A Test of Loyalties: The Exiles of the American Revolution

A Test of Loyalties: The Exiles of the American Revolution

A Test of Loyalties: The Exiles of the American Revolution

Between a fifth and a third of the white population remained loyal to Britain in 1776. Why?


In the past two years, the Tea Party has noisily aligned the patriot cause in the American Revolution with its own rebellion against the government. From the first months of the Obama administration, when Rick Santelli of CNBC lamented the bailout of “losers’ mortgages” and recommended dumping government-backed securities into Lake Michigan, the spirits of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere have been summoned for reactionary ends. This is a disorienting moment for liberals: a generation after social historians claimed the events of 1776 for the people rather than the elites, the followers of Jim DeMint and Michele Bachmann are massing in their tricorns outside government buildings to denounce the extension of health insurance.

Liberal historians have mounted a counteroffensive. Last year, Harvard’s Jill Lepore and Northwestern’s T.H. Breen published books that castigated today’s conservatives for ransacking the nation’s founding story. But even within the ivory tower, the debate over the Tea Party’s historical claims has been acrimonious. Gordon Wood, emeritus professor at Brown and one of the deans of Revolutionary scholarship, recently accused Lepore of displaying “academic contempt” toward ordinary Americans and their “special need for authentic historical figures in the here and now.” According to Wood, Lepore doesn’t understand the resonance of the Revolution in the conservative imagination, or the pull of “popular memory” on the public at large. Beyond trying to label Lepore as an egghead and a snob, Wood raises a more serious question: what if the Tea Partiers are right to claim affinity with the patriot rank-and-file who tipped New England toward revolution? After all, the angry radicals of 1774 and 1775 sustained a visceral hatred of distant rule and an abiding belief that they could run their affairs without intrusive central government. They took bold action without waiting for directions from the Continental Congress, and were unafraid to use intimidation (and even violence) to draw the lines against friends and neighbors who were slow to support the cause.

Contemporary historians often present the period from 1775 to 1789 as a coherent and deliberate drive by a resolute American populace to secure independence and a lasting republican government. Wood has written several key books that reinforce this view, making him an unlikely instigator of a fresh struggle over the meaning of the Revolution. But after more than a decade of fat bestsellers and epic miniseries about the genius of the founding fathers, perhaps the Tea Party will challenge us to revisit our assumptions about the homogeneity and clarity of the patriot cause. As the Tea Partiers identify with the broiling world of the patriot grassroots, we might even take a second look at their principal antagonists: the many thousands of loyalists who refused to join the war against Britain.

Liberty’s Exiles, Maya Jasanoff’s terrific new book about the Revolution’s biggest losers, is not an apology for George III or his embattled supporters in the colonies. But when you finish reading it, you may agree that the loyalists earned the right to be considered Americans even as they balked at deserting Britain. At the very least, their story offers something more nuanced and revealing than either founder hagiography or the furious rejectionism of the Tea Party. The loyalists are so absent from the “popular memory” of the Revolution—and even from many academic studies—that most of us would be hard-pressed to name one; Benedict Arnold, maybe, though his fame endures precisely because he seemed like a good patriot until his treachery. And yet somewhere between a fifth and a third of the white population—perhaps half a million Americans—remained loyal to Britain in 1776. Liberty’s Exiles gives us a chance to ask some overdue questions about them. Why did they not hold the truths of 1776 to be self-evident? And what happened to the 60,000 or so who fled the United States by the war’s end?

* * *

In late 1774 or early 1775, perhaps on his way to attend the second Congress in Philadelphia, George Washington bumped into an old friend at the Potomac crossing. The Maryland preacher Jonathan Boucher had enjoyed “a very particular intimacy and friendship” with Washington in their younger days, though the two men had lost touch since the minister had moved from Virginia to Annapolis in 1770. The subsequent years had been difficult for Boucher, who was by now a firm supporter of the Crown and no friend to republican liberty. When the British responded to the Boston Tea Party with a crackdown in Massachusetts, some of Boucher’s parishioners asked him to preach a sermon for “the suffering people of Boston.” He told them where to get off, and subsequently received “sundry messages and letters threatening me with the most fatal consequences if I did not preach what should be agreeable to the friends of America.” Meeting Washington at the river, Boucher welcomed the chance to confirm that his friend stood for order rather than mob rule. Was the general a supporter of independence, Boucher inquired? Of course not, came the reply.

