• Tue. Oct 19th, 2021

The rise and fall of a dangerous political movement in revolutionary America

ByWilliam W. Feldman

Sep 28, 2021

Old map of the territory of the United States at the end of the Revolution

Credit – Tomasz Skoczen — Getty Images

The Brethren did not start as a Tory uprising. Ironically, its members – a Yeomen group from eastern North Carolina – believed they were responding to a tyrannical conspiracy against Protestant freedom and in resistance against forced military service. The evils they had been taught to fear all their lives – papist plots and the tyrannical French, heretics and an authoritarian government snatching men from their crops to serve in standing armies – had arrived in the midst of revolutionary chaos. And the changes that came with independence seemed to undermine the beliefs that for generations had shaped their self-understanding as a free people; supporting beliefs that the American Revolution of 1775 had developed.

But as American freedom took shape, elements within North Carolina’s revolutionary leadership redefined the central tenets of British Protestant freedom as hostile to an independent Republican state. (The fact that enlightened political ideas had virtually no popular electorate in this early period of upheaval did nothing to temper this trend.) These leaders, and their supporters in the counties, would accept no criticism. the actions of the state or the enlightened beliefs of its members; the language of Protestant freedom which had been an ideological pillar of a free people had radically changed its political position. He had become a weapon in a struggle over the course and nature of the Revolution, used as a critical discourse to assert a specific vision of freedom in a way that some saw as threatening.

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This is not to say that loyalty was created solely by the persecution of committees in revolutionary America. Loyalty was a complex, varied and at times contradictory identity within the fractured Anglo-American political reality of the time. However, it’s fair to say that some of those who later created a Republican state also created a jarring ideological dislocation by disavowing the prevailing ideas of freedom in the English-speaking world. This dislocation helps explain a central and unrecognized ideological paradox that quickly emerged: in 1778, the beliefs that drove the Revolution in 1775 were identified as counterrevolutionaries.

By late 1776 or early 1777, John Lewellen, who served the state as a militia officer as well as justice of the peace, had started telling others that the heretics of the North Carolina government had l ‘intention to submit the state “to popery”. “He wanted relief from their plot,” and hop’d for a blessing on the Indeavor. “Lewellen did not advocate violence against the state or its rulers, but sought redress and stop the drift. towards a papist government.

Read more: Faces of the American Revolution

It was a series of angry clashes that changed the political character of the movement. In early or mid-May, Lewellen met James Mayo, a member of the Albemarle committee, on an unnamed rural road. Mayo was part of a large local family who had migrated from Virginia to North Carolina in the 1740s. They owned considerable land in Martin County as well as several other counties in southern and western Albemarle. By 1776, Mayo and his brother Nathan had become active revolutionaries and were heavily involved in revolutionary militias and committees.

When Mayo met Lewellen, he accused him of being an enemy of the people. Other clashes soon followed. What specifically triggered them was not specifically stated. But Lewellen’s views on state leaders’ adherence to the papacy and heresy played a central role.

The members of the committee and the militiamen of Albemarle see in the words of the Protestant associates a challenge to the revolutionary state. And in 1777, criticizing members of state governments or the Continental Congress or the American cause in general – even thinking bad thoughts – all of this could cause a person a lot of trouble. The list of political crimes has grown steadily since 1775, and many views have been criminalized.

Lewellen had seen or heard of alleged Tories being interrogated, tortured and imprisoned, their property seized and their families expelled from the new states. He knew exactly what to expect if the label stuck on him. Lewellen began to denounce Mayo as being “very particular in acting against all those who were supposed to be enemies of the state”. (His wording again suggests that he didn’t see himself that way when he exchanged the angry words with Mayo.)

Within weeks, Lewellen and a faction in the movement’s leadership began to envision violence against the revolutionary leaders in the Albemarle area. Lewellen argued that Mayo should be killed; his brother Nathan has also become a target. Leaders of the brothers described him as a “very busy body,” a “son of a bitch” who would get killed for spying on Lewellen and their movement.

And Lewellen soon realized that he couldn’t just assassinate the Mayo Brothers, but that they had to “kill all the chiefs in the county.” At the end of May, Lewellen began to contemplate a decapitating strike against the revolutionary elite of southern Albemarle. The Brothers would eliminate in one fell swoop the heads of state who had embraced French popery and those who had threatened to stop them. What started as an unfortunate conversation quickly turned into plans to behead the state government. Lewellen even began discussing the murder of Governor Richard Caswell, arguing for the seizure of the Halifax Powder Magazine and the murder of the Governor during the Governor’s scheduled visit to the city in June; King George III and his ministry now seemed less threatening than their own heads of state.

Read more: You can’t tell the story of 1776 without talking about race and slavery

In mid-June, the Brethren began to speak like the King’s friends when addressing potential recruits. When James Rawlings brought David Taylor into the movement at the end of May, he said the associates opposed state government because “Congress ceded the country to the French to be ruled by them, then popery would enter the country “. He then mentioned the conservation of their lands if royal authority was restored. Some recruiters told potential recruits that heads of state should be confronted because the state loyalty oath contained heretical ideas. In their view of the world, one could rightly resist the anti-Christian authority.

Members, Lewellen insisted, had to be ready to join any royal forces that would come to the Albemarle area and be given ammunition to do so. Lewellen and others who supported the Loyalist turn actively began to consider inviting the king’s forces into the state; Lewellen went on to say “they would shoot any man who disclosed the secret”.

Threats against Lewellen, and later other Brotherhood leaders, had transformed the political direction of the movement. Ideologically, Protestant political culture remained at its core, but by mid-June these leaders were no longer trying to save the Commonwealth or support what they saw as a Protestant revolution. They felt pushed to a point where the British Empire and Army seemed more attractive as rulers than their own compatriot.

This change in political orientation explains the strange divergence of understanding within the depositions taken later during the suppression of the movement. Some have described the Brethren as a politico-spiritual movement focused on stopping Popery and heresy, and others suggest a loyalist conspiracy and do not mention Popery or even forced conscriptions, or only mention them. by the way. During the six or seven months of its existence, the Brothers have experienced a profound change in the nature of freedom.

The movement began to unravel with this shift towards a violent loyalist coup. An ideological rift widened between the associates as the new leadership of the movement spread. When the rulers started talking like Tories – and after Lewellen shared plans to start a diversionary slave revolt to achieve his goal of assassinating the rulers of the state – grassroots associates began to join forces. go to state authorities to tell them what they knew and denounce the bloody plans for a Conservative coup. These yeomen have remained committed to Protestant freedom and the defense of members of the community. But they did not equate these goals with allegiance to a corrupt empire.

Can we truly understand the words spoken angrily on a forgotten rural trace not only as evidence of profound ideological change, but also as a cause of change? We must if we are to understand the ideological change in revolutionary America at all. Archival sources reveal the role played by individual confrontations, pushes, rumors and threats, mobbings and assaults, battle and war in transforming the worldview of the revolutionary generation. This is what happened in the Albemarle.

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Extract of The Brothers: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America by Brendan McConville. Copyright © 2021. Available from Harvard University Press.


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