Sources for Loyalist Studies

Christopher Minty

Writing in Libertys 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.[1]

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.

Figure 1: Nonimportation agreement, Boston (1767), Houghton Library, Harvard University

Figure 1: Nonimportation agreement, Boston (1767), Houghton Library, Harvard University

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.[2]

Figure 2:

Figure 2: “The Alternative of Williams-Burg,” British Museum

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.[3] 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.[4]

These documents are one of the most underused collections relating to loyalists.[5] 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.[6] 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.


[1] Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).

[2] 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 NewYork Gazette: and the Weekly Mercury, April 17, 1775. This was also reported in Rivingtons NewYork Gazetteer; or, the Connecticut, Hudsons River, NewJersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser, April 20, 1775.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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).

[6] 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.

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Latest Comments

  1. Dan says:

    Great post Christopher. I agree with you about the Loyalist Claims. They serve their purpose, but I’ve found more than one example of claimants lying about their past, including their early history with the Patriots, and claiming to have been loyal from the start of the conflict. I’ve found others who have greatly exaggerated their contribution to the Crown. They’re still worth using, but you really need to cross check anything you read in them.

    My dissertation was on the ways in which local dynamics of conflict created by the Patriots forced allegiances, and what I really needed to use were documents listing allegiances at the time, not looking back 5 years later. The best sources for these were private letters and Association signatures. Interestingly, I found that the Associations from earlier in the war (particularly the Patriot ones) were even more useful than returns of who signed the oath in the South after the British took GA and SC after 1779. The reason is that the two sides had different ideas as to the purpose of these oaths. Loyalists certainly violated the Patriots’ Associations, but the Patriots realized that the purpose of these oaths was to maintain continued control over the Loyalist population, and they continued to enforce allegiance even after the people had signed. The British saw their loyalty oath more as a way of winnowing the list of people they had to worry about. So they did not remain as vigilant against those who signed as the Patriots had. The result was comparatively more people constantly violating their oaths because they could since the British were paying less attention to them.

  2. Bonnie Huskins says:

    This response to Chris Minty’s blog on Loyalist Sources was composed collectively by the students of History 3403, a course at the University of New Brunswick devoted specifically to the Loyalists of the American Revolution.

    Dear Chris:

    On 13 November 2015, students compared the strengths and weaknesses of Loyalist Claims Commission records versus Loyalist petitions.

    Loyalist Claims Commission records
    Many of the students had already used the claims records for their first major written assignment which involved “adopting a Loyalist” and then using the themes emanating from that person’s life to craft a larger thematic paper. Some students enjoyed using the claims for their graphic depictions of harassment and sacrifice, and for the clues they presented regarding the claimant’s previous lifestyle. They were also able to assess the significance of the items that the Loyalists were claiming, whether they were tea cups, books, or slaves.

    However, students were also aware of the interpretive issues involved in using Loyalist Claims Commission records. They agreed with you Chris, that the claims were biased in the sense that claimants were crafting their submissions to acquire compensation from the commission. It was the subjective nature of the claims records, however, which made them so fascinating. They also recalled from a previous seminar that the language used by the claimants was significant: for example, the phrases used by female claimants provided insight into the gender norms of the period. They also learned that claims commission records only applied to those who had access to the process and could document their claims. The claimants were mostly male and mostly white. It was interesting for the students to assess why it was that Black Loyalists received so little from the commission.

    Loyalist Petitions
    With regard to Loyalist petitions, students at first found them less “sexy” than the LCC records. Petitions appeared to them initially as little more than a list of names. On closer reading, however, they discerned considerable emotion behind the language of petitions, particularly the counter-petition to that of the 55. It is indeed a very angry petition, embodying the responses of 600+ Loyalists in New York City to the demand of 55 elite Loyalists that they deserved significant land grants in Nova Scotia. We discussed such loaded words as “tenancy”: why were the Loyalists afraid of sinking into tenancy in Nova Scotia? We concluded that, just as claims records were biased, so too were petitions, when one considers the nature of their composition.

    Students also contributed the following questions re: the interpretation of petitions:
    • How many names are on the petition? Why so many or so few?
    • The names (at least on the counter-petition) are all male names. Why?
    • Some of the names are written in the same hand writing even though they are different names. What does this suggest?
    • Some people were only able to sign with an X. What does this tell us about literacy rates?
    • Did all of the people who signed this petition do so because of ideological reasons?
    • Or did peer pressure play a role?
    • Did petitioners come from the same families or neighborhoods? Were they friends?

    Conclusions
    At the end of the day, students concluded that both claims records and petitions have strengths and weaknesses as historical sources. They were not sure whether one type of source was more biased than the other, but that they were both biased in different ways. This exercise also reinforced for them the need to critically analyze all sources and corroborate their findings using other primary and secondary sources if possible.

    Indeed, one realization which made the counter-petition more exciting was that many of the names on this New York petition also appeared as political dissidents in Saint John New Brunswick during the unrest over the first New Brunswick election in 1785. David Bell’s work on the political riots in Loyalist Saint John was probably our most lively seminar. It was rewarding to show the relationship between this event and the names on this petition. This made us realize how challenging and rewarding it must be for you to figure out the connections between the people who sign these petitions.

    Sincerely

    Bonnie Huskins
    On behalf of the following students of History 3403

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