The Author’s Corner with Carlton Larson

The Trials of AllegianceCarlton Larson is Professor of Law at University of California Davis School of Law. This interview is based on his new book, The Trials of Allegiance: Trials, Juries, and the American Revolution(Oxford University Press, 2019)

JF: What led you to write The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book’s origins date to the spring of 1996, when I was trying to develop a topic for my college senior thesis. I became fascinated by the “forgotten founder” James Wilson, one of America’s most eminent lawyers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. I discovered that Wilson had defended men accused of treason against the state of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution, and this immediately sparked my interest – how did Americans come to prosecute other Americans for treason when the American Revolution was itself an act of treason against Great Britain? I thoroughly enjoyed writing the thesis, and I returned to the subject of treason several times as a law professor, now armed with a stronger understanding of law and the legal system. I began developing the material into a book in 2010. Now, twenty-three years after I began, the book is finally out.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The law of treason was central to the American Revolution, encompassing a host of issues from debates over the legitimacy of resistance activities to the treatment of Loyalists. Although a variety of institutions addressed potential disloyalty, ranging from the military to committees of safety, juries proved surprisingly lenient of accused traitors, reflecting a deep-seated belief that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment for treason.

JF: Why do we need to read The Trials of Allegiance?

CL: The book emphasizes several aspects of the American Revolution that have often been overlooked.

First, the American Revolution was a violent, bloody civil war that pitted neighbors against neighbors and fathers against sons. Everyone was potentially a traitor, either to Great Britain or to the United States. The leaders of the Revolution were deeply concerned that internal enemies, loyal to Great Britain, were lurking in the background, waiting for just the right moment to strike. Inevitably, the desire to take pre-emptive action against these perceived enemies clashed with traditional notions of Anglo-American liberty. This book shows how the founding generation addressed the competing goals of liberty and national security during a time of national crisis and significant internal division.

Second, colonial Americans began accusing other Americans of “treason against America” long before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Indeed, in trials before committees of safety in 1775 and early 1776, persons were convicted of this offense and sentenced to imprisonment. These trials demonstrated the functional establishment of American sovereignty and independence and the development of an American national identity well before the formal assertion of independence.

Third, one would not expect that persons accused of loyalty to Great Britain would fare particularly well before American juries during the Revolution. But grand juries repeatedly refused to indict persons accused of treason; trial juries refused to convict; and, in the few cases in which they convicted, trial jurors sought clemency for the defendant. In so doing, the jurors consistently treated treason differently than other capital crimes. Persons accused of treason were not incorrigible criminals, but friends and neighbors who had chosen the opposite side in a political dispute and thus were capable of reformation and assimilation back into the community. Eventually, even people who had fled to Great Britain were welcomed back; only Benedict Arnold, the arch-traitor, remained beyond possibility of redemption.

Finally, there has been very little written about how criminal juries actually operated in revolutionary America. This book provides a careful look at what were perhaps the most important jury trials of the Revolution, where ordinary men would sit in judgment of the allegiance of their peers. The book explores who served on juries, and how defense counsel shaped the jury through the creative employment of peremptory challenges on the lines of religion, age, wealth, ethnicity, and militia service.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CL: When I was six years old, my family spent a summer in Massachusetts and we visited many historic sites associated with the American Revolution. I have been fascinated by American history ever since. I majored in American history in college, and, although I do not have a Ph.D. in history, I have continued to write and teach about legal history as a professor at the UC Davis School of Law.

JF: What is your next project?

CL: My next project is a trade book with Ecco Press, tentatively titled Treason: A Citizen’s Guide to the Law. This book carries the story of treason forward from where The Trials of Allegiance leaves off. Look for it in 2020!

JF: Thanks, Carlton!

A Secondary Teacher (with a Ph.D) Reflects on Her Day at #AHA19

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Megan Jones of The Pingry School is back with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  In this post, Megan reflects on a “potpourri of panels” from Friday’s program.  (Read all of Megan’s posts here).  Enjoy!  –JF

A Potpourri of Panels – A Selection

Ingredient #1/Session #51: Teaching World History Through Cities.

