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John Pendleton Kennedy, 1795-1870
Horse-Shoe Robinson: A Tale of the Tory Ascendency
New York: George P. Putnam, 1852.


John Pendleton Kennedy, Maryland statesman and novelist, was born October 25, 1795 in Baltimore to John Kennedy, an Irish immigrant merchant, and Nancy Pendleton, a member of the Virginia aristocracy. As a child John spent his summers on the Pendleton family plantation in what is now West Virginia, which instilled in him an abiding affection for the South. He attended private school in Baltimore, and upon his graduation from Baltimore College entered the War of 1812 as a Maryland militiaman. Kennedy then turned to fiction writing and to law, the latter providing his entrée into the Maryland political arena. His career as a public servant spanned over fifty years, beginning in 1820 with his election to the Maryland House of Delegates. He continued to practice law, and in 1838 he was elected to the House of Representatives. Kennedy served the Whig party in this position until 1845, and one year later was elected Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. His formal political career ended after he briefly served as secretary of the navy for Millard Fillmore; however, he would become an ardent Unionist during the Civil War. He was married twice: first to Mary Tenant in 1824, who died within a year of their marriage, and again in 1829 to Elizabeth Gray.

Kennedy's career as a man of letters began in 1823 with the publication of Swallow Barn, or a Sojourn in the Old Dominion in which he sketches the Virginia plantation lifestyle he experienced as a youth. His second and most successful novel, Horse-Shoe Robinson: A Tale of the Tory Ascendancy (1835), is an historical romance set during the American Revolution. The novel's popularity helped establish Kennedy as a writer concerned with forging a national literary tradition alongside his contemporaries, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. However, it was difficult making a living as a novelist, and as his political career was on the rise, Kennedy found less time to devote to his writing. He managed to complete a second historical romance entitled Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe's in 1838. The novel was not as successful as his previous works, leading him to abandon fiction writing altogether. He turned his full attention to politics, continuing to speak and write on public issues until he met with ill health. Kennedy died on August 18, 1870 in Newport, Rhode Island.

Set in the Western mountain region of the Carolinas and Virginia, Horse-Shoe Robinson, a work of historical fiction, depicts the severity of southern colonial life at the end of the American Revolution. The novel follows the travels of Major Arthur Butler and Sergeant Galbraith "Horse-Shoe" Robinson as they head south from Virginia to help the Continental Army's General Clark reclaim military outposts at Ninety-Six and Augusta. Horse-Shoe, so named for his profession as blacksmith, knows the region well and whom they can trust along the way. Serving as Butler's guide and protector, Horse-Shoe safely leads them through North Carolina. However, he unwittingly delivers them into the hands of the traitorous Wat Adair when they seek shelter in Adair's home across the border in South Carolina. Adair, a former friend to Robinson and the Continental Cause, had recently been bribed by Tories to deliver his friend and Butler into their possession. Although Adair's niece, Mary Musgrove, hears of the plotted ambush and tries to warn Butler in his sleep, the two men find themselves the captives of several Tory ruffians the next day.

Horse-Shoe, who shares the same wily, indefatigable spirit of James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo, manages to escape unharmed after first encouraging the Tory guards' drinking habits and then instigating a mutiny among them. After pledging to protect Butler and procure his freedom, Horse-Shoe reclaims his horse and gallops off in search of aid. His escape is one of many instances in which Kennedy illustrates the sergeant's craft, wit, and courage. In spite of his less polished characteristics, including his illiteracy, Horse-Shoe successfully maneuvers his way through enemy territory, cleverly outsmarting his pursuers and persuading others to support him in his cause. Often in Kennedy's work the lowbrow characters appear more engaging than the aristocracy. This is certainly the case with the character of Horse-Shoe Robinson, for as Edgar Allan Poe aptly comments in his Literary Messenger review: "[Horse-Shoe] is the life and soul of the drama — the bone and sinew of the book — its very breath" (May 1835).

Kennedy also depicts the widespread uncertainty among family and friends during this period of colonial strife. Wat Adair's deceptive plot and his niece's attempt to thwart him exemplify Kennedy's sensitivity to the painful familial and neighborly divisions over split loyalties and fear of the enemy. The most difficult division arises between Arthur Butler's love, Mildred Lindsay, and her Loyalist father, Philip Lindsay. When Lindsay learns of Mildred's romantic associations with Butler, he forbids her to see him, and refuses her entreaties regarding Butler's worthy character. However, upon learning that a renegade Tory jury may hang Butler for treason, Mildred and her brother, Henry, set out to find General Cornwallis and intercede on Butler's behalf.

The story culminates at the Battle of King's Mountain, where all parties converge. As the women overlook the battle scene, a charge of men led by Horse-Shoe Robinson free Butler from captivity. Butler and Mildred finally reunite after the Whigs' victory and announce their secret yearlong marriage. Philip Lindsay, having learned this news in a letter from Mildred, has followed her to the battlefield only to be mortally wounded upon his arrival. He lives long enough to forgive his daughter and Butler for transgressing his wishes. Mildred, Butler, and Henry return to the Lindsay family home in Virginia, along with Mary Musgrove, whose devotion to the lovers' cause has endeared her to them.

Kennedy attempts to counterbalance the novel's romance with accurate references to battle movements, military outposts, and the geography of the Carolinas, while also offering brief but realistic character sketches of major generals, particularly Frances Marion and Charles Cornwallis. Thus despite his tendency toward melodrama, Kennedy provides an insightful perspective on the fratricidal nature of the American Revolution, unwittingly foreshadowing in Horse-Shoe Robinson the strife that lay ahead in the American Civil War.

Works Consulted: Leisy, Ernest E., Introduction, Horse-Shoe Robinson: A Tale of Tory Ascendancy, New York: American Book Company, 1937, ix-xxix; Logan, Judy, "John Pendleton Kennedy," Dictionary of Literary Biography: Antebellum Writers in the South, volume 248, Second Series, Ed. Kent Ljungquist, Detroit: Gale Group, 2001; MacKethan, Lucinda H., Introduction, Swallow Barn, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1986, xi-xxix; Osborne, William S., Ed., Introduction, Rob of the Bowl. A Legend of St. Inigoe's by John Pendleton Kennedy, New Haven, CT: College and University Press, 1965, 5-27; Serafin, Steven R. and Alfred Bendixen, Encyclopedia of American Literature, New York: Continuum, 1999, 614.

Armistead Lemon

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