Women Also Know Loyalists

Rebecca Brannon, Lauren Duval, and Kacy Tillman

[Welcome to part two of a conversation among three historians of the American Revolution, focusing on new directions in loyalist studies. In the first part, Professors Brannon, Duval, and Tillman discussed the political agency and experiences of women. The titles for these posts are an homage to the impressive database showcasing women historians, Women Also Know History. – Editors]


Borealia: How did all of you—American scholars trained in American universities—come to study American loyalists? After all, many of the scholars who look at the loyalists are trained in Canadian universities and teach at Canadian universities.

Tillman: By accident! I was at the Massachusetts Historical Society researching patriot women’s letters when one of the archivists put a box on my desk that I didn’t request. It included the story of Margaret Mascarene Hutchinson, who fled to Canada in the middle of the night, forced to flee Boston because of her loyalism. She tells this harrowing tale of what it was like to lose everything, instantly, and of the suffering she endured on her journey, but most importantly, she framed the exile as baffling. She hadn’t done anything overtly political; she was merely affiliated with male loyalists, and she wondered why her entire family had to suffer for the ideologies of a few. This made me think about the ways in which women framed their own political identities and had those identities framed for them, and I realized that most of the research I’d read only represented the patriot perspective. I wanted to address that blindspot in Stripped and Script.

Brannon: I love a good underdog. I also have a high tolerance for reading the interesting ravings of people who are already depressed and miserable. (Kidding.) Actually, I was reading works on political violence and popular protest and found a footnote that suggested that even though everybody already knew that a majority of loyalists from the Carolina backcountry stayed in the United States after the war, it did not matter because they moved west.  I had already learned in graduate school that when people said, “Everyone knows that…”, I probably did not know what was coming next. The idea that the majority of loyalists actually lost a civil war and then got to stay was new to me. I was pretty sure everyone did not actually know this.  Nothing in the histories of the American Revolution I had read to date took this into account.  If the loyalists stayed and helped build the United States, then the American Revolution was clearly not what we thought. The seeds for From Revolution to Reunion were sown at that moment.

Duval: I also came to the loyalists somewhat sideways. My forthcoming book explores the domestic lives of American civilians in cities under British military rule. Because I focus on British-occupied cities, there were, by default, many loyalists among the civilian population (as well as patriots and disaffected civilians). My interest in British occupation was sparked by the Meschianza, a fanciful ball hosted by British officers in Philadelphia in 1778 to celebrate General Howe’s retirement. It was extravagant; British officers dressed as medieval French knights, each fighting for an American woman dressed in Turkish attire. But what really intrigued me was that, overwhelmingly, most of what had been written about the British army’s time in Philadelphia centered on this one event—but it happened at the very end of the British occupation; the British had been in the city for eight months prior to the ball. I wanted to know more about this period:  what were the relationships between soldiers and the city’s primarily-female civilians? What was it like for civilians to encounter the war in their homes and streets? To suddenly have their lives and homes transformed by the presence of the British army? The desire to understand this personal, domestic experience of war formed the core of my dissertation, and now book project.

Borealia: What, to the people that you study, is loyalism?

Tillman: Most basically, a loyalist is someone who opposed independence from England during the American Revolution, but for the women I studied, it was much more complicated than that. Loyalism for women in the 18th century — and my book covers Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, primarily, though I’d say it was true of Massachusetts, as well — was mercurial and differed from person to person and region to region. Many of the “loyalists” in my book were actually Quakers who considered themselves either neutralists or pacifists (they’re different), but because they refused to pick a side, the rebels persecuted them along with staunch loyalists as if they were all the same, when they weren’t. Trauma was the catalyst that caused some women to become more firmly entrenched in their loyalism later in the war than they were at the beginning. If they saw or experienced rape, violence, or other forms of persecution, occasionally they came to think of the rebels as evil and sided with the British because they desired a return to order. Some were loyalists for economic or religious reasons (or both); people in merchant families or with ties to the Anglican church embraced loyalism for practical reasons — they wanted to keep their livelihood, and a break with England would mean they couldn’t. Sometimes loyalism was as practical as it was political.

