February 9, 2010

Death of George Lippard, Supreme Washington

George Lippard, once stood as the highest-selling novelist of his generation. His death on February 9, 1854 cut short an eclectic career as novelist, journalist, muckraker, editor, reformer, and myth-maker. He was 31 years old.

Lippard's novels — including his most well-known, The Quaker City; or, the Monks of Monk Hall (1844) — are trashy and sensationalistic, full of violence, gore, sex, and sin with a little bit of social commentary thrown in (more on that tomorrow).

In addition to his novels, Lippard was also a labor organizer and reformer. In 1850, Lippard founded The Brotherhood of the Union, a secret society that hoped to eliminate urban poverty and crime by addressing society's moral failings. The organization was very religious, a sort of Christianity intermingled with an extreme American patriotism. Lippard, as founder, held the title "Supreme Washington," in honor of the country's first President.

Much of Lippard's fiction has a similar patriotic bent and he (perhaps inadvertently) created a few American myths or legends that were never true but were often perpetuated. His most famous was suggesting that the iconic Liberty Bell got its famous crack when it was rung to announce that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Another Lippard legend is that of the "unknown orator" who riled his fellow Patriots to action and break from the British crown. Works like Washington and His Generals portrayed the Founding Fathers as larger-than-life, heroic figures who were beyond reproach and committed to the optimistic ideals of democracy.

Such myth-making was not unusual for the period: Washington Irving carefully crafted the character of George Washington in his biography of him, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow contributed to American legend when he wrote about a certain midnight ride. More on that last one in April.


  1. how much is an origional copy of washington and his generals worth in fair condition today?

  2. That's a good question; I don't bump into a lot of Lippard books in my frequent visits to antique book shops. My guess is that it's either cheap because the seller has never heard of him or it's expensive because the seller knows it's relatively rare (rarity should not automatically equal value but so it goes).