correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the Conference House on Staten Island as the only pre-Revolution manor house remaining in New York City. In fact, the Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx also predates the Revolution. The story has been updated.
It is not a story I learned in school.
In September 1776, three American statesmen journeyed to Staten Island to discuss peace with British Adm. Lord Richard Howe. Howe requested the meeting.
They met on the southern shore of Staten Island at the home of Christopher Billopp, a prominent Loyalist and colonel in the militia actively fighting with the British against the rebels. That house, now known as Conference House in homage to the peace meeting, still stands, and is a National Historic Landmark. My wife and I visited recently to see the house where the American Revolution could have ended before it really started.
Our guide, Dennis Gaffigan, told us that the skeptical American delegates — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge — arrived by barge across the Arthur Kill from New Jersey under a flag of truce. They came to listen to Howe’s offer for peace.
The British dealt from a position of strength. The ink on the Declaration of Independence was hardly dry, and only two weeks before the meeting, Gen. George Washington had suffered a crushing defeat at Brooklyn. Howe commanded a fleet of over 400 ships, and 30,000 troops.
“I like to say that at the time the British held all the cards,” Gaffigan said.
The house is an impressive two-story, rubble stone mansion built in about 1680, the oldest manor house remaining in New York City. It commands a sweeping view of Raritan Bay and the New Jersey shore just across the narrow Arthur Kill.
Gaffigan led us inside the entrance hall where the delegates entered the manor. He explained that none of the furniture is original to the house. When the city acquired the house in 1926, it was in ruinous condition. Today the Conference House Association maintains it as the manor house might have been in 1776, and most of the furnishings are from the 18th century. A wooden grandfather clock carved with Chinese motifs in the entrance hall dates to 1729, for example, and a settle bench with a flip-up seat was made in the early part of the century.
“What you do see here is Revolutionary War stuff,” Gaffigan said.
The Billopp family was very wealthy. The dining room reflects this wealth with a beautiful dining room table and corner cupboard filled with china. A two-tiered gold chandelier hangs from the ceiling. We noted that the dining room contained built-in closets, an unusual display of affluence for the time.
Across the hall is the parlor where the conference was held. This is the room we had come to see. The walls are off-white with blue wood trim. An 18th-century portrait of a gentleman wearing ruffled cuffs and a powdered wig hangs above the wooden fireplace mantle. Playing cards are arranged on a table in the center of the room. Does that suggest Howe held all the cards, I wonder? The view from the two front windows looks down the sloping lawn to the water’s edge, where the delegates’ barge once waited.
The scene that ensued was described in “John Adams ” by David McCullough. Like the dealer he was, Howe did most of the talking, speaking in the polite language of 18th-century diplomacy. He said he felt for America as he would for a brother. If the colonies were defeated during the hostilities, he would grieve as if losing a brother.
Franklin responded, “My Lord, we will do our utmost endeavors to save your lordship that mortification.”
Howe couldn’t recognize the American delegates as members of Congress because from the British point of view, that body did not exist in a legal sense. But he said he would consider them as British subjects.
“You may consider me in what light you please . . . except that of a British subject,” retorted Adams. Franklin diplomatically suggested that they consider this a discussion among friends.
I tried to picture the three Americans, especially the irascible Adams and witty Franklin, sitting in this room with Howe and his secretary. They shared a light meal of mutton, ham, tongue and wine as they conferred. Howe offered them amnesty in exchange for renouncing the Declaration of Independence, laying down arms and swearing loyalty to the king. Their safety and wealth (not to mention their heads) would remain intact. He even dangled the possibility of titles of nobility as rewards. In light of Washington’s defeat just two weeks before, it must have been tempting.
For three hours the world held its breath. Congress waited in Philadelphia, while the British suspended military operations in New York. The three patriots held firm. No peace without independence.
“The Declaration of Independence had passed its first test,” opined Michael Acquilano, a member of the Conference House Board of Directors, at a presentation about the house.
Billopp had 12 children and his household must have been a lively one. Upstairs in the children’s bedroom and playroom, we admired a toy coach and coachman, as well as a wooden hoop perfect for rolling. Child-size chairs and rockers face the fireplace. A small canopy bed and a small single bed also occupy the room.
The master bedroom contains a large canopy bed with functional drapes. Curtains hang in the room’s windows, the matching fabrics another sign of wealth. Other furnishings include a baby’s cradle, lounge chair and desk.
Gaffigan explained that Staten Island had a plantation economy in the mid-18th century that relied on slavery. The Billopp family was part of this economy. Several enslaved girls likely lived in the attic where they sweltered in summer and shivered in winter. They would come down in early morning to tend fires, feed the children and empty the chamber pots. Enslaved men lived outside the house and tended the crops.
The cellar kitchen is the least-changed part of the house. We were impressed with the original and still-level, rough-hewed timbers cut from the forest of Staten Island. The stone walls here are three feet thick. A large hearth dominates one wall. Gaffigan pointed out that the cooking at this hearth was done with slow-burning charcoal embers, not a roaring fire.
Much of the original 17th-century brick flooring in the basement remains intact, except where replacement bricks were laid in 1929 during reconstruction of the house. These newer bricks, some glazed blue and some orange, were made in the Netherlands and bear the stamp of Queen Wilhelmina and the year. Gaffigan cringes at such historical inaccuracy but understands that free bricks during the Depression couldn’t be passed up.
After the war, the Billopp estate was confiscated by the state and sold. Like so many Loyalists, Billopp moved to Canada, where he died at age 90 at St. John, New Brunswick.
Conference House is situated in Conference House Park, 265 acres of meadows, wetlands, sand dunes, beaches and forests of sassafras, pin oak and hackberry trees at the southern tip of Staten Island. This open space is all that remains of Billopp’s 1,600-acre estate. About two miles of trails run through the park, which is owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
The thick woods here are great for birdwatching. We encountered lots of cardinals, blue jays, robins and woodpeckers. The trees hid the noisy mocking birds, but we could certainly hear them. Just off shore, seabirds waded in the choppy water. It’s a great place for fishing, and on this sunny afternoon lots of fishermen had chosen their spots along the beach.
The Tottenville section of Staten Island has the distinction of being the southernmost part of New York state. On one of the trails we encountered the “South Pole,” a marker indicating that special point.
Deborah Woodbridge, the caretaker who resides in Conference House, told us later that she is the southernmost resident in the state.
The end of our walk took us to the beach at the foot of the hill below Conference House. This was just about at the spot where Lord Howe greeted his American guests as they disembarked from the boat that had taken them across the Arthur Kill from New Jersey. Looking up the hill to the house, they no doubt noted dozens of redcoats, Hessians and Loyalist militia. Otherwise, the view is the same today.
They came on a mission that would have enormous consequences whichever way it turned out.
“I love what happened here, and I love what didn’t happen here. And that’s the important thing,” Gaffigan said.
I could only agree. And despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them that September day, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Lee is a writer based in Virginia Beach. Find him on Twitter: @writer1218.
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