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Vicious and Immoral

Homosexuality, the American Revolution, and the Trials of Robert Newburgh

The fascinating story of a British army chaplain's buggery trial in 1774 reveals surprising truths about early America.

On the eve of the American Revolution, the British army considered the case of a chaplain, Robert Newburgh, who had been accused of having sex with a man. Newburgh's enemies cited his flamboyant appearance, defiance of military authority, and seduction of soldiers as proof of his low character. Consumed by fears that the British Empire would soon be torn asunder, his opponents claimed that these supposed crimes against nature translated to crimes against the king.

In Vicious and Immoral, historian John McCurdy tells this compelling story of male intimacy and provides an unparalleled glimpse inside eighteenth-century perceptions of queerness. By demanding to have his case heard, Newburgh invoked Enlightenment ideals of equality, arguing passionately that his style of dress and manner should not affect his place in the army or society. His accusers equated queer behavior with rebellion, and his defenders would go on to join the American cause. Newburgh's trial offers some clues to understanding a peculiarity of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: while gay acts were prohibited by law in much of the British empire, the newly formed United States was comparatively uninterested in legislating against same-sex intimacy.

McCurdy imagines what life was like for a gay man in early America and captures the voices of those who loved and hated Newburgh, revealing how sexuality and revolution informed one another. Vicious and Immoral is the first book to place homosexuality in conversation with the American Revolution, and it dares us to rethink the place of LGBTQ people in the founding of the nation.

About the Author

John Gilbert McCurdy (YPSILANTI, MI) is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. He is the author of Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States and Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution.

Endorsements

"John McCurdy has a unique talent. Readers will marvel at the amazing interconnections between small and large events, between personal histories and the rise or fall of empires. They will listen to the misadventures of Lieutenant Robert Newburgh, but most importantly, they are provided with a powerful telescope to see the challenges 18th-century transatlantic society faced."

- Maurizio Valsania, author of First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity

"A queer history of the American Revolution? Part detective story, part courtroom drama, part soap opera, this deeply researched book follows a British army chaplain as he fought back against scandalous charges on both sides of the Atlantic. Along the way, McCurdy raises fresh questions about gender norms, sexual identities, and human rights at the founding of the United States."

- John Wood Sweet, author of The Sewing Girl's Tale

"This beautifully researched, meticulously contextual, and engrossing account of an eighteenth-century troublemaker is the queer history on the eve of the American revolution we urgently need."

- Helmut Puff, University of Michigan

"John McCurdy brilliantly illuminates the strange—and yet strangely familiar—sexual mores of the of the American Revolution for the modern reader. No one is a better guide for understanding the intersections of British military history, scandal, masculine honor, and same-sex histories than McCurdy."

- Ann Little, author of The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright
Johns Hopkins University Press
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