I have taught modern World History before and have never been happy with my grasp of the material or the framework I’ve used. My school is revamping our World curriculum for the 9th grade and I’m interested in what higher-ed professors do to frame their courses. Using cities as a device is interesting, but as a person who grew up in a rural area I always find that urban focus a bit eye-roll-inducing. You cannot entirely represent the world in urban spaces, ESPECIALLY during the premodern era. But yeah, I get that cities are interesting and useful and the source material is more readily available. Maribel Dietz at LSU gave a really interesting presentation about her course on sport and spectacle in premodern cities, and the ways she uses her own campus to illustrate the role of sport in culture. (From the literal tigers in the Roman Coliseum to the figurative Tigers of LSU, so to speak.) Experiential education is all the rage in the secondary independent school world, and I’ve done a bit of such teaching for faculty and students. Dietz’s assertion that the best teaching is done on site when you can point to the actual physical space under consideration resonated with me; of course, not everyone has access to the resources one needs to physically transport students to a space in which students can interrogate the place and its built environment.

Ingredient #2/Session 72: Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Kaci Tillman’s work on women Loyalists in the Delaware valley during the American Revolution sounds fascinating, particularly in that her work reveals how some women (mostly Quakers) operated as autonomous agents – to the extent they could – within the legal and political context of the late 18th century. Tillman highlighted one subject who identified as a “neutralist” and entirely rejected the Patriot/Loyalist dichotomy. Another woman purposely confused Patriot soldiers as Hessians and performed the part of an ignorant woman, throwing the Patriots off the scent of a Loyalist man whom she was harboring in her attic. These are the perfect examples of anecdotes to use when presenting a paper at an academic conference – I cannot take it when historians do not reference actual individuals in their work. Additionally, the women’s historian part of me had a thrill when Mary Beth Norton stood up during the Q&A to encourage Tillman and another panelist to dialogue about the notions of masculinity and femininity present during this time, and how that informed our understanding of the Revolution as a whole. When is Tillman’s book coming out? And, I really need to read Norton’s book on Salem.

Ingredient #3/CCWH Session 10: The Coordinating Council for Women in History

The CCWH hosted a roundtable discussion covering new directions in the field, this one focused on sexuality and reproduction. The first discussant, Sanjam Ahluwalia, referenced a recent article by two white male historians lamenting the “suicide” of the discipline, in which they partly blame the decline of the discipline on historians who’ve turned to topics (namely, social and cultural history) that have little direct relevance (they argue) to the larger political and diplomatic context of the world. I don’t quite agree with the article and its assertion that the social and cultural turn has led to the decline in history majors, nor do I agree with the apparent categorical dismissal of the article by the roundtable audience. However, I do agree with what Deirdre Cooper Owens said in her analysis of why gender studies is so critiqued nowadays – because academic history is now being written by people who are not white, not male, not cisgendered, etc. And it is not only focused on white men; Owens said she focused her work on the [black female] patient – and that this was not rocket science. As a number of panelists mentioned, the importance of women’s history (which is often paired with gender history) is that women are centered and that centering changes the story entirely. Gender history challenges the binary nature of culture and society, and that is disconcerting for many.

Thanks, Megan!

Loyalism in the Age of Revolutions (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School on Gurnee, IL is doing yeoman’s work from the floor of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago.  Here is latest.  Enjoy!  (Read all of Matt’s posts here).  –JF

I wrote a research paper last semester on the ways in which evangelical women used religion to interpret and defend the American Revolution.  I included a section on Phillis Wheatley, but rather than rekindle the debate here over whether or not she was an evangelical, I’ll save that for my post on Saturday’s session, “Who is Evangelical?  Confronting Race in American Christianity.”  The original plan for my paper had been to include Loyalist women, whose evangelical faith led them to the opposite position, but space and time constraints forced me to narrow my focus to Patriots only.  Thus, I was thrilled to see two sessions titled “Loyalism in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions” on the agenda today at AHA19.  Both sessions were arranged by AHA President Mary Beth Norton.

I’d be remiss at this point to not put a plug in for my graduate program, which is offered through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, in cooperation with Pace University.  The program offers K-12 history teachers, such as myself, the chance to earn an MA in American History online for a fraction of the cost of most graduate programs, and best of all, the lectures are all led by preeminent historians in their respective fields.  The professor of my course last semester on women and the American Revolution was none other than Carol Berkin, who chaired the second session today on new research.

