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Monday, April 11, 2016

The Loyalist Dilemma

For the eighteenth-century Christian, it was no light thing to contemplate overthrowing the government as one knew it. Consider with me these verses from Romans 13:
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. (KJV)
Read that first line again. Serious stuff, there, for those who had to choose between loyalty to the Crown and the cause of freedom.

British Legion Dragoon, 1780 (Don Troiani)
I’ve said elsewhere that much is made in American history of the righteous patriot, the heathen British, and the cowardly Tory. We can certainly find enough examples in those three groups to stereotype ... except that to begin with, many perfectly God-fearing people chose loyalty to the Crown (thus the terms “Loyalist” and “royalist”) out of Christian conviction.

Many also held a very valid fear that if the colonies overthrew the rule of Britain, chaos and anarchy would ensue. For several years after the Revolution ended, this certainly seemed to be a possible outcome.

And cowardice? In an age when neighbor turned against neighbor and brother against brother, and tarring and feathering was the punishment of choice, either side could be perilous. Even when people tried to hold their convictions in silence, out of mere self-preservation, they could be misunderstood and targeted.

American Provincial Corps
There's no typical profile of who chose loyalty and who didn’t. In addition to religious reasons, one article suggests that sides were chosen because of social status, although there were as many poor Tories as rich. Some chose loyalty because they recognized the colonies’ debt to Great Britain—after all, a colonist paid a fraction in taxes as the average Englishman, and Britain had spent thousands in defense of the colonies against the French. (Who ironically threw their lot in with the colonies during the American Revolution.)

A hard one to figure out was the loyalty of former Jacobites. These Scots folk had fought the Crown on behalf of their “rightful king” James and later, his son Charles. They felt King George, of Germanic descent from Hanover and not really English at all, was the usurper. Why on earth would they choose loyalty to him, with the opportunity for freedom within reach? For many, it was a matter of personal honor. After Culloden, when the last Jacobite uprising was put down and the Scots warriors and their families deported to the colonies, many were required to sign an oath of support to the Crown. Many were afraid of breaking said oath when the cause of American freedom rolled around. (And naturally, because these kinds of contradictions fascinate me, I had to work it into a story ...)

Native Americans tended to side with the Crown, as well, which had enacted laws in an attempt to contain European settlement across the Appalachian Mountains (thus why the Overmountain conflict, which led to Kings Mountain, was also such a contradiction). Also, because the British offered freedom to slaves of African descent, many blacks chose loyalty. One could argue that the Crown was motivated more by a desire to undermine the local economy than any kind of moral conviction, however, and many of the colonists who sided with “rebellion” weren’t very supportive of slavery as a whole, either, but that's another discussion for another time.

I found a handful of links with some interesting summary and commentary that pretty well lines up with what I’ve found over several years of research on the subject:

The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies is a great site for anyone wanting hard stats, from history to military info to geneaology and reenacting.

US History--the Loyalists and Loyalist (American Revolution):  both shortish overviews of the subject. Lots of interesting information.

There’s also one person’s take on the current refugee crisis, in light of history, specifically from the viewpoint of Canada. Did you know that much of Canada’s English-speaking population descended from America’s displaced Loyalists? Tens of thousands of emigrants fled at the close of the Revolution, many from New York and many from the Carolinas and Georgia. Some went to the West Indies, some to England, but many found homes in the region of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, including Tarleton’s Green Dragoons. A community of former African slaves later resettled in Sierra Leone.

And lastly, don’t read this one if you’re easily upset. :-) It's a fascinating overview of early American history from the British viewpoint, and hilarious depending upon your sense of humor, but definitely over-the-top.

Rather reminds me of much political discussion today. :-)


  1. Classroom histories, and even popular fictionalizations (I'm looking at you, Mel Gibson!) that depict the incredible complexity of the American War of Independence as a simplistic black-and-white, good-versus-evil struggle are not only inaccurate, but they're missing out on the many incredible stories of wrenching choices made by those who lived through that era.

    There were genuine heroes -- and genuine villains -- on both sides. As an historian, and as an American, I view the leadership of the rebellious colonies as being on balance more heroic than Britain's feckless (and increasingly mad) King George and much of his Parliament, but I even there, I can see that there were good men and bad men on both sides.

    As a novelist of the Revolution, I relish those stories that let my readers see the hard decisions, the inhuman sacrifices, and the soaring triumphs of the human spirit that made history during the war. While much of the war was fought on the battlegrounds of places like Lexington, King's Mountain, and Yorktown, it was won over the kitchen tables of ordinary people, both here in the colonies, and in the households of England.

    1. Yes!! Beautifully put. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit and comment!

  2. Oh, fun stuff! We've researched our family tree back to the 1600s and during the Revolution, we had family fighting on both sides. One branch resettled in Canada, only to relocate back to the States after a couple of generations. One of my colonial era novellas has as the hero a young man who is not on fire for the Revolution and yet isn't a Tory either. I found him to be a very interesting character. He wasn't alone. There were many people who just didn't get into the fray the way today's history makes it sound.

    1. Exactly, Pegg. It was risky to take sides, risky not to. "Perilous times shall come..." and that isn't just referring to today. I love studying the complexity of history and individual families' backgrounds. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Shannon, thank you for the links to these resources. I'm so bogged down in my plot lines that I really need some good reading to jump start my enthusiasm again. Can hardly wait to check them out.

    1. You're so welcome! We do occasionally need that, don't we? I hope it proves to be helpful. :)

  4. Great post, Shannon. Studying Revolutionary War here in Virginia, one constantly comes across the disparate motivations for people taking either side. Either way, was very risky.

    1. Thank you, Janet! So much story fodder, so little time ... ! And the words seem so inadequate sometimes to fully convey what I feel when I research.


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