Virginia DeJohn Anderson is a Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Boulder. This interview is based on her new book, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write The Martyr and the Traitor?
VDA: I first encountered the story of Moses Dunbar years ago when I wrote an undergraduate paper about loyalists in Connecticut during the Revolution. I was intrigued by the fact that he was the only loyalist convicted of treason by a Connecticut civil court and hanged. Dunbar was mentioned in passing in a number of secondary sources, but there were few details about his unusual case. This left me with several unanswered questions. Who was Moses Dunbar and what led him to remain loyal to Britain? Did it have anything to do with his decision to leave the Congregational Church and become an Anglican? What were the circumstances leading to his arrest and trial? Why was he the only one executed for treason?
I put the project aside for quite a long time while I finished graduate school and wrote two books about seventeenth-century colonial America. In coming back to it, I realized that there wasn’t enough material on Dunbar alone to warrant a book, but if I combined his story with that of Nathan Hale, the famous patriot hanged by the British as a captured spy, I could construct a richer narrative about how colonists chose sides in the Revolution and address questions about why we remember some historical figures and forget others.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Martyr and the Traitor?
VDA: The book argues that neither patriots nor loyalists were destined to choose the sides they did in the Revolution, but rather reached those decisions as much in response to highly localized experiences as to the larger issues raised by the imperial crisis with Britain. The stories of Hale and Dunbar reveal that no side in the Revolution held a monopoly on principle, and remembering only the “winners” of the War for Independence distorts our understanding of the event and its impact on ordinary lives.
JF: Why do we need to read The Martyr and the Traitor?
VDA: The vast majority of biographical studies of Revolutionary figures focus on the Founding Fathers. Many of these works are valuable, but they nevertheless tend to satisfy a popular desire for a “heroic” version of history instead of challenging Americans’ understanding of their past. By offering equally sympathetic portraits of a patriot and a loyalist, who both started out as ordinary Connecticut farm boys, my book invites readers to imagine a far more complicated story. It shows how the choice of allegiance in the contest with Britain was embedded in the context of everyday life, as pre-existing social relationships based on family, friendship, and community became politicized. The book emphasizes historical contingency, noting that Hale and Dunbar both died when there was every indication that Britain would win the war. Had that happened, we might remember Dunbar as the martyr and Hale as the traitor.
The intense polarization that characterizes our contemporary political scene had its counterpart in the Revolutionary era, particularly when the outbreak of war in 1775 eliminated the possibility of anyone taking a neutral position. For many Americans, Nathan Hale represents the epitome of a Revolutionary patriot, but as Moses Dunbar discovered, many of the self-styled patriots in his own community tried to beat those who disagreed with them into submission—not the kind of behavior typically attributed to the Revolution’s advocates. Even in a relatively homogeneous place like Connecticut, the Revolution was a civil as well as imperial conflict, and the rifts it opened up would take time to heal.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
VDA: I grew up in Wethersfield, Connecticut, a town founded in 1634. When I was about twelve years old, I became fascinated by the colonial-era houses in town and wondered who had originally lived in them and what those residents’ lives had been like. At the University of Connecticut, my undergraduate institution, I was fortunate to learn from a number of wonderful historians—Richard Brown, Harry Marks, William Hoglund, Emiliana Noether, among others—who helped to transform my rather naïve interest in the past into a more sophisticated understanding. In the years since then, I have focused my research on ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary events—in my first two books, the establishment of English colonies in America, and now the Revolution. I hope this doesn’t sound too pompous, but I’ve grown to believe that as a scholar I have a duty to bear witness on behalf of people in the past who might otherwise remain silent and invisible.
JF: What is your next project?
VDA: I’m not quite sure yet, but since I began The Martyr and the Traitor I have grown more interested in the possibility of a movie based on Moses Dunbar’s story. There are very few good films about the Revolution, so I may next try my hand at a screenplay.
JF: Thanks, Virginia!