Annis Boudinot Stockton, Mythmaking, and the American Revolution (cont.)

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Blake McGready for part two of the series. To read part one, click here.

While her poetry avoided wartime setbacks and conjured stories of revolutionary unity, Stockton’s poems did confront the violent realities of what she called “a most cruel and eventful war”. Her choice allusions demonstrate how, in her mind, wartime violence bound the revolutionaries together. Following the death of General Joseph Warren at the battle of Bunker Hill she lamented, “That heart, which, studious of his countries good / Held up her rights and seal’d them with his blood!” In 1776 Stockton wrote of revolutionary soldiers who “fought and bled to save their native land / From bowing to a tyrant’s stern command,” and honored great men dying on battlefields “Made fertile by the blood of heroes slain.” Whereas historians have noted how the war’s violence was often deliberately excluded from the popular imagination, by contrast, Stockton’s war and violence were inseparable.[i]

     Stockton included specific accounts of vicious British behavior to strengthen her myth of revolutionary unity. In 1781 she suggested British animus provided the colonists no choice but to rebel: “And drove by cruel treatment to despair / They [colonists] found resistance was their only plan.” On British General John Burgoyne’s invasion of New York, she wrote that Burgoyne “made the vengeance threaten’d his own.” She juxtaposed British cruelty with revolutionary benevolence; rebels who practiced “the gentlest treatment” following victories, and leaders who were “gentle, brave, magnanimous and kind.” Along those lines, Stockton memorialized the distressing experiences of revolutionary prisoners. “And all the horrid train of groans and sighs,” she illustrated in 1784, “With instruments of death, the fiend’s allies. / The cruel sufferings of our martial swains, / Pent up in prison-ships or doom’d to chains.” Images of suffering revolutionaries chained to disease-ridden ships underscored the enemy’s cruelty. Her writings constructed an interpretive framework featuring a cast of evergreen heroes and villains. [ii]

   When Stockton conjured images “cruel treatment” her audiences shared knowledge and personal experiences of wartime abuses. In 1787 she remembered

Ah! who can paint the horrors of that morn,

When fame, with brazen trumpet, sounded loud,

That Washington retreats! Caesaria’s maids,

Old men and matrons, children at the breast,

With hair dishevell’d, and with streaming eyes,

Implore the God of battles to protect.

Brutality was common in Stockton’s New Jersey. Following their flight from Princeton in 1776, the Stockton family returned to find their property destroyed, livestock taken, furniture and personal papers burned, and portraits slashed. Crown Forces committed widespread acts of sexual assault at the end of 1776. She also deplored the Crown’s decision to employ European mercenaries, disparaging the “lines of Hessian captive slaves” serving King George III. Such stories strengthened Stockton’s myth that revolutionaries maintained firm support for the war in the face of such cruelties. [iii]

     Perhaps Stockton directed her ire most defiantly at the British decision to ally with indigenous Americans. In 1781 Stockton described Burgoyne’s Saratoga campaign with racialist language, writing he was “Replete with arrogance and proud disdain” and that “He sends his cruel, savage allies forth.” In a postwar tribute to Washington, she again wrote “Savage herds invade our fertile plains, / And undistinguishd Scalp the peaceful swains.” Such personifications accomplished two interrelated tasks of revolutionary writers. First, they neglected the intermingling and complex ties that bound white and indigenous Americans in the eighteenth century, further separating white America from native America. Even in Princeton, Stockton would have experienced regular comings and goings of native tribesmen and women meeting with politicians, college officials, and negotiators.[iv] Second, labelling Native Americans as “Savage herds” helped create an exclusive, white, national culture that was ethnically cohesive. Propagated and often sensationalized stories of “cruel, savage allies” prone to “Scalp the peaceful” abounded in white, wartime America.[v]

     After eliminating her husband’s doubts and simplifying his memory, Annis Boudinot Stockton could use the same brushstrokes to paint her interpretation of the revolution. She deftly restrained the movement’s radicalism and presented the revolutionaries as packaged, patrician heroes. She underscored accounts of British villainy and stories of wartime sacrifice. And she propagated imaginary claims that the American people maintained a steadfast willingness to prosecute the war. Celebrating an invented unified movement also granted Stockton access to the postwar community of triumphant revolutionaries, preserving her family’s reputation and security as members of elite American society. In eight years of war Stockton witnessed her town invaded and property pillaged, tended to her husband while he died of cancer, observed neighbors turning on neighbors, and entered the male realm of politics independently and alongside other women. Out of those chaotic and life-changing experiences she fashioned a version of war for her young country’s memory, a violent war waged entirely by white men and sustained by a united nation that never blinked in their support of independence.[vi]

     [i] Poems of ABS, 129, 94-95; Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown, 2017), 11-12.

     [ii] Poems of ABS, 107, 110, 127, 123; John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and Its Institutions (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879), I: 75-76.

     [iii] Poems of ABS, 140; Elizabeth Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1850), 3:16.

     [iv] Poems of ABS, 110, 161.

     [v] Emily J. Arendt, “‘Ladies Going about for Money’: Female Voluntary Associations and Civic Consciousness in the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 34, no. 2 (2014): 157–86.

     [vi] Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (New York: Norton, 1986), 269. 

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