realized something about André that his other acquaintances could only guess at. His letters to her could be playful and pompous, sometimes in the same sentence, and she finally found him tedious.

For most people, though, imperious certitude masked André’s shallowness, the sort of character satirists lampooned to make the fop a figure of fun, the typical English officer with aristocratic pretensions. In the American Revolution, André saw combat and was early on even captured and exchanged. But he spent most of his time in New York and Philadelphia, where he indulged his enthusiasm for amateur theatricals while stealing the hearts of Tory belles. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, the “two Peggys” — Miss Chew and Miss Shippen — giggled and blushed when André came calling, but he was an insincere suitor and by then not even a sensitive soldier. He developed a sharp edge that could smile over cold-blooded cruelty, as when he endorsed indiscriminately torching American property and chuckled over green farm boys cut down by bayonets as they tried to surrender. He served under masters of hard war and enjoyed their tactics almost as much as he enjoyed painting scenery for plays or dressing an amateur actress’s hair or writing a rhyming prologue for an evening’s performance.

In the work of a staff officer, André was competent and relatively industrious in an army whose inactivity had made it clumsy and slothful. He cultivated the arts of the model subordinate, praising his superiors and steering them clear of snares, which made them grateful. Through such adroit gestures, André finally became an aide to Major General Sir Henry Clinton, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Clinton made André the army’s adjutant general and its chief intelligence officer as well.

General Clinton’s confidence in André stemmed from the young man’s demeanor rather than his accomplishments, which were bureaucratic rather than innovative. As adjutant general, André did nothing about criminality running rampant in New York City, which under British occupation had become one of the most sordid places on earth. A large part of the city had burned down and was left in ruins. Impoverished Loyalists seeking sanctuary from all over the region overcrowded accommodations and depleted resources, while formerly respectable girls sold themselves in squalid dwellings for a crust of bread. It did little for André’s reputation that British soldiers starved in freezing barracks because quartermasters sold their food and fuel on a thriving black market. Officers meanwhile amused themselves with slatterns and escorted Tory daughters to expensive banquets. They also passed the time by staging amateur theatricals, and André lamented only that in these little plays he was a hopelessly bad actor relegated to supporting roles or managing props.

André was destined for a star turn in the role of his life, though. It was an audacious enterprise he undertook as General Clinton’s spymaster. American general Benedict Arnold and his bride, the very same coquette Peggy Shippen with whom André had flirted, secretly placed Arnold’s loyalty on the market immediately after their marriage. André, judging Arnold of little value as a defector and more useful as a turncoat, initially proposed that Arnold take a hand in the American defense of Charleston with the idea of wrecking South Carolina’s forces; or possibly Arnold could arrange to command an American vanguard into New England with the aim of destroying the Continental Army with logistical disruptions and a timely surrender. These harebrained schemes pointed to the limits of André’s imagination as an intelligence chief, but a plan finally emerged that was more realistic. Arnold was to turn over the Hudson River fortress of West Point to the British in exchange for money and favors. With the price settled, the final arrangements were all but complete. The details were to be ironed out in a personal interview between Arnold and André.

Maddening snags postponed this meeting, and Clinton worried that André was putting himself in dire peril. He ordered the lad to stay away from territory under American control, but André trusted his luck by not only entering American lines but meandering into an American installation. Worse, he doffed his uniform for civilian garb. It was all part of the adventure, and even when plans for his return went awry, he was sure of success. American shore batteries on the Hudson shooed away the ship that was supposed to carry him home, but André got himself a horse and started for New York City. He was confident that the papers identifying him as “John Anderson” and the pass provided by General Arnold would see him through.

His fellow thespians back in New York might have considered it a comic episode of delightful misadventures and impossible misunderstandings where nothing on stage worked as it should, and everyone was stepping on one another’s lines. Highlighting the farce was how André was captured outside Tarrytown when his lack of acting ability got him in trouble. The militiamen who stopped him conducted a thorough search that turned up bewildering papers concealed in his sock. André stuck to his story, and cautious questioners impressed by his pass nearly handed him over to Benedict Arnold, which André thought would be his salvation. Two couriers were sent out, though, one to Arnold and the other to a higher authority. The one to Arnold merely confirmed for the traitor that his treachery was discovered, and he saved himself while leaving André to the devil. The other courier carried information that eventually landed in George Washington’s headquarters and sealed John André’s fate.

