Antiquity and Loyalist Dissent in Revolutionary America, 1765–1776


May 20, 2024
by Kelsey DeFord Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Antiquity and Loyalist Dissent in Revolutionary America, 1765-1776 by Daniel R. Moy (Anthem Press, 2024. $110.00)

Daniel R. Moy’s Antiquity and Loyalist Dissent in Revolutionary America attempts to analyze ideological warfare between Whigs and Tories, with particular attention to ancient Greco-Roman and Mediterranean influences. Moy, currently a lecturer at the University of Virginia Frank Batten School, published this version of his thesis for the doctorate degree he received in 2012. British colonists were fascinated with the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman empires of Sparta, Athens, and Rome. Curriculum at universities was responsible for this; most taught classical humanism and Latin, important components for being a “gentleman” in society. Some English colonists believed the British Empire reflected the legacy and ideologies of great republics. By the 1760s there was a divide, with early resistance challenging legitimacy of the monarchy. Yet, Moy argues that Whigs and Tories alike used classics to support both resistance and reconciliation.[1]

Tories used antiquities and literature such as Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy, and Moy shows that this is further illustrated in J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur’s American Belisarius. Tories used antiquities to question Whigs’ civic virtue, as this was the foundation upon which Rome was built. To Tories, Whigs represented an unchecked and corrupt mob which previously led to Rome’s fall.[2]

The first chapter challenges the notion that this way of thinking is deviant. One of Rome’s most important roads, the Appian Way, is used as a metaphor, comparing America’s journey from colonies to republic. What became two sides during the pre-revolution both shared influences with Western literary tradition and the Enlightenment. Moy uses Joseph Addison’s Cato and Thomas Arne’s “Rule, Britannia!” (the final musical number in Alfred) as examples in celebration of British nationalism. Both have Roman influences: Cato’s setting espousing the importance of virtue against Caesar’s tyranny and “Rule Britannia!” connecting Britain’s former past under the Roman empire. Most historians have connected Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War to the rise of British patriotism and nationalism. Moy uses paintings of British exploits with Roman motifs, quotes from Horace Walpole, and others to compare what some citizens thought about Britain’s relation with their “ancestral” Roman past. Moy attributes the “chipping away” at this unified British nationalism to the efforts of prominent revolutionaries challenging the various acts of Parliament as unconstitutional. Others like John Dickenson made a choice that allegiance to the king was the “surest way to secure American freedom.”

Moy uses various people from both sides to illustrate the different political choices. Each side weaponized antiquities of the Roman Republic; each side claimed the other was corrupt and selfish leading the empire/colonies to ruin. While some Tories believed force must be used to control tyranny of a vicious mob, Moy presents letters and writings of moderate and conservative Tories who quickly pointed out the contradictions with radicals’ agenda. Some radical Whigs believed in attacking royal officials (and those connected to them) who represented a corrupt and unjust monarch. These acts of violence upon body and property did not align with the Whigs’ idea of American “freedom.”[3]

The second chapter talks about the importance of Enlightenment thinkers: Locke, Montesquieu, Burke, and others. Moy pays particular attention to the ideas of civic virtue, which both Whigs and Tories believed to be the heart of great republics. Most of these philosophers were inspired by other classicists such as Aristotle. Each side used these ideas for their partisan ends. For example, both British and American subjects celebrated Joseph Addison’s Cato. Cato was about self-sacrifice to defend and protect liberties, which both sides supported; as such, it became the symbol of British and Roman patriotism and nationalism. Yet, the fragile nature of Republics meant Whigs had to prove their worthiness for self-government. Meanwhile, Tories believed particular Whiggish mobs were not civic-minded nor virtuous, only craving power for self-interest. Moy also explains that Montesquieu’s “mixed republic” of law, order, and virtue depended upon the balance of government and its citizens. Whigs believed Locke’s social contract between citizens and the government was broken; Tories believed in Montesquieu’s ideas and the virtue of the English system itself. Ultimately, a virtuous system of the monarch would prevail in legislative reform. Each of these ideas is tied back to Roman and Greek literature and history.[4]

