Spring 2011

America's Losers

– Nancy Isenberg

Historians have long regarded the loyalists with a jaundiced eye, dismissing them as backward-thinking defenders of monarchy. Often forgotten is the fact that loyalists made up a sizable proportion of the population.

With the current rage for the Founding Fathers, it is not surprising that their homegrown enemies would spark new interest. Historians have long regarded the loyalists—those who remained faithful to the Crown during the Revolutionary War—with a jaundiced eye, dismissing them as backward-thinking defenders of monarchy and losers in the contest for American independence. Often forgotten is the fact that loyalists made up a sizable proportion of the population. Historians have estimated that they constituted one-fifth to as much as one-third of the 2.5 million British colonists who had to choose a side at the outbreak of the war in 1775.

Thomas B. Allen’s Tories is, unfortunately, not the book to read on this topic. Although Allen has written several books, mainly popular military history, he is not well versed in modern scholarship on the American Revolution. His very title is a good clue that he has no interest in presenting a nuanced account. “Tories” was a term of derision used by the revolutionaries. Allen’s book is really about the American patriots, whose every action he defends, while diminishing their opponents. Allen’s Tories are “spymasters,” “informers,” “moles,” collaborationists, assassins, and plunderers. British military officers fare scarcely better. At Concord, for example, the British commander is “fat” and “inept,” while patriot general Artemas Ward is “a big rugged man.” (Although George Washington’s devoted general Henry Knox was fat by any measure, Allen never describes him that way.) Allen uses the same hyperbolic language found in wartime propaganda, reducing the divisions between patriots and loyalists to a morality tale of dashing victors and dastardly villains.

From the first page, Allen paints Tories as born to the purple, wealthy office-seekers from proud families, living in Cambridge on “Tory Row” (an 18th-century version of a gated community), and motivated by simple greed and resentment toward the uppity revolutionaries. James Otis Jr., a principal defender of colonial rights, is “a Tory in a long line of influential Tories” until his conversion to the patriot side. John Adams would turn over in his grave to read this ridiculous description of Otis—the man whose eloquence he credited with having ignited the Revolution. Adams identified with Otis because, as late as 1775, he too struggled to define himself as a patriot and an American. This difficult process was experienced by many others as well, a phenomenon Allen entirely ignores.

Failing to distinguish propaganda from events on the ground, Allen is unable to separate myth from reliable accounts. He draws heavily on 19th-century sources, such as Thomas Jones and Edward Floyd De Lancey’s History of New York During the Revolutionary War (1879), which must be read with a skeptical eye. Nor does he bother to sort out the political views of the loyalists. Instead, he depicts them as empty vessels, motivated by a visceral, self-serving anger. The Declaration of Independence, Allen claims, sparked “surprise” at the patriots’ audacity, then made loyalists’ blood boil, since to their ears it “contained line after line of libel” against George III.

This is an absurd statement. The loyalists were not living in a vacuum, blindly ignoring a decade of protests. Many people who were to become loyalists supported these protests. Loyalists, in fact, had diverse political interests. And the Declaration was propaganda, far less important to them than the resolution approved by the Continental Congress about a week earlier, on June 24, 1776, declaring that residents who refused to show loyalty to the new government were now traitors. The June 24 resolution legitimated state laws and procedures for the confiscation of loyalist property, suppressing freedom of speech and denying them rights. Allen’s Tories come across as foolish reactionaries, shocked and inflamed by Jefferson’s prose—despite the fact that they were immersed in the same European intellectual traditions and had adopted the same political vocabulary. Tories is a sad example of what can get passed off as history, and displays a minimal understanding of the British imperial world that the loyalists inhabited.

Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles is a fine contrast. In this smart and gracefully written book, Jasanoff provides an instructive story of how losers shape history. A historian at Harvard, she specializes in modern British and imperial history, and thus easily avoids the pitfalls of seeing the loyalists through the distorted lens of their patriot adversaries. The cast of characters she introduces at the beginning of the book are three-dimensional figures—people who speak in their own words, are fascinating in their own right, and exhibit conflicted views and divergent aspirations. As a perk, Liberty’s Exiles takes us beyond Yorktown (the conclusive battle of the war) to describe the loyalist diaspora after Lord Cornwallis’s army surrendered.

Beverley Robinson was a Virginian, a good friend of George Washington who married into a large landholding family in New York. After commanding a loyalist regiment, Robinson said farewell to his sons and headed off to England in 1783. One son went to Canada, and another stayed behind in the British garrison in occupied New York to the bitter end. Separated by war, many in the Robinson clan were fated never to see each other again.

