During the American Revolution and the crises leading up to it, colonists were faced with the difficult choice of remaining loyal to king and country or siding with the rebels. A significant number chose the former, and perhaps as many as one-third of the American populace supported the Crown. Loyalists (also referred to as Tories) were often the victims of extreme, politically motivated violence. Loyalists played key roles in the British war effort, although they were never fully utilized. By 1783, as many as one hundred thousand had fled their birthplaces to other parts of the British Empire, while others quietly reconciled themselves to the new political realities of the United States. The story of the Loyalists from 1763 to 1783 is one of tragedy in which considerations of duty to the king and personal honor placed many in untenable and dangerous positions.
Loyalists could be found within all segments of society, from the highest echelons of colonial government to escaped slaves who served the Crown for the promise of freedom. Both political and economic desires pushed people into the Loyalist camp. These desires and an individual's group identity proved to be far stronger than bonds of family or ancestry. Although common themes of loyalty and duty to the monarch existed, each segment had different reasons for remaining loyal based upon their particular circumstances and place within the hierarchy of colonial society.
Many of those who remained loyal to King George III were born in the Americas. Thomas Hutchinson, the last nonmilitary royal governor of Massachusetts, was descended from Anne Hutchinson and other seventeenth-century founders of the Bay colony. William Franklin, the eldest child of Benjamin Franklin and governor of New Jersey, split permanently with his father over support for the Patriot cause. These men were at the very pinnacle of colonial society, had spent lifetimes ingratiating themselves with the ruling classes of the British Empire, and had climbed the social ladders that were so crucial to political success during the eighteenth century. They had much to lose through rebellion. In contrast, those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, such as the thousands of slaves who flocked to the royal standard, had much to gain by allying with the Crown. After Lord Dunmore's 1775 proclamation of freedom to slaves who escaped their rebel masters and fought for the king, many African Americans saw British redcoats as liberators. In some instances, feuds between predominantly English Tidewater planters and Scots-Irish backwoods settlers carried over into the Revolution. Despite years of oppression by the British Crown in Europe, many Scots and Scots-Irish sided with the king against their Patriot Tidewater neighbors. This was not uniformly true, however, as the Revolution was in many ways a civil war between neighbors and families. Loyalty was a political calculation that would have far-reaching consequences for those brave enough to openly espouse the cause of King George III.
Divisions between Patriots and Loyalists were not immediately discernible in the aftermath of the French and Indian War. British alterations to the colonial system upset many colonists across the political spectrum, but few, if any, advocated independence. Even those who would become Loyalists during the war supported revoking some of the imperial and revenue policies introduced after 1763. The growth of separate independence and Loyalist factions stemmed partly from British and American intransigence on matters of political principle and the escalation of the imperial crisis. British actions, such as the Townshend duties of 1767 that imposed taxes on certain imported goods like tea, created opportunities to delineate supporters of the American colonies from supporters of the Crown and Parliament. Boycotts of British goods and voluntary organizations were common features of colonial resistance and allowed people to establish clear political allegiances by making public statements about their sympathies. For those who went against the growing anti-Parliament and eventually anti-Crown popular sentiments, harsh treatment and violent political reprisals were common.
