Loyalists in the American Revolution

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Loyalists in the American Revolution

LOYALISTS IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. At every point during the American Revolution, Loyalists spotted and exploited serious weaknesses in the movement for American independence. To these bold challenges, Patriots responded with some of their most creative, resourceful, stalwart—and in the long run, successful—exertions.

Loyalist remonstrance and Patriot countermeasures began amid the earliest and most authentically revolutionary action by representatives of the people. Beginning during the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and continuing into the Townshend duties upheaval, 1768 to 1769, spokesmen for colonial liberty backed up words of protests with deeds of resistance, specifically boycotts of commerce with Britain. Repeal of the Stamp Act seemed to validate this political strategy, although popular leaders had no way of knowing that the trade boycott had little influence on Parliament and that it was in fact the unenforceability of a law opposed by angry mobs that forced the British to back down.

The Townshend duties boycotts, four years later, collapsed amid acrimony when loyal colonists, so-called Tories, publicized secretive importations of British goods by the very Whig merchants who had boasted of their defiance of British taxation of imperial trade. Thus, when the first Continental Congress devised a program of economic warfare beginning on 1 December 1774 with nonimportation, and continuing into nonexportation and nonconsumption of British goods in 1775, Congress added the provision that enforcement of this grandly titled "Continental Association" would be the sole responsibility of "local committees."

Local committees, elected by voice vote of spontaneous gatherings, came into being within weeks. The newly elected committees invariably repaired to nearby taverns to discuss in a public setting how they should proceed to enforce the trade boycott. The committeemen knew that neither posting guards nor investigating suspicious sounds in darkened coastal waters were likely to be any more effective against violators than such tactics had been against colonial smugglers who for decades had brought French molasses or Dutch tea into North America. Smuggling had not been so much a criminal matter as a means for colonial merchants to protect themselves from the most arbitrary and damaging of British mercantile interference in colonial economic life. Vice Admiralty judges often acquitted accused smugglers tried on the basis of inconclusive evidence, and in such cases merchants and vindicated ship owners recovered their losses by suing customs agents for civil damages in provincial courts with sympathetic juries.

The Committees of Inspection or Safety elected in the closing weeks of 1774 were determined not to be put on the defensive. They invited the public to send them the names of potential supporters of the crown; then the Committees summoned these suspects to testify as to their fidelity to the cause of American liberty. The great majority of those accused of harboring Tory sentiments pleaded with committeemen that they stood side by side with their Whig neighbors in opposing the Coercive Acts of 1774 and earlier British measures to tax Americans and extend the power of the British to regulate and discipline her colonial subjects. Committees of Safety usually warned these hapless victims of revolutionary justice to behave inoffensively, and when in doubt required that these "persons inimical to the liberties of America" post bond to guarantee their good behavior for the duration of the conflict. Serious potential violators of the Continental Association generally refused to appear before Committees of Safety; at the risk of their property and livelihoods they slipped into Boston in 1774–1775 or into New York after September 1776.

A handful of foolhardy Tories stood up to inquisitorial committeemen. One Anglican cleric who refused an order to read aloud the Declaration of Independence demanded, "What is my crime? Is it those connections [to God and the Church of England] I cannot dissolve?" Reverend Jacob Bailey, speaking before the Pownalboro, Massachusetts, Committee of Safety, answered his own question: "I am criminal only for choosing to suffer a penalty … to an order of council [i.e., a patriot Committee] than to feel the eternal reproaches of a guilty conscience." Committeemen found declarations of that kind difficult to answer. Fortunately for their peace of mind, such ethical clarity in Loyalist testimony was exceptional. A more common response was that of Enoch Bartlett, in Haverhill, Massachusetts: "As my comfort does so much depend on the regard and good will of the people among whom I live, I hereby give under my hand that I will not sell tea or act any public [manner] contrary to the minds of the people."

No one, not even the delegates to the first Continental Congress, anticipated that revolutionary committees would spring to life in every coastal and many inland communities, but they did. By the early summer of 1775, there were approximately seven thousand committeemen in the rebellious colonies. They became the infrastructure of the revolutionary movement in 1775 until new state governments came into existence in 1776 and 1777. By that time thousands of Loyalists had fled to the protection of the British army.

