The dramatic account of a Revolutionary-era conspiracy in which a band of farmers opposed to military conscription and fearful of religious persecution plotted to kill the governor of North Carolina.
Less than a year into the American Revolution, a group of North Carolina farmers hatched a plot to assassinate the colony’s leading patriots, including the governor. The scheme became known as the Gourd Patch or Lewellen Conspiracy. The men called themselves the Brethren.
The Brethren opposed patriot leaders’ demand for militia volunteers and worried that “enlightened” deist principles would be enshrined in the state constitution, displacing their Protestant faith. The patriots’ attempts to ally with Catholic France only exacerbated the Brethren’s fears of looming heresy. Brendan McConville follows the Brethren as they draw up plans for violent action. After patriot militiamen threatened to arrest the Brethren as British sympathizers in the summer of 1777, the group tried to spread false rumors of a slave insurrection in hopes of winning loyalist support. But a disaffected insider denounced the movement to the authorities, and many members were put on trial. Drawing on contemporary depositions and legal petitions, McConville gives voice to the conspirators’ motivations, which make clear that the Brethren did not back the Crown but saw the patriots as a grave threat to their religion.
Part of a broader Southern movement of conscription resistance, the conspiracy compels us to appreciate the full complexity of public opinion surrounding the Revolution. Many colonists were neither loyalists nor patriots and came to see the Revolutionary government as coercive. The Brethren tells the dramatic story of ordinary people who came to fear that their Revolutionary leaders were trying to undermine religious freedom and individual liberty—the very causes now ascribed to the Founding generation.
[McConville’s] use of archival and printed primary sources to discern thoughts and actions of obscure people [is] a rare feat…Important and well worth reading and discussing.
An engaging read. In addition to enlightening readers on issues affecting the yeoman population in the Revolution, this book will appeal particularly to those who are interested in religious history as well as aficionados of the Carolinas’ history.
McConville’s study is the first to uncover the history of the Brethren, bringing this fascinating story to light…The Brethren is a great example of how scholars can use sparse sources and some imagination to craft a compelling narrative and argument.
In this innovative and vivid history, McConville deploys deft and deep research to recover a long-hidden struggle within the American Revolution for the soul of a new nation. The Brethren reveals a contradictory, divisive, violent, and volatile revolution that pivoted on the allegiance of rural Christians alienated from the more secular leaders of their state.
McConville gives us an American Revolution we have never really seen. The Brethren demonstrates the hidden power of anti-Catholicism, loyalism, slave revolts, and a crucial conflict among patriots. It turns out that many ordinary Americans were determined to save their religion equally from King George III and from America’s own rationalist elite.
In reconstructing the Lewellen conspiracy, McConville recovers the complexity and nuance of the American Revolution on the ground. This isn’t a story of idealistic Founding Fathers making the Enlightenment real, but of common people making sense of momentous changes. Written with great verve and flair, this book challenges our assumptions about the nature of the Revolution itself.
McConville provides a compact and elegant account of conspiratorial resistance to Revolutionary authority by alienated Anglicans in North Carolina, revealing important new perspectives on shifting religious and political orientations in the Revolution. Recovering a world unfamiliar, transient, and disconcerting, The Brethren amply repays readers interested in exploring the confused conflicts and abrupt dislocations of ordinary Americans during the Revolutionary crisis.
- 304 pages
- 1 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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