Trenton Cole Jones is Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University. This interview is based on his new book, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Radicalization of the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Captives of Liberty?
TJ: When I began to study history professionally in 2007, the United States was deeply mired in the seemingly unending “War on Terror.” What had begun as largely conventional conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq had devolved into complex counterinsurgencies in which the enemy did not abide by the laws of armed conflict as codified in the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. In a war against a tactic—terrorism—instead of a nation state, enemy prisoners posed thorny political questions. To treat Taliban or Al Qaeda fighters as prisoners of war eligible for exchange would implicitly acknowledge their legitimacy. Instead, U.S. forces held them indefinitely as illegal combatants. While the American populace responded in horror to news of abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay detention centers, official policy towards enemy captives remained unaltered.
This was the political context in which I began to think about America’s first war—the Revolutionary War. At the time, historians and pundits drew a stark contrast between contemporary Americans’ conduct of war in the Middle East—especially their treatment of enemy captives—and the apparent “humanitarian” actions of the “Founding Fathers.” I was intrigued by this juxtaposition and wanted to learn more. How had the American Revolutionaries negotiated the political and military challenges posed by prisoners? The answers I uncovered in the archives challenged my preconceived notions about the American Revolution and the war waged to secure it.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Captives of Liberty?
TJ: By analyzing the treatment of prisoners of war, Captives of Liberty recovers a revolutionary transformation in the conduct of the war that created the United States. Over the course of the struggle, British atrocities and loyalist resistance—both more often imaginary than real—galvanized ordinary Americans to wage an extremely violent war for vengeance that the decentralized revolutionary government could not contain.
JF: Why do we need to read Captives of Liberty?
TJ: Captives of Liberty is a cautionary tale about the power of revengeful rhetoric to escalate violence. The over 17,000 British and allied prisoners who suffered in American hands testify to the dangers of dehumanizing political opponents and to the fragility of law in the face of emotion. Revolutionary Americans had entered their conflict with Great Britain determined to demonstrate to the world that “Americans are humane as well as brave.” They failed to live up to this lofty aspiration of limiting war’s violence, but that does not mean that we should jettison their ambition. Instead of trying to live up to the standards set by the founding generation, we should strive to do better.
I also hope that my book restores the war, and its attendant suffering, deprivation, and death, to the political history of the American Revolution. Tearing down monarchical governance and establishing a republic came at a terrible cost that historians are only recently beginning to emphasize. American politics and society were profoundly shaped by the eight-years of civil war: a struggle every bit as revolutionary in character as its European successors. It is time, I think, for historians to abandon the antiquated and inaccurate title “The War for Independence” and to start calling the conflict what it really was: “The American Revolutionary War.”
JF: Why did you decide to become an American historian?
TJ: I grew up in the Hudson River valley of New York, surrounded by small vestiges of America’s colonial past. I have been fascinated by the American Revolution for as long as I can recall. The popular narrative of “Good American Patriots” versus “Bad British Redcoats” always troubled me. The causes, conduct, and consequences of the Revolution seemed so much more complicated than those platitudes suggested. I carried my interest in the Revolution into college where I caught the bug for historical research. After doing archival research on both sides of the Atlantic and loving every minute of it, I committed to the Ph.D. program in early American history at Johns Hopkins University. I count myself very fortunate to be able to read, write, think, and teach about American history for a living.
JF: What is your next project?
TJ: I am currently at work on two projects. The first is a short book, under contract with Westholme Press, that examines the opening stages of the Revolutionary War in North Carolina, culminating in the climactic battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776. The second more substantial project is a history of the war west of the Appalachian Mountains, currently entitled Patrick Henry’s War: The Struggle for Empire in the Revolutionary West. In short, it is a history of the rise and fall of Virginia’s empire during the era of the American Revolution.
JF: Thanks, Trenton!