The Loyalists

Differences between the popular democratic forces and the traditional aristocratic elements sharpened in America during the years following the Glorious Revolution (1688-89) in England. These opposing forces evolved into the Patriots on one side and the Loyalists on the other; sometimes the English labels of Whig and Tory were also used in the colonies.

Exact numbers of these groups are not available, but it is safe to conclude that many of the wealthiest and most influential people were Loyalists — a name they assigned to themselves. Holders of royally appointed offices, Anglican clergymen and many wealthy landowners were often Loyalists. The ranks of the merchants and lawyers were more evenly divided. However, lumping the two sides into rigid categories would be inaccurate; many small farmers and tradesmen were Loyalists and John Hancock, one of the wealthiest men in New England and a proud signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a Patriot leader. Loyalists probably were in the majority in New York, New Jersey and Georgia, but were weakest in the oldest colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts.

Samuel Seabury, an Anglican clergyman from Connecticut who was then in New York, wrote several pamphlets in 1774 and 1775 under the name "A Westchester Farmer." He opposed disorder and violence and sincerely believed that Americans would be best served by submitting to British rule. He remained after the Revolution and became the first American Episcopal bishop in the United States.

Writing at about the same time, Daniel Leonard presented the loyalist position to the citizens of Massachusetts in a series of public letters signed "Massachusettensis." Strongly anti-royal when he was elected to the General Court in 1769, he switched to the Tory side by 1774. "Perhaps the whole story of empire does not furnish another instance of a forcible opposition to government with so much spacious and so little real cuase, with such apparent probability without any possibility of success," he wrote.

The Loyalists certainly regarded themselves as patriotic, given that they sought to protect what they believed were the common interests of mother country and colony. However, Patriot propagandists refused to give them their due. Thomas Paine in Common Sense (1776), observed that the Loyalists were:

Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves. . . .

The Loyalists had their own views and didn't hestitate to express them. The Reverend William Smith, signing himself "Cato," ended his letter to the people of Pennsylvania with:

Upon such a footing [peace with Britain], we may again be happy. Our trade will be revived. Our husbandmen, our mechanics, our artificers will flourish. Our language, our laws, and manners being the same with those of the nation with which we will again be connected, that connection will be natural; and we shall the more easily guard again future innovations. Pennsylvania has much to lose in this contest and much to hope from a proper settlement of it. We have long flourished under our charter government. What may be the consequences of another form we cannot pronounce with certainty; but this we know, that it is a road we have not traveled and may be worse than it is described.

Another Loyalist clergyman, the Reverend Charles Inglis, wrote:

But if America should now mistake her real interest -- if her sons, infatuated with romantic notions of conquest and empire, ere things are ripe, should adopt this republican's scheme -- they will infallibly destroy this smiling prospect. They will dismember this happy country, make it a scene of blood and slaughter, and entail wretchedness and misery on millions yet unborn.

After the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, the Loyalists' plight became dire in many places. Their opposition to independence or their willingness to support of British soldiers led to intimidation and violence; tarring and feathering was a favorite Patriot tactic.

Most state legislatures enacted laws enabling the confiscation of Loyalist property, a fact that led to the inclusion of a provision in the final peace agreement that pledged the federal government to "earnestly encourage" the states to provide fair compensation for dispossessed Loyalists. More than 4,000 claims were made by Loyalists after the war, but the U.S. government dragged its feet on an issue that clearly had little public support. Eventually the British government paid out more than ?3 million to bring some relief to those whose loyalty had cost them dearly.

Loyalist regiments were formed in several theaters and participated in some of the bitterest engagements of the war.

At the end of the war, thousands of Loyalists left the country; 30,000 departed from New York alone. Many from the North fled into Canada, particularly to Nova Scotia, while others in the South withdrew to the Bahamas and West Indies. Homesickness was common and caused some to return to the United States. A number of the early returnees were treated harshly, but passions cooled over time.

During the course of the conflict, several thousand former slaves fought on Britain's side and hoped to be rewarded at war’s end. About 3,000 of these people settled in Nova Scotia in the 1780s, but were very poorly treated by the government and their neighbors. Eventually, at their own request, hundreds of disaffected blacks were sent back to Africa where settlement efforts were made in Sierra Leone.

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