Addressing the many loyalists that existed in Colonial America even after the Declaration of Independence and throughout the Revolutionary War.
Growing up in school, we often learned about the War of Independence and about the courageous Founding Fathers in creating the Continental Congress, Continental Army, and Declaration of Independence. We praise them for their efforts and how their actions led to the creation of the United States of America. Yet, we rarely address the opposite side of this colonial debate: the Colonial Loyalists. Loyalists were colonial citizens that stayed allied to Britain throughout the Continental Congress and Revolutionary War, often no matter what the colonial patriots or Founding Father’s were doing. They faced growing scorn and derision for their choices as the conflict between Colonial America and Britain continued on over the years. But, the British loyalists in the colonies had various reasons to not approve of Independence and Revolution.
The first is that they were loyal to Britain and still saw themselves as British, having been born and raised as such. Another reason was that they were ok with the taxes- the big problem of this war wasn’t that they were being taxed(other British colonies and even Great Britain citizens were being taxed as well), it was that they had no say in how they were being taxed: the whole ‘Taxation without Representation’ debate. Many British loyalists disagreed with the idea of being taxed without their say, but they still held out hope in the beginning years of the war that they could diplomatically solve the problems they faced and still remain tied to Britain. For the first few years, Independence was almost blasphemous to talk about in the Continental Congress and even after the Declaration of Independence.
To us now this seems silly and ridiculous, but we have hindsight on our side. We know how this all turned out, they didn’t. Here they had Great Britain, the most powerful nation at this time which was such a traditional and established country. If the colonies gained independence, they would pretty much be on their own and would have to start from near scratch, hoping for the best. Even more, the odds were so one-sided- this was the greatest army in the world fighting against a bunch of rag-tag farmers and workers that barely even know how to fight, had pretty much no food or proper clothing in harsh winters, kept deserting or leaving to deal with things at home, had rapidly dwindling war ammunition, and pretty much no actual support from the Continental Congress beyond words of support and demands.
It really is a miracle that the Continental Army was able to hold on so long and even steadily improve until France got involved and it truly was due to the brilliance of George Washington(yet even he faced hatred and scorn as some people saw him as unfit for the job and wanted to replace him such as with the Conway Cabal incident and other instances). Staying with Great Britain was safe and had historically helped keep the colonies afloat and safe such as with the Seven Years War against France to protect the colonies borders; to give up that would leave them completely vulnerable to the rest of the world and themselves when many loyalists did not think they were ready for such things.
To put it in perspective, imagine yourself now living in a random city in, say, Colorado. You are mad and angry at the federal government(or even your state government), feeling like you have no say and that they are making life harder on you. What do you do- some write to their governmental leaders in a bid to find solutions and others go and protest, destroying merchandise and fighting with the military. But for even those destroying property and fighting with the military, for them to suddenly go and decide to gain independence from the US or the State of Colorado seems absolutely absurd, ridiculous, and stupid.
To pull from a real life recent example- look at how most people reacted to the creation of CHAZ (CHOP) in Seattle a few years ago, when citizens literally stormed the capital hill of Seattle and declared their own Autonomous government. Many thought they were crazy and just being carried away by their emotions into a foolish battle. And the movement failed spectacularly, only lasting a month and had quickly dissolved into chaos. That is exactly how the British loyalists viewed the revolutionaries during the American Revolution. Though the situation with taxes, especially in regards to Boston, sucked, they were still being protected and taken care of by Britain. A lot of colonists saw revolutionaries as people trying to run before they could even walk, as children being rebellious and immature against their mostly benevolent parent. They saw it as pretty much putting the cart before the horse.
That was the situation here in the American Revolution- the colonies were nothing compared to the might of Great Britain and were picking a fight that many saw as dangerous with an obvious ending. Many British loyalists saw the revolutionaries as men and women caught up in their frustration and emotions, leading them to not think clearly about what they were doing and what the consequences would be. But, if they spoke up, trying to make the revolutionists stop and think about what their actions were going to bring about, they would be labeled as traitors, targeted and hated on, and even exiled.