Brannon: Loyalists could be made by conviction. They could also be made by circumstance.  Loyalism was family, community, and consistency. Towns would essentially ‘follow the leader.’  Loyalism could also be practical. The local leader in the backcountry South followed the Crown—so should you. Some people ended up on the opposite side of the one that pillaged and stole from them first. Many were also not fully in command of their fate. Lots of people got tarred with the loyalist brush—children of loyalists, wives of male loyalists, and pacifists, for example. They may or may not have shared what we would understand as loyalist ideology. They shared the sometimes-unhappy fate of other loyalists, however.

Duval: Kacy and Rebecca have hit the nail on the head. The only thing that I would add is that loyalism was also a way for enslaved Americans and Native Americans to act to protect their own interests. Native Americans who supported the Crown did so in large part to protect their sovereignty—and many communities suffered for it, as Maeve Kane’s excellent work on Iroquois women demonstrates. For enslaved Americans loyalism offered a route to freedom. Whether or not they supported the Crown or cared about the state of American independence, the British army’s promises of emancipation and the relative proximity of British lines during the war provided enslaved men and women with unprecedented opportunity to seize their freedom and to keep their families together. My research has shown that, unlike the prewar years, many people fled as family units during the war; likewise, I’ve found examples of enslaved women making their way to British lines towards the ends of their pregnancies, suggesting that it was a purposeful strategy to ensure that their child would be born free. And so, I think when we talk about loyalism, we also need to include its ramifications for enslaved Americans, for whom loyalism served as a method of family preservation and freedom.

Brannon: Lauren, I am so fascinated by the examples of very heavily pregnant women fleeing to British lines in order to give birth to free children. What a wonderful example of the complexities of women’s lives!

Borealia: How does the story of the American Revolution change if you include the loyalists?

Tillman: In the earliest narratives of the Revolution — particularly those written in the 19th century — much of the dissent concerning the war was elided in an effort to promote national unity. Inserting loyalists into that narrative suggests it was a Civil War, which it was. Inserting loyalist women further complicates that narrative. Many of them were the victims of rape, property confiscation, and abuse; most were divided from their families — husbands and sons who fled to England — and left to protect their homes with no political agency with which to fight. The “patriots” (whom the loyalists called the rebels, a semantic difference to which I think we should attend) aren’t the saviors of liberty they’re often painted to be. Scholars have told the story for years that America became knit together by “imagined communities,” united by a common interest and national identity, but that’s true only if we completely ignore the Native Americans, women, and African Americans who often allied with the British because they promised justice to the disenfranchised. (Not that they always kept that promise.) Inserting loyalists into the narrative of the Revolution thus diversifies it in useful ways — in terms of race, class, ethnicity, religion, and politics, particularly.

Brannon: The loyalists are not who you think they were, and neither were the patriots or the neutrals. The American Revolution was a civil war, and wars are by their very nature messy and awful. Things spin out of the control of the people who started the war. If we start there, we realize the American Revolution is the story of barely controlled disasters unsought by most of the people who thought this was a good idea. Loyalists had many reasons to distrust the rebels, and many reasons to think they were unleashing chaos for what seemed like reasons that were not nearly good enough given the weighty stakes. Further, if you take a hard look, the rebels, or the patriots as they called themselves, were a distinct minority of the free white population. The American Revolution was a minority project.

When we add the loyalists back to the story, we also realize that the aftermath of the war—the restructuring of society after the war—is a vital part of the story that is often overlooked. Most scholars and survey courses for undergraduate students skip right over the 1780s, talk about the Confederation government, and then rush into the Constitutional Convention. But real people living through the events did not know it was all going to “magically” get sorted out in 1788-89.  Instead, they ended the war devastated. They were traumatized. We should understand them as people with PTSD. And not just the loyalists. Everyone who lived through the war grappled with the resulting trauma. We underestimate how important trauma was in the shaping of both the new United States and the emerging Canadian nation.

