Clergyman, physician, essayist, satirist, spy
"Thou hast supported an atrocious cause Against thy King, thy country, and the laws."
Jonathan Odell, a multitalented American who stayed loyal to England during the American Revolution, is best remembered for the poetry he wrote in support of England. A strong believer in the authority of the church and state in society, Odell feared that the leaders of the American Revolution (1775–83) were bringing evil on America. He was a stern and serious man with strong opinions, and he wrote about the Revolution with grimness and bitterness.
Jonathan Odell was born in New Jersey in 1737 to John Odell, a carpenter, and Temperance Dickinson, the daughter of the first president of the school that became Princeton University in New Jersey. He was a descendant of William Odell, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Jonathan Odell graduated from Princeton in 1754 with a bachelor's degree. For a short time, he ran the college's elementary school, taking two-thirds of that school's profits as a salary. In 1756 he continued his studies at Princeton, and in 1759 he received his master's degree in medicine. He then joined the British Army and served in the West Indies (islands in the Caribbean Sea, between the United States and South America) as an army surgeon.
Next Odell decided to become an Episcopal minister, even though his family had strong ties to the Congregationalist Church. In 1763 he traveled to England to study for the ministry. At the same time, he taught at a school there and published his first poems. In England, he met Benjamin Franklin see entry, who was working there as an agent for New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He also began a lifelong friendship with Franklin's son, William, who was living in England with his father but was soon to be appointed governor of New Jersey. Benjamin Franklin used his influence to help Odell gain an appointment by the Anglican Church (a Protestant religious group in England) to become a Christian missionary to America. (A missionary is a person sent by a church to preach and teach in a foreign country)
After Odell officially became a minister in 1767, he sailed back to America and went to see his new friend, William Franklin. Franklin helped him obtain a position as pastor of St. Ann's Church in Burlington, New Jersey. Odell later served as a minister to other churches across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.
Gains distinctions, marries and has family
While Odell was at St. Ann's, talk of revolution against England was spreading. Those who opposed a revolution and remained loyal to England were called Loyalists. Odell promised New Jersey colonial authorities who supported American independence that he would keep his Loyalist leanings to himself rather than stir up members of his congregation. At the time just prior to the Revolutionary War, feelings ran high among the Loyalists and their opponents, the American supporters of rebellion against British rule.
Odell was soon recognized for his multiple talents. In 1768 he was chosen to be a member of the American Philosophical Society, an exclusive group that only accepted individuals who were accomplished in several fields. The society asked him to translate into English some French studies of silkworms. He supplemented his minister's pay by returning part-time to the practice of medicine. Twice in the 1770s he had the honor of being elected to membership in the New Jersey Medical Society.
In 1772 Odell married Anne de Cou of Burlington, New Jersey. She bore him two children. The couple's daughter, Mary, became the wife of a British army officer. Their son, William Franklin Odell, named after Odell's longtime friend, had a successful career as a Canadian politician.
Goes into hiding, flees to New York
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Odell tried to remain neutral (not take sides). But several letters he had written to friends in England fell into the hands of the New Jersey Provincial Congress. In the letters, he had voiced his opposition to the revolution. His Loyalist views were soon common knowledge.
In 1776 Odell gave up trying to stay neutral. He openly became friends with captured British officers who were being confined on an island in the Delaware River. To entertain them, he wrote a poem in celebration of the June 4 birthday of King George III see entry of England. Before long, the Burlington Committee of Safety, a pro-revolutionary group, learned of Odell's activities. Because of his pro-Loyalist poetry and his friendship with Loyalist soldiers, they considered him a dangerous influence and feared he might stir up Loyalist support. They ordered him to be confined near the town of Burlington, where they could keep an eye on him.
American revolutionaries came to believe that Odell's activities had progressed from poetry writing to harboring enemy soldiers. In December 1776, supporters of the Revolution searched his house for enemy troops. When he heard that the rebels had been ordered to hunt him down and take him dead or alive, Odell fled and went into hiding at the home of a friendly Quaker woman (Quakers opposed all types of warfare). He hid in a small windowless apartment that could only be entered, as he later recalled in his diary, by "entering a linen closet in the adjoining room, drawing out the shelves, prying up the movable back, and creeping in through the opening."
