Stephen Sayre’s career was far more remarkable for its diversity than for its success. At one time or another, Sayre was a soldier, merchant, banker, shipbuilder, politician, speculator, propagandist, diplomat, and inventor. He was also considered by some, as John Alden relates, “a wicked schemer, a fool, a madman, an embezzler, and a traitor.”
Following the dizzying course of Sayre’s career, this biography reveals a vast panorama of life, both high and low, in the era of the American Revolution. Sayre frequented the polite society of England, Europe, and New York; twice married into a wealthy English family; and was elected for a term as sheriff of London. He also consorted with the actress Sophia Baddeley, one of the most notorious women of the time; was arrested and confined in the Tower of London for allegedly plotting to kidnap the king; and spent twenty months in a debtors’ prison.
If there was one constant in Sayre’s life, it was his involvement in revolutionary politics. He was a fearless advocate of colonial rights in England, and after the outbreak of war in America he traveled to Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia to seek support for the revolution. Years later, he was an enthusiastic supporter of France’s revolution. Working as an agent for the new French regime, he tried to secure it financial aid, promoted a scheme to purchase American weapons for the French army, argued for a French attack on Spanish Louisiana, and was active in diplomatic efforts to stave off war between Britain and France.
Eventually, the turmoil of events in Paris drove away even as devoted a supporter as Sayre. He returned to America, where he continued to argue the cause of the French Revolution and quickly gained a reputation as an extremist. Engaging in the politics of the new American republic, Sayre assailed conservative forces in the nation, in particular the emerging Federalist party. He devoted much of his energy in later years ti a persistent but unrewarded attempt to secure a post within the federal government and to somewhat more successful attempts to obtain payment for his past services to his country. In time he moved to Virginia to live with his stepson; he died there in 1818.
From the beginning of his career, Stephen Sayre aspired to wealth, social position, and political influence. At various points in his life he achieved each of these goals, but finally they all eluded him. An outstanding patriot, Sayre was far too erratic in his behavior, far too mercurial a personality ever to be counted as a father of his country. He is better remembered s a kind of principled rogue, an adventurer in the service of his own ambitions and those of his country.
Praise for Stephen Sayre
“No short review can do justice to the complexity of Sayre’s career. John R. Alden’s biography is a welcome addition to the literature of the American revolutionary era. Given the loss of Sayre’s papers, it is difficult to see how anyone could have better pieced together the details of such a life of intrigue.”—Journal of American History
“The picaresque Stephen Sayre seems a more likely subject for a Gothic novel than for serious history. . . . Alden has devoted enormous energy and imagination to researching his topic.”—American Historical Review
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