Both books recognize that the American Revolution was a far more complicated affair than the more traditional narrative provides. In The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah A Free Black Man’s Encounter with Liberty, J. William Harris is able to show the hypocrisy of a nation that fights for independence while simultaneously denying the same right to others because of racial differences. In The Martyr and the Traitor: Nathan Hale, Moses Dunbar, and the American Revolution, Virginia DeJohn Anderson provides a dual biography that presents how social networks, religion and locality influence an individual’s alliance. Both books contribute significantly to the bigger picture of the American Revolution.
In The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah, chapter one provides a stark contrast between the living conditions of white colonists versus those of African slaves in Charles Town in 1775, primarily focusing on the wealth of slave merchant Henry Laurens. Chapter two highlights the hypocrisy of wealthy individuals like Laurens, who rebelled against the limitless power of the British crown while maintaining those same powers over slaves. Chapter three discusses the trial of a freed slave James Somerset, the ruling suggested that all slavery was now outlawed in England thus convincing Laurens that England was now even more unjust. Chapter four focuses on the growing concerns of the General Committee of Charles Town regarding a possible slave rebellion, while the same committee promises to resist the enslavement by the British. The concern of a slave rebellion makes Thomas Jeremiah an easy target due to his financial success. Chapter five provided a background of Lord William Campbell who became the final British governor of South Carolina during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Chapter six discuses the division among Patriots in the backcountry of the Carolinas. Harris once again highlights the hypocrisy of the colonist’s fight for freedom from the British while denying Thomas Jeremiah the right to a trial. The final chapter contains the execution of Thomas Jeremiah and provides details of Campbell’s multiple attempts to intervene and Laurens’ lack of knowledge surrounding the trial even though Laurens fully supported the execution.
In the book The Martyr and the Traitor, Virginia Anderson provides the biographies of two characters, Nathan Hale and Moses Dunbar, to suggest why someone of that time period would choose to fight for either the patriots or loyalists. Chapter one provides the background of the two character’s fathers, providing the reader relevant details of each character’s financial background. The second chapter focuses on the marriage between Dunbar and Phoebe that occurred because of an accidental pregnancy. Dunbar and his father were not financially prepared for a marriage but during the time period there was no other option. After the marriage, Dunbar converts to Anglicanism likely because of his wife. Chapter three talks about the opportunity Hale receives to be able to attend Yale because of his privileged background, an opportunity Dunbar never is privileged enough to receive. Chapter four discusses the growing animosity towards Anglicans which further divides the nation. The chapter discusses events surrounding the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre, indicating that the colonies and Great Britain will never make amends. Chapter five discusses Hale’s conflicting desires to use his Yale degree to teach but also provide a public service for his nation, Hale ends up accepting a position of first lieutenant. Chapter six discusses the growing concern of the patriots after enduring several losses which leads to Hale to aggreging to spy on the British. Hale knows this task was extremely dangerous and was likely to fail, but Hale is determined to provide a service for his nation. In chapter seven, Dunbar’s wife, Phoebe, succumbs to her illness. After this unfortunate event, Dunbar decides to head towards Long Island to enlist in a loyalist regiment likely to support his family. Dunbar has to recruit other men to join the loyalist regiments and he returns to Farmington with the proof, a slip of paper in his pocket. Both Dunbar and Whitmore are convicted of high treason, but Dunbar is the only man hung because his lack of family connections. Chapter seven provides the details of Hale’s execution for spying on the British, his cousin Samuel Hale turns him in. The final chapter, the war finally comes to an end. In 1783, the Patriots defeat the British, but the colonies struggle to close divides among the country in a post-war society.
In The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah, Harris focuses on the political environment of Charles Town, South Carolina by providing detailed descriptions of the atmosphere right on the brink of the American Revolution and showing why this leads to the hanging of an innocent and freed man. In The Martyr and the Traitor, Anderson provides the background of two men with opposing political alliances and attempts to explain how the differing alliances form. Both books help the reader understand the complexity of the Revolutionary War. Anderson suggests that the concept of independence in the colonies was not widely understood and the backgrounds of the two men are not bound to produce only once alliance. An important theme of both books is exposing many of the contradictions that occur on both alliances and ultimately were built into the foundation of the United States. Anderson addresses the complexity of humanitarian issues in the revolution; however, the legacies of the two men is determined only by the outcome of the war. Thomas Jeremiah is tried under the Negro Act of 1740 in a slave court, meaning that he is considered to be guilty until proven innocent. The case catches the attention of William Campbell, who at the time is considered to be enslaving the colonies. Campbell believes the accusations to be unjust and tries to intervene but is not successful.
Anderson was successful in providing background information regarding the Revolutionary War making it accessible to readers who may lack experience or knowledge in the subject. Anderson was able to find several letters written by Hale which are included in the book, but presumably had difficulty finding letters written by Dunbar. Even without many writings from Dunbar, Anderson is still able to convey Dunbar’s personality and background throughout the novel. Harris likely experiences the same predicament. The archives unfortunately do not contain many writings from people of color of the time period, likely because of the existing racism or because of primary sources lost or destroyed during the war. This theory explains why the book does not focus heavily on Thomas Jeremiah even though his name is featured in the title of the book. Regardless, Harris is able to present a lesser known, darker side of the American Revolution; a story focusing on the conflicting principles held by the colonists. Both authors are successful in conveying the complexity of the war, suggesting that the war involves much more than just fighting for independence. Before reading the books, the reader may have had a predetermined idea about which alliance they support but after completing the books the reader is likely able to sympathize with both alliances.
When reading The Martyr and the Traitor, it becomes evident to the reader that book is an incredibly well researched dual biography. By comparing the lives of two Connecticut men, Anderson is able to convey how similar men are pulled into two very different directions. Anderson’s thorough research provides the reader an understanding of how each man’s alliance is predetermined through their cultural and social connections. Harris focuses Thomas Jeremiah in the center of the novel and places other notable characters and their writings around Jeremiah to help better understand the life of Jeremiah because, so few details are known, this is quite an innovative strategy but still deficient in providing the reader enough details regarding the life of Thomas Jeremiah. Both books convey the complexity of the war and the divides it causes in the nation, but The Martyr and the Traitor is able to use a wider variety of primary sources to support this argument.