Georgia-born Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston spent much of her life in transit. After marrying a loyalist army captain during the war, she was evacuated from Savannah, Charleston, and East Florida—the last viewed as the promised land for southern loyalist exiles until British diplomats handed the territory over to Spain in 1783. Following her husband to the University of Edinburgh, where he received medical training, she and the family moved next to the yellow fever–infested island of Jamaica. After two of her children died, she returned to Scotland and spent many years apart from her husband. After his death in 1807, she finally found a permanent home with her surviving children in Nova Scotia.

David George, born a slave in Virginia, traveled as a free black loyalist to Nova Scotia, where he established a Baptist church. In 1792, he migrated with his family to Sierra Leone as one of the founding members of Freetown, an antislavery experiment and free black colony. He owed his freedom, in part, to John Murray, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, who had issued a proclamation in 1775 granting freedom to all slaves who sought British protection. Dunmore’s act set the stage for subsequent British policy supporting black loyalist exiles.

Dunmore’s own tale had its twists and turns. In 1786 he became governor of the Bahamas, where he backed schemes for retaking Florida as a first step toward reconquering the United States. His loyalty to the Crown was bitterly repaid. He ended his days in disgrace in England, after one of his daughters married a son of George III without the king’s permission. The royal family disowned the disobedient son, and in his last meeting with King George III, Dunmore had to suppress his rage, Jasanoff writes, when the king called their “joint grandchildren ‘Bastards! Bastards!’”

These disparate personal narratives tell a larger story about how loyalists spread across the British Empire, changing it in the process. Jasanoff exposes the irony that loyalists more resembled their provincial enemies than they did their allies in the British Isles. Loyalists were not “born” loyal. Beverley Robinson resisted declaring his loyalty for two years, even as his good friend John Jay, prominent patriot and future Supreme Court chief justice, urged him to join the Revolution. Jay and Robinson were not that far apart politically, since both had backed the so-called Galloway Plan, a 1774 proposal for home rule that missed passing in the Continental Congress by a single vote. Joseph Galloway drafted the plan, which would serve as the prototype for a unified Canada in 1867.

Jasanoff gives compelling evidence of the loyalists’ influence and their ad hoc agenda, which she neatly describes as the “spirit of 1783.” The massive relocation of 75,000 white loyalists, free blacks, and slaves after the war contributed to the imperial ambitions of Great Britain. These exiles secured extensive state support from London to resettle in Canada, which not only repaid their loyalty but ensured a strong, continuing British presence in North America. Britain provided reparations, protected the freedom of former slaves, and overcame the difficult logistics of moving and resettling large numbers of exiles. The effort laid the foundation of a coordinated system of refugee relief and was a harbinger of future state welfare programs. Equally revealing of their liberal impulses is the fact that transplanted loyalists resisted top-down rule and made demands for rights from the British government, much like their former enemies in the United States.

Resistance, persistence, and resentment when promises were not kept made loyalists important subjects within the British Empire. Galloway and William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son, were active in demanding financial compensation for loyalists from Parliament. Guy Carleton, the British commander responsible for relocating loyalists from New York, refused to comply with one of the terms of the Treaty of Paris—the return of all slaves to their former masters. He defiantly told George Washington that the freed slaves were to be settled in Canada. Men such as Lord Dunmore and Maryland loyalist William Augustus Bowles promoted schemes for retaking territory, with Bowles offering perhaps the most visionary plan: a pro-British yet independent Creek state of Muskogee in Florida. Territorial expansion was another agenda that loyalists advanced, as they became leading figures in Canada, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Africa, and India. The first major proposal for colonizing Australia came from an American loyalist refugee.

Jasanoff forces us to rethink the Revolution’s losers. Loyalists parted with vast tracts of property, ancestral homes, and beloved family members. But as they rebuilt their lives, they redefined the British Empire. They came from different religious backgrounds, different colonies, different races and classes. Yet the British government’s desire to incorporate the exiles, and thus to advance Britain’s global objectives, allowed the loyalists to assume a unique position: Fighting to regain their lost status, or in the case of free blacks, to ensure their new status, they became dynamic agents of political change. As a result, Jasanoff concludes, “these losers were winners in the end.” Liberty’s Exiles tells a complex and original story of the loyalists. It is a history worth knowing.

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Nancy Isenberg is a professor of history at Louisiana State University, the author of Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr (2007), and coauthor, with Andrew Burstein, of Madison and Jefferson (2010). 

Reviewed: "Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War" by Thomas B. Allen, Harper, 2011.

"Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War" by Maya Jasanoff, Knopf, 2011. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Wally Gobetz