Timothy Compeau started that session off with his paper “Retributive Justice? Loyalist Revenge and Honorable Manhood in the American Revolution.”  It offered a fascinating look at the ways in which Christian virtue and masculine honor culture were in conflict during the Revolutionary Era and how this acutely affected Loyalist men.  According to Compeau, these men provide an excellent window into studying that culture.  He pointed out how Patriots specifically attacked the manhood of Loyalist men, such as when Alexander Hamilton claimed that Samuel Seabury was impotent or when Thomas Paine wrote that Tories were unfit to be husbands or fathers.  He also explained how due to the war, Loyalist men were limited in the ways that they could respond to such questions of honor.  Many chose Christian responses of forgiveness and restraint, out of necessity if not desire.  But some did find ways to square the use of retributive violence with their Christian faith.  In the end, many Loyalist men were able to claim that their choice had been the more masculine one, as it took greater manhood than the Patriots had to suffer all the indignities that were forced upon them.  As Compeau succinctly put it, “by defending the Crown, loyal men gained nothing put honor.”

Elite, white, Loyalist women of the Delaware River Valley were the focus of Kacy Tillman’s paper and she brought up names that were familiar from my own research, such as Grace Growden Galloway and Elizabeth Drinker.  Tillman sought to parse some of the differences among such Loyalist women.  Some were what she called active Loyalists, others were passive Loyalists.  Some assumed the label while others had it attached to them.  And many of them were Loyalist by association, be it familial, religious, or both.  Tillman’s thesis was that all of these women faced violations of their bodies and their writings (“stripped and script,” as the title of her paper aptly put it) as a result of their Loyalism.  One of the things she noticed in her research was that one can learn just as much from what these women didn’t write than what they did.  Perhaps that’s why I had such difficultly using those sources for my own paper.  “It’s hard to read for silence,” Tillman said.  “But we have to be able to do so when reading the letters of Loyalist women.”

James Sidbury rounded out the session with some words of reassurance related to my own experience in researching Loyalists.  He started off his talk by defending the truism that history is often written by the winners, but then qualified that observation.  “There’s been a whole lot written about the Revolution,” he said.  “It’s inevitable that something is going to be written about [Loyalists].”  His paper focused on the Black Loyalists from Nova Scotia who helped found the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone.  Those colonists, while remaining loyal to the British Crown, led an uprising against the company that ran the colony and attempted to create an autonomous enclave within the colony by using many of the Enlightenment ideals of rights and governance they had learned in Anglo-America.  As Sidbury’s talk made clear, despite the Nova Scotians’ embrace of some American ideals, the new United States explicitly excluded non-whites from political participation.  Thus, it makes sense that monarchical government still held much ideological appeal for Black Loyalists in the Age of Atlantic Revolutions.

Thanks again, Matt!

The Author’s Corner with Gregg Frazer

9780700626960Gregg Frazer is professor of history and political studies and Dean of the School of Humanities at The Master’s University. This interview is based on his new book God against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case against the American Revolution (University Press of Kansas, 2018).

JF: What led you to write God Against the Revolution?

GF: My primary research interest is religion and the American Founding. I became re-acquainted with the sermons of Loyalist minister Jonathan Boucher while doing research on American Revolution-era sermons for my first book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders. I have always been impressed with Boucher’s biblical argument and with his rational challenges to John Locke’s theories. Having analyzed the basic arguments and assumptions of the Patriot preachers in my first book, I became intrigued with the idea of examining the arguments of the Loyalist clergymen and, as they were the primary spokesmen of Loyalism, the political thought of the Loyalists in general. Irrespective of the title, the book covers all of the Loyalist arguments.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of God Against the Revolution?

GF: One cannot fully understand the political thought of the American Revolutionary period or the choice of whether or not to participate in the Revolution without a fair understanding of the arguments of those who opposed it. Loyalists were well-intentioned Americans who, while they disagreed with British actions, argued from the Bible, from theory, from English law, from the American situation, and in response to the actions of the revolutionaries for a moderate response of negotiation and conciliation rather than rebellion,.

JF: Why do we need to read God Against the Revolution?

GF: Those who want to more fully understand the political thought of the American Revolutionary period need to read God Against the Revolution. It cannot really be understood without the Loyalist point of view, which is presented here largely in the Loyalists’ own words. Those who want to experience the arguments of the Loyalists as they offered them to the public – in other words, those who can imagine being an eighteenth-century American asked to make an informed choice to rebel or not to rebel – need to read God Against the Revolution. Given that up to two-thirds of eighteenth-century Americans did not support the Revolution and given present-day acts of violent “resistance” against the current American administration (including attempts by resisters to silence their opponents), there is value in examining the case against a right of resistance by a minority that decides on its own that the government is deserving of violent opposition. Christians need to read chapter two of God Against the Revolution, then wrestle with, and meditate on, the biblical arguments made by the Loyalist clergymen. Finally, we need to read God Against the Revolution to finally give the Loyalists the hearing that they were due, but were mostly denied, more than two hundred years ago.

