The Toil of Staying Loyal: Windows and Mirrors into the “dark side” of the American Revolution

The Toil of Staying Loyal: Windows and Mirrors into the “dark side” of the American Revolution

By Susan Soprano

When thinking about the battles of the American Revolution, many students may envision foot soldiers, old-fashioned pistols, and cannons. Few may visualize the naval fleet, and those who were stationed at sea. Few may consider the Loyalist perspective, those who wished to remain true to the monarchy, as they considered a stab at self-government too risky. Do you think students consider how the Revolution ripped families apart? How about the horrendous conditions aboard prison ships, reserved for those who got caught supporting liberty?

As educators, we want our students to have a complete and comprehensive knowledge of history. For far too long, stories have been hidden or skipped over to give a general overview of major topics in our country’s founding. Our history should provide “windows” and “mirrors” for our students: opportunities for them to see another’s perspective (windows), and opportunities for them to see themselves and their own experiences through others (mirrors).

This past winter, I had an opportunity to research two Loyalists as part of a grant project for the New Jersey Council for Social Studies: William Franklin and David Sproat. I knew very little about both men, but that’s one of the exciting things about taking on a task like this. My research for this project consisted of online articles and journals, and a really interesting read titled, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert P. Watson. Prior to this learning journey, the following image really sums up by visualization of Loyalists during the Revolution:

“The Bostonian’s Paying the Excise-man, or Tarring & Feathering,” Philip Dawe, London, October 31, 1774. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC04961.01)

Needless to say, there’s a lot more to envision than this, and your mind doesn’t even have to wander all the way to Boston.

William Franklin was the son of Benjamin Franklin, well known statesman and Patriot. William as a young man followed in his father’s footsteps and then supported the Loyalist cause after the French and Indian War. At that time, William was named royal governor of New Jersey by King George III, and later took up residence at the Proprietary House in Perth Amboy, NJ. In this very home, Ben Franklin visited and pleaded with his son to join the Patriot cause. He refused, and this ended their relationship. As the colonies inched closer and closer to independence, New Jersey shifted to support this cause. New Jersey would become the last colony to support liberty. In spite of this, William Franklin remained true to the crown. As a result, he was placed on house arrest by the New Jersey Assembly and was later arrested for treason. The Proprietary House remains a tourist spot today, hosting afternoon teas, colonial reenactments, and Sunday tours. I visited the house this past April, and enjoyed seeing my research come to life.

Proprietary House, Perth Amboy, NJ (image:

          David Sproat was a Scottish immigrant who became a Loyalist during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. From here, he made his way to New York City, got the attention of William Franklin, and was ultimately named the commissary of prisoners on the HMS Jersey prison ship. Conflicting accounts show Sproat as both a man of empathy and a monster. His own correspondence with the Continental Congress was published in 1909 by James Lenox Banks, showing his willingness to give the prisoners bed linens and clothes. Sproat paid for these items upfront with his own funds. This challenges the claims from surviving prisoners that Sproat was ruthless and had made it his mission to torture American rebels.

These conflicting sources make one wonder about how history gets remembered. What makes one person’s story more valid than another? Who decides which story gets told? There are many discussions that could be had in your classroom based on these questions. Whichever side you and your students ultimately take, there is a monument dedicated to the fallen prisoners in Brooklyn, NY (pictured below). This statue was dedicated under President Taft in 1908, and was completely restored in 2008. I hope to see this in person one day soon.

Side note: Could there be a connection between the dedication of this statue and the publication of the Sproat correspondence? Did Banks publish these documents to spite the government? I have to dig deeper into this. Gotta love this stuff!

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, NY (image:

Students and teachers alike may be wondering, “Why study this?” Teachers, may be thinking, “How can I use history to help students learn through windows and mirrors?” If we expect our students to connect with history, then they have to learn from perspectives on those who lived it. Building blocks of good instruction like note taking, discussion, and projects are bound to be successful when students are given time to explore the human side of history and learn about individuals who lived in places familiar to them. Many resources from Facing History will challenge students to engage in historical content with empathy and action. I highly recommend their content and strategy libraries for helping your students connect to history in this way.

Social studies teachers have an obligation to prepare students for engaging in an ever changing democratic society. Giving them the tools to analyze history in a way that encourages making connections, understanding others experiences, and challenging inequities will make for responsible adults. It is my hope that social studies students get to enjoy a robust history class experience, for all of their learning years. The American Revolution is a starting place!

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