Saturday, October 12, 2013

People: Loyal to a Fault?

A House Divided

The American Revolution was as much a civil war as a rebellion.  Yes, the colonies rebelled against the king and parliament's laws, but not everyone entered into rebellion. And most who joined the rebellion did so initially to defend their rights as Britons. Many more (some say most) remained indifferent to it.  Although it had no grand capitals or palaces as in Europe, America in 1775 was thriving. The Atlantic seaboard was a constellation of small cities and towns, with plenty of well run farmsteads between them.  In the south, many (but not all) of those were cash producing plantations. Trade was growing and merchants were making money. People were prosperous and healthy compared to Europe because of the economy, a better diet and less crowded living conditions. In 1775, the American colonies had arguably the best standard  of living in the world. Many saw this prosperity as a direct result of America's place within the British empire and saw no reason to put it all at risk. Then came the taxes to pay for the war against the French.

Loyalist Joseph Galloway proposed
a political compromise to keep the colonies
within the British orbit - it failed

Who are these People?

John Grave Simcoe

The Loyalists, (and initially many patriots), saw themselves first and foremost as British subjects  loyal to their King. Politically, they were Tories. For many that about ended any discussion about America's status and relegated the discussion as to how best retain certain British liberties. Many of the Loyalist leadership, such as Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, struggled passionately for a political solution to the troubles. They wanted Americans to retain their rights and obtain self rule as part of the British empire. One can only imagine the emotions churning as their fellow countrymen, Whigs (the patriots), slowly  but surely determined on a complete split.  Imagine that sickening feeling watching your country,your world, slip away from you. Still,  few Loyalists envisioned the outcome would be anything but the King triumphant.  That made the end an even more bitter potion to drink. Some pundits have noted the division in loyalty at the outset of the war was 30-30-30.  One third rebel, one third loyal and one third neutral.  I suggest that the numbers fluctuated with the fortunes of war and the proximity of the British Army.  But many so-called neutrals, in my mind, were not so neutral.  That's a good starting point but the situation was more complex.  Certain regions like the Mid-Atlantic tended to have more Loyalists than say, New England.  The south was more evenly split as the brutal fighting there attests. As the war progressed and France entered on America's side, the Loyalists numbered between 15 and 20% of the 2.1 million whites living in the colonies.

Why Remain Loyal?

For the Loyalist, it was about, well, loyalty. I know, sounds trite, but those who remained loyal throughout the eight year war were men and women with a world view that called for an ordered state, the cornerstone of which was  a monarch bolstered by royalty, the nobility and the upper classes. Loyalists were complacent with the world they lived in and did not welcome the disruption caused by rebellion. They had a disdain for the extremism displayed by the patriots.  The Loyalists prided themselves in Britain's superior form of government with representation in two houses of Parliament and a constitutional monarch as head of state. And they had a sense of place and order that came with a class system. They (the British) had defeated the hated French in the Seven Years War and in the French and Indian War in America.  The "empire" had not reached its high water (which would come some 80 or so years later) but the King indeed ruled over a growing global empire held together by mercantile trade.  Trade that  they and all "good Britons" profited from. Who could argue?  And who would give that up?  Who indeed...


What did they Contribute?

The Loyalists were both a boon and a crutch to the British generals running the war in America. In a way, they were merely a placebo.  British authorities were constantly assured by leading Loyalist figures that most Americans favored the King and were at best neutral in the struggle and thus quite ready to be won over.  So little real effort was made to win the hearts and minds of the Americans. In some ways the thinking was loyalty coaxed was no loyalty at all. This meant the rebellion would be crushed by British power. The Loyalists readily played their part. Theys formed regular units akin to the patriot Continental Line and had all sorts of local Loyal militias.  In the "Cowboy versus Skinner" guerrilla fights they had the Cowboys. And they had Loyalist spies and sympathizers everywhere ready to tip off a British commander as to the whereabouts of the hated rebels.  That, coupled with the most powerful army and navy in the world, should have made suppressing the rebellion a quick and simple task. In numbers, the Loyalists under arms were substantial. At any one time during the  course of the war  an average of 10,000 Loyalists were in well organized and equipped "regular" units.  And this did not count numerous Loyalist militia units that ebbed and flowed with the pulse of the conflict.    George Washington would have traded all of Mount Vernon for that number in Continental Line. By most accounts, the Loyalists of all stripes fought well. And although they had nowhere near the number of great leaders as the rebels, they had some very good ones such as Colonel John Graves Simcoe (Queen's Rangers); General Cortland Skinner (New Jersey Volunteers); General Oliver Delancey (Volunteer Corps); and Colonel John Hamilton (North Carolina Volunteers). In some theaters, particularly the south, Loyalist irregulars were considered even more effective fighters than Loyalist regulars.

Loyalists fought ferociously but vainly in most battles
especially at at King's Mountain

What was their Vision?

Loyalist plans for America's future centered on some sort of local  representation within the construct of the British empire. In the early days of the political struggles, prior to open rebellion, that was the overwhelmingly popular view in all the colonies. But after Lexington and Concord the slippery slope grew slicker as the British made mistake after mistake.  When the scales tilted toward rebellion  the Loyalists had to improvise both in  political and military action.  But they never had a real  plan and certainly no strategy.  Why would they need one?  They were, after all, Britons.  They had overwhelming power on their side. They had the King and all his wealth and military might to fall back on. I believe that was ultimately their undoing. Over reliance on the British authorities, military and civil, made the Loyalists complacent and even dependent. Since losing to the rebels was inconceivable, developing a comprehensive Loyal alternative never really emerged. It certainly wasn't articulated to the populace. Conversely, as the war progressed the British placed less and less stock in Loyalist political and military usefulness. By war's end, the British found the Loyalists somewhat a nuisance and the Loyalists became resentful of their benefactors.

What was their Fate?

I plan future deep dives into the Loyalist cause but obviously - they lost. They lost big time:  land, slaves, homes, families, and pride. With bitter and despondent hearts, some 80,000 or so left the 13 colonies for "British" lands such as Canada, East Florida, the West Indies and Great Britain itself. Their struggle continued as the now largely impoverished diaspora was treated poorly by its once-time benefactor.

Loyalist refugees flee to
Canada (most went by ship)


  1. Good stuff. Our kids need to study this.

  2. Agree - but lots of adults need to learn more about this as well...