Some Tories compared the Whig insurrection to the failures of Rome, as it challenged the legitimacy of the monarch. Whigs believed themselves to be figures such as Brutus, who brought an end to Caesar’s tyranny. The third chapter illustrates the antiquities of these legends, the historians of the time who told their stories, and how this “conditioned” both to be aware of threats to social order. Moy highlights the Catilinarian Conspiracy and Catiline’s attempted coup d’état of the then-Roman consul. Colonial knowledge of this is underscored by the first translation of this account in 1608, and writer Thomas Gordon’s commentaries in 1721 and 1744. Gordon inspired loyalists’ understanding that authoritative control must be used to prevent such uprisings. Moy takes this even further, suggesting Loyalists viewed the Stamp Acts and earlier colonial protests as internal threats to liberty. Therefore, the stakes of this Catiline motif may explain why Loyalists so staunchly defended the Crown.

Chapter four illustrates how Loyalists used language to appeal to morality and reason, while simultaneously questioning the contradictions and motives of the Whig resistance. Loyalists such as Peter Oliver questioned the motivations of Whigs, especially those who attacked people and property. Oliver used the ancient Lernaean hydra, a metaphor for the growing mob and its manipulations of the masses for its ends. Pro-Loyalist newspapers like The Censor in Massachusetts used rhetoric on the excess of democracy, already found in Thomas Gordon’s commentaries and the fall of Rome. Other examples Moy includes are of Loyalists Daniel Leonard and Johnathan Boucher comparing the Whig mob once again to the Catilinarian conspiracy. Boucher also appealed to conservative readers by stating that the Stamp Act grievances did not fully represent the colonies.[5]

Chapter five is the most detailed example of a Loyalist’s attempts to use classical antiquity to support reconciliation. Moy examines farmer and author John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s writings for the use of this literature and perspective. de Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer and American Belisarius illustrate the change, from viewing the colonies as exceptional extensions of the monarchy to corrupt and violent threats to the British republic. He revealed the hypocrisy of the Patriot movement and uses the Belisarius motif as a comparison to the current Loyalists. He highlighted the Loyalist devotion to the monarch and the repercussions at the hands of the Patriot mob. Moy uses passages from de Crèvecœur to support his argument that Loyalists used antiquities to appeal to audiences.[6]

The book can be a dense read especially when discussing political theories of the Enlightenment and Roman antiquities. Therefore, it would be challenging for undergraduates. Unless a student needed research on Loyalist arguments, they would need to already be familiar with Greek and Roman classics. I would recommend it for discussions within upper-level courses for early American scholars, and even for the fields of literature and political science. The work focuses on both the loyalist and patriot ideology and the use of classical culture. Illustrating both sides weaponizing the same rhetoric challenges the notion that the Whig and Tory camps were completely separate. Each side’s position may have been reaffirmed based on the use of the classics in speeches, letters, and newspapers. Both sides desired to preserve the ideals of the American colonies based on the classical theories of government. However, one side preferred reconciliation with England; the other desired a new country altogether. There are lingering questions about how other Loyalist groups, such as women, Native Americans, and enslaved persons interpreted or understood these arguments. For example, where do illiterate groups that could not afford this type of classical education fit into Moy’s argument? Moy’s Antiquity and Loyalist Dissent highlights some Loyalist thought processes and arguments, thereby escaping the villainous trope that still pervades much of their story.

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[1] Daniel R. Moy, Antiquity and Loyalist Dissent in Revolutionary America, 1765-1776 (Anthem Press, 2024), 4-6.

[2] Ibid., 16.

[3] Ibid., 22-26, 44-46.

[4] Ibid., 77-89.

[5] Ibid., 129-134; 159-62; 185.

[6] Ibid., 207-10; 229-31.

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