JF: When and why did you become an American historian – or get interested in the study of the past?

GF: My undergraduate degree is in history; my graduate degrees are in political science with emphases in political theory and American politics. All of these, in combination with my Christian faith, come together in my research interest in religion and the American Founding. As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the past and with ideas – especially persistent ideas that have motivated human beings to act and that are still relevant today. History provides an interesting story and analysis of the thoughts and beliefs of the actors in those stories both enriches the stories and helps us to learn lessons that only history can provide. As a Christian who believes in a completely infallible Bible, I do not agree with Publius that experience (history) is “the least fallible guide of human opinions,” but I do view it as a very valuable guide.

JF: What is your next project?

GF: I am not as prolific as scholars such as John Fea. I have to strategize between projects with the limited time available to me for research and writing. I have not yet settled on a project.

JF: Thanks, Gregg!

Romans 13 and the Patriots

RevisedCheck out Lincoln Mullen‘s recent piece at The Atlantic on the use of Romans 13 in American history.  He correctly notes that Romans 13 was not only used by Loyalists who opposed the American Revolution, but also by patriots who tried to interpret the verse to justify rebellion against George III.

Here is what I wrote on this subject in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction:

The patriots used phrases such as “passive obedience” and “unlimited submission” to describe this Anglican view of the relationship between Christians and civil authority.  They spend hundreds of pages trying to counter it.  The most outspoken defender of such a patriotic interpretation of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 was Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church.  Mayhew was a liberal Congregationalist and forerunner of the Unitarian movement in New England.  He was committed to interpreting the Bible predominantly through the grid of natural law and reason.  His sermon on Romans 13, “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers,” was preached in 1750 on the celebration of the one-hundreth anniversary of the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War.  Despite the fact that Mayhew’s sermon was published a quarter-century prior to the outbreak of revolutionary hostility in Boston, John Adams, reflecting on the causes of the Revolution, wrote in 1818: “If the orators on the fourth of July really wish to investigate the principles and feelings which produced the Revolution, they out to study…Dr. Mayhew’s sermon on passive obedience and non-resistance.

Mayhew began his sermon by affirming that Romans 13 required Christians to be obedient to government, regardless of whether the government was a monarchy, republic, or aristocracy.  But the real issue at hand was the extent to which such “subjection to higher powers” should be practiced.  Mayhew concluded that sometimes resistance to civil authority might be justified.  According to Mayhew, Romans 13 could not be advocating unlimited submission to government because such a practice did not conform either to the true meaning of the passage or to the dictates of reason.  Paul’s primary audience in this passage was those in the first-century Roman church who did not show proper respect to civil authority and were of a “licentious opinion and character.”  Moreover, Romans 13 could not conceivably require submission to all rulers, but only to those rulers who were “good.”  Rulers who “attend continually upon the gratification of their own lust and pride and ambition, to the destruction of the public welfare,” were not worthy of a Christian’s submission.  Mayhew argued, “Rulers have no authority from God to do mischief.”  It is “blasphemy,,” he continued, to “call tyrants and oppressors God’s ministers.”  It follows that when a ruler becomes tyrannical, Christians “are bound to throw off our allegiance to him, and to resist; and that according to the tenor of the apostle’s argument in this passage.”  Perhaps the most ironic think about Mayhew’s argument is the way he managed to transform Romans 13 from a verse teaching submission to authority into a verse justifying the execution of Charles I and, for that matter, all rebellion against tyrannical government.  Charles I, he concluded, had failed to respect the “natural and legal rights of the people,” against the unnatural and illegal encroachments of arbitrary power.”  As a result, resistance was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the nation from “slavery, misery, and ruin.”

For Mayhew, it was “obvious” to any rational person exercising common sense that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 did not teach submission to a government perceived to be tyrannical.  How could God require his people to live under oppression?  God has promised his people freedom.  But such an interpretation required ministers like Mayhew to move beyond a plain reading of these texts.  In order to turn these passages into revolutionary manifestos, Mayhew needed to interpret them with a strong does of the idea of political philosophers such as John Locke. In his famous Two Treatises on Government (1689), a pamphlet designed to explain why the Glorious Revolution (the removal of English monarch James II from the throne) was justified.  Locke taught that individuals had the right to life, liberty, and property.  His justification of resistance to government had a profound influence on the leaders of the American Revolution, but it ran counter to the teachings of Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.  This tension did not stop clergy from interpreting these passages through the grid of Locke’s revolutionary teachings.

