American Revolution, Loyalty to Great Britain During (Issue)

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From a potential pool of about 800,000 men, the Continental Army was never able to attract more than 20,000 during the American Revolution (17751783). One important reason for the discrepancy in numbers was that the American Revolution had few ideological supporters. On one side, an educated group of middle-class patriots composed of lawyers, merchants, and planters led an underclass of farmers and urban laborers who were enticed by radical ideas regarding the evils of aristocratic privilege. On the other side were loyalists, a less vocal group of Crown civil servants, landed wealth, and Anglican clergy. Caught in the middle were the majority of colonists with no perceived economic interest or political loyalty. These colonists acted as a buffer between patriots and loyalists, maintained economic production purely out of self-interest; their presence perhaps prevented an allout, "total" war during the American Revolution.

Even those patriots who were quick to bear arms during the early years of the War were not fighting for independencethey were fighting for their rights as Englishmen within the British Empire. Although many did believe that independence would inevitably come, most colonists maintained loyalty to King George III of England who, they assumed, was being misled by corrupt court ministers conspiring to enslave the colonies. Even as late as May, 1775, when the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, the assembly insisted that the colonies were protecting themselves from these ministerial "conspirators" and that reconciliation would occur as soon as the King restrained his advisers. For many American colonists, the benefits of membership in the British Empire had offset its costs. Naval protection, access to a large free-trading area, easy credit, cheap manufactures, and restricted foreign competition had all contributed to a strong sense of loyalty to Britain and the Crown.

As many as twenty thousand Loyalists fought with the British. In New York, the Tory Rangers and the Royal Greens, and in the Southern states, Tarleton's Legion and Rawdon's Volunteers all fought bravely for the British Crown. But their numbers were never as great as was expected. In the Mohawk, Wyoming, and Cherry valleys and at King's Mountain and Hanging Rock their organization and training didn't match their courage.

One of the most visible signs of British loyalty before and during the war was land. Before 1775 British officials in the colonies had obtained large estates granted by the crown. Sir John Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire had extensive land in that colony. In 1775 Sir John Johnson inherited 200,000 acres in New York from his father while the Van Cortlandt, Smith, De Lancey, Bayard, and Philipse families owned as much as three hundred square miles of land. Sir William Peperrell guarded a thirty mile tract of land along Maine's coast while Sir James Wright, royal governor of Georgia held twelve plantations totaling more than 19,000 acres and worth over $160,000.

By 1781 the tide had already changed in favor of the patriot cause. Anyone still remaining neutral was likely to be mistaken for a Loyalist, which by that time, carried serious consequences and costly penalties. Loyalist homes were attacked, their jobs lost, and all legal action was denied them. In order to raise money to meet the escalating costs of war, many states began confiscating land once owned by loyalists. Those serving in Britain's armed forces or leaving a state under the protection of British troops were likely to have their land, homes, and estates seized and sold at public auction. Beginning in 1777 states began the practice of banishing prominent Loyalists and everywhere Loyalists ran the risk of being tarred and feathered.

By 1783, it is estimated that as many as eighty thousand Loyalists went into exile. A thousand left Boston in 1776 with British Commander William Howe while four thousand left Philadelphia in 1778 with Commander Henry Clinton. A few thousand left Charleston and New York with the British at the end. Most went to Florida, Jamaica, Saint John, Halifax, and Britain.

The state of New York raised about $3,100,000 from sale of some 2,500,000 acres from 59 loyalists. After the war, 2,560 loyalists petitioned the British government to compensate for property losses By the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783), Congress was not to oppose the collection of debts and the states were urged to restore Loyalists property. The Loyalists received awards amounting to 3,292,000 pounds sterling from the British government but none from the states themselves who refused to "make good" on their promises.

Historians have failed to adequately recognize the significance of the size and fate of the loyalist element in the American economy. Their disappearance was immensely important not only in terms of the large estates they left behind, but also with respect to the void their absence made within the social and economic structures of the old colonial aristocracy. The vacuum left room at the top for a new generation and a new class of newly-rich U.S. citizens.

See also: American Revolution


Atack, Jeremy and Peter Passel. A New Economic View of American History from Colonial Times to 1940, 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1994.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America: 16071789. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Nettels, Curtis P. The Emergence of a National Economy: 17751815. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.

Smith, Paul. "The American Loyalists: Notes on their Organization and Numerical Strength." William and Mary Quarterly, XXIV (2), 1968.

Van Tyne, Claude Halstead. The Loyalists of the American Revolution. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902.

even those patriots who were quick to bear arms during the early years of the war were not fighting for independencethey were fighting for their rights as englishmen within the british empire.

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American Revolution, Loyalty to Great Britain During (Issue)

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American Revolution, Loyalty to Great Britain During (Issue)