Not All American Colonists Supported the Revolution
There Are Two Sides to Every Story
We all know that there are two sides to every story, but if you’re an American you grow up believing that the only two sides to the story of the American Revolution were the colonial rebels and the British Empire. In reality, there was another, much ignored facet to the conflict: colonial rebels vs. loyalist colonists, also known as Royalists, Tories, or King’s Men. In some ways, the Revolution was our first Civil War, though on a much smaller scale than the one that would nearly destroy the nation from 1861 to 1865.
So who were these loyalist colonists, and why didn’t they join their rebellious compatriots in the fight to become an independent nation? Let’s look at some things they never taught you in school.
There were a number of reasons that a significant proportion of the American colonists remained loyal to the Crown. I say a significant proportion because it truly was; it is estimated that up to 20% of the two million Whites in the colonies in 1775 were loyalists. Some of those reasons will seem quite practical to us today if viewed objectively.
Loyalists tended to be older, more established both socially and economically, and were thus understandably resistant to radical change. Many (though 170 years after the founding of the Jamestown colony certainly not all), had family in Britain and thus had an attachment to the mother country, if only sentimentally. It’s not unlike a fourth or fifth generation Italian-American feeling an affinity for the ancestral homeland they’ve never set foot in.
Some, perhaps even most, loyalists simply saw England as the legitimate government and believed rebellion against that government to be wrong. This is not unusual historically, as there have always been groups within a colonized people who felt a loyalty to their colonizer, whether that colonizer was benevolent or not. We see instances of this from Roman Gaul to British India.
Obviously, some loyalists wanted to remain part of Britain because it was economically advantageous to them; this was especially true in the Southern colonies. England (along with France) bought the bulk of American cotton, and this was a relationship cotton producers were in no hurry to endanger. There was no guarantee that their lucrative trade with England would continue if America was an independent nation.
In one of the greatest ironies of the war, much of the enslaved Black population of the Southern colonies were loyalists just like the Southern White slaveholders, but for a vastly different reason. Black loyalists had been promised freedom from slavery by the British Army in return for their loyalty, and thousands of escaped slaves fled to the British lines. After the war many of them left with the British and settled in London and Canada.
Finally, some loyalists simply feared the chaos and perhaps even mob rule that could result if the Empire (and the centuries long order it provided) were abandoned. Today we look back at a fairly bloodless and orderly transition from colony to nation, but this has too often not been the case. We need only look at examples from the aftermath of independence movements in Southeast Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s for proof.
At the end of the war many loyalists did face the wrath of their victorious neighbors, with the loss of land, businesses, and even tar and feathering as traitors as punishment. As a result, more than 60,000 of them fled to other parts of the Empire, with Southern loyalists settling mainly in Florida and the Caribbean and Northern loyalists moving to Canada.
The names of prominent loyalists are unknown to most of us today because it is the victor who writes the history. We all know Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, but have never heard of Lt. Col. James Chalmers (who led the 1st Battalion of Maryland loyalists) or John Malcolm (an Army officer and customs official who was the victim of the most publicized tar and feathering incident of the war). We know Benjamin Franklin, yet nothing about his son William, who was the colonial governor of New Jersey and a staunch loyalist. After the war William Franklin left for exile in London, never to return to the former colonies and never truly reconciled with his famous father.
That’s just a brief look at the side of the American Revolution they don’t tell you about in history class. Is it really that important to know about these loyalists since they ultimately lost? I think it is, because you can’t understand history if you only know part of the story.
First published on Medium.com.
About the author
I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.