Let’s be clear.  Romans 13 teaches that Christians should submit to government,  but it does not seem to require unconditional submission.  It is not an easy verse to apply and we must be very careful about applying it universally.

Were high taxes (Stamp, Townsend, etc.), “no taxation without representation,” the Coercive Acts, or British military presence in the  American colonies (“standing armies”) so atrocious that Christians had a legitimate reason to violate Romans 13?   I don’t think so, but others, like Mayhew, disagree.  (Let’s remember that Romans 13 also tells Christians to pay their taxes).

Is the stripping of children from their families at the Mexican border atrocious enough for Christians to violate Romans 13?  I would say yes.  Of course this entire point is moot because, as far as I understand it, there is no American law requiring ICE officials to take children away from their parents.

“A suit of tar and turkey-buzzard feathers”

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Samuel Seabury

The Monmouth County, New Jersey Committee of Observation and Inspection REALLY didn’t like the pamphlet Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress.  The author of the pamphlet was listed as “A.W. Farmer,” a pen name for Westchester, New York Anglican minister Samuel Seabury.  Some of you recognize Seabury from the musical “Hamilton.”

Here is a taste of the Committee’s minutes from March 1775:

At an early meeting of said Committee, a pamphlet entitled Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress by A.W. Farmer, was handed in to them and their opinion of it asked by a number of their constituents then present.  Said pamphlet was then read, and upon mature deliberation unanimously declared to be a performance of the most pernicious and malignant tendency; replete with the most specious sophistry but void of any solid or rational argument; calculated to deceive and mislead the unwary, the ignorant, and the credulous; and designed no doubt by the detestable author to damp that noble spirit of union, which he sees prevailing all over the Continent, and if possible to sap the foundations of American freedom.  The pamphlet was afterwards handed back to the people, who immediately bestowed upon it a suit of tar and turkey-buzzard’s feathers; one of the persons concerned in the operation justly observing that although the feathers were plucked from the most stinking fowl in the creation he though they felt far short of being a proper emblem of the author’s odiousness to every advocate for true freedom.  The same person wished, however, he had the pleasure of fitting him with a suit of the same materials.  The pamphlet was then in its gorgeous attire, nailed up firmly to the pillory post, there to remain as a monument of the indignation of a free and loyal people against the author and vendor of a publication so evidently tending both to subvert the liberties of America and the Constitution of the British Empire.

Apparently violence was not only directed toward other human beings during the American Revolution.  It was also directed to pamphlets!

The Author’s Corner with Virginia DeJohn Anderson

VDA Book CoverVirginia 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!

Historians of Canada Have Been Studying Loyalists for a Long Time

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Because history is often written by the winners, Whigs and patriots have long dominated the study of the American Revolution.  Loyalists–or those men and women who supported the Crown during the Revolution–have thus received sort shrift in the narratives that historians write about this era.

Are early American historians rediscovering the Loyalists?  Yes and no.  While many historians in the United States are trying to bring more complexity to the story of the American Revolution by bringing Loyalists into the mix, others–particularly scholars who focus on Canada and “North America” more broadly–have been studying Loyalists for a long time.

This is the argument of University of New Brunswick historian Bonnie Huskins in a recent piece at Borealia.

Here is a taste:

It has been gratifying to see the number of recent Borealia blog posts on the loyalists – Sources for Loyalist Studies, Loyalists in the Classroom: Students reflect on historical sources, The Future of Loyalist Studies, and Let’s Play Again: Recovering “The Losers” of the American Revolution (Part I). However, it is sometimes a tad frustrating to hear references to the loyalists as an ‘overlooked’ people. Perhaps this is the case in the context of American historiography, but I would like to interject with the reminder that scholars of British North America/Canada have been studying the loyalists for a long time. This is articulated in Jane Errington’s 2012 review essay “Loyalists and Loyalism in the American Revolution and Beyond” as well as Ruma Chopra’s “Enduring Patterns of Loyalist Study: Definitions and Contours.” I realize that many scholars of early America are more interested in examining the loyalists in situ. Indeed, one of the most interesting directions in loyalist studies is the analysis of loyalist reintegration into the United States being pursued by historians such as Rebecca Brannon. Nonetheless, I still hold that the literature written about loyalists and loyalism in a Canadian and Atlantic World setting are useful for American researchers. Perhaps this is a transitional moment, as Chris Minty suggests in The Future of Loyalist Studies. As scholars and public historians engage with the loyalists who returned to the United States, or never left, it is hoped that they will do so in the spirit of collaboration.

