Forgive and Forget

The Revolutionary War was a civil war that pitted Patriots against Loyalists. Oftentimes American colonists took up arms against their own neighbors. After independence many former Loyalists fled the country. But most stayed put in America. Ed sits down with historian Rebecca Brannon to learn how the new nation healed its divisions and reintegrated former Loyalists into society.


Dreamliner by Podington Bear

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Nathan: On today’s show, we’re exploring moments in history when America was most divided. Ed: We’ll discuss the Revolutionary War, and the plight of Loyalists after independence. Joanne: We’ll also talk about how Benjamin Brown French, the protagonist in my new book, experienced America being ripped apart in the years leading up to the Civil War. Nathan: And later, we’ll learn how the Anti-Saloon League tapped into anti-immigrant sentiment to become the most powerful lobbying group of the prohibition movement. Ed: While the revolution tore Ben and William Franklin apart, the ripples of division extended much farther than the Franklin family. In fact, the Revolutionary War split society into three distinct categories. Historians now estimate that around 20% of colonists were Loyalists with allegiance to the crown, 20% to 25% were Patriots who supported the rebellion, and the rest were neutral, not interested in joining either side. Based on these figures, the Revolutionary War was more than just a fight between Patriots and the British, oftentimes American colonists took up arms against their own neighbors, a conflict was as much a Civil War, as it was a revolution. Nathan: Some people at the time actually called it the Civil War. Ed: And for good reason, Nathan. Though many Loyalists fled to Canada or England, most stayed put in America, and that presented a problem. The new nations faced with a big question, how should former Loyalists be punished for their treason? Rebecca: And the Civil War of the American Revolution got especially out of hand in South Carolina- Ed: That’s historian Rebecca Brannon. Rebecca: … because there are locals fighting locals, and it’s not a Civil War in a sense of the American Civil War where a lot of it is regional. If you live in South Carolina, pretty much everybody you know supports the confederacy in 1861, and fights for the confederacy, but what you actually have in the American Revolution in South Carolina is small pockets where one village might support the Loyalists, and the next village over supports the Patriots. Both sides, they joined local militias, and they know the terrain and they know the people intimately, and they use that to harass and terrify civilians in an effort to tamp down support for the other side. The end result is ever escalating warfare and atrocities. Ed: So, that sounds like a hard situation to overcome, to put the pieces back together after the war is over. How does that happen? Rebecca: Great question, and that’s part of why I chose South Carolina, I thought, “If the war was so terrible, how did they manage to live together afterwards?” Ed: Right. Rebecca: Part of the answer is they engage in practices after the war where they allow themselves space and time to get over their anger. They initially have … single out some Loyalists for very harsh punishments. They confiscate, or take away all of their property. They tell them they have to leave and never come back, and they make an example of a few prominent people. They contemplate more ordinary people having to face criminal justice trials in the courts, and then they quickly decide, it’s a really bad idea to use our new court system and fill it with all these angry cases. Rebecca: So, they start with much more symbolic punishments, and then they start to back away from even that, and one prominent public intellectual and judge in South Carolina frames the whole idea as, of course it’s offensive to justice, but he says you do it like you throw a tub to a whale. You just have to throw a little blood sacrifice to the angry people and then you can move on, and when they start to move on, they’re looking for things like, were these Loyalists willing to apologize to their neighbors? Are their neighbors willing to support them and say, “Yeah, they made a bad choice in the war, but they’re good dependable people, and this is this bold experiment, and democracy, and a new nation, and we need dependable people in our communities to help us make this work.” Ed: Was this a good idea? I mean, they go through show trials for a few people, but then let most people off, would that be a fair way of putting it? Rebecca: Show trials, or the legislature wants to be seen to be punishing people, so they take away their property, but two years later, these Loyalists petition an appeal and say, “My neighbor supports me now, and I’m not so bad, really.”, and they’re given their property back. The vast majority of Loyalists end up suffering no permanent disability as citizens. They get their property back, they’ll get the vote … in some cases they’re not allowed to vote. They’ll get the vote back within a decade, and become full fledged citizens. Ed: Well, that’s amazing. Did the Loyalists have to abase themselves to achieve this leniency? Rebecca: That is one of the best questions because it’s really hard for me to capture on the political record, and so I found it in some places. They do have to abase themselves, in part because the Patriots are really angry, and apologizing is hard, and I have one example. There’s this young man, Elias Ball, and he’s trying to get the support of his very prominent uncle, Henry Laurens, who is also a negotiator of the Peace Treaty that ended the war with Britain, and he’s trying to get Henry Laurens to support him in this effort to get off this confiscation legislation and get his property back, and he apologizes three times. Rebecca: We know this, ’cause Henry Laurens writes in a letter after he finally accepts the third apology, then he thinks that Elias Ball has finally been abject enough and