Writing in Liberty’s Exiles, Maya Jasanoff argued that the Loyalist Claims Commission was a useful—perhaps the most useful—source available for scholars working on loyalists. They are indeed useful, offering thousands of biographical snippets of a wide range of individuals. Most scholars have used the claims, in some capacity.
But, alongside the claims, there are other sources out there that offer a different, less biased insight into loyalists during the American Revolution. In this post, after a brief discussion of “signing” prior to 1776 and with a particular focus on New York, I will discuss the historical uses of loyalist petitions and oaths of allegiance to King George III.
It doesn’t take long to sign a piece of paper. A flick of the pen. A transitory introduction of ink with paper, forever etching a combination of letters together with a contract, an idea, or a statement. Even though it didn’t take long, there could be long-term consequences for signing a piece of paper. Indeed, once a name hit the page, the cloud of anonymity was lifted. Political views could no longer be hidden from view.
Prior to and during the American Revolution, signing subscription lists or petitions was an important barometer of an individual’s or a group’s political persuasion(s). On multiple occasions, between 1765 and 1776, the difference between a “signer” and a “non-signer” were significant; it often marked the distinction between those who were “for” something and those who were “against” something.
Among the most recognized instances of “signing” relating to Revolutionary America relate to nonimportation lists. In many of Britain’s North American colonies inhabitants banded together to affix their name to a nonimportation agreement. On multiple occasions, men and women came together to articulate their opposition of various measures introduced by Parliament by signing their names.
It was much the same by the start of the War for American Independence. Committees of Safety, organized as a consequence of the Continental Association (October 20, 1774), patrolled towns, villages, and cities looking for signatories to the Association. Those who didn’t sign it were often subject to physical attack or public censure. But it wasn’t just America’s patriots who used names to legitimize their cause, numbers, and objectives. Loyalists did it, too. In fact, in the early years of the War, especially in New York between 1775 and 1778, declarations, oaths, and petitions played an important role in loyalists’ strategy. By signing lists, as Charles Inglis noted, prominent loyalists wanted to “quicken others by Our Example.”
On April 11, 1775, a hot debate took place in Westchester County, N.Y. The debate related to the election of delegates to an extra-legal convention, due to meet in New York seven days later. Two groups had formed in Westchester. One, led by assemblyman Frederick Philipse, Rev. Samuel Seabury, and Rev. Isaac Wilkins, opposed such a delegation; it was extra-institutional, they argued, and would subvert the rights and authority of the popularly elected General Assembly. The other group, led by Lewis Morris, were for the appointment of delegates. The two groups clashed. Philipse’s group declared they would “Design a PROTEST against all such disorderly Proceedings” and reaffirm their allegiance to King George III. These “Friends to Government” did this by signing their name to a document, a declaration, that “acknowledge[d] no Representatives but the General Assembly.” Over the course of a single afternoon, 312 New Yorkers, including Philipse, Seabury, and Wilkins, signed their names. This “Westchester Declaration” was soon published in the press. These individuals were among the first loyalists to emerge in New York. Against the Continental Congress and a so-called Provincial Congress, they coalesced to articulate their disdain for the illegitimacy of such institutions.
Over the next three years, thousands of New Yorkers signed lists just like the Westchester Declaration. They were administered oaths of allegiance, as well. Thus far, I have found declarations and petitions from various counties in New York, including Charlotte, Kings, Queens, Richmond, Suffolk, Tryon, and Westchester. And, of course, I have found various declarations from New York City. Alongside these, between 1776 and 1778, New York’s royal governor, William Tryon, administered the oath of allegiance to the inhabitants of New York City, Kings County, and Suffolk County. The oaths from New York and Suffolk are in The National Archives, Kew. The oath of allegiance administered to Kings County’s residents is in the papers of Sir Henry Clinton at the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.
These documents are one of the most underused collections relating to loyalists. Most important, they do not contain the inherent weaknesses that the claims do. By the very nature of a petition or oath, there is no emotional investment in them. Unlike the claims, they cannot be embellished. The documents’ historiographical neglect is surprising; they have so much to offer. For example, the lists relating to New York City could be used to identify people who moved to New York, after the British occupation began, in fall 1776. The oath of allegiance for Kings County could be used for a social history, offering a unique insight into its (largely Dutch) inhabitants. More ambitiously, though, would be a study of these documents vis-à-vis the loyalist diaspora. That is to say, of those who signed these lists, how many moved to the Maritimes? Did people who signed together leave together? Did they know each other before signing? By the same token, did they set up their new lives in New Brunswick or in Upper Canada (present day Ontario), for instance, with the individuals they articulated their loyalism alongside?
Furthermore, all of the documents could be for an ideological insight into loyalism: what language is used? How is loyalism constructed and articulated as a social and political phenomenon?
The dearth of emotionality in the documents makes them a particularly useful source for historians. They can be used in research or for teaching purposes, preferably both. But alongside their strengths, as with any source, there are weaknesses. Above all, were the people who signed these documents really loyalists? My research is grappling with that question, and I am looking forward to sharing it with you in the coming months.
[Update: Students in Bonnie Huskins’ University of New Brunswick Loyalist course wrote a response to this post, with their reflections on using documents created by Loyalists.]
Christopher Minty is an Assistant Editor at The Adams Papers Editorial Project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. He holds a B.A. (Hons.) and a Ph.D. from the University of Stirling, and is working on a book that examines the origins of the American Revolution.
 Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
 See Christopher F. Minty, “Mobilization and Voluntarism: The Political Origins of Loyalism in New York, c. 1768–1778,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Stirling, 2014), chap. 1. For the printings, see New–York Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury, April 17, 1775. This was also reported in Rivington’s New–York Gazetteer; or, the Connecticut, Hudson’s River, New–Jersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser, April 20, 1775.
 R. W. G. Vail, “The Loyalist Declaration of Dependence of November 28, 1776,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 31, no. 2 (April 1947): 68–71.
 There might be other extant oaths in New York, but, thus far, I have not located them. By the same token, it is probable that there are declarations, petitions, and oaths relating to other colonies.
 Ruma Chopra used some petitions in Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution, Jeffersonian America (Charlottesville, VA.: University of Virginia Press, 2011).
 I have asked students to compare the documents, asking them to evaluate the documents’ strengths and weaknesses. I found this exercise to be valuable, in so far as it challenges students to think about how different, though related, sources can be used to ask or answer historical questions about the cultural, economic, social, and political circumstances that might have influenced colonists’ decision-making.