Newly elected legislatures confiscated the property these Loyalists left behind and declared the departed king's friends guilty of treason. With these legislative enactments, patriot governments grappled with the questions of who was a subject of the king and what was the difference between a subject and a citizen? Those questions were the heart of Respublica v. Chapman, a case that reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1781. Chief Justice Thomas McKean recognized that every inhabitant of an American state had had a right to choose, over a reasonable period of time, whether to declare allegiance to the Revolution or to adhere to the crown. For Pennsylvanians, he ruled that permissible interval of choice began on 14 May 1776 (the date that Congress annulled the Penn Charter) and 11 February 1777 (when the state legislature enacted a treason statute making allegiance and protection reciprocal). At the time that the defendant, Samuel Chapman, departed from Pennsylvania to join the British Legion on 26 December 1776, McKean instructed the jury, "Pennsylvania was not a nation at war with another nation, but a country in a state of civil war."

McKean's ruling had widespread consequences. State governments were already discovering that they had neither the resources nor the political will to prosecute thousands of Loyalists. Prosecutors often reduced criminal charges from treason to the lesser offense of misprision of treason. Loyalist defendants turned the law on its head simply by injecting issues of conscience into legal proceedings. When the Pennsylvania member of the Schwenkfelder sect of German pietists, young George Kriebel, refused to report for militia duty because warfare violated his conscience, the judge disallowed his excuse because German pietists were not strict pacifists in the same sense as were Quakers. They simply consulted God's direction on a day-to-day basis and assumed that God took a dim view of human warfare and civil commotion. Kriebel's father, George Kriebel Sr., created an uproar in court by interrupting proceedings to tell the judge that his son could not bear arms in the Revolution because God had not yet decided which side should enjoy divine favor by allowing either the British or the Americans to win a decisive victory.

There were thousands of George Kriebels. Recognizing the significance of the undecideds, the historian John Shy in 1965 suggested in a memorandum to the Pentagon that, in its early stages, the Vietnam War was an insurgency rather than a conventional conflict. As Shy explained to Defense department officials seeking historical guidance, insurgencies had been "triangular conflicts" where noncombatants in the middle comprised a great floating mass of humanity whom organized armies strived to overawe, coerce, intimidate, or inspire as circumstances required. On the heels of Shy's report, two historians independently calculated that 18 percent of the colonial populace were Loyalists in arms or Loyalist partisans actively supporting the insurgency (a fluctuating 15 to 20 percent of the white population). Probably twice that number (30 to 40 percent) were Continental soldiers or militia or civilians voting in elections, paying taxes, and actively supporting the cause of independence. These estimates indicated that neutralists averse to both sides comprised a pool of 40 to 55 percent of British North American society.

This triangularity had important implications for British and American commanders. First, the Revolution could count on fiscal, military, and moral support from less than half of the populace at any given moment. "Congress," one Continental officer dourly observed, "have left it in the power of the states to starve the Army at pleasure." Until 1778 Congress paid for the war by printing Continental currency, allowing it to depreciate in value and inflation to set Congress's and the army's purchasing power. When this string ran out, Congress turned responsibility for financing the war over to the states. By 1781 the states had exhausted their resources and their taxing authority, and army commissary officers resorted to confiscation of needed supplies, albeit papered over with reimbursement promissory notes collectable after the war ended. By July 1781 this expedient was nearly exhausted. When the French fleet sailed toward the Chesapeake, and Washington and Rochambeau prepared to move their armies for an assault on Yorktown, Washington knew it would be the last military operation he could sustain. Nothing fed Loyalist hopes as much as these reports of fiscal chaos—certain proof that the rebellion was about to collapse if only the British army moved aggressively to crush the uprising. What Loyalist impatience with British military lassitude could not admit was that British offensive operations caused more disorder than Loyalist Provincial Corps following in the rear could mop up effectively.

