Why did some colonials remain loyal to the king?
Thomas B. Allen begins “Tories” with an anecdote that the author apparently considers a useful way of illustrating his theme. A column of American rebel soldiers was marching through a Virginia town in 1777, he tells us, when a shoemaker rushed out of his shop and shouted: “Hurrah for King George!” None of the soldiers paid attention to him. When the troops stopped to rest in a woods, the shoemaker pursued them, hurrahing for King George. Once more the men ignored him. When the loyalist shouted his defiance virtually in the ear of the commanding general, he ordered him taken to a nearby river and ducked. When that ordeal failed to silence the shoemaker, the general ordered him tarred and feathered. His weeping wife and four daughters pleaded with him to be quiet. He was then drummed out of town.
The reader may wonder: Was the shoemaker drunk? Suicidal? Insane? Mr. Allen is less curious—he sees simply “an act of casual cruelty upon a stubborn Tory,” adding: “How many other Tories were taunted, tortured or lynched we will never know.”
It is unfortunate that Mr. Allen frames “Tories” as the tale of early victims of American political rage, because there is something to be said for focusing on the loyalists of the Revolutionary era. It is a fascinating and relatively neglected subject, one that the author tackles with verve as he spins a narrative starting with a nascent antitax insurrection in Boston in 1768. When British soldiers arrived to clamp down on restive Bostonians, Mr. Allen says, “Loyalists welcomed the Redcoats as protectors; Patriots and their supporters in the streets saw the soldiers as an occupation force, sent by Britain to tame or even punish dissent.”
By 1775, Boston was a garrisoned city where Loyalists courted trouble by fraternizing with the Redcoats. Mr. Allen relates the story of merchant Thomas Amory, who invited a few British officers to his house one night in nearby Milton, Mass. “Word reached the Patriots,” and soon “a brick-throwing mob attacked the house.” One of the bricks, Mr. Allen writes, “smashed a windowpane in his young daughter’s room and landed on her bed.”
The officers scooted out the back door while Amory tried to calm the crowd. He would later move to Watertown, about eight miles west of the city. Countless other loyalists also “fled real or imagined mobs.” How many Tories resided in the colonies at the outbreak of war? Using the latest research, Mr. Allen reports that the old estimate—a third of Americans—is outdated; under scrutiny, the number has dwindled to about 20%, or roughly half a million people. But they were a combative minority: When war came, loyalists formed more than 50 military units that often fought well beside their British allies.
“Tories” ably evokes the sense of fear felt by the loyalists, but Mr. Allen neglects to look at why the rebels took an increasingly angry view of those who sided with the British. The rebels knew they were risking their lives and property to defy King George, and they were enraged by loyalists’ eagerness for the sort of awful vengeance that the crown had previously unleashed on Scottish and Irish rebels. After the Continental Army narrowly averted total collapse in 1776, gloating loyalists—noting that the three sevens in 1777 looked like gibbets—began calling it “the year of the hangman.” The rebels, they hoped, would soon be swinging from British rope.
Why did some colonials remain loyal to the king while most did not? Mr. Allen does not dwell on the subject—he is more interested in what happened than why. But others have considered the loyalists’ motivations. Historian Leonard Labaree, in a pioneering study in 1948, found seven psychological reasons, including the belief that a resistance to the legitimate government was morally wrong and a fear of anarchy if the lower classes were encouraged to run wild. Another important factor: Unlike the rebels, who tended to come from families that had lived in America for several generations, many loyalists were born in England. These first-generation immigrants brought with them a sense of British liberty, steeped in obeisance to the king and his aristocrats, while in the colonies a longing for a “more equal liberty”—John Adams’s declared goal for the rebels—had already taken hold.
One of the book’s themes is that the conflict between the loyalists and rebels amounted to “America’s first civil war.” But not until the later pages, when the fighting with the British shifts to the South, does a semblance of civil war become evident. The Irish Presbyterians of the Southern backcountry had a history of feuding with wealthy coastal planters, who supported the insurrection. The ingrained antipathy for the planters, more than any fondness for King George, prompted the backcountry boys to ally themselves with the British—leading to vicious seesaw fighting.
A climax to this war within the larger war came in late 1780 with the battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, a purely American versus American, loyalist versus rebel fight. The rebels won a total victory, and in the process quashed British dreams of creating a native-grown loyalist army that might provide a decisive advantage.
The best section of “Tories” deals with black loyalists, the thousands of runaway slaves who responded to a British offer of freedom in return for military service. The British used these men largely as laborers, not fighters. In making peace at war’s end the politicians agreed to return the runaways. But Gen. Guy Carleton, the last British commander in America, refused to do so. About 3,000 blacks were among the 80,000 loyalists who retreated to Canada and the West Indies when hostilities ended.
A thousand-strong contingent of these former slaves in Halifax, Nova Scotia, became disenchanted with their treatment there, Mr. Allen notes. The black loyalists sailed for West Africa—present-day Sierra Leone—where in 1792 they established a settlement they called Freetown. For these Americans, the yearning for a more equal liberty did not end with the treaty of peace.
Mr. Fleming’s books on the American Revolution include “Now We Are Enemies,” recently republished in a 50th anniversary edition by American History Press. He is the senior scholar at the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia.
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