Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
Born among the rugged stones of the New England hills, in the Housatonic Valley, Israel Potter grows up with all the virtues of the hard, principled new land. After an argument with his father over a girl whom his stern parent does not think a suitable match, Israel decides to run away from home while his family is attending church. He wanders about the countryside, hunting deer, farming land, becoming a trapper, and dealing in furs. During his wanderings, he learns that most men are unscrupulous. He also hunts whales from Nantucket to the coast of Africa.
In 1775, Israel joins the American forces and takes part in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He fights bravely, but the battle, as he sees it, is simply disorganized carnage. Wounded, Israel enlists aboard an American ship after his recovery. Once at sea, the ship is captured by the British. Israel is taken prisoner and conveyed to England on a British ship, but on his arrival in London, he manages to escape.
Wandering about London, Israel meets various Englishmen who mock his American accent. Some of the English are kind and helpful to him. Others cuff him about and berate the scurrilous Yankee rebels. He finds various odd jobs, including one as a gardener working for a cruel employer. He escapes from this job and finds one as a gardener on the king’s staff at Kew Gardens. One day, Israel meets King George III. The king, completely mad, realizes that Israel is an American and is ineffectually kind to him. Eventually, in a slack season, Israel is discharged. He then works for a farmer, but when other farmers in the area discover that he is an American, Israel is forced to run away.
Israel meets Squire Woodcock, a wealthy and secret friend of America, who sends him on a secret mission to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Israel carries a message in the false heel of his new boots. On his arrival in Paris, while he is looking for Franklin, a poor man tries to shine his boots on the Pont Neuf. Israel, in fright, kicks the man and runs off. At last, he finds Franklin, who takes the message and then insists that Israel return and pay damages to the bootblack.
In this fashion, Israel, under the tutelage of Franklin, learns his first lesson in European politeness and consideration. From this incident, Franklin proceeds to instruct Israel in the ways of proper behavior. Israel, still innocent, absorbs the teaching carefully, although none of it ever applies to his later experiences. Franklin promises that Israel will be sent back to America, if he will first return to England with a message. While still in Paris, Israel meets the stormy and ferocious Captain John Paul Jones, who also visits Franklin. John Paul Jones finds Israel a bright young man.
Israel makes his way back across the English Channel and goes to Squire Woodcock. The squire urges him to hide in the dungeon for three days, since their plot is in danger of discovery. When Israel emerges from the cell, he recognizes that the good squire must have been killed for his activities in the American cause.
Appropriating some of the squire’s clothes, Israel masquerades as Squire Woodcock’s ghost and escapes from a house filled with his enemies. He then trades clothes with a farmer, wanders to Portsmouth, and signs on as a foretopman on a British ship bound for the East Indies. In the Channel, his ship meets another ship whose captain has authority to impress some of the men; Israel is among those taken. That same night, the ship is captured by an American ship under the command of Jones. Revealing himself to his old friend, Israel soon becomes the quartermaster of the Ranger. With Jones, Israel engages in piracy, capturing and looting ships.
In Scotland, they call on the earl of Selkirk in order to rob him, but the nobleman is not at home. Jones impresses the earl’s wife with his Parisian manners, drinks tea with her, and assures her that he and Israel do not intend to do the lady any harm. The crew, however, insists that plunder is a part of piracy, and so Israel and Jones are forced to allow the men to take the family silver and other valuables. Jones promises to restore all articles of value, and when he receives a large sum of money from another exploit, he buys back all the earl’s articles from the men and returns them to the Selkirk family.
Other adventures do not end so cheerfully. The sea fight between the Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis is a violent and bloody battle, fought along national lines and devoid of all the amenities of piracy. Both ships are lost, and Israel and Jones, still hoping to get to America, sail on the Ariel. The Ariel engages a British vessel, which pretends to surrender. The Americans get ready to board, but only Israel boards before the vessel sails away. No one on the vessel knows where Israel came from. He pretends to have been on the vessel all along and thus ends up once again in the British navy. By feigning madness to hide his Yankee origins, he gets back to England safely.
In England, Israel meets Ethan Allen, a strong, heroic, Samsonlike figure, held prisoner by the English. Israel tries to help Allen escape but is unsuccessful. Disguised as a beggar, he goes to London, where he remains for more than forty years. During that time, he works as a brick-maker and laborer, always hoping to save enough money to return to America but never finding the economic situation in London stable enough to permit saving. A wanderer in an alien land, he becomes part of the grime and poverty of London. During those years, he marries a shopgirl who bears him a son. Finally, in 1826, he secures some credit and, with the help of the American consul, sails for America with his son.
Israel arrives in Boston on July 4, during a public celebration of the Battle of Bunker Hill. No one recognizes him or acknowledges his right to be there. Instead, people laugh at him and think he is mad. He returns to his father’s farm, but the homestead has long since disappeared. Old Israel, his wanderings ended, finds no peace, comfort, or friendship in his old age. Although heroes of the American Revolution are publicly venerated, the aged man cannot even get a small pension.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support