BOOK REVIEW: The Tory’s Wife: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America by Cynthia Kierner (University of Virginia Press, 2023)
Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America demonstrated women’s resilience to create their own “republican motherhood;” this later evolved into accomplishing what the revolution did not do for women. Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters challenged the notion that colonial America was the “golden age” for gender equality, illustrating the importance of including female perspectives in the colonial era. More work is being done and still needs to be done to uncover these female voices.
Ordinary citizens contributed to independence efforts, and many endured hardships because of the revolution. The historical record in the post-revolutionary era left out these stories to portray the “glorious revolution” narrative. Stories of the “disaffected” or neutral, Loyalist, and Whig offer diverse perspectives that are important to challenging this narrative. Scholars recognize that families and communities fought a “war of ideals,” outside the battlefield. Microhistories are perfect for examining underrepresented and marginalized voices. Scholars can ask larger questions about intersections between families, communities, ideologies, and war.
The Tory’s Wife: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America, a microhistory by renowned historian Cynthia A. Kierner, reveals the lesser known story of the Spurgin family in pre- and post-revolutionary America. It focuses on Whig Jane Spurgin and three petitions she submitted to the North Carolina legislature. Jane was a Whig and her husband was a Tory. She opened her home to Gen. Nathanael Greene and his troops during his southern excursions in the 1780s. Her petitions attempted to recover one third of her husband’s property; the state confiscated it due to William’s political leanings. She also desired repayment for supplies she gave to Continental soldiers at her home.
Kierner, a professor at George Mason University, is known for her extensive scholarship on this period, paying particular attention to stories of women in early southern America. The work builds upon past scholars, like Kerber and Norton, emphasizing that women understood that the revolution limited their voice, but its ideals could be used to expand liberty and equality between genders. Women were not just passive bystanders; patriarchal norms affected them. They recognized this and used it to their advantage. Jane Spurgin’s story was first mentioned in Kierner’s 1998 work Southern Women in the Revolution.
Kierner stated that Spurgin’s story stayed with her, as Spurgin’s petition was one of the first to publicly claim citizenship rights for women. Kierner argues that the American Revolution transformed Jane’s political consciousness into demanding these rights. Jane’s petitions demonstrate her own understanding in challenging social hierarchy. Finally, Jane’s perspective as a non-male soldier widens perspectives and challenges prevailing notions about the revolution.
Chapter one details genealogy as Jane and husband William Spurgin families’ migrated to North Carolina. Kierner sets the foundation by illustrating historical context for the colony and its religious, economic, and social makeup. For example, mostly experienced farmers migrated to North Carolina desiring upward mobility. Jane came from Maryland, a dominantly Protestant and religiously tolerant colony. Labor was gendered; Jane spent most of her time tending to the farm and home. Although far removed from the eastern colonists’ fights over the Stamp Act, North Carolina’s “backcountry” was the first to instruct delegates in its congress to vote for independence. Its history is rife with political uprisings such as the Culpeper’s Rebellion, happening almost ninety years before the Stamp Act protests in 1765. This “backcountry” geographically is the main focus of Kierner’s work; it is this environment that Jane lived in.
Kierner explains that Jane’s political opinions at this time are unknown. However, growing up in a Protestant colony may have had an impact. Later, Kierner discusses Abbotts Creek Baptist Church supporting Jane’s petition to the state assembly. Analyzing these early familial and religious connections may have strengthened Keirner’s argument. According to Kierner, there is a lack of sources on the effects of this on Jane’s early life. Although Kierner doesn’t focus on it, Jane’s background may have influenced her political choices much later. Despite having political opinions of her own, most assumed Jane possessed the same as her husband.
Kierner devotes a chapter to William Spurgin, his rise to become Justice of the Peace to Rowan county, and his exploits during the revolution. While William was known as a respectable man, he would not renounce his allegiance to the king. Things came to a head as the Regulators of North Carolina protested taxes and the corruption of colonial officials. Jane’s brother narrowly escaped execution as a Regulator, and her other brothers may have supported the movement. Although his military exploits are relatively unknown, William did serve in the Tory militia. But he was subsequently banished from the state as a Loyalist. This left Jane and her many children alone and in financial difficulty. She had to pay more taxes on William’s property because of his political choices. His property was eventually sold off, and Jane attempted to recover the one-third she was owed; a law allowed Tories’ wives who stayed behind to receive this one third. The chapter on William and the effects of his choices add weight to part of Kierner’s argument. The revolution caused Jane and her family much hardship, which challenges the notion that revolution ended all hardship and inequalities. Language of Jane’s petitions emphasizes the struggle to reconcile these hardships. Analyzing the language used gives readers a peek into Jane’s political consciousness.