What followed appears to confirm the stereotype about loyalists and patriots. Washington accepted command of the Continental Army, and traveled northward to Boston to assume his place in history. Boucher hastened back to his parish and began to deliver sermons with a pair of loaded pistols next to his Bible. When several hundred armed patriots arrived in the summer of 1775 to drag him from his pulpit, Boucher placed a gun to the head of a local militia commander to ensure his safe passage from the church. (The commander, showing commendable sang-froid, called for his men to play the Rogue’s March as he was taken hostage.) Boucher was bloody-minded enough to return to the church the following week to finish his sermon, but the game was up. Washington was now in Boston directing the army; Boucher sent him a letter renouncing their friendship and bade farewell to America forever. During his permanent exile in Britain, he never regretted the views he had adopted. After the French Revolution soured in the 1790s, he flattered himself into thinking that he and Washington were now allies in the fight against republican disorder.

No doubt Boucher’s neighbors took some satisfaction from his fate: the man who had arrogantly defended monarchical rule would now enjoy Britain’s king and its bad weather at close quarters. But Boucher’s case was unusual. (He doesn’t appear in Jasanoff’s book.) Few loyalists took up arms to defend the divine right of kings. They sided with Britain for more mundane or material reasons—they lived in the cities under occupation, or had family members and business interests that aligned them with the British cause. Most remained within the United States after 1783, repenting openly of their monarchism or disguising their mistake amid the bustle of the early Republic. The vast majority of those who went into exile passed up the opportunity to resettle in the mother country. Instead they scattered throughout Britain’s empire, which was struggling to right itself from the aftershocks of the Revolution.

The richness of Liberty’s Exiles comes from Jasanoff’s eagerness to follow the loyalists on their extraordinary trajectories of exile: they left the United States for the Great Lakes and the Canadian Maritimes, for East Florida and the Bahamas, for Jamaica and Sierra Leone. A few served in the British Army in India, and a handful of unfortunate black loyalists were shipped out to Australia with the original Botany Bay prisoners in 1787. Some of their stories have been told before. The loyalists who went north played a pivotal role in Canadian history, and the incredible journeys of the black refugees to London, Nova Scotia and West Africa have received considerable attention from historians in recent years. But what happens if we think of the loyalists as a diaspora, and consider their diverse fortunes within a single global frame?

For Jasanoff, the experience of the refugees helps to illuminate the “spirit of 1783”—a British riposte to the spirit of 1776 that animated the patriots in their struggle for independence. Just as the Revolution has never really faded in American popular memory, she argues, the spirit of 1783 may have survived into Britain’s twentieth-century imperial history. The loss of the thirteen colonies was, of course, a terrible blow to national pride and the cause of imperial liberty, but Britain hoped to rebound from its disappointment and to eclipse its American efforts. The revived empire would be global in extent; it would embody a “clarified commitment to liberty and humanitarian ideals,” incorporating black and indigenous subjects; and it would develop new forms of hierarchical and centralized rule that would avoid the problems that had caused the American Revolution in the first place. That this program for imperial revival was inconsistent, if not contradictory, only makes it more interesting. The loyalists were guinea pigs, in other words, a status that offered exciting opportunities and familiar disappointments.

If the indomitable Jonathan Boucher was an outlier, what were most loyalists like? Jasanoff’s book begins with the story of Thomas Brown, a 25-year-old Englishman who moved from the seaside town of Whitby in Yorkshire to a plantation in Georgia in 1774, the same year Thomas Paine crossed the ocean to begin a very different American career. Brown brought seventy-four indentured servants with him and, thanks to his close relationship with the royal governor, was soon sending for more to work his generous land grants. He had been in America for barely a year when a patriot gang came to his house to demand that he join their association. Why would he side with a ragtag group of rebels when Britain had been so good to him? He refused, as he had done on previous occasions, and was horribly assaulted: beaten, burned and nearly scalped. When Brown was well enough to stand, he formed a loyalist regiment that skirmished with the patriots throughout the conflict. Perhaps his rebellious neighbors resented an arriviste and his instant wealth; Brown ended up in the Bahamas after the war, with a huge plantation and nearly 200 slaves in his service. Would he have remained loyal to Britain if patriots hadn’t fractured his skull? Probably, given his economic interest in doing so. But Jasanoff points out that the violence and intimidation of the conflict’s early phase could easily radicalize those who were on the fence.