They would question ‘why bite the hand that feeds us’ and be tormented for it in some truly horrible ways(every bit more I learn about tarring and feathering which was a prominent public act of pain and humiliation during the first few centuries of Colonial America, the more horrified I grow towards the practice). Mob rule became even more prevalent as Independence became even more popular and the people who were touting liberty and independence were, at the same time, beating down anyone who said anything different or slightly loyalist.
Another reason is that, just a decade before the War for Independence broke out, Colonial America had run into conflict within the Ohio Valley area in their expansion westward. The French in Canada(known as New France then) wanted the land as well and the American Colonists had no chance against them really. Cue Britain seeing the issue and quickly stepping in to face their old rivals. With the help from Great Britain, the American Colonists were able to claim that land for themselves. In fact, they were so successful in the war(which also occurred in other places around the globe at the same time between the French and British) that the French had to give up ‘New France’ in order to keep so more profitable colonies elsewhere in the world, leaving New France to become Canada under Great Britain’s control.
But, war is an expensive thing and in fighting to protect the American Colonists, Great Britain racked up a lot of war debt. So, Great Britain raised taxes throughout its various countries and colonies in order to get rid of the debt. That was why they began to tax the American Colonists even more. Yet, main colonists(especially those in Boston) were infuriated by what they saw as a breach of their governmental rights(each state having had their own governments to deal with local situations since Britain was so far away), believing they should have a say in it all. Yet, Great Britain’s mostly dismissive response and additional taxes led to much anger and frustration.
And so, events like the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre occurred. The Boston Massacre itself is super interesting to study on this topic as well. Despite the art made and the story told, it was really not a massacre at all(only five men dying) and instead an act of self-defense by eight soldiers surrounded by a mob of around 200 men late at night after being pelted by ice, rocks, clubs, etc.. In fact this was proven in court by lawyer, future Founding Father, and future US President John Adams himself, confirmed by a jury of Massachusett’s citizens. In fact this led to many seeing John Adams as a loyalist himself and scorning him until he joined the Continental Congress.
He honestly probably would have been attacked at some point if his cousin Samuel Adams wasn’t the leader of the Sons of Liberty and a very outspoken revolutionary figure and had sought to protect him. And he literally went on to be one of Massachusett’s Delegates to the Continental Congress, was the delegate that nominated George Washington as the leader of the Continental Army(shocking everyone as the war had, at the point, been seen as a Massachusetts conflict, the southern colonies especially not wanting to be pulled in), and signed the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and made America an official nation. Not even he was exempt from the furious mob rule that existed in this time, showing the danger for regular loyalists citizens who dared speak up against it all.
How baffled, appalled, and betrayed the Colonial Loyalists must have felt at their peer’s actions. They literally just fought a war together with Great Britain against the French and now, due to Great Britain simply wanting to pay back the war debts they had gained, the citizens flipped completely and chose to wage war against their traditional protector, even allying with France who they had just fought against a decade before. Just the shock the Colonial Loyalists must have felt from this. And then to be ruthlessly attacked for speaking up and urging caution and reconciliation to the point of tarring and feathering!
Now of course it was not a black and white situation and as the war went on and the pleas of the Colonial loyalists were constantly disregarded by Great Britain, many of these people gradually became patriots, seeing that it was necessary and reconciliation was not possible. But there were many that saw the move as too drastic, many who believed that the patriots were not thinking of the future and the consequences that would come from this situation. In the end, when the war ended and America had won, many Loyalists ended up abandoning their homeland and moving to Canada or even Great Britain in order to stay British citizens. Yet here they faced much discrimination as well, especially in Great Britain as a hybrid somewhere between British and American as resentment against America and Americans was high after the war. It’s a sad reality and life for them really, but it happened.
I wrote this because, while growing up and learning so much about the Revolutionist Patriots and often extolling and praising the efforts of the Colonial patriots, it is important to recognize the dark and hidden points of the topic in order to learn more of the complete history. The story of the Colonial Loyalists needs to be told as well as an ‘American story’, even if that was not what they called themselves- because they were born in this land as well and were contemporaries and often family to the other side of the political conflict. Their stories and opinions deserve to be told and not just relegated to the sidelines- that is what I have attempted to informally do here.