Read the rest here.

Losing the Revolution

loyalistsWe have mentioned Borealia here before.  It is relatively new blog devoted to early Canadian history.  Not only is the blog attractive, but it has also been putting out some really good content.  In the past couple of months Keith Grant and Denis McKim have published some thoughtful posts on the history of loyalism during the age of the American Revolution.

A case in point is Taylor Stoermer‘s recent piece, “Let’s Play Again: Recovering ‘The Losers’ of the American Revolution.”

I like how Stoermer frames his post.  Here is a taste:

Much has been made lately of the rediscovery of the American Revolution by scholars as a series of questions that remain unresolved.  Both veteran historians and those new to the field (although those groups aren’t mutually exclusive) are, through conferences and colloquia and online forums, exploring this ostensibly transformative event of the late eighteenth century on something close to the level of those who lived through it, now that we are in a “post-Atlantic” historiographical moment.  Mostly gone are the debates that left the study of revolutionary history somewhat moribund, as neo-whigs and neo-progressives, even a neo-tory or two, marched away from the field without a decisive victor, as their concerns were abandoned like an unnecessary baggage train, in favor of shifting interests towards exploring discrete groups in provincial America, the Early Republic, and what was left of British North America.  But now revolutionary history is in the midst of something of a renaissance, which as a historian of the Revolution, I can only applaud, even as I watch with no small wonder as historians largely dismiss the work of older, yet still very much relevant, scholars in favor of their new pursuits of intellectual happiness.

Nevertheless, it is an exciting moment for those of us who still find the American Revolution a puzzling and exciting field of inquiry, especially because, as one looks more closely at it, the more it resembles an exercise in fauvism, devolving into tiny points of colorful interest that reveal patterns missed by earlier observers.  The danger, of course, is in remaining so focused on the small points that the larger picture is lost, as happens in so many micro-histories, as valuable as many of them are in recovering the stories of the heretofore unsung men and women who made most of the history of the period.  After all, as Henry David Thoreau reminded us in his reflections on “Revolutions” that “The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid—the keystone of the arch…. The most important is apt to be some silent and unobtrusive fact in history” (Journal, 27 December 1837).  And such an approach helps us to avoid the pitfall, into which many of us can trip, of considering whatever happened in eighteenth-century North America that divided the British world from an American one, as part of a grand, impersonal scheme of processes and mentalities, almost Calvinistically predetermined by the forces of social change that led inexorably from the colonial to the early national period of U.S. History (leaving Canada, unfortunately but conveniently, out of the picture).

But there remains that pesky question of just what was so revolutionary about the period in between the colonial era and the Early Republic, what we call the American Revolution?  The fact that it now seems to be an open question for scholars, perhaps for the first time, whether sitting at a university or in an armchair, is invigorating enough.  The first historians of the Revolution, such as Mercy Otis Warren and John Marshall, never doubted for a moment that there was something transformative about it.  Their primary concern, however, was not whether such a transformation took place, but who was responsible for it, and therefore could define it for contemporaries and posterity.  That we can freshly approach the people and events of the period, without being weighed down by the ideological baggage of centuries, but also without ignoring it, should drive an entire new era of scholarship that puts the colorful points, many of which have only dimly been perceived, back into the broader picture.

For me, the overlooked people who are most interesting are the loyalists, and properly defining them, as my work seeks to do, along with that of other historians with similar interests, can reveal a whole new revolutionary history, one that not only breaks down our understanding of the period’s freighted language, like “patriot” and “tory,” but that might make us entirely redefine what we mean when we say “the American Revolution.”

Read the rest here and stay tuned to Borealia for the second part of Stoermer’s piece.

_Journal of the American Revovlution_ Announces Book of the Year

And the winner is:

Duval

Here is a taste of the announcement from the editors of the Journal of the American Revolution:

This year’s winner is Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution by Kathleen DuVal (Random House, 2015). DuVal expands the geographic boundaries of the traditional narrative outward to include the Gulf Coast region, with its diverse populations: loyal British colonists and rebellious British colonists; Spanish colonists; Acadian refugees; Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw native nations, and factions within each; Africans enslaved under British and under Spanish rule. This sweeping cast produced complex webs of allegiances that DuVal deftly uncovers.