Some colonists, especially those highly placed in the government, accepted British policy changes wholeheartedly. The controversy surrounding the Stamp Act of 1765, for example, demonstrated the willingness of many Loyalists to acquiesce to British demands and enforce the new policies. Thomas Hutchinson, then lieutenant governor and chief justice of Massachusetts, both supported enforcement of the Stamp Act and secured jobs for relatives as tax collectors. The resulting furor over the measure and Hutchinson's early support resulted in mob violence: Hutchinson's house was ransacked and left in ruins, as were those of several other prominent supporters of Parliament. Although London insisted on compensation for victims of American resistance, Parliament could not protect those still loyal to Britain from repeated abuse and destruction of property. As tensions increased, so did mob violence against political opponents. Such actions were often directed or tacitly encouraged by radical colonial leaders like Samuel Adams and the organization known as the Sons of Liberty. Hutchinson and many like him were trapped by circumstances. Although many, including Hutchinson, thought the Stamp Act was a foolish idea, they were bound by duty to enforce the laws. By fulfilling their oaths of office and maintaining their political principles, many would-be Loyalists opened themselves to violent retribution; others who supported British policy or would not subscribe to boycotts faced even greater risk of personal injury. Mobs often ran Loyalists through towns on fence rails or worse, used tar and feathers to warn similarly minded Americans about the price of loyalty to Crown and Parliament. Tarring and feathering were particularly heinous because the hot tar would seriously burn the victim.
An engraving titled "The Tory's Day of Judgment" shows colonists preparing to tar and feather a Loyalist seated on the ground. Another Loyalist hangs from a gallows, a rope tied around his waist. Violence against those who supported Parliament and the Crown increased in the wake of such controversial British policies as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767. Hatred of British sympathizers would lead to denial of their political rights, seizure of their property, imprisonment, and, as the Revolution approached, a large refugee problem.(Library of Congress)
Loyalists did not cower in fear and found ways to resist the growing violence. Some sought refuge with the British garrison in Boston that was established after violence and protest became uncontrollable in Massachusetts in 1773. Some used their pens to write defenses of British policy and decry the growing colonial resistance, though this public approach could be dangerous. Others, disgusted with colonial rebelliousness, aided the British occupation forces in Boston during 1774 and 1775 by acting as spies for Gen. Thomas Gage, then governor of Massachusetts and commander in chief of British forces in America. During the Powder Alarm of 1774, British troops seized provincial gunpowder supplies on the outskirts of Boston. Loyalist informers had instigated the mission by warning that provincial forces were removing the stores for possible use against British troops. Although the powder was captured, the informants' names were leaked to the press. William Brattle, Jonathan Sewall, and David Phips, all prominent Loyalists in Cambridge, came under attack by a mob of four thousand angry colonists fuming at the loss of military stores. Their houses were ransacked and the occupants forced to flee to the British fortress in Boston Harbor. Only with great difficulty did Patriot leaders hold back the mob from doing even more violence to the few remaining Loyalists. Another Loyalist, Dr. Benjamin Church of Boston, managed to lead a double life as both a highly placed member of the radical movement and a paid informer for Gage. Although Church might have been motivated more from pecuniary interests than political sympathies, he served as an important agent for several years before being discovered and imprisoned, though he was eventually allowed to leave the country.
By 1775, clear distinctions had been drawn between Patriot and Loyalist sympathizers in most colonies. Although some regions would vacillate between camps, usually depending on the presence of an American or British army, little room was available for political neutrality. A few highly placed members of society managed to stay neutral and courted both sides, but they were the exception. The violence and political upheaval of the pre-Revolutionary period forced people into difficult choices about their allegiance to Britain or America.
American fears of Loyalist collusion with the British to sabotage the Revolution certainly had merit. Prior to the outbreak of war, many Loyalists served as informants, and after fighting broke out, many took up arms against the rebels. These legitimate concerns were magnified by the Revolutionary zeal to purge society of reactionary elements. Loyalists were often the most visible symbol of British policy and the only targets of opportunity in local communities. Political rights were denied, property was confiscated or heavily taxed, and many Loyalists were either thrown in jail or expelled from the communities. Often, Loyalists fled with what few possessions they could carry. Should Loyalists come forward when the British army appeared in an area, they would be putting themselves in jeopardy because they would then be clearly identified as supporters of the Crown. When the army left, retribution was often swift and brutal.