A second implication of military triangularity took hold in the garrison towns occupied for varying periods of time by the British army: Boston (1774–1776); Norfolk (1775–1776); New York (1776–1783); Newport (1776–1778); Philadelphia (1777–1778); Savannah (1778–1782); Charleston (1780–1782); and Wilmington, North Carolina (1781), as well as bases in loyal Canadian and Floridian colonies: Quebec (1776–1783), St. Augustine (1775–1784), and Pensacola (1775–1784). Except for Savannah, a showcase for reconciliation, all of the garrison towns in rebellious colonies were under martial law. They were awash in money, spent by the British army and navy; crowded with Loyalist exiles from the Patriot-occupied mainland; filled with intrigue, paranoia, and desperation; and they served as staging areas for British offensive operations. News filtering outward from the garrison towns painted a picture of British corruption and military uncertainty, whereas the information flowing from revolutionary America into the garrison towns emphasized inflation, civil unrest, and the demagoguery of Patriot politicians. Neither side in the war possessed a realistic understanding of the other.

Finally, military triangularity reflected racial triangularity. At the outset of the war, hardliners in the War Office proposed putting the fear of God into settlers of the colonial frontier by instigating Indian attacks against frontier farms and settlements. Only with the most strenuous efforts did Board of Trade professionals, the Superintendents of Indian Affairs, deter this ill-advised tactic. However, white Patriots were not so easily dissuaded. Patriot forces in the southern colonies staged preemptive raids against Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole villages, driving adult males into the forest and destroying the food supply for the women, children, and the aged who stayed behind. In 1779 the Northern Department of the Continental army, commanded by General John Sullivan, swept through pro-British Mohawk Indian villages in New York state, inflicting the same counter-revolutionary terror.

Of the half million slaves in the American colonies, 10 percent secured their own freedom during the revolutionary upheaval. The institution of slavery atrophied in the northern colonies. Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment enticed more than eight hundred Virginia slaves to rally to the king's standard. Chesapeake region runaways found employment in merchant marine vessels sailing from middle colony ports. Some Carolina and Georgia low-country slaves formed maroon communities in the interior. When the British evacuated Charleston and Savannah in November 1782, they took with them, into continued years of bondage in the West Indies, the slave property of Loyalist planters. When the British evacuated New York thirteen months later, they carried to an uncertain freedom in Nova Scotia and later Sierra Leone between five hundred and a thousand former slaves who were now free black dockyard workers.

General Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown did not decimate British military power. General Guy Carleton, commander of British forces in Canada since 1776, succeeded Henry Clinton as commander of British forces in North America in 1782. From his headquarters in New York City, Carlton observed the Loyalist populace in the largest British garrison town. Throughout 1781 the New York City Loyalists—sobered by British military reverses in the Carolinas—filled garrison town newspapers with realistic assessments of the condition of the empire. In sharp contrast to their shrill vindictiveness during the early years of the war, many loyal New Yorkers now calmly faced the prospect of British defeat. In newspaper essays and in coffeehouse conversations, Loyalists in all of the garrison towns, especially New York, pondered their fate in the event of British defeat and abandonment. They anticipated that their old Patriot neighbors would disagree about how noncombatant crown supporters should be treated, and they took heart when patriot leaders Aedanus Burke, in South Carolina in 1782, and Alexander Hamilton, in New York two years later, declared that America could not afford the luxury of civic vengeance and argued powerfully that conciliation of internal foes was a defining mark of a civilized nation.

Carleton thereupon drafted recommendations for peacemaking in America based on Loyalist hopes and Patriot weaknesses. General Washington did not possess the military strength, and Congress did not have the political will, to drive the British from the Savannah, Charleston, and Savannah garrison towns. Carleton advised the newly formed ministry led by the Earl of Shelburne ministry in England—known for its sympathy with colonial grievances in the late 1760s—to sit tight and let political disunity and economic troubles in the American states begin to work to the advantage of the empire. At the very least, he predicted, the Americans might be willing to concede a symbolic connection to the British crown in return for British evacuation of the garrison towns and normal diplomatic relations. Carleton's advice arrived too late; Shelburne and his successor, Lord Rockingham, had already conceded independence in negotiations with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay.

