The following is the first of two posts on loyalists in the American Revolution
So: You happy about the way the American Revolution turned out?
This probably strikes you as an odd question. You’re here, aren’t you? Sure, it’s possible that if Great Britain prevailed in its struggle with its unruly colonies, you might be living a better life, whether in continental North America or wherever in the world your people originated. Possible, but not especially likely. Even if you happen to be the heir of slaves, you now enjoy a better standard of living than they ever did. That’s because of a series of possibilities—pursuits of happiness—set in motion by a Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was marked by any number of loopholes, to be sure, some of which remain open. But lots of those loopholes of got closed, and part of what it means to be an American is to live with the hope that others will be.
Of course, where you stood on the American Revolution was a very different story in the 1770s and 1780s, when the fate of a would-be nation hung in the balance and some people were forced to choose sides precisely because there was no outcome to take for granted. We sometimes forget that the American Revolution was really our first Civil War, in which relatively large minorities of people—the estimates run from fifteen to thirty percent, depending on where you were living—were known as Loyalists who sided with England. Then there were places like New York City, which spent most of the war under British occupation. Nearby Westchester County was like modern-day Afghanistan, a kind of no-man’s land fought over guerilla-style by warring families and factions.
At the level of individual lives, choosing sides could be excruciating. In the 1770s Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson had family roots in the colony going back a century and a half. His great-great grandmother, Anne Hutchinson, arrived with the first generation of settlers in 1634. She was a rebel, a woman who believed that since the fate of any individual soul was unknown to all except for God, any form of earthly authority should be treated skeptically—a point of view that the Massachusetts government understandably viewed with some alarm. Whether or not they overreacted in expelling her from the colony in 1637 has been debated ever since. But a branch of her family survived and prospered in Massachusetts, and one of her heirs achieved the notable distinction of governing it himself (under royal supervision, that is).
Unlike Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Hutchinson was not a rebel. In fact, he secretly advised the British government that it should crack down on those who were, like the troublemakers who executed the outrageous “Tea Party” of December 1773 that resulted in large-scale destruction of government property. When Benjamin Franklin, who was based in London at the time, managed to acquire documentation of that advice, he leaked it to a Boston newspaper, which created a firestorm of controversy. Franklin was dragged before Parliament for his role in the dispute and subjected to a barrage of humiliation that turned a mild-mannered 68-year old grandfather into a radical for the rest of his life. But Thomas Hutchinson had it worse. His personal and political situation became unbearable, and he and his family had to abandon the only home he had ever known and went into exile in England, where he completed his three-volume history of the colony before his death in 1780, with the Revolution still raging.
So Thomas Hutchinson was not happy with the way the American Revolution turned out for him. But he knew what he believed, and there’s little indication he ever doubted what he should do. There were plenty of people who did doubt, however. For some, like Franklin’s friend Joseph Galloway, who served in the First Continental Congress, this was a matter of competing loyalties, of being genuinely torn about where he belonged. Though he started out as a Patriot protesting British policy, Galloway ultimately chose to be a Loyalist, and like Hutchinson lived the remainder of his life in England, advising the imperial government on how to put down the rebellion.
In other cases, though, the uncertainty was less a matter of divided loyalty than simply trying to guess about how to avoid trouble. High-minded claims of liberty aside, a clear-eyed observer could see that the rebels were hardly saints in pushing for their independence. In famous words of British essayist Samuel Johnson, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Those negroes, of course, were not likely to be impressed by an assertion that “all men were created equal” made by a man who owned close to 200 slaves. The royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, recognizing the vulnerability of the rebels on this point, issued a famous proclamation in 1775 promising freedom to all slaves who abandoned their masters and joined royal forces seeking to put down what had become an armed insurrection. (For many rebel Virginians, this was the lowest blow, the last straw, in bringing them around to the cause of independence.)
For a lot of slaves, Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation had to be a mighty tempting offer. And yet there were all kinds of reasons to hesitate before accepting it: loved ones who couldn’t, or wouldn’t leave their homes; dangerous logistical obstacles in reaching British lines; and so forth. But high on that list would likely be a question of trust: would the British be true to their word? If so, what would that really mean?
In fact, the British were true to their word. They created a small regiment of African American soldiers—this almost a century before the famed Massachusetts 54th of Glory fame in the American Civil War—that fought against the Patriots. On the whole, however, Lord Dunmore’s Declaration proved to be a disappointing deal. Many of those who took it perished from disease in war camps or on British vessels. Of the estimated 100,000 slaves who attempt to cross over, only about 3,000 were eventually resettled in Nova Scotia. For those who made it, such an outcome had to be bittersweet at best. It would hardly be the first or last time that racism forced difficult calculations on people who typically had to make the best of bad situations to the best of their finite abilities.