I signed up for emails from the Museum of the American Revolution recently. “Liberty’s exiles” arrived in my inbox this morning and tells the stories of American loyalists during and after the War for Independence:
JACOB BAILEY, for one, could give a vivid account of what led him to flee revolutionary America. Massachusetts born and bred, Bailey had since 1760 been an Anglican missionary in the frontier district of Pownalborough, Maine. While he ministered in what was then remote wilderness, in Boston his Harvard classmate John Adams voiced the colonies’ grievances against Britain, and became a forceful advocate for independence. But Bailey had sworn what he regarded as a sacred oath to the king, the head of his church, and to renounce that allegiance appeared to him to be an act of both treason and sacrilege. Bailey struggled to maintain his loyalty in the face of mounting pressure to join the rebellion. When he refused to honor a special day of thanksgiving declared by the provincial congress, Pownalborough patriots threatened to put up a liberty pole in front of the church and to whip him there if he failed to bless it. Another frightening omen came when he found seven of his sheep slaughtered, and a ‘fine heifer’ shot dead in his pasture.’ By 1778, the clergyman had been ‘twice assaulted by a furious Mob-four times haulled before an unfeeling committee. . . . Three times have I been driven from my family. . . . Two attempts have been made to shoot me.’ He moved to the countryside to elude arrest, while his young wife and their children tried to get by with ‘nothing to eat for several days together.’ To Bailey the patriots were persecutors, plain and simple, a ‘set of surly & savage beings who have power in their hands and murder in their hearts, who thirst, and pant, and roar for the blood of those who have any connection with, or affection for Great Britain.’”
These stories are important for lots of reasons. For one, they underscore that the romanticized version of history might sometimes be accurate, but that it’s possible to be accurate without being totally precise. It’s accurate to say that the War set the stage for securing the natural rights of colonists through a new Constitutional government. But it’s imprecise because it glosses over the rights that are always compromised during war, and the violence against brother and sister that characterize it.
These are human lessons for us today any time we discuss military action that seem, to me, little acknowledged. We have an obligation to be decent to each other, and while the Founders certainly created the conditions for self-governance and decent conduct, we should do a better job at recognizing when we’re acting like Bailey’s “surly and savage beings.”