Why would American colonists remain loyal to England? – examining our preconceived notions about Loyalists

When you are starting out in living history / reenacting activities, you come equipped with many preconceived notions about American History. Regardless of the period, there are things that you learned in school, read in books, or saw in movies that help shape your vision of the past. The problem is, often times some of these are just plain wrong.

 Every country, as part of the fabric of its society, creates a historical narrative. The purpose of this “narrative” is to promote the country’s triumphs and strengths, and to promote a common national identity complete with a single set of political ideals and values.

 In order to do this; we tend to “bend” history to stress our successes and to reduce our shortcomings. We build legends around certain historical figures that played a part in the foundation, liberation, or other major event of our country’s narrative. In doing so, we often ignore significant portions of our population and, through a failure to look at the “reality” of what happened; we sometimes miss learning lessons from our past.

The first American “civil war”

This is true in the case of the American Revolution. Most people come into the hobby certain that the war pitted the British on one side, against the American colonists on the other. In fact, the conflict was much more complex and, in many places, amounted to a civil war with the American patriots on one side and the American loyalists, or Tories, on the other.

Loyalists were American colonists who, when the war broke out, chose to side, with the status quo and support England. No doubt, you are asking yourself, “Why would an American colonist side with England?” As you can see in this video by Yale University’s Dr. Joanne Freeman, they had a number of good reasons.


Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff, in her recent book, Liberty’s Exilesstates that loyalism “cut right across the social, geographical, racial and ethnic spectrum of early America—making Loyalists every bit as ‘American’ as their patriot fellow subjects. Loyalists included recent immigrants and Mayflower descendants alike. They could be royal officials as well as bakers, carpenters, tailors, and printers. There were Anglican ministers as well as Methodists and Quakers; cosmopolitan Bostonians and backcountry farmers in the Carolinas.

Some reasons behind their decision

Some Loyalists were people who opposed the anarchy that the revolution seemed to offer in its early stages, the tarring and feathering and the mob-rule embodied by the vandalism and lawlessness of the Sons of Liberty and the Boston radicals.

Period illustration of mistreatment of Crown loyalists in Boston

The “Sons of Liberty” tar and feather a loyalist


Some Loyalists also saw the Patriots arguments about “taxation without representation” as nothing more than a “red herring.” At that time in England, due to population shifts that had occurred in the late 17th  century and throughout the 18th century, large segments of the English population, urban centers such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Bradford and Huddersfield had no direct representation. Residents of the fast-growing London suburbs were also unrepresented unless they met the county franchise to vote in Middlesex, Surrey or Kent. 
Other Loyalists saw  the colonies opposition to taxes as a glaring lack of gratitude for the massive debt that British taxpayers had incurred while responding to the colonist’s pleas for protection during the French and Indian War. This, at a time when Americans paid an average of 6 pence in direct taxation per annum, one-fiftieth of the 25 shillings Britons paid without complaining about “liberty.”The taxes the English paid were not ones most of them voted for. Only about one out of ten adult men in England was eligible to vote, however, the other nine did not get to escape paying taxes.

 A fourth group of Loyalists, devout Anglicans, understood loyalty to the King, who was the head of the Church, and obedience to law, to be religious duties. This did not mean total submission to acts they saw as blunders, or as being unjust; this did not mean “non-resistance and passive obedience,” for no one upheld and used the right of petition and remonstrance with greater vigor than the loyalists. Only when the issue came to a choice between submission to the will of the King, Parliament, and law, or resistance by rebellion or revolution, did religious duty, in their opinion, enforce obedience.


Portrait of King George III

King George III of England

Finally, there were those who simply saw themselves, and the residents of the British colonies here in America as Englishmen and saw loyalty to their King as an act of patriotism just as they saw the armed rebellion of their fellow colonists as traitorous.

The loyalists, as we have seen, were a broad cross-section of the population;  motivated to make a stand based upon their beliefs, beliefs based in patriotism, in religion, in rejecting mob rule, in a belief in the rule of law, and even in a desire for freedom. They were often standing for the same values that the rebels claimed to stand for, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom to practice their religion without interference. 
Were they patriots or traitors? I suspect that the answer is dependent on point of view. We do know, however, that they were certainly not villains. Rather, they were people of principle who risked everything in support of their beliefs in the same way that Thomas Jefferson, and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence, pledged “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” to the cause of independence.
Loyalist refugees arriving in St Johns, NS after the war

Loyalist refugees arriving in St Johns, NS after the war

We all have other preconceived ideas about American history and the revolutionary period. Unfortunately, some of these are based upon our national narrative that, as we have seen, is sometimes distorted. If we are to interpret history to the public, in a realistic and balanced way, then we each need to weigh our beliefs against what period documentation shows, correct those that are wrong, and incorporate a more complete understanding of our history into our interpretations.
Chuck H

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