truly apologized for his political conduct enough, and we don’t have Elias Ball’s letter, we only have Henry Laurens letter afterwards saying, “You knew what you did was wrong. You knew the cause was unjust, but basically you finally put together the right combination of words that made me feel better. You were abject enough.”, and then he’s actually willing to support Elias Ball, and support him in front of the South Carolina legislature, and the legislature gives Elias Ball his property back. So, a little abject apologizing can get you a lot. Ed: So, is this kind of about the culture of honor? That people are looking for ritual agreement that they had been wrong, and once you’ve apologized then it’s sort of like, well, we can move on? Rebecca: I think so. I even went into the psychological research, albeit timidly ’cause I’m a historian, and I found this research now that shows that we humans are deeply programmed to seek what we see as justice. It’s deeply scarring to us to see what we see as injustice in the sense that when we think we’re gonna watch somebody who really deserves it get punished, it lights up all the pleasure centers in our brain- Ed: Yikes. Rebecca: … the same ones that like alcohol and cocaine and good coffee, however … right, right, it’s not the feedback loop we were looking for. Ed: Yeah, right. Rebecca: However, the research also shows that actually seeing the punishment, even if we think it’s just, is an incredible letdown. The pleasure is in the anticipation. It’s not in the reality. I kept thinking about that, and how often these Patriots would talk about how angry they were, would entertain apologies, and I think that they’re basically almost onto something, that it’s pleasurable to imagine the punishment, but it’s not so fun to really do, and that is part of why they allow themselves to begin to empathize with the plight of the Loyalists, and move to being more generous with them. Ed: How long does this process take, for them to come to that realization? Rebecca: The amazing thing is it doesn’t take that long. So, it takes two or three years for them to start really backing away from the punishments that had sounded so good in the immediate aftermath of the war. They start to give property back. The Loyalists had been really savvy and tried desperately not to leave, and a lot of times they’re living in the family house even though the state is threatening to auction it off and sell it, and it’s hard to argue with some pitiful widow who’s standing there in the door. “Yes, I know the law says this, but how am I supposed to support my family? P.S. I’ll show up on your doorstep, if I’ve got nowhere else to go.” Rebecca: All of this starts to work, and there are some … I call them public intellectuals, but they’re the jurists and politicians of their day who say, “Let’s think about this a little more. This doesn’t make sense from the point of view of the laws we want to create. This doesn’t make sense from the point of view of the political entity we wish to be. Let’s learn to live together.” They also make the savvy point that it was one thing to expel people, to drive them out, it’s a whole nother thing to keep them within your nation constantly oppressed and discriminated against, and second class citizens. That is a far more dangerous thing to do. Ed: What’s interesting about all of this, actually it’s all interesting and surprising, is that it may actually have been a good thing and a bad thing, that all this forgiveness kind of swept across South Carolina. Can you help us untangle that? Rebecca: I’ve come to think of this as, on the one hand the American genius at work. Our propensity for forgiving and then forgetting, on the one hand it has helped us historically heal from these times when America’s been very divided. It makes our society more inclusive in the sense that we’re willing to forgive people who fought on the wrong side of a war, had the wrong political opinions, wrong being not a moral judgment but just who won. That we practice compassion and empathy, albeit for people we think are like us. Rebecca: On the other hand, I’ve often thought that because South Carolinians did an amazing job forgiving and forgetting, and moving on from their Civil War and the American Revolution. They didn’t learn the lesson that civil wars are awful. That civil wars are lasting, that they rip society apart, that there’s no way you can guarantee that you can put society back together again, and that they will go on longer and be more bloody than you can imagine, and there’s a sense in which they’re not tempered by their own history as they embrace conflict and divide leading up to the American Civil War. Ed: Rebecca Brannon is a history professor at James Madison University. She’s the author of From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists.

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Divided America Lesson Set

Download the Divided America Lesson Set

According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center[1] the idea that America is more polarized than it has been in recent years is supported by the data that Democrats and Republicans view each other with anger and see each other more negatively than they have in the past. Polarization and division, however, has been a theme of American history since its conception. As the episode discusses, Loyalists and Patriots represented this division over the colonies’ relationship with Great Britain. The election of Andrew Jackson pitted the “common man” of the south and west against the urban, cosmopolitan elite of the Northeast. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner provides an example of unprecedented partisan violence and vitriol.

This lesson set considers aspects of the divisions in the 1920s and helps students grapple with the following questions: Should America pursue a policy of prohibition? Is America a Christian nation? What is the role of women in modern America? What is the role of America in the world? What role do African Americans have in shaping American culture?