Let’s work together: A loyalist historian from Canada responds to American scholars

Bonnie Huskins

This dapper fellow is known colloquially as “Loyalist Man.” He welcomes tourists to the Reversing Falls attraction in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada and until a few years ago, sat on the highway welcoming drivers into the “Loyalist City.” I would like to use him today to entice American scholars who are becoming interested in the loyalists to sample the rich literature that has been written in a British North American/Atlantic World context.

It has been gratifying to see the number of recent Borealia blog posts on the loyalists – Sources for Loyalist Studies, Loyalists in the Classroom: Students reflect on historical sources, The Future of Loyalist Studies, and Let’s Play Again: Recovering “The Losers” of the American Revolution (Part I). However, it is sometimes a tad frustrating to hear references to the loyalists as an ‘overlooked’ people. Perhaps this is the case in the context of American historiography, but I would like to interject with the reminder that scholars of British North America/Canada have been studying the loyalists for a long time. This is articulated in Jane Errington’s 2012 review essay “Loyalists and Loyalism in the American Revolution and Beyond” as well as Ruma Chopra’s “Enduring Patterns of Loyalist Study: Definitions and Contours.”[1] I realize that many scholars of early America are more interested in examining the loyalists in situ. Indeed, one of the most interesting directions in loyalist studies is the analysis of loyalist reintegration into the United States being pursued by historians such as Rebecca Brannon. Nonetheless, I still hold that the literature written about loyalists and loyalism in a Canadian and Atlantic World setting are useful for American researchers. Perhaps this is a transitional moment, as Chris Minty suggests in The Future of Loyalist Studies. As scholars and public historians engage with the loyalists who returned to the United States, or never left, it is hoped that they will do so in the spirit of collaboration.


Henry Sandham, The Coming of the Loyalists. Public Domain.

You will note that Loyalist Man is a happy fellow. Far from being a ‘loser’ in the context of American historiography, he has been portrayed by early Canadian commentators as a hero and a nation-builder, who came to Canada to establish the foundations of a political order based on evolution rather than revolution. Loyalist Man is also elegantly dressed, clearly a member of the loyalist gentry. Ann Gorman Condon, in her classic text The Loyalist Dream in New Brunswick, eloquently elucidates the values of these seaboard elites, who resented their treatment during the American Revolution, and wished to establish in New Brunswick a colony which would be the “envy of the American states.”[2] This image of the loyalists as the crème of the crop of the American colonies evolved into a ‘Loyalist myth’ which persisted in Canada,[3] until social historians successfully charted the heterogeneous nature of the loyalist population.

Historians of British North America have analyzed the loyalists through the lenses of gender, class, ethnicity and race. Most of the American refugees who arrived in towns like Shelburne and Saint John were lower middle class urban dwellers, who used their exile to make a new start and articulate a sense of “middling gentility.”[4] Historians like Janice Potter-Mackinnon and Gwendolyn Davies have analyzed women’s experiences as loyalists.[5] But perhaps the most provocative work has been Harvey Amani Whitfield’s examination of loyalist slavery in Nova Scotia. There is a very rich literature on the slaves who deserted to the British lines during the revolution and became ‘black loyalists.’ [6] This has been popularized in Canada by the success of Lawrence Hill’s novel Book of Negroes as well as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s miniseries by the same name. However, Whitfield urges us to challenge the paradigm made popular by black loyalists and the underground railroad: that slaves escaped the bondage of the United States for the freedom of Canada. Whitfield shows us that many runaway slaves escaped bondage in the US for continued bondage in Nova Scotia. [7] Carole Troxler, in her research on Mary Postel, has also provided insight into the prospects of re-enslavement in Nova Scotia.[8]


Gathering for the Loyalist Centennial Parade in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1883. Public Domain.

There is a tendency to think of Loyalist Man as ‘British.’ It is interesting to note that although subsequent generations would describe the loyalists of British North America as United Empire Loyalists, David Bell has shown that many residents in 1780s New Brunswick were surprised at just how ‘American’ the loyalists seemed, and predicted the emergence of another ‘American Revolution’ in the streets of Saint John and Shelburne.[9] Neil MacKinnon has shown that loyalist attitudes to the United States shifted over time.[10] Studies of loyalist commemorations in New Brunswick and Upper Canada also show how attitudes to the United States fluctuated according to context.[11] Moreover, American historians interested in political culture might be interested in the emerging study of loyalism(s). Jerry Bannister and Liam Riordan’s introduction to The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era (University of Toronto Press, 2012) is excellent in fleshing out the “intertwined histories” of loyalists and loyalism in the British Atlantic World. Perhaps one of the most significant analyses of the role played by loyalism in the evolution of Canadian history is Jerry Bannister’s “Canada as Counter-Revolution: The Loyalist Order Framework in Canadian History, 1750-1840,” which was penned as a response to Canadian social historian Ian McKay’s argument that Canada was founded on a “liberal order framework.”[12]

Regardless of Loyalist Man’s insights, it is time to remove him from his comfortable perch in Saint John and throw him into the turbulent waters of loyalist studies in America and the Atlantic World. It is time to take advantage of the resurgence of interest in loyalists/loyalism in the United States and collaborate. I am pleased to have been invited as a commentator for a loyalist panel at the Southern Historical Association in November 2016 entitled “American Loyalists and the Quest to Stay Home and Stay American.” I would like to return the favour and invite American researchers to join the Loyalist Research Network. This is a network which was formed in 2008 to enable communication between academic and popular researchers interested in the loyalists and loyalist era in Maritime Canada. I am currently refashioning the LRN into a broader network which would allow an international array of researchers to talk to each other. The website address is www.loyalistresearchnet.org. We currently have as members American scholars such as Chris Minty, Carole Troxler, Todd Braisted, Liam Riordan, Harvey Amani Whitfield, Rebecca Brannon, Peter Walker, Nathan Coleman, and Elizabeth Mancke. Please consider joining us. Let’s talk!