Other Americans faced a more drawn-out ordeal of allegiance. New York landowner Beverley Robinson was a childhood friend of Washington’s and enjoyed a comfortable life (with “contented tenants”) sixty miles north of Manhattan. Robinson, like Thomas Brown, had every reason to hope that things would stay the same. When the Revolution came, he managed to postpone taking sides for two years, at which point his old friend John Jay (a member of Congress) asked him to “take an oath of allegiance to the States of America or go over to the Enemy.” Robinson chose the second option, even though he knew it might cost him his land and his livelihood. He sent his wife and children to New York City, which was controlled by the British, and (again like Brown) he set about organizing his own regiment to fight for the king’s cause. In a vivid demonstration of the costs of choosing sides, Robinson’s old house was eventually requisitioned by the Continental Army. Jasanoff notes that George Washington directed the war in New York from the same rooms in which “he had dined and drunk as his loyal friend’s guest.”

Joining the landowners on the British side were Americans from all walks of life. Church of England ministers were naturally nervous about their place in an independent United States, as were many merchants and shopkeepers who depended on imperial trade for their livelihoods. The British military occupations of Philadelphia (1777–78), Savannah (1778–82), Charleston (1780–82) and New York (1776–83) implicated tens of thousands of urban Americans in the loyalist cause: to remain in a British-occupied city was to make a statement about the Revolution, however much you might have acted from more practical motives. Finally, the British courted loyalty among Indians and slaves, for whom the Revolution presented a rather different calculus of liberty and oppression to the one mooted by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in Philadelphia. The Mohawks of northern New York, figuring that they had more to fear from an American empire of settlement than from a British empire of trade, sided with Britain even at the cost of war with their neighbors. And perhaps 20,000 slaves tried to take up the offer of British freedom, with around half of that number finding a berth on the ships that evacuated loyalists from American ports in the final months of the war.

The loyalist exodus of 1782 and 1783 was channeled through the major cities still under British occupation: Savannah, Charleston and New York. Although it was clear that Britain owed something to the Americans who had taken its side throughout the war, the question of how to compensate the loyalists was tricky. Lord North, the prime minister who had directed Britain’s disastrous campaign, fell from office in 1782. His replacement, Lord Shelburne, sympathized with the claims of the patriots and hoped to keep the new United States within a British sphere of influence. This was bad news for loyalists, who had been hoping that a final peace agreement would compensate them fully for the houses and property they had left behind. Benjamin Franklin, who represented the United States at the Paris peace talks in 1782, took an especially hard line on this question. Although he had spent more than fifteen happy years in England before the Revolution, Franklin insisted that patriots owed nothing to their former neighbors. (Jasanoff suggests that Franklin’s bitter estrangement from his son William, the last royal governor of New Jersey, may have strengthened his stance.) The final text of the treaty provided only feeble reassurances: the individual states were requested rather than required to examine loyalist compensation claims. Worse, runaway slaves were to be returned to their patriot owners, despite the original British promise of freedom.

This last clause, at least, was defeated. As the evacuation was organized in 1782 and 1783, British soldiers carefully considered the cases of black loyalists and allowed thousands to escape from the United States. (Washington, who lost at least one of his slaves in the evacuation, howled about this.) This was no abolitionist epiphany on the part of Britain. The same officers who prepared manumission papers for black veterans waved through the slaves of white loyalists heading to a bleaker future in the Bahamas or Jamaica. But, as Jasanoff argues, a willingness to resettle the black loyalists suggests that the British empire—perhaps because of its patriarchal assumptions and hierarchical structure—was better able to accommodate nonwhite freedom than the new American Republic.

The black loyalists, who had very little in the way of property, largely went to Britain: perhaps 5,000 were cast into the poorer neighborhoods of London in 1783 and 1784. Only 15 percent of the white loyalist evacuees followed suit, well aware that the metropolis offered fewer opportunities for advancement and a higher cost of living than the colonies. Those who did return to England had mixed fortunes. One loyalist, former Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Shoemaker, found his way into an impromptu levee with George III at Windsor Castle. (The king eagerly greeted his loyal subject and enjoyed the chance to chat with Shoemaker in German.) Other refugees lamented their American losses and worked their political contacts to gain redress. Joseph Galloway, who had been a leading member of the Continental Congress until it turned toward independence, joined with William Franklin to lobby for proper compensation of loyalists. Because Britain had released the United States from liability, they argued, Parliament had a duty to those who had lost everything in the king’s cause. The Loyalist Claims Commission, founded in September 1783, received more than 3,000 formal requests for compensation during its three years of operation. Most petitioners received a lump sum or a pension, at a total cost of more than £3 million. Although few refugees felt that they had received a full accounting of their due, Britain had at least acknowledged the sacrifices made on its behalf.