From the start of his captivity, André was cheerful and confident. Many interpreted his admirable poise as evidence of steely nerves while he pretended to be John Anderson. After he was compelled to admit who he was and what he had been doing, his continued calm seemed to prove his considerable courage or, even better, his ability to hide fear with enviable aplomb.

Yet, it seems more likely that André was unconcerned because he doubted anything was going to happen to him. His perfunctory trial established he was behind enemy lines under an assumed name, and that he had been carrying incriminating documents while wearing civilian clothes. But he likely remained certain that the court’s death sentence was meaningless and that he would be exchanged. His previous captivity had ended that way. And while it was true that he had not been captured as a spy that first time, it was also true that he was a great deal more important than he had been before. He was the British army’s adjutant general and the chief aide of its principal commander. That made him worth trading for someone he was certain the Americans wanted. André was sure that Washington wanted Benedict Arnold and equally certain that Clinton would give him up.

He was right about the Americans wanting Arnold, and Washington even arranged an indirect offer of André to accomplish it. But everyone had misjudged the British situation. By this point in the war, General Clinton could not act as if someone like Benedict Arnold was anything other than a British subject who had seen the error of his ways. To trade him for André would have conceded what the Americans claimed about both men: that André was a spy and Arnold a mole. That was politically impossible for Clinton to admit, but it became imperative for George Washington to prove, which meant that André would have to die, and do so as a spy (by hanging) rather than a soldier (by firing squad).

It is an indication of how unaware André was of these realities that he remained apparently unconcerned about his fate until the night before his scheduled execution. His request to Washington that he be shot was, in that light, perhaps another show of bravado, but possibly he was beginning to worry. He certainly had cause to worry, and on the night of October 1, a visitor found him in a bad way. He seemed a bundle of nerves as if his skin were tightening around his mind and heart.

At some point during that night, André mastered his nerves and managed to step back into the character that up to now he had been playing out of ignorance. The following day, he smiled as he walked in time with the dirge played by fife and drums. He took no notice of the cart just behind him bearing his coffin, and he nodded pleasantly to the officers of the court that had condemned him. He seemed to be making an entrance in one of his little theatricals, except this performance was to an especially rapt audience, and the bad actor had at last landed the role he had been born to play.

John André broke character only once. It was when he saw the two stark poles anchored deep in the ground and topped by a crossbeam steadied by crotchets. From it swung a length of hemp.

“Must I die in this manner?” he said, as if to himself, as the preparations proceeded without pause. The cart was placed under the rope, and the horses were readied. André kept his eyes down. “I am reconciled to my fate,” he said, almost to himself, “but not to the mode.” He pushed a pebble with his foot and swallowed hard before pulling himself into the cart. He had prepared his last words: “I have nothing to say, gentlemen, but this: You all bear me witness that I meet my fate as a brave man.”

A public execution is a ghastly form of performance art, and John André flawlessly acted his part in this one by treating it as his private play and making it a one-man show. He pushed away the awkward executioner who, lacking a hood, had crudely blacked his face with grease and thereby threatened to spoil the event with self-parody. And André’s dignified last words were an overt claim for the justly deserved admiration of an audience watching the closing act of a tragic hero.

He had pulled himself into the cart and had stood with something resembling defiance when only those nearest him heard him say something else. “It will be but a momentary pang,” he had muttered under his breath. Then André himself had adjusted the noose around his neck. He placed his own handkerchief as his blindfold and supplied another silk handkerchief to bind his arms. However, nobody at the place of execution, nor afterward in the many eulogies and the scores of biographies, ever grasped the significance of his aside about the “pang.”

André would have known Oliver Goldsmith’s poem that was strangely apt for him in its title “The Captivity.” He would have recalled these lines:

To the last moment of his breath
On hope the wretch relies;
And e'en the pang preceding death
Bids expectations rise.

During the preceding night, that refrain must have helped him come to grips with the role he was to play on the morrow. As he stood in the cart, he not only managed the props and spoke his lines, he reminded himself of expectations rising in the pang before the end. And thus John André became his own prompter as well. A whip came down on the horses, and the cart jolted out from under him.

It was a pristine performance in a show that closed out of town on October 2, 1780, and only moments after its opening. But within 24 hours the notices were in.

They were quite good.

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