New state and local governments often legitimized political repression. New York established the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies, which was charged with preventing Loyalist plots by ferreting out politically suspect individuals. Other states had similar committees and boards that fought the political war against internal subversion. Guerilla bands and state militias aided these groups both formally and informally, with the traditional rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury usually being ignored. In heavily contested areas like the region around Long Island Sound and New Jersey, as well as along the frontier, raids and counterraids by Loyalist and Patriot forces led to a heightened sense of (and reality of) vulnerability. Some of the most vicious attacks and egregious violations of rights came in these borderlands where the desire for security and revenge on both sides resulted in outright massacres. Although both sides shared responsibility for the atrocities, the extreme measures Patriots took to combat the Loyalist threat helped alienate more moderate Loyalists and created bitter enemies among the hard-line supporters of the Crown. Property seizures would later become a contentious issue during peace negotiations and in the early days of the republic.
The violence and denial of rights created a large refugee problem. Loyalists fled to whatever British-controlled areas offered protection. Some left for Britain or other parts of the empire, but a large number stayed in America in the hopes of a quick British victory. From 1774 to early 1776, this haven was generally Boston, but the evacuation of British forces and several thousand refugees in March of 1776 left no significant British garrison within the 13 colonies. By September 1776, however, British expeditionary forces had captured New York and the surrounding area, using it as a base of operations. British control of New York throughout the remainder of the Revolution gave Loyalists a permanent haven behind the guns of the British army. As many as thirty thousand Loyalists poured into the area during the war, creating a powerful and vocal community of political exiles.
This refugee community established strong connections to the British occupation forces. The government establishment of New York City was taken over by Loyalists such as Joshua Loring Jr., who insinuated himself into Gen. William Howe's inner circle. Loring's hatred of rebels and willingness to let General Howe cavort with the beautiful Mrs. Loring secured his position as commissary general of military prisoners. As the person responsible for most of the American prisoners of war sent to New York, Loring exercised both his penchant for corruption and desire to punish rebels by ensuring these prisoners lived in squalor. He and other complicit members of the Loyalist and British administrative system were responsible for the deaths of as many as eighteen thousand American prisoners of war—a number that equaled nearly three times the number of American combat fatalities. Not all Loyalists were as sadistic as Loring, but the desire for political and military revenge against the rebels created several groups dedicated to vigorously prosecuting the war. One such group was the Refugee Club headed by William Franklin. This group and like-minded Loyalists advocated a scorched-earth policy of total destruction against rebel targets both civil and military; the Loyalist press vociferously supported these policies. Such advocacy and the Loyalist press's role as a counterweight to the Revolutionary press kept the Loyalist cause at the forefront of British political debates.
Along the frontier, many Loyalists fled toward remote British garrisons or Canada. In western New York, many families fled toward Niagara—especially those Loyalists and allied Indians fleeing retaliatory raids in 1778 and 1779. Others in northern New York and New England sought refuge in Canada. Military units from these refugee populations would be perennial thorns in the side of American frontier communities.
During the war, dozens of loyal units of rangers, paramilitary guerillas, and line infantry such as the Ethiopian Regiment (recruited from runaway slaves) would see action in many different theaters. In both the North and the South, units were raised in refugee communities and pockets of Loyalist strength. These units were often organized by a leading figure of the local Loyalist community. In New York, the DeLancey family supported a large community of refugees and soldiers in Westchester County. The brigade raised and led by Oliver DeLancey earned a reputation for toughness and daring during their raids into American territory, and two battalions served in the Southern Campaign. William Tryon, a former royal governor, gained a commission in the British army and raised his own unit of raiders who terrorized the Connecticut coastline. Several units of black soldiers, principally from the Southern colonies, were organized for both fatigue work and front-line duty. In the Mohawk Valley of New York, Butler's Rangers allied with Iroquois Indians in an initially successful effort to raid the American frontier. Perhaps the most notorious Loyalist units were in the South. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, a British cavalry officer, commanded the British Legion. This highly mobile mix of Loyalist and regular infantry and cavalry was noted for its ruthlessness and efficiency. In a war where larger British forces were often confined near coastal urban centers, Loyalist units provided vital intelligence, prisoners, and supplies from the interior.
