Conspiracy theories run deep in American history. So it should come as no surprise that during the tumultuous period following the Declaration of Independence and the collapse of British institutions in the former American colonies, a group of yeomen and planters in the Albermarle region of North Carolina became suspicious of the intentions of local revolutionary authorities. The form that their suspicions took, however, might raise a modern eyebrow: they believed that the revolutionary leadership of North Carolina was involved in a Catholic-inspired plot to subvert the Protestant political culture that had previously guaranteed their rights as free Englishmen. Their evidence: the interim government’s effort to impose military service, its championing of an alliance with France, and the efforts of fourteen prominent delegates to the North Carolina constitutional convention to purge the document of all references to that Protestant culture in the name of Enlightenment ideals. Notably, the same agrarian interests had just recently decried the Quebec Act of 1774 as signaling popish infiltration of England’s ministries and a threat to their Protestant liberties, and many had considered it grounds to declare independence.
Conspiracy theories run deep in American history.
Now faced with existential threats from their new government, these North Carolinians did what any red-blooded Americans would do: they formed a secret society. Known to its members as “the Brethren” and, ultimately, to the authorities as “the Associators,” the group quickly developed governing institutions, recruiting methods, a written constitution explaining its values, and, perhaps most important, a system of oaths, codes, and rituals, revealed only to the initiates. For example, Brethren recognized one another by the secret badge of membership, a stick with three notches; its display led to a preset verbal exchange that culminated in spelling out the password “be true,” a potential challenge for the group’s many illiterate members.
Early on, the Brethren were simply a group of local worthies with a taste for clandestine rituals held in gourd patches, more notable for hotheaded talk than action. But in 1777, local tensions about the war boiled over. One of the group’s founders had a series of heated verbal run-ins with some Patriot leaders—they were all neighbors serving in the same militia company—and matters escalated. The Patriot James Mayo threatened to have the Associator John Lewellen arrested as a Tory, something that would have cost Lewellen his land and possibly sent him into exile. Turning words into action, Lewellen responded with a plan to murder leading members of the Patriot government and invite General Howe, the commander of the British land forces in America, to enter the state. To make the scheme work, Lewellen touched on the third rail of Southern politics: he took steps to incite a diversionary slave uprising so the Brethren could capture a nearby military arsenal to support their insurrection against the revolutionary authorities.
Men who had signed up to grouse about the direction of the new government had not signed up for political assassinations, a slave uprising, or a British invasion. The movement rapidly unraveled from within. Former members raced to the authorities with what they knew, the government arrested the Brethren’s leaders, and, despite the lack of a functioning court system, the government set out to try and convict them. Lewellen faced hanging for treason. The whole “movement” lasted less than two years and, although numbers are uncertain given the secrecy surrounding membership, likely counted at most several hundred men as members. By contrast, North Carolina provided something around thirty-six thousand men to the revolutionary cause during the course of the war.
In his new book The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America, the professor and radio host Brendan McConville argues that the need to try the conspirators provided the revolutionary government with the imperative to create a state court system, concluding, with a bit of hyperbole, that this endeavor turned its participants from Britons into Americans. That we know so much about the Brethren and their leaders is a testimony to the records kept by the North Carolina courts and local officials in their effort to re-establish the rule of law as they had known it under the British Empire. McConville digs deeply into these primary sources. His work is an example of what the historian Gordon S. Wood has called “microhistory,” in which an historian “takes small events in the past involving inconspicuous people and a limited number of sources and teases out of them stories and meaning presumably to throw light on the larger society.”
The book amply portrays a world of fluid allegiances.
The question is whether in meticulously documenting the former, the author accomplishes the latter, presumably more important aim of illuminating the “larger society.” The book amply portrays a world of fluid allegiances in which the labels Tory and Patriot were only the poles on the political continuum. In this, McConville adds to recent scholarship that stresses the intertwined, sometimes familial, relationships between Britons and Americans during the revolution and the shifting loyalties of ordinary people on the ground. Otherwise, the book is a story of missed opportunities. For example, North Carolina was a hotbed of loyalist sentiment throughout the revolutionary period, beginning with the Highland Scots who fought alongside the British and culminating in a civil war between local Tories and Patriots when the last British regulars withdrew in November of 1781. Yet the book fails to place the Brethren’s Tory-leaning rhetoric within the context of these broader loyalist strains and to examine the root causes of both within North Carolina society.
As a result, the book succumbs to an intrinsic risk of microhistory, inflating a small and interesting story into a long and repetitive book. Notable in this regard are the book’s relentless ipse dixit references to the anti-Catholic thread running through revolutionary politics and its penchant for repeating every point several times. Along the way there are numerous unforced errors, including the author’s observation that it is difficult to tell why folks took oaths more seriously then than now (they believed in an afterlife and swearing falsely put salvation in jeopardy) and his equating Methodism with Anglicanism (Methodism was an offshoot of Anglicanism but, even by the 1740s, involved a distinct theology and worship style), not to mention a rather peculiar chapter titled the “Return of the Father,” which credits Governor Caswell, a Patriot, with shrewdly re-establishing a patriarchal government on the model of the British monarchy over the libertarian objections of men like the Brethren.
There is another way to read the end of the story of the Brethren, one that sheds light on a premodern society in which all politics were personal and a fight between neighbors could quickly turn into a treasonous plot and just as quickly be forgotten. John Lewellen was convicted of treason at trial and sentenced to hang. While Lewellen was in jail awaiting his fate, his wife—escorted by none other than Nathan Mayo, the brother of the neighbor with whom Lewellen had originally fallen out—met with Governor Caswell to beg for mercy. The governor, one of the chief targets of the plot, granted clemency and ordered Lewellen released to his farm. While McConville views this as Caswell’s effort to restore a world of hierarchy and deference, Caswell may have seen the plot for what it was, a falling out among neighbors that got out of hand. Or that the number of Loyalists in North Carolina was simply too great to hang them all.
History provides a grace note to this story. Long after the war was over, Lewellen and James Mayo remained neighbors, both now prosperous slaveholders. In the early 1790s, when making his will, Lewellen asked Nathan to act as his executor. So generously did Nathan perform his duties that, after the death of her first husband, Lewellen’s daughter Sussanah married Nathan’s son Frederick. And when Frederick died, the twice widowed Sussanah married her brother-in-law, Nathan Mayo Jr. Mercy, after all, “blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 69
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com