The Loyalists

This July 4th spare a thought for the losers of the War of Independence, those Americans who stayed loyal to King and Empire.

They were colonial government officials and aristocratic landowners, lowly tradespeople and farmers, descendants of the Mayflower and recent immigrants, White and Black and Native American, free, indentured, and enslaved. They were the Loyalists, about a third of all Americans, who for a variety of reasons chose the side of the King in what contemporaries called “a bitter civil war.” We catch only brief glimpses of them on the sidelines in the triumphalist histories of the American Revolution, but American historian Maya Jasanoff centers their stories in this first global history of the Loyalist experience from war to exile.

More than just a work of first-class scholarship, Liberty’s Exiles is a deeply moving masterpiece that fulfills the historian’s most challenging ambition: to revivify past experience.  

Niall Ferguson

The book is crammed with facts and statistics gleaned from the archives but enlivened by the intimate experiences of individuals, often in their own words.

During the war the colonies established Patriot “committees of safety” that administered loyalty oaths. Those who refused to swear could be jailed and their property confiscated. They were often subjected to mob violence, torture, and tar and feathering. Loyalists went into hiding or, as the war went on, sought refuge in the British held cities of New York, Savannah, and Charleston.

Jacob Bailey, left, John Adam’s Harvard classmate, was an Anglican missionary in Maine. His decision was rooted in his faith. To break the oath he had sworn to the King, the head of his church, he considered not only treason but sacrilege. When he refused to give in to the local Patriots Committee he and his family were subjected to a campaign of harassment and violence. He was threatened with a public whipping, his sheep and a heifer were slaughtered, and with his wife and small children he was forced to roam the countryside to avoid his tormentors.

“I have been twice assaulted by a furious Mob, four times hauled before an unfeeling committee. Three times have I been driven from my family, two attempts have been made to shoot me… by a set of surly & savage beings who have power in their hands and murder in their hearts, who thirst, and pant, and roar for the blood of those who have any connection with, or affection for Great Britain.”

Rev. Jacob Bailey

Bailey and his family were among the half of Loyalists who went into exile in Canada. When they sailed for Halifax in Nova Scotia he felt “bitter emotions of grief” on leaving his native country, but gave thanks to God with the ironic statement “for safely conducting me and my family to this retreat of freedom and security from the rage of tyranny.”

Like other civil wars the Revolutionary war divided families. Benjamin Franklin’s only son William, right, the last royal governor of New Jersey, was a Loyalist. William spent two years in prison for refusing the Patriot oath. When his wife Elizabeth fell seriously ill George Washington refused permission for him to visit her. She died shortly after, it was said “of a broken heart.” Benjamin and William remained permanently estranged, Benjamin refusing to allow his grandson Temple to attend college in Britain for fear of infecting him with his father’s loyalist views. Instead he took Temple to Paris with him when he moved there to negotiate the peace treaty that ended the war. Temple eventually became an American diplomat himself.

On November 7th 1775 the Earl of Dunmore, former governor of Virginia turned Loyalist leader, issued a proclamation that would have profound effects on the fate of enslaved Black Americans. The proclamation offered freedom to “all indentured servants, Negroes, and others” who would fight for Britain. This was the worst nightmare of the southern Patriots who feared that the British would foment slave rebellions. Within weeks 20,000 slaves escaped and crossed British lines. These included people owned by leading Patriots like George Washington and Patrick Henry. 

Map of the Loyalist diaspora

One of Jasanoff’s revelations is that when the signing of the Treaty of Paris ended the war on September 3rd 1783 many of the Loyalists felt betrayed by the very British government they had risked and lost everything for. They were shocked by the terms of peace.

The war never occasioned half the distress which this peace has done to the unfortunate Loyalists.

Elizabeth Johnston

John Cruden recalled the emotional reaction when refugees drank to the king’s health. Men broke down in tears and covered their faces with their handkerchiefs he said. A young Georgia Loyalist declared they felt deserted by their king and banished by their country:

We are all cast off. I shall ever tho’ remember with satisfaction that it was not I deserted my King, but my King that deserted me.

