The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America
In 1952 the New-York Historical Society purchased at auction a full-figure portrait, identified as Lord Cornbury, royal governor of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708. The only remarkable thing about the portrait is that his lordship is dressed in women’s clothing; and for this reason the painting has enjoyed a certain notoriety from the time it was first exhibited at London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert) in 1867. The identification of the sitter may have been made as early as 1796 and is rendered plausible by reports from New York in 1707 that Cornbury “rarely fails of being dresst in Women’s Cloaths every day” and in 1709 that “My Lord Cornbury has and dos still make use of an unfortunate Custom of dressing himself in Womens Cloaths and of exposing himself in that Garb upon the Ramparts to the view of the public; in that dress he draws a World of Spectators about him and consequently as many Censures.”
Although these reports were contained in letters not readily available until the present century, William Smith, the first historian of New York, repeated the substance of them in 1757, and they endure to the present. A recent history of attitudes toward sex in Britain reproduces the portrait, identifying Cornbury as the “first-known English transvestite.”1 The best history of colonial New York by a modern scholar has Cornbury making “public appearances in the elegant costumes of his cousin, Queen Anne.”2 Another professional historian has characterized Cornbury as “the most exalted personage in America—but withal a drunkard, a spendthrift, a sexual pervert, a grafter, and a vain fool.”3
The painting has nailed down Cornbury’s reputation and established him as the very model of the dissolute, corrupt aristocrat that England sent to govern her long-suffering colonists. A transvestite royal governor? Why not? As Benjamin Franklin put it in 1768, the governors sent from England to the colonies “come only to make money as fast as they can; are sometimes men of vicious characters and broken fortunes, sent by a Minister merely to get them out of the way.”4 Does not Cornbury fit that picture as it was fastened on the whole tribe of royal governors during the Revolution, a revolution that their misdeeds helped to provoke? Cornbury was not merely a vicious character, attested by his cross-dressing (pace Mayor Rudolph Giuliani), but a man of broken fortune, an embarrassment to the royal family, who rescued him from bankruptcy by sending him to the colonies, where his efforts to make money as fast as he could resulted in public charges of bribery and peculation and successful demands for his recall.
Cornbury indeed seems to fit the picture, fits it a little too well. Patricia Bonomi, a historian well versed in the Byzantine complexity of New York and New Jersey colonial politics, became a little surprised when she encountered glowing accounts of Cornbury’s character and achievements in British archives. Taking a new look at the familiar…
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