The overwhelming majority of white loyalists opted for resettlement elsewhere in North America. The defeat at Yorktown, after all, had not forced Britain off the continent. Quebec and Nova Scotia, along with the British Caribbean, had declined George Washington’s invitation to join the Revolution. (It didn’t help that this invitation had come in the form of an invasion in the fall of 1775.) The loyalist exodus after 1782 had an enormous impact on Canadian history. Nova Scotia accepted so many refugees that the province of New Brunswick was created to accommodate them, while the onrush of loyalist settlers precipitated the division of Quebec and the creation of what is now the province of Ontario.

At the southern tip of the Eastern Seaboard, loyalists streamed into the British province of East Florida, hoping to claw back a living without leaving the mainland. East Florida had been seized from Spain in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years’ War, and was divided into huge estates that had been only lightly cultivated by their aristocratic British landlords. The 12,000 loyalists (and slaves) who arrived there in 1782 seemed poised to realize the full potential of the province, but within months the ground had shifted again. In the provisional peace treaty with France and Spain (America’s wartime allies), Britain ceded East Florida to the Spanish. The loyalists had barely begun their new lives when they were forced in 1783 to move again. The options this time were even less appealing. Nova Scotia was cold, and loyalists with slaves believed that the distant north would not sustain the kinds of crops they wanted to cultivate. Jamaica and Barbados produced fortunes for big landowners but offered little to new arrivals: land was a scarce commodity and the mortality rate was high. Most of these twice-displaced refugees sailed to the Bahamas instead, doubting the quality of the land but hoping at least to receive a holding of some sort. With their departure, the southern branch of the loyalist exodus was forced off the mainland altogether. Although some nurtured hopes over the next two decades that Florida could become a staging post for a British revival—perhaps even the lower arm of a pincer movement in which Britain would squeeze the United States from north and south—the evacuation of 1783 marked the end of this particular challenge to American continental hegemony. Spain did little to exploit the territory before meekly handing it over to John Quincy Adams in an 1819 treaty.

Although Jasanoff makes some big arguments about the realignment of British power after 1783, she never loses sight of the people whose lives were defined by the loyalist defeat. For Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston of Georgia, displacement became a way of life even long after the war’s unhappy conclusion. Elizabeth was only 12 when the colonies declared independence. While her loyalist father fought patriots in the swamps around Savannah, she took refuge in the city with a prominent doctor. Courted by the town’s loyalist elite, Elizabeth finally married William Johnston, the son of her host. (She was 15.) Amid the chaos of the British evacuation of Savannah, Elizabeth and William made for Charleston (where he was to join his regiment), only to find the same terrible scenes. Husband and wife were forced apart; William went to New York to reinforce the garrison there, Elizabeth and her two infant children (along with their black nurse) went to Florida. When that refuge turned out to be fleeting, she bounced between Edinburgh—where William trained in medicine—and Jamaica, where the awful mortality rates created opportunities for a young doctor.

Jasanoff’s account of Elizabeth’s experiences is wrenching. Jamaica provided her husband with a comfortable income, but claimed the lives of their two youngest daughters and their eldest son. Another of Elizabeth’s daughters fell into a “nervous illness” on the death of her brother, and the family found solace only in a move to Nova Scotia in 1806. (Elizabeth made one final visit to Jamaica soon afterward to bury her husband, who had died of dropsy.) Jasanoff uses Johnston’s story to show that the defeat of 1783 shaped the lives not only of refugees but of their children. Although Elizabeth lived for another forty years in Canada, she carried the terrible knowledge that many of those dearest to her had not survived her tempestuous journey.

