The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution by Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Toward the end of Virginia DeJohn Anderson's moving and important book tracing the revolutionary-era lives of Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar, The Martyr and the Traitor, the reader is introduced to the case of Gurdon Whitmore, a Connecticut man who was accused of treason against the patriot cause. Both Whitmore and Dunbar, Anderson notes, "were convicted of high treason, but only one of them was hanged. To explain why their fates diverged so dramatically is to understand how vitally important local connections could be in mediating an individual's encounter with the divisive forces of the Revolution" (172). Whitmore could rely on his father to rally neighbors and local civic actors to negotiate in favor of his life and his eventual freedom. Dunbar, however, had moved too far from the dominant Congregational civic and religious culture of his upbringing and had become too estranged from his family. He had converted to Anglicanism and had seemed to act irrationally in his personal life, which denied him paternal and fraternal protection as well as familial economic assets. The inability to call on these connections and resoures cost him his life.
It was not only loyalists who met this fate. A few weeks earlier, the Connecticut patriot Nathan Hale had also been hanged. As Anderson reminds us in the book's second paragraph, for "up to several minutes" a condemned person such as Dunbar or Hale "writhed convulsively, sometimes soiling himself by urinating or defecating"—a "macabre dance" whose witnesses "hoped that during these final agonized spasms the condemned had one last chance to repent his evil deeds" (1). These grisly fates marked a shared end to lives that in many ways had run along the same course. Both Dunbar and Hale had grown up around Connecticut farms. And though they supported different sides as the imperial crisis became the American Revolution, with Hale eventually defined as a martyr and Dunbar a traitor, their stories, as Anderson points out, are "not as different as the verdict of posterity suggests" (3). Above all, Hale, no less than Whitmore and Dunbar, found his fate to be contingent on local social networks and civic frameworks during the American Revolution.
Anderson places the lives of Hale and Dunbar in a comparative biographical framework, adding a new interpretative lens to show how the [End Page 151] dissemination of patriot and loyalist ideologies exacerbated preexisting tensions in local relationships during the era of the American Revolution. The book demonstrates that, at a time when the notion of independence was not coherently or universally understood, those relationships were not destined to produce merely one allegiance. Anderson thus joins those scholars who question teleological readings of the American Revolution that define liberty and freedom using broad categories that distort the role of local contexts in forming ideological allegiances and suggest political foreknowledge that figures such as Dunbar and Hale never enjoyed.1
Hale's allegiances provide one such exemplary demonstration. In examining Hale's decision to spy for the patriots, Anderson reminds us that those with a gentlemanly Yale education, which might have encouraged loyalism, could actually be comfortable working against London—even while they believed Britain would win the ongoing war. To be sure, Hale's activities in Yale's Society of Linonia encouraged the production of belles lettres and polished performance, rather than generating the kind of robust politicized debate that students in other colonial institutions deployed against Britain.2 Yet the social networks formed at Yale fueled Hale's gradual assumption of patriot identity in the years after his graduation in 1773. He associated with fellow student Benjamin Tallmadge, who eventually became a patriot spy. And, having moved to New London, Hale joined other Yale graduates in becoming members of exclusive clubs such as the Independent Artillery Company, which provided a setting in which radical Whig ideology could became more pronounced, notwithstanding the genteel context. These were men whose social settings "weaned" (113) them from parental authority and who sought their own public voice as a new generation of gentlemen patriots.
Through Dunbar, conversely, Anderson demonstrates that loyalists were not always well-to-do provincials who feared the socioeconomic consequences of independence more than they resented British policy. Dunbar, Anderson shows, came from more modest means than Hale. Anderson's assessment of Dunbar also reasserts the importance of loyalists who remained in the American colonies during the revolutionary era—a [End Page 152] group who have fallen away a little in recent historiography, which has tended to focus on loyalist exiles.3
Dunbar's story provides a new spin on the microhistories of New England towns, which were once popular among scholars of colonial America.4 Early Americanists are familiar with eighteenth-century sons who were envious of propertied fathers who refused to die, and Dunbar's father inherited his landholdings only after anxious and protracted negotiations. In Dunbar's case, perceived paternal parsimony assumed a religious tinge. Partial land transfers might have made Dunbar's marriage to his wife Phoebe more economically secure, but tensions rose between father and son from religious as well as socioeconomic fissures. Phoebe's influence governed Moses's move toward the rituals of Connecticut's Anglican ministers, who, as Anderson points out, "were native sons, not English immigrants as was the case in many other colonies" (37). This conversion to Anglicanism placed him at odds with his "New Light" (36) father, John, who had embraced Congregational revivalism thanks in no small part to his wife Temperance's influence. In tracing these tensions, Anderson reminds us that men's religious choices were often directly driven by female piety, with important social and civic repercussions.
