American Loyalists

In the years leading to the American Revolution, colonists found themselves divided into three distinct factions concerning their view of the British Empire. These three sectors the patriots, the loyalists, and the neutrals viewed American independence from different perspectives. The loyalists were also referred to as Tories, based on their alignment with the conservative party in Britain. The conservative stance promoted the power of the church and the prestige of the monarchy.

A cartoon of 1775 depicts a Virginia loyalist being forced to sign a document by a club-wielding mob of patriots, as another loyalist is being led toward the gallows. Loyalists were treated with increasing harshness as the Revolution approached, and they were finally declared traitors. (Library of Congress, LCUSZ62-9488) In 1776, between 20 and 30 percent of the colonial population remained openly loyal to the British monarchy. These loyalists were largely people who still found the idea and spirit of the British Empire to be the most desirable situation in the New World. This appeal was due to Britain’s historical, cultural, and economic ties with the colonies.

Convinced that American prosperity, growth, and stability were dependent on British ruling authority, supported by a monarchical government, loyalists were in all sectors of colonial society. The most dedicated loyalists were royal officials of all levels, urban lawyers, and wealthy merchants with commercial ties to England. Loyalism extended into the religious realm based on the early-eighteenth-century grants of religious liberty to groups such as the Palatine Germans in New York and the French Huguenots in the Carolinas. Some were considered loyalists simply due to their engaging in opposition politics with leading patriots.

The backcountry farmers in the Carolinas tended toward loyalism because of resentment of the power of the lowland gentry. Southern slaves expressed their resentment against the white slave-owning class. Lord Dunmore’s promise of eventual freedom for slaves led many thousands of blacks in Virginia to join the loyalists, while many in South Carolina fled to Charles Town, finding refuge with the British army when the city was occupied during the Revolution.

Assuming the British would win the war, many Native Americans most importantly, the powerful Iroquois Nation established strong economic ties to the empire. Even in the New England towns at the heart of the fracas, such as Concord, Massachusetts, had a small, silent core of loyalists who refused to condone armed revolution. For many colonists, the idea of confronting what they believed to be a strong British military was overwhelming. If this was not dissuasive enough, others doubted the survival of a new, young nation in a world dominated by competing empires. Therefore, enclaves of loyalism based on different reasons existed everywhere in colonial America.

While rebellion against England was still uncertain, the loyalists were most active between 1774 and 1776. Every major city had a few loyalist printers, who produced newspapers and pamphlets. Loyalists in New York City circulated literature in 1776 titled A Declaration of Dependence. In the backcountry areas where printed material was not yet available, rallies and speeches took the place of print culture.

In 1775, loyalists’ worst fears were realized, when the First Continental Congress passed a resolution that declared loyalists to be traitors, subject to varying degrees and forms of punishment. Throughout the war, approximately 7,000 8,000 loyalists fled to England, while some 28,000 found refuge in Canada. But many chose to remain in America through the close of the Revolution and adjust to the changing politics of their individual communities. Penny M. Sonnenburg See also: Continental Congress, First; Patriots; Revolutionary War. Bibliography Kammen, Michael. Empire and Interest. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1970. Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763 1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. Nash, Gary B. Race and Revolution. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1990.

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