* * *

Could the loyalists have done anything more to avert the Revolution, and did their postwar experience confirm that they were a different breed from the patriots? The answer to both questions is probably “no.” The most promising peace plan in the frenzied months after the Tea Party was drafted by Joseph Galloway of Philadelphia, who joined the first Continental Congress as an advocate of imperial compromise: Britain should establish a parliament in America for American affairs. This new assembly would be elected directly by colonists, with veto power over Westminster and sole authority for taxation in America. (If Britain needed to impose tariffs to regulate imperial trade, all proceeds would go directly to the American colonies rather than the British treasury.) Looking back on his plan a few years later, Galloway insisted that it “would have given the Colonists a perfect representation in America.” But it was voted down by his opponents in the Congress, who were animated, he claimed, not by British oppression but by an ungrateful republicanism. Galloway must have hated the febrile political atmosphere of 1775, as delegates dismissed compromise and spoke in quiet corners about the likelihood of independence. He quit Congress in May, a few weeks after the fighting began at Lexington, and, despite the efforts of Franklin to keep him in the patriot camp, he joined the British army the following year. By 1778 he was exiled in London, drafting a stinging memoir of American betrayal. In retrospect, he saw clearly that the populace had been “duped into rebellion” by sinister figures like Samuel Adams, who “eats little, drinks little, sleeps little” but “thinks much.”

Galloway’s hope, shared by many loyalists, was for a relationship with Britain that looked something like the 1707 union between England and Scotland: now that the settlers in America had become so numerous, empire would succeed only by “excluding all distinctions between the citizen and the colonist.” But this was a hard thing to manage even within the British Isles, where a journey between Edinburgh and London would take five days or more. Across the vast Atlantic, the claims and prerogatives of a single British nation were stretched to the breaking point. The Revolution owed as much to this ineradicable fact as to the bungling of Lord North or the late-night machinations of Sam Adams. The role of distance in the breakup of the empire also reminds us of just how radical James Madison and Thomas Jefferson must have seemed when they suggested in the 1780s that the United States might become stronger if it was spread over a vast territory. They had contiguity on their side, of course, and an improving communications network. (Madison lived long enough to see railroads in America; he died in 1836, as Samuel Morse was building the first telegraph.) Crucially, they followed Galloway’s insight that an empire of liberty would need to erase that distinction between citizen and colonist: in the tenth paper of The Federalist and in the Northwest Ordinance, the principle that the farthest-flung parts of the Union should be perfectly equal with Massachusetts or Virginia became a keystone of American government.

Jasanoff suggests that the loss of the United States and the spirit of 1783 inspired the king’s ministers to think again about the rights of his distant subjects, but the real lesson of 1783 was that Britain could better exploit the resources of distant places without a gaggle of white colonists in tow. Australia was founded in 1787, but as a prison rather than a beachhead of empire. (The project was championed by a loyalist and hastened by the loss of America, which had been the preferred destination for transported convicts before the Revolution.) Sierra Leone, established in the same year, was to be a free black colony and a redoubt against slavery rather than a platform for the white colonization of Africa. It was clear to imperial administrators that India was the real alternative to America, and the defeat of 1783 strengthened the case for greater British control over the subcontinent. Three years later, Prime Minister William Pitt persuaded the reluctant Lord Cornwallis—the general who offered the British surrender at Yorktown—to become governor general of India. Cornwallis immediately faced down another rebellion, this time with more success; but his main contribution was to curb the influence of corrupt British officials and of the indigenous customs and practices that cluttered the workings of empire. Cornwallis left India in 1793, as Britain fell into its dark and protracted war with France. He soon found himself posted in Ireland amid yet another uprising, partly inspired by the American and French revolutions. One could argue that Cornwallis showed something of the spirit of 1783 in his unusually sane advocacy of political rights for the Catholic majority in Ireland; but the British empire of South Asia and, eventually, Africa—in which small white minorities styled themselves as benevolent autocrats—was built on very different foundations from those that underpinned the thirteen colonies or the modest settlements in Canada.

Certainly the loyalists brought their American moxie into the settled provincial societies of the Caribbean and Nova Scotia. British governors and long-established residents grumbled about the new arrivals and their “republican” ideas. The most abiding refuges for loyalists after 1800, though, were the ones in which Britain reverted to the policy that had shaped the thirteen colonies before 1763. In Canada, the British left the colonists to their own devices and taxed them far more lightly than their fellow subjects across the Atlantic. Today’s Tea Partiers might reflect on the irony that it was Canada that benefited in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century from “small government,” with tax rates considerably lower than those in the United States. When thousands of Americans in the northern states got word of this, they crossed the border and swore allegiance to the king once more.

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