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The perils of political polarization

Political polarization in the United States seems to intensify by the day. In June 2016, surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that majorities in both parties held highly unfavorable opinions of their opponents. Many Democrats and Republicans even admitted to fearing the rival party’s political agenda. Such strong feelings have scarcely dissipated—and likely escalated—since those surveys were completed.

This is hardly the first time in American history when polarization has plagued the nation. Divisions over slavery sparked a civil war in the 1860s. A century later, the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement generated fierce dissension. Less well known (except to historians), the 1790s witnessed such ferocious discord between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans regarding the French Revolution and domestic policy that some contemporaries feared the United States might not survive into the nineteenth century.

America’s experience with partisanship actually goes back even farther than that, right to the birth of the nation. The Revolution was not only a struggle against Britain; it was also a civil war, dividing colonists who supported independence from those who did not. Then, as now, one of the greatest dangers of extreme partisanship is the way it drives people to question the motives of their adversaries and even to contemplate violence against them. At the time of the Revolution, anyone who advocated compromise or tried to remain neutral was suspected of being a secret ally of one of the rival groups. For one Connecticut farmer who sought to distance himself from both patriots and loyalists, failure in this endeavor to find a middle ground meant death

Newgate Prison - The Martyr and the Traitor
Newgate Prison was used to house prisoners of war during the American Revolutionary War. Credit: “Old Newgate Prison, Connecticut.” by Paul Gagnon. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Moses Dunbar made no secret of his allegiance to the king, but that did not mean that he endorsed the Parliamentary taxes and other measures that drove patriots into opposition to Britain. What he rejected, as the imperial crisis escalated in 1774, was the patriots’ eagerness to resort to arms instead of seeking a peaceful resolution to what Dunbar called the “Unhappy Misunderstanding” between Britain and the colonies. Once the war began in April 1775, such calls for moderation had even less chance of being heard.

Fear of British military retaliation drove Connecticut patriots to try to identify suspected loyalists and subdue them by any means possible before they could aid the enemy. Some were confined deep underground in the infamous Newgate prison, an old copper mine. Others—including Moses Dunbar—suffered beatings from patriot gangs. After such an attack and repeated attempts to imprison him, Dunbar beseeched authorities to let him retreat to his farm and avoid the political fray. Neutrality, however, was no longer an option.

Dunbar’s decision to go to British-occupied New York in September 1776 and enlist in a loyalist regiment had far less to do with his allegiance to Britain than with a beleaguered man’s quest for safety for himself and his family. While he was in New York, Connecticut’s legislature declared such an enlistment to be a capital crime. When Dunbar returned home in late December 1776 to fetch his wife and children, a neighbor—likely induced by a desire to deflect patriot concerns about his own political allegiance—alerted authorities to Dunbar’s presence. Dunbar was arrested, convicted of treason, and executed on 19 March 1777.

As it turned out, Moses Dunbar was the only loyalist executed for treason by the state of Connecticut. The authorities clearly wished to make an example of him, but having done so were willing to retreat from using extreme measures against suspected British sympathizers. Perhaps unnerved by the deadly consequences of turning neighbor against neighbor, officials exercised greater restraint in assessing true threats and acknowledged that some people genuinely wished to remain neutral.

Passions inflamed by war typically exceed those generated by peacetime partisanship. Yet the fate of Moses Dunbar in Revolutionary Connecticut offers an unusually vivid example of what can happen when fear and suspicion lead people to translate a far more complex situation into a stark opposition of friends versus foes. At the same time, what happened in the aftermath of Dunbar’s execution demonstrates how a fractured society could begin to heal its wounds.

Once the War for Independence ended, many loyalists fled the United States to live in England or one of its remaining colonial possessions. But many more loyalists—including would-be neutrals mis-characterized by their opponents—stayed in the new nation. Dunbar’s descendants belonged to this group, and some of them continued to reside among the very people who had harassed and betrayed him. Although they never recorded their reasons in doing so, former adversaries exhausted by years of conflict evidently made a decision to cease making enemies of their neighbors. Concentrating on what they had in common rather than what drove them apart promised to be a far more productive way to escape a divisive past and head into the future.

Featured image credit: ” Postcard depicting Old Newgate Prison” by Unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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