As soon as it seemed safe, Odell escaped to New York City, leaving behind his wife and three small children. New York had been taken by the British in September 1776. The following year, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after its capture by the British in September 1777. In Philadelphia, he and a friend, Joseph Stansbury, began to publish satirical political poems. (Satires are writings that make fun of others' stupidities, vices, or abuses.) Odell's satirical verse ranks among the best written during the American Revolution (see box). His satires were collected and published in The Loyal Verses of Joseph Stansbury and Doctor Jonathan Odell in 1860.
Life in Philadelphia and New York
In Philadelphia, Odell served as a minister to a group of Loyalist soldiers. They helped him to survive by paying him a small salary and sharing their food with him. Later, he supplemented this income by running the British government's printing press and publication program.
When the British left Philadelphia in May 1778, Odell returned to New York City. He continued to write political poems for various newspapers. They often focused on the frustrations felt by Loyalist and British soldiers toward the lack of military skills of their commander, Sir Henry Clinton.
During the first years of the war, Odell remained confident that the great British army was sure to stamp out the American rebellion. The year 1778 had started out badly for the British; they had suffered embarrassing defeats at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, in December 1777. Odell wrote a poem welcoming 1779; in it he spoke of the turnaround in the course of the war that he expected to take place soon.
The poem began:
Last year rebellion proudly stood
Elate, in her meridian [highest] glory;
But this [year] shall quench her pride in blood—
[King] George will avenge each martyred Tory [Loyalist].
Produces Loyalist writings, helps spy
Seventeen-seventy-nine was busy for Odell. That year, Odell and writer Samuel Seabury produced several long poems and a series of essays that tried to encourage the Loyalists and discredit the Continental Congress, America's revolutionary government. The essays were signed under the pen name "Britannicus." Some of Odell's writings appeared in James Rivington 's see entryNew-York Gazetteer, a Loyalist newspaper.
In their writings, Odell and Seabury made fun of the finances of the American revolutionaries, which were in terrible disarray, and Odell suggested that his readers think back to the origins of the American Revolution. They would see that the British had made mistakes in dealing with the colonies. He proposed that America let bygones be bygones and remain a part of the British Empire while being governed in a way that would benefit loyal colonists.
In 1779 Odell befriended the American general Benedict Arnold see entry, who became America's most famous traitor. Arnold was unhappy with the way he was being treated and decided to go over to the British side. Odell carried Arnold's note offering to change sides to British General Henry Clinton. But the note got damp, the invisible ink ran, and Clinton could not make out most of the note. After that incident, British officer John André rewrote Arnold's treasonous letters into code form, and Odell decoded them for Clinton. When the negotiations between Arnold and Clinton faltered, Odell intervened, encouraging both sides to keep up their efforts.
Goes to London
In 1781 Odell became assistant secretary to the Board of Directors of the Associated Loyalists, a political group headed by his close friend William Franklin. (Unlike his father, William Franklin was a supporter of the British.) That year fighting ended, but British soldiers remained in America under the command of Sir Guy Carleton until the peace treaty was signed in 1783. In 1782 Odell joined Carleton's staff, first as a chaplain, then as assistant secretary to Carleton.
In December 1783, Odell left New York and traveled to London, taking his family with him. He would never live in America again. In England, Odell sought repayment for the financial losses he suffered by being a Loyalist. As a reward for his services, he was appointed to the well-paying position of provincial secretary of the newly formed province of New Brunswick, Canada (Canada was then a British possession).
While some Loyalists were able to reconcile with their former enemies after the war, Odell never could. He became one of many former Loyalists who made new lives in England or other parts of the British Empire. According to historian Moses Coit Tyler, Odell was motivated by a "deathless love" for Great Britain and a "deathless hate" for an American republic.
Life and death in Canada
In 1784 Odell moved his family to Canada and took on his new position in New Brunswick. He was upset when high-level government officials in Canada soon demanded more freedom from Great Britain so they could pass their own local laws. Odell complained that they were failing in their loyalty to the mother country. Odell prospered and became a slave owner. He held a number of important government posts, including First Secretary of the province; he also held a seat on New Brunswick's executive council. Over the years, he became a highly respected figure in New Brunswick politics.
