Writing Rape in the American Revolution

“Sexing Histories of Revolution” Roundtable – Post #1

In this series, contributors explore sex and sexual revolutions in the revolutionary era. 

By Kacy Tillman

As the current debates concerning the defunding of Planned Parenthood confirm, legislators are and always have been more interested in capitalizing upon rape’s political purposes than they have been in protecting rape victims themselves. This was certainly true during the American Revolution. The definition of rape in the eighteenth century was the “carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will,” which came from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.[1] Although today we do not distinguish between the two categories (“by force” and “against her will”), early Americanists did. Passion could cause someone to be violent during sex, but that violence did not necessarily imply a lack of consent.[2] In fact, the law assumed that some amount of force was necessary with women, who paradoxically were assumed to be both uninterested in sex and incapable of controlling their desires.[3] As such, sex with women was often described in militaristic terms – the female body as something that must be conquered.[4] It was assumed that sex was war, and women secretly wanted to lose.

Although what Sabine Sielke has called “real rape” — or “rape as a social fact” — certainly occurred during the American Revolution, this war “focused the rhetorical power of rape on that political crisis to a degree completely unparalleled in early American history.”[5] By calling the loyalists “rapists,” the rebels used such depictions to justify the rebellion and vilify the British. The mobilization of this rhetoric was problematic for the people who tried to employ it, however. If the rebels wanted to paint the loyalists as barbarous rapists, they had to do so without also painting American women as licentious whores. To achieve this goal, they removed the women from their own narratives, stripping accounts of names and other identifying information so that their propaganda could focus on the loyalists’ uncontrolled lusts, a useful symbol for their greedy desire for power.[6]

Studying rape in the revolution is difficult because of the discourse – and lack of discourse – surrounding it. Not only did it involve real rape, but it also involved political rape: nameless, propagandistic, often unquantifiable accounts of rapes that each side implemented to paint the other side as heathens.[7] It also involved coded rape, which falls somewhere in the middle of the other two categories. Women used coded discourse to either imply that soldiers were indecent, thereby implicating the cause they represented, or to say-without-saying that they or people they knew had been violated. The loyalists I study seem less invested in discerning between sexual and simple battery; in other words, they discuss rape, near-rape, and more generalized physical violence collectively as part of a larger critique of riotous rebels run amuck. What we can learn from these coded conversations is this: while rebel men used the rhetoric of rape to justify the American Revolution, loyalist women used the rhetoric of rape to critique it.

Anna Rawle provides a prime example of this kind of rhetorical strategy. Shortly after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, crowds across America surged into the streets to both celebrate with neighbors and punish those who refused to join them in their revelry. Rawle refused. In a letter to her mother, she wrote that a “mob . . . broke the shutters and the glass of the windows, and were coming in,” though, she told the crowd, there were “none but forlorn women” inside.[8] After her attackers finally departed, Rawle and some friends “nailed boards up at the broken panels,” since it “would not have been safe to have gone to bed,” ultimately reassuring her mother that she escaped physically unharmed. She soon realized that women all over the city had received similar treatment and sustained injuries. “Men,” she recounted, had broken into neighbors’ houses to find that “all of the sons were out,” so they “acted as they pleased,” a phrase that only thinly veils her reference to sexual violence. Although she counted her “sufferings slight compared to many others,” her neighbor, Mrs. Gibbs, was not so fortunate. The crowd came for her husband, Benjamin, with “pick axes and iron bars.” He escaped over the fence, but he left his wife behind. When Mrs. Gibbs made her body a shield to save Benjamin, one of the townspeople dealt her “a violent bruise to the breast and a blow in the face which made her nose bleed.”[9] The way that Rawle tells it, the crowd meted out a broad range of punishments, ranging from property damage, to the threat and perhaps execution of rape, to dealing Mrs. Gibbs a devastating blow to her chest. Rawle’s letter blends and blurs the lines that we might seek to draw between battery and sexual assault; for her, each act of violence bleeds into the next, underscoring the rebels’ penchant for chaos and bloodshed of all kinds.

In her retelling of the Cornwallis riots, she places the onus on the crowd; it, not the women, caused the damages. Rawle displaced the women’s so-called uncontrolled passions to the patriarchs, which then allowed her to condemn their actions. Her letter suggested that, if a successful civil society depended on the regulation of impulses, and this newly-minted society was unable to control itself, then the republic was doomed before it began.