Nevertheless when British troops began the final evacuation from America 60,000 Loyalists went with them. Uncertain of their future in the new nation they chose to seek their destiny in other territories of the British Empire, from Britain itself to Canada, the West Indies, Africa, and India. About half the Loyalists went to Canada, mainly Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec. Some adventurous ex-military types joined the East India Company, including two sons of Benedict Arnold. New York born William Gardner ended up in Kasganj in India where he built an imposing family mausoleum in the Mughal style. His descendants still live in the remote rural area.

Britain did keep the promise of Lord Dunmore’s proclamation. Certificates of freedom were issued to the Black Americans and their families who had fought with the British. Their departure from New York City was recorded in the Book of Negroes which is a more complete record of Black Loyalist emigration than exists for Whites. When George Washington met with Sir Guy Carleton, Commander in Chief of British forces, he was enraged to learn many former slaves had already departed. What he did not know was that one of his own former slaves, Harry Washington, was on board the ship. After the contentious meeting he wrote to Carleton:

I was surprised to hear you mention that an Embarkation had already taken place in which a large Number of Negroes had been carried away… I cannot conceal from your Excellency that my private opinion is that the measure is totally different from the Letter and Spirit of the Treaty.

Some freed Black Americans went to Canada, some to Britain, and some 12,000, sponsored by British abolitionists, were granted land in Africa in Sierra Leone. But many southern Loyalists still owned slaves and they chose their destinations accordingly, places where slavery was still legal. Loyalists leaving Charleston and Savannah headed for Jamaica, the Bahamas, and East Florida taking 15,000 slaves with them.

Black Loyalists arrive in Nova Scotia by Robert Petworth 1835

About 8,000 Whites and 5,000 free Blacks sailed to Britain where they anxiously petitioned the government for compensation. The voluminous records of the Loyalist Claims Commission are the source for many of the detailed stories in this book.

Within these thousands of bundles lurk extraordinary stories of wartime devastation, adventure, and personal trauma… the claims yield up arresting images of the American revolution as civil war. They also give unusual insight into colonists’ material worlds, forming a sort of unsystematic colonial Domesday Book.

Maya Jasanoff

Lists of personal possessions from rum puncheons and carpenters’ tools to damask bedspreads and garnet earrings accompany harrowing details of hardship and violence. Of the 3,225 claims filed 468 were by women, 47 by Black men, and 300 by people who could not sign their own names. William Franklin became a leading lobbyist for the Loyalist claimants.

The provincial Americans found London an overwhelming place full of jostling crowds, filthy lanes, beggars and pickpockets. The damp weather and grey skies were depressing and “the shyness, reserve and unconversibility of native Englishmen unwelcoming.” The high cost of living drove many to smaller towns like Bath and Bristol. Compensation from the Loyalist Claims Commission proved minimal. In the tenth year of his exile in 1784 one refugee complained that “nothing can be worse than this rich, devoted, ill govern’d island.”

Reception of the American Loyalists in England by Benjamin West

Painter Benjamin West constructed a more grandiose image of the Loyalists in Britain in his engraving Reception of the American Loyalists in England. On the right Britannia extends her benevolent hand in welcome to the refugees while personifications of Religion and Justice hold up her robes. Loyalist refugees including West and his wife on the right, William Franklin, a Native American, freed Blacks, widows and orphans are shown gazing upon her in adoration and supplication.

Overall the Loyalists were shocked by the Revolution and the disruption in their lives. They shared so much with the Patriots – a strong sense of American identity, a love of country, and even discontent with British rule. But they favored a negotiated settlement that would redress grievances while keeping America within the British Empire under their King. When that proved impossible they cast themselves off into an uncertain future becoming part of the expansion of the British Empire across the world. Jasanoff concludes that they were not losers in the end and points out that they never embraced a “lost cause” mythology,

Canada became the model for what the Loyalists had hoped for America. And given what is going on in this country today perhaps it would have been better if they had prevailed.

Maya Jasanoff speaks about the book:

One thought on “The Loyalists

  1. I have a Loyalist in my family tree, but it was quite understandable, given he arrived in America in 1774! Also, my pacifist Quaker ancestors in Philadelphia were treated as if they were Loyalists and suffered a great deal for it.

    Thanks for sharing about this book. It will be a must-read for me!


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