British strategists never fully utilized the Loyalists as a military force. While some units played influential roles in the military campaigns, many were relegated to raiding and irregular duties. Much of the irregular warfare, especially in the South, involved small groups and skirmishes that were often noted for their brutality. Wide discrepancies in combat effectiveness were evident between units, and these units were generally not fully integrated into the British army. An exception was Gen. Charles Cornwallis, whose Southern campaign made full use of large numbers of Loyalists. Several units, including the British Legion and the Queen's Rangers, were important combatants throughout the Carolinas and Virginia.
The inability or unwillingness of British commanders to utilize the entirety of the Loyalist population had significant consequences. British troops could win ground from the Americans, but they had great difficulty holding territory because their number was insufficient. Loyalists would flock to the British army when it appeared in their area, but when the troops left, those who acknowledged support for the king were at the mercy of American reprisals. One of the greatest failings of British commanders was an inability to protect Loyalists at any distance from a major body of troops. For all these reasons, Loyalists had a limited effect upon the outcome of the war.
With the end of hostilities, several thousand Loyalists evacuated New York with the British army. Their ultimate destinations encompassed almost every corner of the British Empire. Many established themselves in Canada and created new settlements in places like Nova Scotia and what would become Ontario. Of the former slaves who evacuated as British soldiers, most had great difficulty establishing themselves as freedpeople, including those who settled in Nova Scotia, where the climate and local hostility presented many challenges. The more unfortunate among them were sold back into slavery in other parts of the British Empire. Creating new communities or rapidly expanding existing ones placed tremendous strains on local populations, given the time of year when many left New York. Only support from Britain enabled these new settlements to survive. Many other Loyalists settled in Britain itself, but found they were strangers in a foreign land.
The fate of Loyalists and their confiscated property was a concern for Britain during the peace negotiations in 1782 and 1783. A major issue for negotiators was the British desire for Americans to pay their debts to British creditors and reimburse or return all confiscated Loyalist property. Although this was agreed to in principle and became part of the final treaty, the chaotic state of American government after the war resulted in most of these promises largely remaining unfulfilled. American negotiators wanted a return of all escaped slaves who had fled to the British; however, Britain was reluctant to comply because many had served as soldiers. Loyalists, especially those with political connections, also petitioned the British government for compensation, but they never fully recovered the losses suffered during the Revolution.
In American historiography, Loyalists have tended to be forgotten actors in the American Revolution. As they were on the losing side, their story was seen as less important and their ideas as less worthy than those of their Patriot neighbors and family members. Only in the last few decades has significant scholarship about African American Loyalists emerged. Loyalists were trapped by circumstances and torn by competing loyalties to home, family, king, and conscience. The violent upheavals of the Revolutionary period displaced tens of thousands and permanently divided families. As refugees within the British Empire, Loyalists struggled to create their own political identities. For those who chose to stay in the United States, the old allegiances to the king were abandoned as people assimilated into the new political landscape.
- The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974. .
- The King's Friends: The Composition and Motives of the American Loyalist Claimants. Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1965. .
- The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760-1781. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973. .
- Flight from the Republic: The Tories of the American Revolution. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967. .
- Royal Raiders: The Tories of the American Revolution. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963. .
- The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973. , ed.
- Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. .
- A Divided People. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977. .
- The Loyalists: Revolution, Exile, Settlement. Toronto: Macmillan, 1984. .
- The Forgotten Fifth: African Americans in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. .
Related Credo Articles
Loyalists in the American War of Independence were those colonists who, by some public or covert actions, demonstrated their continued allegiance...
Colonial Americans who remained loyal to Britain during the American Revolution . Britain defined the term carefully, since loyalists were...
At the end of the American Revolution (1775-83), approximately 100,000 civilians and soldiers who had supported the British Crown went into...