The kind of coded rhetoric that Rawle uses manifests itself in other female loyalists’ manuscripts, as well. The Quaker Sarah Logan Fisher, for example, wrote that a group of men came to her door and demanded requisitions from her, targeting her because her husband refused to sign a loyalty oath and had been exiled to Virginia, as a result.[10] The soldiers tried to force her to accompany them upstairs, to a bedroom, alone, but she refused them. They then pushed past her and declared their intent to take by force what she would not grant willingly, which implied anything from the servants to the supplies they were sent to gather. “[T]ho there was a Carpet on every floor,” Fisher recalled, “& a Blanket on every Bed, they . . . saw nothing that suited them.” Like Rawle, Fisher thinly veiled the threat of rape in the letter she wrote to her husband in exile. And, like Rawle, Fisher’s letter worked to both condemn the men who forced their way into her home and to reassure her loved ones that she escaped physically unharmed. She named this type of injustice, carried out by “weak and wicked men,” as the “most extraordinary instance of arbitrary power,” a harbinger of “the Liberty we shall enjoy should their Government ever be established.”[11] The soldier’s treatment of Fisher’s family was metonymic of the cause they supported. Staved off only by Fisher’s staunch refusal (and, she adds, by God’s intervention), their unruly physical bodies stood as harbingers of the unruly political body they would create if they won the war.

When Rawle and Fisher wrote of the revelers as violent rapists (or would-be rapists) wrecking havoc all over Philadelphia, they were inverting a specific kind of rhetoric that rebels used against loyalists to justify the revolution. Rape rhetoric – particularly the appeal to fear – has historically been used to keep women subjugated.[12] Just as anti-abolitionists and pro-segregationists capitalized upon these fears to fuel their causes in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so the rebels used a similar tactic during the American Revolution. In the sermons, broadsides, newspaper articles, and other publications that promoted this propaganda, women’s agency in these violations had to be removed so that the perpetrators, rather than the victims, could emerge the clear villains. To achieve this goal, rebel propaganda often targeted men, rather than women, appealing to their desire to protect their property.[13] When men recounted tales of their wives and daughters being violated by Hessians or British soldiers, these stories “provided a forum for the creation of a national community of aggrieved American citizens. . . . Such stories were particularly useful against the British because rape illuminated their perversion of power and their betrayal of patriarchal protection.”[14] But loyalist women used these narratives to critique this so-called protection. By reassuring their audiences that they escaped these encounters unharmed, they were able to sidestep any accusations that they were complicit in the attacks against them. And by depicting the revelers as rioters and the rebels (and rebel supporters) as rapists, they were able to critique the revolution itself.

Kacy Tillman is an Associate Professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa, where she teaches early American Literature. Her book-in-progress is called Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution. You can follow her on Twitter @kacytillman or visit her website kacytillman.com.

Title image: British Legion threatens to kill Martha Bratton, July 11, 1780.


[1] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 2 (J.B. Lippincott, 1900), 160.

[2] Sharon Block discusses this rhetorical erasure in Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (UNC Press, 2006).

[3] Marybeth Hamilton Arnold, “‘The Life of a Citizen in the Hands of a Woman’: Sexual Assault in New York City, 1790 to 1820,” in Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, eds. Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 39.

[4] Block, Rape and Sexual Power, 20-22.

[5] Sabine Sielke, Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790-1990 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 1. Sharon Block, “Rape without Women: Print Culture and the Politicization of Rape, 1765-1815” The Journal of American History 89, no. 3 (2002): 850.

[6] Sharon Block, “Rape without Women: Print Culture and the Politicization of Rape, 1765-1815” The Journal of American History 89, no. 3 (2002): 850.

[7] For more on political rape, see Katherine Lusby, “Hearing the Invisible Women of Political Rape: Using Oppositional Narrative to Tell a New War Story,” University of Toledo Law Review 25, no. 4 (1994): 911-954.

[8] Anna Rawle to Rebecca Shoemaker, 27 October 1781, Pemberton Papers, Vol. 70, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[9] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[10] Quakers did not always consider themselves to be loyalists (though some did), but rebels often treated them as the enemy because of their pacifism.

[11] Sarah Logan Fisher, “A Diary of Trifling Occurrences,” Vol. 1, [1777], Sarah Logan Fisher Diaries 1776-1795, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[12] Sielke, Reading Rape, 2.

[13] Block, Rape and Sexual Power, 130, 231-232.

[14] Ibid, 230.

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