Kierner analyzes the language of Jane’s petitions to document her transformation into a politically active citizen. The chapters “The Tory’s Wife” and “Common Rights of Other Citizens” are the strongest parts of the work. As mentioned previously, Jane was a Whig; her husband a Tory. Yet, historical figures do not exist in a vacuum. They were transformed and affected by social, political, economic, and personal changes around them. Kierner’s argument for Jane’s transformation is supported by her own knowledge of social and political systems of the era. For example, her first petition to reclaim lost property mentions her “reliance” on the “disposition of the General Assembly.” Jane demonstrates her understanding of social and legal ramifications; she portrays an image of a helpless widow with children in need of assistance. Kierner uses other women’s petitions as examples. Most wives of Tories presented themselves in this manner. As Jaqueline Beatty’s In Dependence has argued, women had to play into stereotypes of this helplessness and dependence in order to gain support from legislatures. Personal changes in Jane’s world also take shape, and Kierner illustrates the effects of this change in Jane’s second petition.
Her husband William began a relationship with Ann Ruddick from Montgomery county, while on the run. While Jane mentioned she was in a situation “worse than a Widow and Orphans,” she was also highly critical of the state. And she demanded the rightful return of her widow’s portion of property, which she had lost due to the carelessness of her husband’s “transgressions.”
According to Keirner, the first two petitions illustrate a slow change in how Jane presented herself, from demonstrating her helplessness and reliance on the government to full on critiquing the government for not fulfilling its obligations. No doubt, her exasperation reflected years she suffered due to men in her life: her husband’s transgressions and General Greene’s men that stole from the “Tory’s wife” during their stay.
By her third petition, Jane called her husband “Enemical to the revolution,” but it was a marriage she could not dissolve. Divorces were extremely rare at the time for women. Kierner relies on Jane’s statement as a “good Citizen” to support her argument as to the uniqueness of Jane’s story. These petitions were read out loud in public to the North Carolina assembly, and in public Jane called herself a citizen. The petition also names her as a “memorialist” instead of a “petitioner.” This illustrates Jane’s awareness of how others (mainly men) presented themselves to reclaim property and pensions. Kierner argues that Jane’s political identity is presented as completely different from William’s. His petitions for funds to John Graves Simcoe in Upper Canada reflect language of dependence and loyalty to the monarchy. Unlike Jane, William believed he was in no place to “demand” anything.
Outside of these petitions, Jane’s world was most likely in a state of upheaval. Politics caused her marriage to dissolve, leaving her at the mercy of a government that had not yet fulfilled the promise of equality to all. While the assembly finally granted her more than a third of William’s property, this was quickly handed to her eldest son. The laws of coverture were still in full swing. Kierner does address the limits of what these petitions can tell us. Most of Jane’s petitions were written by a clerk or scribe, but Jane’s voice can still be seen.
Jane Spurgin’s story appears in written form only in these three petitions, but Kierner uses social and historical context of the period to construct Jane’s world, county, and family. Kierner is able to illustrate Jane’s political consciousness through these documents. Important questions still need answers, such as who Jane considered to be a “Citizen” and what these citizenship rights were outside of owning property. (William and Jane owned two enslaved people; what was Jane’s stance on this issue?) Due to the lack of sources, scholars may never be able to tell the whole story. Despite this, The Tory’s Wife illustrates the effects of war on family and property, and the continuing battle of ordinary citizens for ideals the revolution did not fully achieve.
Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2000); Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980).
Jane Welborn Spurgin and the “Common Rights of Other Citizens,” Martha Washington Lecture, Mount Vernon, March 2018, www.c-span.org/video/?443216-1/mary-ball-washington-jane-spurgin.
Nicole Louise, review of In Dependence: Women in the Patriarchal State in Revolutionary Americaby Jaqueline Beatty, Journal of the American Revolution, June 19, 2023, allthingsliberty.com/2023/06/in-dependence-women-in-the-patriarchal-state-in-revolutionary-america/.