Read our interview with DuVal here.

The State of Loyalist Studies

Borealia: A Group Blog on Early Canadian History continues to produce solid content.  For example, today I read Christopher Minty’s post on the future of loyalist studies.  As someone who does not write too much about loyalists, I found it to be a short and very useful overview.

Here is a taste:

Defining “loyalist” is difficult for a number of reasons. Many of the problems relate to grouping loyalists together. Those white and black men and women who, at one stage, opposed America’s revolutionaries had different backgrounds. Their stories were rarely comparable, and contrasting impulses underpinned their allegiance. Furthermore, many loyalists were not really loyalists at all. As one contemporary noted during the Revolutionary War, people “wait[ed] to go with the stronger.” That is, they sided with the strongest military, or political, presence. Their ideological or political beliefs mattered less than their lived reality.[3]
Definitions are tricky, of course, but some have been quick to criticize when one is not offered. Philip Ranlet, in a 2014 article in The Historian, criticized Jasanoff’s George Washington- and National Book Critics-prize-winning Libertys Exiles for not providing a rigid definition of “loyalist.”[4]
Back in Nova Scotia, in answer to the question on defining “loyalist,” I remarked that a tiered framework could be useful. I have developed this idea, in an episode of The JuntoCast. The number of tiers would vary, but it would work like this: those who were committed loyalists, individuals dedicated to the restoration of British rule, would be a “Tier 1” loyalist. Those who changed sides, people like Peter Van Brugh Livingston, Jr., would be further down the scale.
This could be a workable tool for teaching purposes, but I do not think it can be used to further scholarship. If one adds too many tiers with hopes of understanding how the Revolutionary War affected ordinary people, then the term “loyalist” becomes meaningless—if everyone was, at one point, a “loyalist,” no one was a “loyalist.” Simply put, by asking what a “loyalist” is indefinitely, we run the risk of missing the forest from the trees.
Where, then, do we go from here? Like Brendan McConville, I do not have an open-access Manifesto for Loyalist Studies. But, like Woody Holton advocates, a return to microhistorical, comparative studies might offer a new direction. Indeed, a focus on the lived reality of people during the Revolutionary War, individuals who, for whatever reason, did not support America’s revolutionaries, could trigger a new direction in loyalist studies. That is to say, by focusing less on “what is” and focusing more on “what happened, and why,” we might begin to understand the contrasting local impacts of war, investigating how and why it affected people in distinct, though related, ways.

Do You Want To Study Loyalists?

If your answer to this question is “yes,” then you should read Christopher Minty’s latest post at Borealia.  It is a nice essay on using petition and oaths of allegiance to King George III for studying those who stayed loyal to Great Britain during the American Revolution.  

Here is a taste:

Writing in Libertys Exiles, Maya Jasanoff argued that the Loyalist Claims Commission was a useful—perhaps the most useful—source available for scholars working on loyalists. They are indeed useful, offering thousands of biographical snippets of a wide range of individuals. Most scholars have used the claims, in some capacity.
But, alongside the claims, there are other sources out there that offer a different, less biased insight into loyalists during the American Revolution. In this post, after a brief discussion of “signing” prior to 1776 and with a particular focus on New York, I will discuss the historical uses of loyalist petitions and oaths of allegiance to King George III.
It doesn’t take long to sign a piece of paper. A flick of the pen. A transitory introduction of ink with paper, forever etching a combination of letters together with a contract, an idea, or a statement. Even though it didn’t take long, there could be long-term consequences for signing a piece of paper. Indeed, once a name hit the page, the cloud of anonymity was lifted. Political views could no longer be hidden from view.
Prior to and during the American Revolution, signing subscription lists or petitions was an important barometer of an individual’s or a group’s political persuasion(s). On multiple occasions, between 1765 and 1776, the difference between a “signer” and a “non-signer” were significant; it often marked the distinction between those who were “for” something and those who were “against” something.