In return for outright independence, and recognition of the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the new nation, the American negotiators promised that Congress would "earnestly recommend" that the states cease confiscation of Loyalist property and that British creditors could sue in American courts to recover prerevolutionary debts. And while the Mississippi River as a western boundary included vast stretches of the northwest territories from which American forces had not dislodged the British, peace terms said nothing about the status of the river itself. European powers, along with many American Loyalists, assumed that the Mississippi Valley would become an international zone of commercial, military, and diplomatic penetration for decades to come. Two gifted and opportunistic Loyalists, Alexander McGillivray and William Augustus Bowles, both acculturated Creek Indians, positioned the Creeks to be the regional middlemen providing military security and commercial alliances for British and European operatives along the Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi. The Napoleonic Wars brought this geopolitical adventure to naught. To pay for his invasion of Russia, Napoleon sold all of the land drained by the western tributaries of the Mississippi to the United States in 1803; to prevent Napoleon from building a fleet in low-country shipyards capable of driving the British navy from the world's oceans, Britain withdrew its garrisons at Fort Detroit and Fort Niagara, abandoning Indian allies and a commercial foothold in the upper Mississippi Valley.

In a final irony, the widows and children of wealthy Loyalist exiles returned to New York and Boston in the 1780s, 1790s, and early 1800s to reclaim family property. Federalist lawyers and judges were unwilling to suppose that the wife of a Loyalist, even a Loyalist traitor to the United States, could have "a mind" and "will of her own." "Can we believe," Judge Theodore Sedgewick asked rhetorically, "that a wife, for so respecting the general understanding of her husband as to submit her opinions to his on a subject so all-important as this, should lose her own property and forfeit the inheritance of her children?"

When, however, Florence Cooke, the wife of a Loyalist mechanic in Charleston, South Carolina, returned to the state, with husband in tow, she petitioned the legislature to understand that her husband had not been well "versed in publick troubles," lacked the force of personality "to do any political good or harm," and at the very worst "he might have said an idle thing" in criticism of the Revolution. "The change … in Charles Town," by which she meant nothing less than the Revolution itself, had been "too powerful for his situation and circumstances to withstand." Even if technically guilty of a crime, she declared, he would now throw himself on the mercy of the court. As the lawyer who drafted her petition confidently predicted, "she pledges that she will exert all the ascendancy of a wife & friend to make him a good man and a useful citizen."

Where a large estate and the interests of the aristocracy in upholding the patriarchal authority of husbands were at stake, a Loyalist widow returned from exile, in the eyes of the law, possessed no "mind of her own"; but in South Carolina, less than a month after British evacuation, a skilled mechanic who could maintain winches and carts essential to loading and unloading ships and thereby restore the economy was welcome. And if, in the bargain, his strong-willed spouse, declaring her "affection for the independence and freedom of her country," vouchsafed her husband's political rehabilitation, then this couple constituted a civic asset.

In 1784 Congress sent John Adams to represent the United States at the Court of St. James. Attending the London theater, Adams ran into an old friend, Loyalist exile Jonathan Sewall. They spoke warmly about the days of their youth when, as young lawyers in the early 1760s, Sewall had advised a hesitant Adams to represent Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives—to become a popular tribune of the people because that was a service lawyers could provide their society. As a social newcomer, Adams could risk political contamination, whereas he, Sewall, seeking to rehabilitate a famous family fallen on hard times, could not take such a chance and had no choice but to become a supporter of the crown and—if push came to shove—a loyal defender of the imperial status quo. Both men silently remembered Sewall's fateful advice to Adams and Sewall's painful dilemma.

That night, Sewall wrote in his diary how unsuited Adams was to the courtly life of diplomacy. He was too earnest and serious, too full of Enlightenment knowledge about trade and geopolitics, too inept at flattery and flirting, and not nearly cynical enough. Adams came away in a pensive mood, reflecting with utter sadness on Sewall's pact with the devil of imperial preferment, the waste of a promising young intellect, the blighting of a generous temperament.

SEE ALSO Admiralty Courts; African Americans in the Revolution; Carleton, Guy; Continental Congress; Independence; Indians in the Colonial Wars and the American Revolution; Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Loyalists; McGillvray, Alexander; Nonimportation; Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Second Marquess of; Shelburne, William Petty Fitzmaurice, earl of; Stamp Act; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois; Townshend Acts.?


Bailyn, Bernard. The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974.

Calhoon, Robert M. The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760–1781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

―――――――. The Loyalist Perception and Other Essays. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Nelson, William H. The American Tory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.

Palmer, Greg. Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1984.

Potter, Janice. The Liberty We Seek. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983.

―――――――. While The Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women. Montreal; Buffalo, N.Y.: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993.

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