Much has been made lately of the rediscovery of the American Revolution by scholars as a series of questions that remain unresolved. Both veteran historians and those new to the field (although those groups aren’t mutually exclusive) are, through conferences and colloquia and online forums, exploring this ostensibly transformative event of the late eighteenth century on something close to the level of those who lived through it, now that we are in a “post-Atlantic” historiographical moment. Mostly gone are the debates that left the study of revolutionary history somewhat moribund, as neo-whigs and neo-progressives, even a neo-tory or two, marched away from the field without a decisive victor, as their concerns were abandoned like an unnecessary baggage train, in favor of shifting interests towards exploring discrete groups in provincial America, the Early Republic, and what was left of British North America. But now revolutionary history is in the midst of something of a renaissance, which as a historian of the Revolution, I can only applaud, even as I watch with no small wonder as historians largely dismiss the work of older, yet still very much relevant, scholars in favor of their new pursuits of intellectual happiness.
Nevertheless, it is an exciting moment for those of us who still find the American Revolution a puzzling and exciting field of inquiry, especially because, as one looks more closely at it, the more it resembles an exercise in fauvism, devolving into tiny points of colorful interest that reveal patterns missed by earlier observers. The danger, of course, is in remaining so focused on the small points that the larger picture is lost, as happens in so many micro-histories, as valuable as many of them are in recovering the stories of the heretofore unsung men and women who made most of the history of the period. After all, as Henry David Thoreau reminded us in his reflections on “Revolutions” that “The hero is but the crowning stone of the pyramid—the keystone of the arch…. The most important is apt to be some silent and unobtrusive fact in history” (Journal, 27 December 1837). And such an approach helps us to avoid the pitfall, into which many of us can trip, of considering whatever happened in eighteenth-century North America that divided the British world from an American one, as part of a grand, impersonal scheme of processes and mentalities, almost Calvinistically predetermined by the forces of social change that led inexorably from the colonial to the early national period of U.S. History (leaving Canada, unfortunately but conveniently, out of the picture).
But there remains that pesky question of just what was so revolutionary about the period in between the colonial era and the Early Republic, what we call the American Revolution? The fact that it now seems to be an open question for scholars, perhaps for the first time, whether sitting at a university or in an armchair, is invigorating enough. The first historians of the Revolution, such as Mercy Otis Warren and John Marshall, never doubted for a moment that there was something transformative about it. Their primary concern, however, was not whether such a transformation took place, but who was responsible for it, and therefore could define it for contemporaries and posterity. That we can freshly approach the people and events of the period, without being weighed down by the ideological baggage of centuries, but also without ignoring it, should drive an entire new era of scholarship that puts the colorful points, many of which have only dimly been perceived, back into the broader picture.
For me, the overlooked people who are most interesting are the loyalists, and properly defining them, as my work seeks to do, along with that of other historians with similar interests, can reveal a whole new revolutionary history, one that not only breaks down our understanding of the period’s freighted language, like “patriot” and “tory,” but that might make us entirely redefine what we mean when we say “the American Revolution.” By exploring the experience of the loyalists, we can arrive at a clearer understanding of just what they believed, how they shaped the fight for independence, and, more to the point, just what happened to them. They were not “the losers,” as Bernard Bailyn wrote, and they did not all flee as American exiles, although many certainly did, as Maya Jasanoff has shown us. But we can only see that if we, essentially, throw out the labels foisted upon then by both their contemporaries and generations of historians. It is in this sense that distance can be a partner to proximity, for the former allows us to disassociate ourselves from the passions of the period that led to the sometimes violent purge of the loyalist experience from the American story, almost from the very start, while the latter can help us accept the emotion that infused the struggle with a personal intensity that has been largely lost. The first historians of the revolution largely kept the loyalists out of their heroic narrative, except as royalist caricatures, and their nineteenth-century successors, from Emerson to Bancroft, fully erected the historiographical barrier that kept them out of the story of the exceptional birth and growth of the democratic American nation-state, distinguishing that pesky problem of Canada—thought by some as the America that might have been—by its very silence. But by recovering the loyalist experience—in every town, colony throughout the British, and then American, empires—one might see, as I have begun to see, that the transformative event that we call the American Revolution was, in fact, comprised largely of the loyalist purge that reshaped America’s body politic and political culture, every bit as much as it helped construct American identity by providing a fictional counterpoint to it.
But one can only begin that project by understanding the loyalist experience in terms they would recognize, which begins with a rejection of the term “tory.” In doing so, one can also see, and then properly reject, all that the term consciously implies, of a hidebound, conservative attachment to the constitutional supremacy of monarchy. One can see why the “patriots”—themselves adopting a political term employed by William Pitt the Elder and the rest of “Boy Patriots” of the 1730s—used it to rhetorically tar their opponents and also understand why it worked, given its resurrection throughout opposition literature, in greater British political culture, especially once George III, and the Earl of Bute, lifted the effective ban on (mostly Scottish) tories in government in 1760, which had effectively been in place since the Atterbury Plot in 1722. It was not a mere matter of semantics. Or, rather, it was the greatest matter of semantics, because words mattered, as they shaped perceptions and behavior during the most unstable of the revolutionary years, and few mattered more than tory and patriot; lives were changed by them between 1775 and 1783, for those who left and, because they had little choice, for those who remained behind.
[Editor’s Note: You can find other Borealia posts on Loyalists here.]
Taylor Stoermer teaches Public History at Harvard University, where he is also a Fellow in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Formerly the chief historian for Colonial Williamsburg, he is a historian of British America and the Atlantic world, specializing in the American Revolution, loyalists, and the nexus between political economics and political culture. He is currently writing a series of books about the loyalist experience in the revolutionary world. You can find him on Twitter as @History_Doctor.
 Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1974); Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011).
Featured Image: Benjamin West, “John Eardley Wilmot” (detail), 1812, Yale Center for British Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.