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A dangerous mission: loyalty and treason during the American Revolution

In September 1776, Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar set out to support opposing forces in the American Revolution. Hale, a spy for the Continental Army, had volunteered to gather intelligence against the British. Dunbar had enlisted in the King’s Army and was commissioned to convince other young men to turn against the United States.

Both men were caught and executed before completing their missions—one remembered as a martyr and the other as a traitor to the American cause.

In the following excerpt from The Martyr and the Traitor, Virginia DeJohn Anderson compares the lives of these two men, and explores the differences that led them to a similar fate.

The American Revolution was at once a national, a continental, and an imperial phenomenon. It produced a new American republic, rearranged power relations and territorial claims across North America, and altered Europeans’ global empires. It inspired stirring statements about universal rights and liberties even as it exposed disturbing divisions rooted in distinctions of class, ethnicity, race, and gender. It affected—directly or indirectly, and often adversely—not only American colonists and Britons, but also French, Spanish, and even Russian colonists, Native Americans, and Africans and African Americans. The more we learn about it, the more complicated the Revolution appears.

For people who lived through it, the Revolution was even more confusing. Political upheaval and warfare intruded upon their households and communities, causing unprecedented disruptions and forcing them to take actions with unpredictable consequences. Driven by high-minded principles, self-interest, or a mixture of both, participants reacted to a multitude of factors—many of them local and highly personal—that loomed large for them but barely registered in subsequent grand narratives of the Revolution. This was as true for Indian peoples weighing the relative merits of neutrality versus alliance with one of the contending sides, African slaves pondering British invitations to seek their freedom, and French and Spanish officials along the Gulf Coast tracking developments on distant battlefields as it was for British Americans in the 13 rebellious colonies.

Statue of Nathan Hale, the first American executed for spying for his country. This statue is a copy of the original work created in 1914 for Yale University, Hale’s alma mater. Image credit: image provided by the Central Intelligence Agency. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
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Anxiety led many of those Americans to look beyond their British adversaries and detect secret enemies closer to home, thereby transforming the War for Independence into a civil as well as an imperial conflict. Internecine strife erupted in such places as the southern backcountry and parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Long Island, fracturing communities and even families. It also broke out in Connecticut, perhaps the least likely setting for such internal discord. Yet even there, neighbors who shared similar backgrounds in terms of religion, race, ethnicity, and economic status found occasion during the revolutionary tumult to fear and hate one another.

The stories of Moses Dunbar and Nathan Hale were deeply rooted in that Connecticut countryside and those unsettled times. Both men started out in life as sons of striving farmers laboring in agrarian villages whose inhabitants took for granted their membership in Britain’s empire. Although Hale and Dunbar never met, Connecticut was a small enough place that they had common acquaintances. Neither man’s choice of allegiance during the Revolution was foreordained; rather, it developed fitfully in the context of preexisting social relationships that initially had nothing to do with politics. Those personal connections became politicized as armed conflict neared, driving Dunbar to oppose American independence and Hale to support it. The challenge of balancing private responsibilities toward friends and family against the public demands of politics and war during such perilous times vexed many—if not most—colonists, no matter which side they were on. For very few of them, however, did engagement with that struggle lead to the gallows, as it did with these two men.

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 could confound 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 traitor 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.

The War for Independence is often seen as a “good war” with righteous patriots pitted against misguided, if not evil-minded, Britons and loyalists. Such an oversimplified popular version of events distorts what was a far more tangled history and ignores the participation of a far larger cast of characters, many of them living well beyond the bounds of the 13 original colonies. It does not even apply to the experiences of revolutionaries and loyalists in a small place like Connecticut, where no faction held a monopoly on principle. Each man met his death for acting in accordance with his beliefs. Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar are both worth remembering because their tragic fates represent two sides of the same coin. They are equally part of America’s Revolutionary story.

Featured image credit: “Birthplace of Nathan Hale Coventry Connecticut,” circa 1800. Image courtesy of the Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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