Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-087
10 Oct. 2019
Review by Robert S. McPherson, Utah State University
The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution
By Virginia DeJohn Anderson
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 270. ISBN 978–0–19–991686–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 18th Century, American Revolution Print Version

In the soft light of almost 250 years of American history, Nathan Hale stands as a heroic figure of the Revolutionary War. His famous assertion that "I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country" (148) before the British hanged him as a spy (22 Sept. 1776) came to epitomize patriotic martyrdom and all that was right about the war. Around the same time, the Americans hanged Moses Dunbar, a Loyalist (Tory) supporter of the British cause, for the same offense. History has portrayed him less kindly as a traitor whose life and death were equally insignificant. Hale and Dunbar came from big families in the small colony of Connecticut, living within fifty miles of each other. While Hale's family was more prosperous and nurturing than Dunbar's, their upbringings were similar. Why, then, did they serve and perish at opposite poles of the conflict? This question is at the heart of American historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson's well-written and thought-provoking new book.


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Anderson (Univ. of Colorado), who has written earlier studies of the seventeenth-century migration of British subjects to New England and the importance of domesticated animals in early America, as well as a general textbook on US history, takes her readers beyond a simplistic "martyr and the traitor" biographical dichotomy into the daily political, economic, religious, and cultural world of colonial Connecticut. This is in line with the New England town studies that earlier scholars made popular in the 1970s and 80s.[1] Warfare, spy craft, and military planning per se get relatively little attention.

The author provides a good, general outline of the well-known events that led up to the outbreak of hostilities and the first two years of the war. The real strength of her book, however, lies in the pathos of two men struggling to follow their conscience at opposite ends of the political spectrum:

The deaths of Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar might have been exceptional, but their lives were not. Their tragic stories offer a particularly dramatic demonstration of a common experience, showing how a welter of personal and political factors confounded people's efforts to exert control over their lives in the midst of the Revolution. Matters of timing were especially crucial to Hale and Dunbar and their posthumous reputations. Each man undertook the action that led to his death at a moment when nearly everyone believed that Britain stood poised to win the war. Had that happened, their respective roles as martyr and patriot would have been reversed. Posterity often takes America's victory for granted; neither of these men—nor others in their communities—dared to do so. (4)

Hale and Dunbar both came from families that saw the birth of a new brother or sister roughly every other year, a valuable thing in an agrarian society. The family of Richard Hale, Nathan's father, increasingly flourished, while that of John Dunbar, Moses's father, did not. Both patriarchs worked hard at their farming, but Richard succeeded to the point that he could send his son to Yale University, while John saw many of his holdings slip through his grasp. After Yale, Nathan maintained friendships with a large coterie of college classmates through the war years and eventually became a captain in the Connecticut militia. His college degree enabled him to work as a teacher in order to camouflage his role as a spy. Moses, on the other hand, fell out with his father, left home, married, and eventually struggled to support his wife and children.

Their religions, too, set the two men on diverging paths.[2] Nathan was a Congregationalist, while Moses, as a loyal British subject, naturally professed allegiance to the Church of England; his faith often underlay his most important life decisions and his attitude to the war. One must admire his religious devotion and willingness to make sacrifices as many of his neighbors grew more hostile to anyone who espoused the British position on religion.

Anderson's discussion of the intrusion of religious discord into politics is a salutary reminder of the reason the Founding Fathers enshrined the separation of church and state in the US Constitution. The lack of such a partition during the Revolution fueled intensely self-righteous misbehavior on both sides. The author's discerning, evenhanded, and fine-grained discussion of the political rancor that afflicted Connecticut is a great strength of the book and will challenge those who view the Revolution from a single perspective.

Neither Hale nor Dunbar received much postwar recognition. Hale was executed based on clear evidence of spying—he was caught with gathered intelligence on his person. Moses made the mistake of accepting a commission in the Tory ranks and recruiting colonists to join their side. His chief motivation was to earn money for his destitute family; his own father and siblings had long since refused to provide any help. As time passed and Americans searched for national heroes, they idealized Hale, while downplaying and sanitizing the internecine nature of the Revolution, as may be seen in a fair number of surviving documents. He became an archetype of a patriotic hero. Dunbar, on the other hand, lay forgotten and moldering in—ironically—a Congregational Church graveyard. He left little trace in the historical record, apart from his final testament and a letter written to his children just before his death. Unearthed in 1875, these documents reveal a man who lived his life honorably according to his conscience, but make clear the price he paid for doing so.

The Martyr and the Traitor is a most welcome reminder of the complex personal struggles entailed in the building of the American nation. Virginia DeJohn Anderson's telling of the stories of Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar dispels any facile slogans of patriotic fervor.

[1] E.g., John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1970; 2nd ed. 2000); Kenneth A. Lockridge, A New England Town: The First Hundred Years (NY: Norton, 1970; 2nd ed. 1994); and Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (id. 1978).

[2] On the controversy between the Church of England and the Protestant faiths that migrated to America, see, e.g., Carl Bridenbaugh, Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689–1775 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1962), and John Franklin Jameson, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (Princeton: Univ. Pr, 1926; rpt. 1967).

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