Joyce Lee Malcolm
The Times That Try Men’s Souls: The Adams, the Quincys, and the Battle for Loyalty in the American Revolution
From the publisher:
A compelling, intimate history of the Revolutionary period through a series of charismatic and ambitious families, revealing how the American Revolution was, in many ways, a civil war.
Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom!
—John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 26, 1777
All wars are tragic, but the “revolutionary generation” paid an exceptionally personal price. Foreign wars pull men from home to fight and die abroad leaving empty seats at the family table. But the ideological war that forms the foundation of a civil war also severs intimate family relationships and bonds of friendship in addition to the loss of life on the battle fields.
In The Times That Try Men’s Soul, Joyce Lee Malcolm masterfully traces the origins and experience of that division during the American Revolution—the growing political disagreements, the intransigence of colonial and government officials swelling into a flood of intolerance, intimidation and mob violence. In that tidal wave opportunities for reconciliation were lost. Those loyal to the royal government fled into exile and banishment, or stayed home to support British troops. Patriots risked everything in a fight they seemed destined to lose. Many people simply hoped against hope to get on with ordinary life in extraordinary times.
The hidden cost of this war was families and dear friends split along party lines. Samuel Quincy, Josiah Quincy’s only surviving son, sailed to England, abandoning his father, wife, and three children. John Adam’s dearest friend, Jonathan Sewell, fled with his family to England after his home was stormed by a mob. Sewell’s sister-in-law was married to none other than John Hancock. James Otis’s beloved wife Ruth was a wealthy Tory. One daughter would marry a British Army captain and spend the rest of her life abroad while the other wed the son of a major general in the Continental Army.
The pain of husbands divided from wives, fathers from children, sisters and brothers from each other and close friends caught on opposite sides in the throes of war has been explored in histories of other American wars, yet Malcolm reveals how this conflict reaches into the heart of our country’s foundation. Loyalists who fled to England became strangers in a strange land who did not fit into British society. They were Americans longing for home, wondering whether there would—or could—be reconciliation.
The grief of separated loyalties is an important and often ignored part of the revolutionary war story. Those who risked their lives battling the great British empire, and those who left home loyal to the government were all caught in a war without an enemy. In his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson reflected sadly that “we might have been a free and a great people together.” The Times That Try Men’s Souls is a poignant and vivid narrative that provides a fresh and timely perspective on a foundational part of our nation’s history.
Joyce Lee Malcolm is a professor at George Mason University School of Law. She is the author of Guns and Violence; Peter’s War; and To Keep and Bear Arms. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
[Recorded December 28, 2023]