The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution

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Book review: The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution by Virginia DeJohn Anderson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)

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How did two young men from Connecticut who supported opposing sides in the American Revolution meet the same fate only months apart? Why is one hailed as a hero and the other virtually forgotten? In The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution, Virginia DeJohn Anderson explores these questions by examining the lives, loyalties, deaths, and historical memory of Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar. Coming at a time when scholarship increasingly recognizes that the Revolution was a far more complicated affair than the typical grand narrative allows, the book is both groundbreaking and relevant.

As readers will see once again in this work, allegiance was far messier than merely choosing to support Loyalists or Patriots. Anderson’s work is a microhistory of two individuals with a highly engaging biographical narrative that shows how social networks, circumstances, and localized concerns influenced loyalties and decisions. Within the context of eighteenth century Connecticut, Anderson also provides details specific to that colony that helps explain why events transpired as they did and their reverberating effects. Highly engaging, eloquent, and convincing, the narrative at once further complicates and yet clarifies how the Revolution played out on a localized scale.

Anderson traces the lives and fates of Hale and Dunbar in parallel. This structure serves to remind readers that the two young men shared a similar world even though they occupied different stations in life and chose to support different sides in the Revolution. Hale belonged to the genteel class while Dunbar came from a poor family. Hale received a Yale education; Dunbar married young, lacked the important marker of status—land—and strained familial ties when he joined the Anglican Church. Both men began the missions that led to their deaths in September 1776—a time at which, as Anderson reminds us, people on both sides commonly believed the British would likely win the war.

Throughout the chapters, Anderson tells the stories of Hale and Dunbar in a way that shows how their lives reflected the social network, or lack thereof, around them and the key role it played in determining allegiance. While at Yale, Hale joined the Society of Linonia, a club that, as the author demonstrates, both developed his social network and primed that network in key ways to participate in rebellion. In addition to this primer for rebellion, Linonia allowed Hale to develop the craft of performance, perfectly reflected in his choice of last words from the play Cato and the audience at which he directed that performance. Although modern Americans look back on Hale’s last words as ones that bolstered the colonists in their cause, Anderson points out that Hale in fact intended the words to impact British officers in a two-fold manner: the play at once appealed to their shared genteel status while affirming his belief in the republican principles for which he died.[1]

Just as Hale’s social experiences set him on this trajectory, Dunbar’s social network influenced his allegiance and his actions on behalf of the British. Anderson shows that Dunbar perhaps always acted a bit impulsively and that certainly did not help him advance in his quest to become a propertied citizen. Following his marriage, his conversion to the Anglican Church furthered emotional distance from his family. Eventually his financial struggles, the death of his mother, the death of his first wife, and his subsequent remarriage drove Dunbar to enlist and recruit for the British army as a means of support.[2] Dunbar’s personal, financial, and familial circumstances underscore how his motivations developed as he sought resolutions to issues in his life rather than from high political beliefs. Furthermore, the political climate of Connecticut did not allow Dunbar to exist peacefully and essentially forced his hand and left him with few options.

In telling the story of Dunbar’s life, Anderson’s examination of Anglicanism in Connecticut and the strife between the Congregationalists and Anglicans is an important contribution not only to understanding the influences on the subjects of the book and their networks, but also to understanding the way in which religious conflict translated into political strife. As Anderson demonstrates, the strong presence of Anglicanism in Connecticut, along with Connecticut’s status as only one of two colonies that directly elected representatives, created an environment in which Dunbar could not quietly live. On a larger scale, then, not only the immediate personal circumstances but also the localized culture propelled Dunbar into the position that led to his death.

While Nathan Hale is remembered and celebrated as a hero and Moses Dunbar is virtually forgotten and erased from America’s Revolutionary memory, Anderson argues that the stories of both men are equally valuable and views Hale and Dunbar as opposing sides of the same coin. This idea is continually strengthened throughout the work as she brings in cultural, religious, economic, and familial factors to show how each man acted honorably according to their consciences. Placed within the context of the Revolution on a larger scale, readers see that Dunbar and Hale reflect the truly similar stances of both Whigs and Tories at the time—both parties supported Connecticut’s charter rights and mostly opposed parliamentary taxation; rather than differ in belief, they mostly differed in reaction.[3] If the British had indeed won the war, as both Hale and Dunbar believed likely as they hanged, historical memory of these figures could be quite the opposite.

Another important contribution is the consideration of social networks developing historical memory. In fact, as Anderson demonstrates, Dunbar’s memory has not been buried only because he was a Loyalist, but also because he lacked the social network and familial support of Hale. Looking back from our modern view and Hale’s inclusion as a person of note in the normalized Revolutionary narrative it is difficult to remember that at the time he hanged and for a time thereafter, he was not commonly considered a hero. The tireless efforts of his family and social network propelled Hale to that status decades after the war. That he ended up standing for the “right” side of course worked in his favor as the Revolutionary generation died off and interest in the time period increased.[4]

Dunbar, on the other hand, faded into obscurity even though he was the only Loyalist to hang in Connecticut during the Revolution. Unlike Hale’s supportive family, Dunbar’s relatives sought to distance themselves and forget him. Although Dunbar appeared in some local histories, his story faded into the simplified version of the American Revolution that has been taught for decades—the same simplified version that allowed Hale to attain his hero status. This simplified version also obscured Connecticut’s political environment during the Revolution that made Dunbar both a victim and an example.[5]

Although The Martyr and the Traitor is narrowly focused, the specifics of this study add considerably to the larger picture of the American Revolution. The book is refreshing on all fronts—the narrative is compelling and the argument convincing. Anderson presents sophisticated scholarship in an inviting manner and really opens up the world of Hale and Dunbar to the reader along with the crucial reminder that American independence was not a foregone conclusion and how easily things could have been different. Historical memory is a topic with which Americans regularly grapple and this book provides key insight into the way the narrative develops and showcases history’s continued relevance. For anyone interested in this time period it is absolutely a page turner.

 

[1] Virginia DeJohn Anderson, The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 148.

[2] Ibid., 160.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Ibid., 203.

[5] Ibid., 96 and 168. As Anderson observes, Connecticut was the only colony other than Rhode Island with elective executives and legislatures. As such, it was primed for Revolution and passed one of the earliest anti-Tory laws.

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2 Comments

  • I will have to read the book. Perhaps new information has been discovered? As far as I know there is no confirmation of Hale’s last words. Comparing the exploits of two spies however, including their background and political views, should be interesting reading if the known facts have been well researched.

  • Thanks for the thought-provoking review. As someone who has put a lot of time into examining the tensions between Anglicans and Congregationalists in Connecticut, and knowing something of Moses Dunbar, I am now eager to read this book.

    A tiny correction: though it is often so stated, Dunbar was not the only Loyalist hanged in Connecticut during the Revolution. William Stone of Stamford, who was caught recruiting for the Prince of Wales American Regiment, was hanged in Hartford in May of 1777, and Robert Thompson of Newtown, who was “spying” and recruiting for an unnamed Loyalist regiment, was caught in Danbury a few days before the Danbury raid and hanged in Newtown in early June of the same year.

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