Duval: Loyalism complicates our understanding of the American Revolution by illustrating the messiness of this moment; people made choices amidst uncertain circumstances and acted to protect their families and navigate the complexities of a society undergoing a civil war. Bringing the military aspects of the war to the forefront illuminates the violence that seeped into everyday life and illustrates how profoundly disruptive the war was for families on both sides of the conflict. Politics was intertwined with the military conflict in ways that were inseparable from daily life. Civilians’ wartime experiences largely depended on the proximity of the closest army—this defined whether they lived amongst friends or enemies, or if they needed to flee for safety. Whether they wanted to be or not, civilians were drawn into the military conflict and their political identity, no matter how genuine, defined their wartime experiences. Viewing loyalism as both a very real choice that people made, as well as a strategy of survival in British-occupied regions, highlights the stakes of the choices that people made as they navigated unpredictable circumstances and encountered new levels of violence in familiar places.

Borealia: Motivation is always such a tricky thing for historians to discern. What do you think motivated the loyalists?

Tillman: Many were motivated by money, of course. Merchants who depended on imports, the Southern colonies that depended on exports, Anglican priests who needed ties to the church, and wealthy landowning politicians appointed by the Crown all were at least partially motivated by self-interest to remain loyalists. The women I studied, however, and the Black loyalists I’m studying now have slightly different reasons. Under the British Proclamations, Black loyalists were offered freedom and citizenship if they declared themselves loyalists, so they were motivated by the desire for liberty. Many of the women I studied weren’t so much motivated to become loyalists as they were declared to be loyalists without their permission or intent, either because of people with whom they were affiliated or because they refused to pick a side. If they did publicly declare fealty to the Crown, it was usually because doing so helped them regain losses incurred during the war or in reaction to violence or abuses done to their friends and/or family.

Brannon:  I always struggle with this question. I think many of them were motivated by self-protection and self-interest—at least up to a point. I’m with Kacy on this one. So were many of the patriots, who saw personal advantages in the Revolution as well. Black loyalists also were motivated by personal and familial self-interest. The side that gave them liberty was the side they would support. Of course, once they chose a side, they made great sacrifices to support it. I also think some white loyalists chose less on the question of direct self-interest as on the question of whether they trusted the people calling for the violent overthrow of the government. Asking people to fight and overthrow a government because it infringed your rights is the very definition of a BIG ASK. If they don’t trust the people asking, then the answer is a no.

Duval: This is such a tough question because there are so many different iterations and varieties of loyalism. People’s motivations were complex, and in many instances, situational, dependent upon the circumstances of the moment and the stage of the war (I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Donald Johnson’s fabulous work on the flexibility of loyalty here). Many people were committed to their politics and men and women on both sides of the conflict made immense sacrifices to further their cause. But as Rebecca noted, to act to overthrow the government was a “big ask”; likewise, an individuals’ willingness to sacrifice property, safety, and perhaps their lives for the Crown was also a “big ask”—especially for someone who wasn’t wholeheartedly invested in loyalist politics. Moreover, when we layer the threat of military invasion and martial law on top of these dynamics, I think it becomes clear that there was an element of pragmatism to how many people confronted and evaluated their circumstances, particularly in the face of an invading army. For example, after the British captured Charleston in May 1780, General Clinton lauded the number of people, including many former patriots, coming to the city to take loyalty oaths (and in so doing, regaining access to their property and their rights as British subjects). Nearly eighteen months later, in December 1781, General Leslie lamented that many of the loyalist refugees who had sought shelter and protection in Charleston were trying to take advantage of British policies to get access to resources before abandoning the city. Only three months later, in March 1782, General Leslie reported that even the most ardent loyalists among the militia were deserting to enemy lines. Embracing this complexity and the fluidity of loyalty is not to devalue people’s ideological commitments, but rather, to recognize how profoundly disruptive, disconcerting, and indeed, frightening the war actually was for those that lived through it.

Borealia: What do each of you admire about the work of the others?