The American Revolution Through British Eyes

I just learned about this book through Don Hagist’s review at The Journal of the American Revolution.  As someone who works on the American Revolution, I would love to have this two-volume documentary collection, edited by James Barnes and Patience Barnes, in my library, but I can’t afford the $250.00 price tag.  (Maybe Kent State will send me a copy in exchange for a review on the blog!)  Here is a taste of Hagist’s review:

The material is arranged chronologically within sections focused on the major phases of the war. The documents chosen span the range of influence from diplomatic correspondence from the King and government officials, to military correspondence from senior generals to junior regimental officers. Through the words of participants, we can follow the arc of the war, from institution of policies and reactions to behavior of the American colonists, through initial optimism that the rebellion could be quelled and confidence that it was localized and fomented by a minority, to dismay at the tenacity of the rebels and the unexpectedly low level of loyalist support. Particularly welcome is the inclusion of material concerning the navy as well as the army, resulting in a balanced look at the operational concerns of conducting a largely coastal war on the opposite side of an ocean from the sources of policy, strategy, finance and supply.

The editors made the expeditious but questionable choice of drawing largely from published sources. This is a bit disappointing for those who already have a substantial library of British primary source material; for those who have already researched this perspective on the war, the two substantial volumes of The American Revolution through British Eyes might provide little new material. The arrangement of the material, however, is liable to be easier to use than the books from which they are compiled, making this new collection valuable even though not novel.

The documents presented are drawn heavily from the famous compilation Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 by K. G. Davies, and some other widely-available published collections. In at least one case, the editors chose to draw from another compilation rather than the published complete manuscript – passages by Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment are drawn from The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants edited by Henry Steele Commager and. Richard B. Morris, rather than from the more comprehensive John Peebles American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadiery 1776-1782 edited by Ira D. Gruber. All are cited properly but introduce the possibility of repeating errors made by previous editors. It also makes it challenging for the reader wishing to verify the transcriptions or other aspects of the original documents, requiring the previous published source to be consulted in order to find the manuscript source. This is better, though, than the practice of “leapfrogging”, that is, consulting the published source but citing the manuscript source.

Rebutting the Declaration of Independence

Of course not everyone liked the Declaration of Independence.  Here is a blog post on Michael Lind’s “Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress,” published in London in 1776.  This is one of several British rebuttals that came out shortly after the Declaration was released to the public.

Lind responds point by point to the American grievances against the King.  What is interesting is that he does not address any of the ideas laid out in the first two paragraphs, namely the part about “we hold these truths to be self-evident” and “all men are created equal,” etc…

As I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, following David Armitage’s Declaration of Independence: A Global History and Pauline Maier’s American Scripture, these were common British ideas accepted by both the colonies and the English.  This may be part of the reason why Lind does not bother to address them.  There is nothing particularly new or revolutionary about them.

Interview with Maya Jasanoff

Over at The New Yorker book blog, James McAuley interviews Maya Jasanoff, the author of a relatively new book on loyalists that has been receiving a lot of good attention.  I have yet to read Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, but I hope to get to it soon.  Here is a taste of the interview:

What lessons can be drawn from the Loyalist Claims Commission, the British organization that paid reparations to many displaced loyalists?

Moved by a sense of national obligation, Britain put on a massive relief program for American refugees at a time when its deficit had never been higher. The lesson? That states should honor commitments to their weakest members, and to their allies overseas. In the aftermath of recent withdrawals from Iraq, for example, the British have helped many of their Iraqi employees emigrate to the U.K., while the U.S. has proved sluggish at best in granting visas to Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces, leaving thousands in fear of reprisal.

In “Liberty’s Exiles” you suggest that the loss of the colonies wasn’t entirely bad for the British. How did they benefit from the revolution?

In a sense, the American Revolution was the best thing that could have happened to the British Empire. The defeat encouraged Britain to keep up the pace of global expansion, set out a kind of moral statement of purpose for the empire, and be clearer about the extent of crown authority and the limits of subjects’ rights, which helped ward off conflicts of this kind again. In short, Britain turned out to be a good loser. It handled the loss in America as a setback, not a catastrophe.

Liberty’s Exiles

Maya Jasanoff’s new book Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World is high on my reading list.  From what I have been able to tell, this book has the potential to be the definitive work on Loyalists during the American Revolution.  Hopefully we will get a copy and be able to do a review here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  

In the meantime, check out Linda Colley’s review  at The Guardian.  Here is a taste:

For a very long time, loyalists were often left out of patriotic American histories of the revolution. Or they were caricatured as upper-class Tory reactionaries, or – rather like the Jacobites – made the subject only of nostalgic antiquarianism. Maya Jasanoff’s achievement in this vivid, superbly researched and highly intelligent book is skilfully to weave together and supplement a mass of recent revisionist research on these men and women, and to analyse their complex roles and significance in the imperial and global history of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.