Parsing the Language of Revolution
Historian Greg Knouff is interested in political speech, specifically dissenting speech. When is it too inflammatory, too dangerous, too seductive? His research on Revolutionary War-era New Hampshire reminds us that these touchy questions are not new. Take the case of Breed Batcheller, for example – a man who just wouldn't keep his mouth shut.
Professor Greg Knouff, expert on Revolutionary-era history, in his office in Morrison Hall.
Professor Greg Knouff, who has taught American history at Keene State since 1998, specializes in the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. In his research, he's taken a look at Loyalists, also called Tories – those who remained loyal to the British crown – and how they were portrayed and treated during the American Revolution.
Lately, Knouff has focused his study on New Hampshire, which was one of the least rebellious colonies up until 1774, when England's punitive Coercive Acts prompted a provincial congress to convene in Exeter in defiance of Colonial Governor John Wentworth, who soon fled.
The rebels wrote a new constitution and declared themselves the legitimate government, turning the status quo upside down. The new government demanded a strict oath of allegiance and made it known that dissenting speech was seditious. Local Committees of Safety were empowered to enforce the orthodox view and in many cases to be their own judge and jury.
Enter Breed Batcheller (1740-85) of Packersfield, outspoken Loyalist, surveyor, land speculator, farmer, and the focus of Knouff's research. "I was researching a new book project on Loyalists in New Hampshire," Knouff said, "and encountered the notorious local Loyalist, Breed Batcheller.
I considered writing a contextual biography of him as an example of how Loyalists were viewed, but decided to focus the book more broadly on how Revolutionaries used language and metaphors to control political dissent." Knouff has done extensive research on Batcheller in local court records, records of the New Hampshire Revolutionary government, British military records, the papers of the Continental Congress, Canadian sources on Loyalists, personal correspondence, and Loyalist claims filed with the British government.
The new government that came to power in the American Revolution, representing those who sought political and economic freedom from England, often did not extend those freedoms to dissenters in their midst. In fact, in order to protect its viability, the Revolutionary New Hampshire government and its committees suppressed dissenting speech, imprisoned suspected Loyalists without a formal charge, and confiscated the property of those who fled to British lines.
Much of this played out on a local stage, with neighbor tattling on neighbor for supposed disloyalty or seditious speech. Knouff has found numerous examples of Loyalist speech being branded as dangerously "seductive," something Revolutionary authorities feared might persuade the "uninformed masses."
In Breed Batcheller's case, it was his own neighbors who turned him in. Batcheller (also spelled Batchelder or Batchellor) owned thousands of acres of land in Packersfield (later renamed Nelson), and had served as a major in the local militia in the early 1770s.
Records show that he bought tea in Canada to sell in the Monadnock region, in defiance of the Colonial resistance movement's boycott of British East India Company tea. Although he went to Boston with the local militia to help besiege British forces in 1775, there were questions about his loyalty.
When the Packersfield Committee of Safety – his neighbors – questioned him in December 1775, they were met with his derision. Batcheller was clapped into jail in Keene and tried. People testified against him, saying he had publicly denounced the authority of local Revolutionary committees. He refused to sign the Association Test, an oath of loyalty to the new government.
Batcheller was then confined to his farm in Packersfield under bond, but by the summer of 1777, his neighbors were seething with indignation that a noisy Loyalist was still among them. Townsfolk claimed that Batcheller had continued to threaten them and disparage the Revolutionary cause.
A mob set out to get him. Local legend claims Batcheller hid in a cave on his land, then fled and joined British General Burgoyne's army. Military records show that he fought with the British at the Battle of Bennington in August 1777, where he was wounded, possibly (another local legend) by his former neighbor Richard Farwell of Packersfield, who was fighting with the American army.
Injured and impoverished, Batcheller was paroled to New York City, and then eventually went to Digby, Nova Scotia, with other Loyalists. He died there in 1785, never having reunited with his wife and children.
The state of New Hampshire confiscated his land – 3,516 acres, including the family farm. His wife, Ruth, who as a married woman had no legal right to own property, petitioned the state government for the use and then for the ownership of the farm, acknowledging that her husband had been hostile to the Revolution or, as she framed it, "dissatisfied with the measures the states adopted in order to obtain their liberties and deliver themselves from the hands of the Britons."
Perhaps in part because she implicitly recognized Revolutionary authority in her petition, the farmhouse and about 260 acres were given to her and her heirs as an act of charity. She died in 1840 at age 94. Her tombstone in the cemetery on East Surry Road in Keene reads, "Ruth, Relict of Breed Batcheller."
"Most of the sources about Breed Batcheller come from his enemies," Knouff notes. "Batcheller's own petitions make him sound more moderate than his enemies suggested. He suggested that while he could possibly submit to state Revolutionary authority, he could not accept that of the local committees composed of his enemies. Still, his persistent public critiques of local committees were viewed as seditious attacks on legitimate authority."
Knouff has taught two senior seminars on the Loyalist experience, courses that challenge students' assumptions. "When you read Loyalist claims for compensation in the archives," said Knouff, "their stories point out the irony of being accused of treason by people they considered traitorous. Their accounts suggest a world turned upside down."
Knouff also noted that New Hampshire may have been spared significant combat during the American Revolution, but a civil war of words was waged to suppress Loyalism (portrayed as infidelity to the Revolutionary cause) and dissent in general.
His research into 18th-century America reminds us that even our most iconic moments as a nation are not without ambiguity. The political battle in the Revolution over how to balance individual liberty with centralized power was not a simple story of enlarging the boundaries of freedom.
Professor Knouff has concluded his research and is currently working on the book manuscript, tentatively titled, Seductive Sedition: Loyalists, Language, and Power in Revolutionary New Hampshire. No portrait of Breed Batcheller has ever been found; if any reader has that information, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the summer of 1777, Batcheller's neighbors were seething with indignation that a noisy Loyalist was still among them. Townsfolk claimed that he had continued to threaten them and disparage the Revolutionary cause. A mob set out to get him.