Tillman: Lauren and Rebecca have both taught me a lot about Southern loyalism. Lauren’s article “Mastering Charleston: Property and Patriarchy in British-Occupied Charleston, 1780–82” in The William and Mary Quarterly attends to property confiscation while also discussing the gendered and racial implications of such a punishment, and I admire the intersectional ways in which she discusses loyalty. Rebecca’s book, From Revolution to Reunion, suggested just how different loyalty can be by region. Her book explains why the loyalists had to be folded back into Southern society in order for the plantation system to continue, whereas the loyalists I researched in the Northeast were often isolated and persecuted even after the war was over; both projects taught me to attend to the nuances of loyalism by region. Also, both are really good storytellers and clear writers, which — let’s face it — are rare commodities in a lot of scholarship. They’re also both very meticulous researchers. I keep running into Rebecca at archives or Lauren right after she’s returned from a fellowship; we all put in time going to the source, which is the ethical way to do this kind of work.

Brannon: I admire both Lauren and Kacy’s work. With Lauren, I am blown away by the way she effortlessly marries women’s history and military history for audiences who don’t always start by seeing the connections. Her WMQ article deals so cleanly with the really complicated subjects of property confiscation and loyalties. I have admired Kacy’s work for a long time—ever since I read her article on Eliza Pinkney. I asked her to contribute to a recent edited collection and was so pleased when she accepted. She is one of the amazing authors in The Consequences of Loyalism: Essays in Honor of Robert M. Calhoon. In all her work, including her new book Stripped and Script, she uses such clarity of writing and nuance in analysis to bring the dilemmas of women’s allegiances and survival strategies to life. I would add that I admire how each of them is willing to move past their comfort zones in order to write and speak to very different audiences.

Duval: I have long admired both Rebecca and Kacy’s work. As a junior scholar, I am also grateful for how kind and supportive they have both been of my project and for bringing me into the circle of loyalist studies. I admire how Rebecca has reframed our understanding of the war by asking such a simple question: what happened to those loyalists who stayed? In From Revolution to Reunion, she shows us how people remade their communities and collectively healed in the wake of the war. She tells a story that both has immense historical stakes and is at once intensely human. By using psychological research to inform her study of the past, Rebecca reminds us of the importance of emotion, trauma, and forgiveness in shaping individuals’ choices. In so doing, she offers deeply-researched illustrations of how communities create and sustain bonds on both the macro and micro levels in the aftermath of violence. With Kacy, I am impressed by her ability to peel back the layers of power and performance in women’s writings to excavate both their experiences and their interior lives. She is an elegant writer and so adept at pulling together diverse strands of women’s experiences to weave together a cohesive and compelling narrative that examines the multiplicity of ways that female loyalists experienced the war and the world that they inhabited. I admire the way that both Rebecca and Kacy have managed to reinvigorate well-trodden sources, simply by looking at them from a different angle and asking new questions—their scholarly creativity and meticulous research is exemplary and makes their books such a pleasure to read.


Rebecca Brannon is Associate Professor of History at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, teaching courses on Early America, the American Revolution, childhood, and old age. Her academic research focuses on the consequences of the American Revolution and how it shows us the imperfect, rocky transition to modernity, and the bedeviling complications of revolution. She is the author of From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016), and the co-editor of The Consequences of Loyalism: Essays in Honor of Robert M. Calhoon (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2019). You can find her on Twitter at @rnbrannon.

Lauren Duval is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. She is a historian of early North America and the Atlantic World, specializing in women’s and gender history and the era of the American Revolution. She is the author of “Mastering Charleston: Property and Patriarchy in British-Occupied Charleston, 1780–82,” WMQ, Vol. 75, No. 4 (October 2018), 589-622, which received the journal’s Morton Prize, as well as the Coordinating Council for Women in History’s Chaudhuri Award.  Her current book project examines revolutionary households, gender, and military occupation during the American Revolution. You can find her on Twitter at @Duval_Lauren.

Kacy Tillman is the Co-Director of the Honors Program and Associate Professor of English and Writing at the University of Tampa. She teaches courses on early American literature and research-based writing. Her research specialties are letters, journals, loyalists, the American Revolution, 18th-century novels, and early American gender studies, and is the author of Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution (University of Massachusetts Press, 2019). You can find her on Twitter at @kacytillman or at kacytillman.com.

Header image: Frontispiece to The Female Spectator (Detail), London: 1746, by Eliza Fowler Haywood, courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University. H/T Sarah Swedberg’s review of Stripped and Script at the exceptional blog Nursing Clio.

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