1. Lesson title: Revolutionary America: Choosing Sides
Teacher-author: This lesson was created by Dave Neumann, Long Beach Unified School District.
In this activity students will investigate the difficulties Elizabeth Murray and her family experienced as they were pressured to choose sides in a war about which they had conflicting feelings. While illustrating the experiences of civilians more generally, it also reveals the special challenges faced by women. The activity involves several steps. First, students will read some background information in the form of brief secondary excerpts about the experiences of civilians during the revolution. Then they will read a narrative about the experiences of Murray and her family during the early stages of the conflict. Following the narrative, there are links to a number of documents that illuminate Murray’s experiences.
3. Historical background and bibliography
As the crisis between the colonies and Britain intensified, Americans in key areas of Patriot resistance like Boston felt pressure to choose sides. In some ways, choosing sides was even more complicated for women than for men because of their legal position in colonial society. According to the political philosophy the American colonists inherited from British thinkers, women were not citizens. Typically, leaders from both sides assumed that a wife had the same loyalty as her husband, even if she had never said anything one way or the other. (1)
When war broke out, civilians experienced many hardships, including loss of property, forced quartering of troops, assault and separation from family members. Some women who crossed troop lines to visit family members were accused of being spies, and thereby drawn into the politics of war.
Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, 1980), 36-39.
Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca, 1980).
4. Guiding questions:
To what extent do you think Elizabeth Murray was either a “patriot” or a “loyalist”? What factors influenced the decisions of Murray and her family as to what side to take in the American Revolution? How do their experiences demonstrate the dilemmas many average Americans faced in choosing sides?
5. Learning objectives:
- Students will analyze the experiences of every day people within the context of the era in which they lived
- Students will analyze primary documents, using them to understand life in the eighteenth century
The secondary excerpts are the starting point of this lesson. Teachers may assign students to read them before class, in class, or may choose to lecture from them.
Once students are familiar with some of the experiences of civilians during the revolution, they are ready to read the brief narrative of Elizabeth Murray’s experiences. Her somewhat complicated story illustrates how difficult it was for some people to “choose sides”—and perhaps how difficult it is for historians and students to categorize the behavior of some Americans during the war. Documents 1-5 essentially provide broad context for Murray’s narrative. The remaining documents reveal her perspective on some of her experiences during the war and the tensions that developed between her and her husband as a result of their different geographical locations, different experiences, and to some extent their different perspectives. Though these specific experiences pertain only to Murray’s family, they provide insight into the range of experiences average Americans may have had in choosing sides in the American Revolution, which was in key ways a civil war.
The lesson could conclude by sharing out verbally, with brief quickwrites, or with longer and more formally-structured essays.
(1) Norton 202-204; Kerber 45-47.