Thus the manifestation of internal religious tensions did not require the purported threat of Anglican imperial agents or sitting bishops to open up fissures between American colonists during the 1760s and 1770s. Preexisting confessional tensions were exacerbated, but not formed, by the revolutionary context. Anderson shows that many Connecticut Anglicans were happy to join in opposition to British acts. They may have lived in tension with Congregationalists and revivalists, but a good number did not wish to be controlled by a mainland British episcopacy. Nonetheless, when Moses Dunbar required the support of his Connecticut neighbors as he faced the gallows, his family could not negotiate with Congregationalists who resented his Anglican leanings. Many local Anglicans, meanwhile, were unlikely to risk the charge of disloyalty by stepping in to support Dunbar. Local connections and relationships governed the possibility of ideological action.
Anderson thus frames the story of Dunbar and Hale in a time when "anxiety" led many colonists "to look beyond their British adversaries and detect secret enemies closer to home, thereby transforming the War for [End Page 153] Independence into a civil as well as an imperial conflict." Even in seemingly placid Connecticut, "neighbors who shared similar backgrounds in terms of religion, race, ethnicity, and economic status found occasion during the revolutionary tumult to fear and hate one another" (3).
At some points, Anderson may overstate the continuity of religious divisions between the era of the Great Awakening and the period of imperial crisis. Her narrative suggests that tensions between evangelicals and moderates continued to reverberate through the 1760s, providing a context for the "infighting" (11) that would allow two Connecticut sons to take different sides during the revolution. But as Christopher Grasso has shown, in Connecticut the meaning and context of divisions over revivalism and traditional piety were often very different in 1745 than in 1765. During Thomas Clap's Yale presidency (1740–66), for example, theological principles were continually redefined, synthesizing revivalist and human-centered religious vocabularies in unpredictable ways. The dichotomies between revivalism and Arminian philosophy during the 1740s were not necessarily reflected in the theological divisions of later decades.5 Nonetheless, Anderson's discussion is important in demonstrating how tensions between Anglicans and Congregationalists shaped the choices made by those who responded to the centralizing tendency of British authority during the 1760s and 1770s. After the revolution, ironically, the role of Anglican Church members became less of a source of dispute and controversy: "As they became just one of several dissenting religious groups in a state with a Congregationalist establishment, residual concerns in Connecticut about Episcopalians' political allegiance evaporated" (196).
Posthumously, Dunbar and Hale were defined in ways that assumed and prioritized a unified ideology, whether loyalist or patriot, as the defining feature of their lives. In Anderson's assessment, Dunbar's famous "dying statement"—his scaffold speech—reflected a "literary genre that focused on the repentance of criminals." Yet such a genre "did not suit a man unwilling to renounce the political beliefs that led him to the noose" (176). Thus in his statement, most likely written in another man's hand, Dunbar avoided repentance when he proclaimed, "I die in the Possession and Communion of the Church of England" (177). These sentiments, and the local familial contexts that allowed them to germinate, were later forgotten by those who fashioned the memory of Dunbar as a traitor who chose British largesse over patriot ideology. In Hale's case, the local circumstances and exigencies that contextualized his eventual death may have prevented him from assuming heroic status immediately. Timothy Dwight's epic 1785 poem, The Conquest of Canaan, lamented Hale's death by hanging and sought to cement him as [End Page 154] a patriot hero. But Dwight was something of an outlier during this early period. As Anderson shows, it was only in the decades after the War of 1812 that men such as Hale were heroized in a broadly unified way. Statues were erected to describe their contribution to a universal vision of liberty, thereby eschewing the local contexts and ambiguous contingencies that in fact governed his life and death and, indeed, those of Dunbar. [End Page 155]
1. On the local and unpredictable contexts for identity formation during the revolutionary era, including those that encouraged loyalist rather than patriot ideology and that undermine teleological depictions of the inevitability of unified colonial identity against Britain, see for example Benjamin H. Irvin, "Independence before and during the Revolution," in The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, ed. Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky (New York, 2013), 139–58, esp. 139–40; Alfred F. Young and Gregory H. Nobles, Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding (New York, 2011), 135–256.
2. On the politicization of student activities in colleges other than Yale, particularly the College of New Jersey, see Mark Garrett Longaker, Rhetoric and the Republic: Politics, Civic Discourse, and Education in Early America (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2007).
3. Maya Jasanoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (London, 2011).
4. For an example of microhistories of New England published during the 1970s, see John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (New York, 1970); Philip J. Greven Jr., Four Generations: Populations, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts (Ithaca, N.Y., 1970); Robert A Gross, The Minutemen and Their World (New York, 1976).
5. See Christopher Grasso, A Speaking Aristocracy: Transforming Public Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Connecticut (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1999), 106, 144–85.