Odell continued to write poetry. He also wrote about poetry in An essay on the elements, accents and prosody of the English language, which was published in 1804.
In 1812 Odell retired at seventy-five, and his son, William Franklin Odell, became provincial secretary. Odell died in Fredericton, New Brunswick, on November 25, 1818.
For More Information
Boatner, Mark M., III. "Odell, Jonathan." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, p. 813.
Boynton, Percy H. American Poetry. New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1918, p. 614.
Calhoon, Robert M. "Odell, Jonathan." American National Biography, Vol. 16. Edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 618-19.
"Jonathan Odell." American Writers Before 1800: A Biographical and Critical Dictionary. Edited by James A. Levernier and Douglas R. Wilmes. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.
"Odell, Jonathan." National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. 25. New York: James T. White & Co., 1936, pp. 212-13.
Purcell, L. Edward. "Odell, Jonathan." Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, pp. 355-56.
Randall, Willard Sterne. Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1990, pp. 458, 466-67.
Tyler, Moses Coit. "The Literary Warfare of the Loyalists Against American Independence: Jonathan Odell, Their Chief Satirist." The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1897, pp. 97-129.
Vincent, Tom. "Odell, Jonathan." The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Edited by Eugene Benson and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 878-79.
Jonathan Odell's Poetry
Jonathan Odell wrote Loyalist poetry full of fury against the American rebels. In Who Was Who in the American Revolution, L. Edward Purcell wrote that Odell's "satire on the patriots caused much squirming among rebels in the early days of the Revolution."
According to American Writers Before 1800: A Biographical and Critical Dictionary, Odell's lasting reputation is based mainly on poems he wrote during the time he lived in New York City. In Inscription for a Curious Chamber Stove, Odell satirized Benjamin Franklin's Revolutionary activities, using imagery that refers to Franklin's invention of the stove. Odell wrote that Franklin caught:
"A Spark, that from Lucifer [the devil] came and kindled the blaze of Sedition [rebellion]."
During the early years of the Revolutionary War, Odell admitted that changes needed to be made by England in the matter of rights within the colonies, but he thought that such change could take place slowly and steadily, without the need for a rebellion.
One of Odell's most famous poems, The Congratulation, was written in 1779 to celebrate British military successes. Aimed at ridiculing the Continental Congress, it begins with a tone of mock congratulation:
Joy to great Congress, joy hundred fold;
The grand cajolers [kidders] are themselves cajol'd!
The farce of empire will be finished soon,
And each mock-monarch dwindle to a loon.
Mock-money and mock-states shall melt away,
And the mock-troops disband for want of pay….
Myriads of swords are ready for the field;
Myriads of lurking daggers are conceal'd;
In injur'd bosoms dark revenge is nurst;
Yet but a moment, and the storm shall burst….
Now Boston trembles; Philadelphia quakes;
And Carolina to the center shakes….
Hate[d] now [by] men, and soon to be the jest —
Such is your fate, ye monsters of the
Odell's satire in three parts entitled The American Times, published in 1780, is his longest and most famous poem. It appeared under his pen name Camillo Querno, a name he had chosen for its reference to an early court jester (a person who is hired by a king to behave foolishly for entertainment purposes). By 1780, according to Percy H. Boynton in his book American Poetry, "Odell had lost all hope for any but the most bitter solution [to the war], and … had become filled with hatred as the result of his own indefensible hardships," which included financial problems, separation from his family, and fear for his life.
The American Times charges leaders of the American Revolutionary movement with various crimes. Odell's targets included revolutionary writers, generals, governors of the states, leaders, such as Thomas Paine , and members of Congress, such as John Jay (see entries). In the poem, Odell refers to the American revolutionaries as a "faction, pois'nous as the scorpion's sting" that "infects the people and insults the King."
Hear thy indictment, Washington, at large
Attend and listen to the solemn charge
Thou hast supported an atrocious cause
Against thy King, thy Country, and the laws….
Was it ambition, vanity, or spite
That prompted thee with Congress to unite;
Or did all three within thy bosom roll,
Thou heart of hero with a traitor's soul?
Odell's poems not only boosted the morale of Loyalist readers, but also provided a model for future American writers of satiric verse.