Let’s Play Again: Recovering “The Losers” of the American Revolution (Part I)

Taylor Stoermer

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

Latest Comments

  1. Christopher F. Minty says:

    Interesting post, Taylor. Thanks for writing it.

    I agree with much of what you said. Sometimes I think that (what appears to be) the increased focus on the American Revolution through conferences at the McNeil Center, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Huntington Library has passed Loyalist studies. Many, including myself, are calling for new work on the origins or coming of the Revolution, while others (e.g. Serena Zabin) are offering a fascinating new perspective on an ostensibly well-known event or person (in Zabin’s case, the Boston Massacre). Of course, there are some who, I think, haven’t forgotten or overlooked loyalists; particularly, Ruma Chopra. Her introduction to CHOOSING SIDES is excellent. Other people are doing important work, too. Liam Riordan is working on the diaspora, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his scholarship. But for the most part, the focus doesn’t appear to be on loyalists.

    Jasanoff’s LIBERTY’S EXILES appears to have been a high-point. But we mustn’t let loyalist studies fall by the wayside. We should continue the momentum she and other scholars, like Chopra, generated. I think you’re well on the way to doing just that.

    I am intrigued by this statement: “the American Revolution was, in fact, comprised largely of the loyalist purge that reshaped America’s body politic and political culture.” Focusing on the people who stayed in the U.S. has interested me since I started working on loyalists. And finding out how they, well, got on in life after the Revolution is a problem I have wanted to address. If you’ve found evidence suggesting that loyalists were ostracized from public and political life, then, wow.

    Little research has been done following the loyalists from start to finish, and by that I mean: before the Revolution, during the Revolution, after the (broadly defined) Revolution. Some have focused on confiscation, but few have looked at the socio-political consequences of loyalism. Imagine, for example, the impact upon a young adult whose father (and perhaps by extension mother) was tainted with Revolutionary loyalism during the 1780s/early 1790s. What impact might that have upon this young adult’s memory of the Revolution and the politics? Answering these questions, among many more, will likely redefine what it means to be a “loyalist.”

    All I’ve managed to uncover relates to one individual, Frederick Rhinelander. A politically active New Yorker who adhered to the Association but was later forced out of New York, signed multiple loyalist petitions, and took the oath of allegiance, he stayed after the Revolution. He did try to leave, or at least thought about it. But he remained in New York, and went on to become very prominent. The Rhinelanders were later associated with the Astors. (And, according to the Head of MS. at the NYHS, they’re still around!)

  2. Taylor Stoermer says:

    I knew I could count on you, Chris, for a thoughtful comment to get the conversation going, as you’re at the forefront of this movement. I think that’s why a more coherent approach to loyalist studies is important, as I hope my forthcoming posts reinforce. A chief point is the trenchant one that you raise — what defined the loyalist experience? And therefore what was a loyalist (and, therefore, what was a patriot)? Loyalty (I avoid using any “ism”) did not end in 1781 or 1783, any more than it started in 1775. By looking at loyalists on the individual level, by examining their experience, we can gauge the nature of the Revolution itself in fresh ways, in terms of its causes and its consequences. And such things extended far beyond the conflict, to evolve into memory. Think about Washington Irving — what is the story of Rip Van Winkle about other than a British subject who falls asleep before independence and then wakes up to a changed world and retains his old loyalty? Or Thoreau, whose political views were shaped so sharply by the experience of his loyalist grandmother? Or Trevelyan, who use the real-life Boston examples of the Linzees and Prescotts to romanticize the loyalist/patriot division in “The Virginians.” But my particular project, at least right now, focuses on those things that made someone a loyalist during the constitutional crisis. Was there, for example, an identifiable set of beliefs that can be set apart from one’s position on independence or whether he or she took up arms? Such an approach can therefore be expanded into questions of gender and race on more complex levels, in addition to the traditional categories following socio-economic status. Then we can explore the lived experience of people like Isaac Jones or Martha Minott of Massachusetts, or William Hunter or Ralph Wormeley of Virginia, to see whether there was an adherence to beliefs that survived in North America beyond independence to influence the shaping of the young Republic and early Canada. Your Rhinelander fits right in with the dozens of loyalists I’ve discovered who couldn’t leave, and took–as you so neatly point out in your recent work–questionable oaths, but who also didn’t stop being loyalist, in a sense. Recovering that sense gets us closer to what the Revolution was actually all about. My own theory, and I know this might be controversial, is that the Revolution was actually the aggressive reconfiguration of the American body politic, and the political (although not necessarily ideological) presumptions on which it was based, between 1775 and 1783. Part of that was through the purge of people, those whom Maya writes so well about (and not so different from James II attempted Whig purge of the 1680s), while part of it was also through the aggressive proscription of ideas that defined pre-Revolutionary moderate political culture. But this is where I think we can start delving into that discussion in earnest.

  3. Jon Kukla says:

    Taylor, you might want to look at the Am Hist Rev piece by my graduate mentor, W. H. Nelson, on the Revolutionary Character of the American Revolution. In some respects its a challenge to the neo-whig consensus from someone who did take the loyalists seriously as author of The American Tory.

  4. TimCompeau says:

    A very thought-provoking post.Thanks for putting this out there. It’s great to see so much loyalist research under way.

    I find the idea of the “purge” you describe fascinating as well, and it is the central focus of my current work on the cultural conflict between the loyalists and the patriots. I also appreciate you drawing attention to the underlying moral significance that the terms Whig and Tory held for people in the eighteenth century. American revolutionaries bristled when they were called “rebels” in much the same way that loyalists resented the term Tory. It is often difficult for 21st century people to grasp just how powerful these terms were within 18th century culture. I agree with you that “the loyalist purge,” as you call it, was one of the key features of the American Revolution and shaped American identity in this crucial early period.

    Like Christopher mentioned in his comment, I am also intrigued by the lasting ramifications loyalist political choices had on their children. I am just working on a piece that explores the anxieties of elite loyalists (in Canada) sending their sons to study in the States. For those families that remained in or returned to the US it is also an interesting question. Jeffersonians loved tossing the epithet “Tory” at their Federalist rivals, which indicates the continued power of the word after the conflict. Many loyalists, it seems to me, did their best to cover their tracks after reintegration which makes finding them quite tricky, but they are there.

    Aaron N. Coleman explores returning loyalists in his dissertation “Loyalists in War, American in Peace: The Reintegration of the Loyalists, 1775-1800,” (Ph.D. diss, University of Kentucky, 2008)

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