The Tory’s Wife

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Revolutionary War liberated Americans from the oppressive colonial rule of the British, but as the postwar era began, it wasn’t clear how much women benefited from the hard-won freedoms accorded to men. Wives were still subject to the English common law of coverture, which gave husbands control of their property; women had next-to-no political rights. Had the Revolution changed anything?

Cynthia Kierner, a professor of history at George Mason University, examines this question in “The Tory’s Wife.” Her short, readable volume recounts the story of Jane Welborn Spurgin, a farm wife and mother of 13, in the backwoods of North Carolina. Other than the fact that she was literate, there was nothing particularly notable about Jane. She didn’t move in elite circles, and she certainly wasn’t famous. Yet she publicly claimed her rights as a citizen of the new American republic in a series of petitions to the state legislature. Ms. Kierner’s focus on Jane stems from her scholarly interest in how the war drew ordinary women into the political sphere.

Jane was a Whig, a patriot who supported the American uprising. She courageously put her patriotism into action when, in early 1781, she provided food and shelter to the American commander in the South, Gen. Nathanael Greene, who set up camp on her family’s property in the North Carolina town of Abbotts Creek. If the British attack, Greene told her, grab the kids and run for the basement. When the general sought her advice in finding a trustworthy person to spy on British Gen. Charles Cornwallis, who was camped nearby, she recommended one of her sons for the dangerous job.

Jane’s husband, William, did not share his wife’s fidelity to the cause of liberty. While Jane was aiding the Continental Army, he was fighting against his fellow North Carolinians as an officer in the Tory militia, for which he had recruited like-minded Loyalists. Before the war, William was a moderately prosperous landowner and a justice of the peace. As war broke out, he was deemed “an Enemy to his Country” by a local political committee, and he spent much of the war in hiding. He disappeared after the American victory, eventually turning up in Canada with a woman he called his wife. The crown rewarded his loyalty with a generous gift of acreage in what is now Ontario.

Jane was not so fortunate. Back in North Carolina, the postwar state legislature passed a bill confiscating Tory property, thus putting her, the wife of a traitor, in danger of losing her family’s home. She refused to move out and set about asserting her ownership rights in three petitions. Referring to herself in the third person, she wrote: “She has always behaved herself as a good Citizen and well attached to the government. She thinks it extremely hard to be deprived of the Common rights of other Citizens.” The “other Citizens” were, of course, men.

For most women, Ms. Kierner writes, “the right to petition was the only political right they formally possessed” under the law. It wasn’t unusual for women to petition for state support for themselves and their children, couching their requests in humble and ingratiating language. Their husbands were dead or missing, and they wanted the state to take on the role of their protector.

In contrast, Jane’s petitions were more direct and less deferential. Ms. Kierner characterizes them as “bold” and distinctive for their “legalism and clarity.” Jane even secured the support of 78 neighbors, who co-signed her second petition in 1788. It is noteworthy, the author says, that Jane “framed her own claim to citizenship in terms of the right to own and protect her family’s property.” That is, she based her case on a traditional understanding of citizenship “as deriving from one’s material stake in society.”

As “The Tory’s Wife” opens, Ms. Kierner warns readers not to expect a conventional biography. Official records yield little information about ordinary women like Jane. The author paints a fuller portrait of William, who had a public role as a justice of the peace and a notorious Tory.

In noting the paucity of sources that document Jane’s life, Ms. Kierner observes that much of the material is “necessarily contextual and sometimes speculative.” The author turns the lack of factual information to her readers’ advantage, providing often fascinating details about life in rural North Carolina—especially about women who struggled to survive the upheavals of war. She cites the grim punishment of a mother for the crime of teaching her children to support the revolution. A son recalled that she was “tied up and whipped by the Tories, her house burned and property destroyed.”

The Whig-Tory divide wasn’t found only in the Spurgins’ marriage. It was prevalent in the wider society, and Ms. Kierner deftly describes North Carolinians’ bitter and often violent struggles. She quotes Gen. Greene, who wrote: “The whole Country is in danger of being laid waste by the Whigs and the Tories, who pursue each other with as much relentless Fury as Beasts of Prey.” There were times when the divided populace seemed to be fighting a civil war, not a war of independence.

And what of Jane, the book’s putative heroine? The North Carolina legislature eventually awarded her a portion of the land she had demanded without acknowledging the legitimacy of her claims. The settlement delivered security for her and her children if not support for her argument on her rights as a citizen. Ms. Kierner concludes that “the Revolution led Jane, like many other Americans, to confront authority and to reimagine her relationship to the polity and the men who ran it.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

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