To whom were Loyalists loyal?

Over on H-OIEAHC, there’s been a fascinating discussion of how best to discuss Loyalism when teaching the American Revolution. This has been of particular interest to me, because I’ve just come through that part of my own Revolution course. I will cross-post my thoughts over on the H-Net list, too, but here are some preliminary comments. I’m picking up especially on Michael McDonnell’s observation that “a sizable proportion of the population could neither be called ‘loyalist’ nor ‘patriot’.”

The problem inherent in discussing the phenomenon of political identity during the revolutionary war seems to be that which McDonnell hits on – there is simply too great a part of the population that doesn’t fit into neat categories. More to the point, there is no easy way of overcoming this difficulty of labeling. The most ardent patriots deemed anyone who did not give enthusiastic support to the war effort as inherently suspect. On the other hand, those who most ardently desired reconciliation with Britain took any sign of hesitation towards Independence as proof of the superiority of their own side.

In short, even if we look for a contemporary definition of ‘loyalism’, we’re not going to find much more than a complicated mess. That’s a problem that’s also reflected in the historiography. While there’s been a recent increase in writings looking at those who remained loyal to Britain, there are limits to the populations that they study. Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles, for example, looks at those who left America to remain in the British Empire – but while the book sheds important new light on the limits of the Revolution, it also (by definition) draws a tight line around loyalism. Clearly, many who may even have actively supported the British during the war did not leave America.

That leaves a quite troubling question: if we are talking about ‘loyalists’ who ultimately did not end up living as subjects of the British Crown, who were they loyal to?

In my teaching, I address this question as one of political mobilization. Like Joe Adelman, I also use Ed Larkin’s Common-place piece, ‘What is a Loyalist?’, and start off discussion by asking my class which definition of loyalism they find most compelling. This is a useful exercise, because you can always throw in complicating examples. One ‘Loyalist’ not mentioned in the discussion so far has been Tench Coxe – how do we account for someone who so prominently switched sides, twice?

The main thrust of teaching this is to emphasize the importance of the experience of war. To my mind, a lot of the seeming oddities of the politics of the 1780s are much better explained once placed in the context of an angry soldier population who view many of their fellow citizens as having benefited from the blessings of Independence without the sacrifice.  This leads, in some ways, to a conclusion that though we can tell the experience of the revolutionary war was far more complicated than the patriot-loyalist binary suggests, a division between ‘patriot’ and ‘non-patriot’/’reluctant patriot’ has a very real political meaning in the 1780s. This also complicates notions of equality and citizenship – and, by framing it in terms of wartime mobilization and political identity, I think it helps link the experience of war to the politics of the years of the Articles of Confederation.

The logical conclusion of this is that ‘loyalist’ is a term that obscures more than it helps, given its connotations of continued subjection to the British monarch. That seems to trivialize the choice of those who remained in America – yet as other participants in the discussion have pointed out, these were decisions that frequently tore families apart. Similarly, for a number of reasons, those who did remain were later able to participate fully, actively, and significantly in the development of the republic. That’s why, ultimately, I take the approach I do – to emphasize that the Revolution was not a shared experience, and that the development of an American national identity was a far more complicated and contested process than a ‘patriot/loyalist’ narrative would suggest.

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About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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2 Responses to To whom were Loyalists loyal?

  1. Hi Ken,

    I think that it’s especially useful to talk about Native American populations when you talk about what it means to be a Loyalist. In my writing, I try to use “British-allied Natives” rather than “Indian Loyalists” or “Native American Loyalists,” because the nature of the word “allegiance” seems to me to leave more room for shifting loyalties. Six Nations, Creek, and Cherokee Natives switched back and forth between British and American allegiance; but usually they did what was best for their towns, villages, and families. I think you could argue the same for Anglo-Europeans in America, but as you point out, using the term “Loyalist” can obscure the motivations of people like Coxe.

  2. Ken says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rachel! I deliberately left Native Americans out of my comment for some of the reasons that you allude to above. In fact, I particularly like the term ‘British-allied’ in the context you mention it, as it emphasizes the independent agency of Native American nations (which I think is sometimes overlooked in the attempt to make ‘Loyalist’ a more inclusive term of analysis). The question of loyalism, to my mind at least, is much more tied up with American/colonial political identity.

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