Bonnie Huskins teaches Canadian, American, and Atlantic World history at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University. She studies the local history of Atlantic Canada within the context of a wider web of Atlantic World connections and comparisons. She is also the Loyalist Studies Coordinator at UNB.


[1] Jane Errington, “Loyalists and Loyalism in the American Revolution and Beyond,” Acadiensis, Vol. XLI, no 2 (Summer/Autumn 2012), 164-73; Ruma Chopra, “Enduring Patterns of Loyalist Study: Definitions and Contours,” History Compass, Vol. 11, no. 11 (2013), 983-93.

[2] Ann Gorman Condon, The Loyalist Dream of New Brunswick: The Envy of the American States (Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1984);

[3] Murray Barkley, “The Loyalist Tradition in New Brunswick,” Acadiensis, vol. IV, no. 2 (Spring 1975): 3-45; Norman Knowles, Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of a Usable Past (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); Cecilia Morgan, Creating Colonial Pasts: History, Memory, and Commemoration in Southern Ontario, 1860-1980 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

[4] Bonnie Huskins,“`Shelburnian Manners’: Gentility and the Loyalists of Shelburne Nova Scotia,” Early American Studies, Vol. 31, no.1 (Winter 2015).

[5] Janice Potter-Mackinnon, While the Women Only Wept: Loyalist Refugee Women (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993): Gwendolyn Davies, “The Diary of Sarah Frost, 1783: The Sounds and Silences of a Woman’s Exile.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, vol. 42, no. 2 (2004).

[6] James W. St.G. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783-1870 (New York: Dalhousie University Press, Holmes and Meier, 1976); reprint, University of Toronto Press, 1992; Barry Cahill, “The Black Loyalist Myth in Atlantic Canada.” Acadiensis 29, 1 (1999): 76-87, and response by James W. St.G. Walker, “Myth, History and Revisionism: The Black Loyalists Revisited.” Acadiensis XXIX, 1 (1999): 88-105.

[7] Harvey Amani Whitfield, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver: UBC Press 2016).

[8] Carole Watterson Troxler, “Re-enslavement of Black Loyalists: Mary Postell in South Carolina, East Florida, and Nova Scotia.” Acadiensis, vol. XXXVII, no. 2 (summer/autumn 2008).

[9]David Bell, Loyalist Rebellion in New Brunswick (Halifax: Formac, 2013).

[10] Neil McKinnon, “The Changing Attitudes of the Nova Scotian Loyalists to the United States, 1783-1791,” Acadiensis, Vol. 2, no. ii (Spring 1973), 43-54.

[11] Chantal Richard, Anne Brown, Margaret Conrad, Gwendolyn Davies, Bonnie Huskins, and Sylvia Kasparian, “Markers of Collective Identity in Loyalist and Acadian Speeches of the 1880s: A Comparative Analysis,” Journal of New Brunswick Studies, Vol. 4 (2013), https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/JNBS/article/view/21160 ; Greg Marquis, “Commemorating the Loyalists in the loyalist city: Saint John, New Brunswick, 1883-1934”, Urban History Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Fall 2004), 24-33.

[12] Jerry Bannister, “Canada as Counter-Revolution: The Loyalist Order Framework in Canadian History, 1750-1840, Jean-Francois Constant & Michel Ducharme eds., Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009); Ian McKay, “A Liberal Order Framework: a prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History,” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 81, no 4 (December 2000), 617-45.

Featured Image: “Loyalist Man,” Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.


Latest Comments

  1. Christopher F. Minty says:

    This is a nice post, Bonnie. Like you I don’t like calling loyalists ‘losers’; I think it’s reductive, as if nothing good came of being a loyalist. I also agree with you on the dichotomy between U.S. and Canadian writers, whereby some U.S. scholars refuse to call them anything but Tory. Yet some Canadian scholars won’t budge on their view that loyalists were persecuted by rebels, over and over. What’s interesting about that? Places in their country’s respective imaginations. In Britain, I doubt anyone could name a loyalist, aside from MAYBE Thomas Hutchinson.

    I think a useful avenue for loyalist studies would be for a comparative study of loyalism in the Atlantic world, ca. 1745–1798, in which scholar(s) could study loyalism in Scotland in 1745, the Caribbean, colonial America and Canada during the American Revolution, Britain during the early 1790s, and Ireland during the 1798 Rebellion. Comparative analyses of composition, ideology, and motivation(s) would be fascinating!

    Thanks for writing this, Bonnie! Really enjoyed it.

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