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Patriots 1700s Essay

13c. The Loyalists


Thomas Hutchinson, a Supreme Court justice in Massachusetts, was the most hated man in America before Benedict Arnold, and was hung in effigy many times for being a loyalist.

The year is 1774. Whether you are a merchant in Massachusetts, a German-born farmer living in Pennsylvania, a tavern-owning woman of Maryland, or a slave-owner in the South, you share some things in common. For instance, you probably don't like paying taxes on such goods as tea that wind up going to support the royal coffers in London. At the same time you like the notion of being part of the British Empire, the most powerful in the world.

Chances are you speak English and have many British relatives or ancestors. Or, even if you're a German farmer with no ties to Britain, you are still grateful for the opportunity to farm peacefully in this British-ruled land. Yet, you hear murmurings — radical notions about separating from Britain are making the rounds. Those hotheads in Boston recently threw a load of tea in the harbor and the British retaliated with something called the Intolerable Acts. A confrontation is looming.

Who will you support? The radical Americans or the British? Fact is, it's not an easy decision. Not only will your way of life be drastically affected, but whomever you choose to side with will make you instant enemies.


Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia at the start of the Revolutionary War, offered freedom to enslaved Africans and Indians for joining the British Army.

Any full assessment of the American Revolution must try to understand the place of Loyalists, those Americans who remained faithful to the British Empire during the war.

Although Loyalists were steadfast in their commitment to remain within the British Empire, it was a very hard decision to make and to stick to during the Revolution. Even before the war started, a group of Philadelphia Quakers were arrested and imprisoned in Virginia because of their perceived support of the British. The Patriots were not a tolerant group, and Loyalists suffered regular harassment, had their property seized, or were subject to personal attacks.

The process of "tar and feathering," for example, was brutally violent. Stripped of clothes, covered with hot tar, and splattered with feathers, the victim was then forced to parade about in public. Unless the British Army was close at hand to protect Loyalists, they often suffered bad treatment from Patriots and often had to flee their own homes. About one-in-six Americans was an active Loyalist during the Revolution, and that number undoubtedly would have been higher if the Patriots hadn't been so successful in threatening and punishing people who made their Loyalist sympathies known in public.

One famous Loyalist is Thomas Hutchinson, a leading Boston merchant from an old American family, who served as governor of Massachusetts. Viewed as pro-British by some citizens of Boston, Hutchinson's house was burned in 1765 by an angry crowd protesting the Crown's policies. In 1774, Hutchinson left America for London where he died in 1780 and always felt exiled from his American homeland. One of his letters suggested his sad end, for he, "had rather die in a little country farm-house in New England than in the best nobleman's seat in old England." Like his ancestor, Anne Hutchinson who suffered religious persecution from Puritan authorities in the early 17th-century, the Hutchinson family suffered severe punishment for holding beliefs that other Americans rejected.


American patriots used tar and feathering to intimidate British tax collectors.

Perhaps the most interesting group of Loyalists were enslaved African-Americans who chose to join the British. The British promised to liberate slaves who fled from their Patriot masters. This powerful incentive, and the opportunities opened by the chaos of war, led some 50,000 slaves (about 10 percent of the total slave population in the 1770s) to flee their Patriot masters. When the war ended, the British evacuated 20,000 formerly enslaved African Americans and resettled them as free people.

Along with this group of black Loyalists, about 80,000 other Loyalists chose to leave the independent United States after the Patriot victory in order to remain members of the British Empire. Wealthy men like Thomas Hutchinson who had the resources went to London. But most ordinary Loyalists went to Canada where they would come to play a large role in the development of Canadian society and government. In this way, the American Revolution played a central role shaping the future of two North American countries.

James Chalmers and Plain Truth
Along with earning Thomas Paine the respect of his fellow Patriots, his pamphlet Common Sense brought scorn from those loyal to the English Crown. James Chalmers, a Maryland planter, decided to counter Paine with his own work which he dubbed Plain Truth. Chalmers angrily denounced the American cause and called Paine a "political quack." View an ad announcing its first publishing, listen to a reading from Plain Truth, or read a fine essay on Chalmers and his Loyalist document.

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Loyalist Institute
Complete coverage of the Loyalist presence in the Revolution is the focus of this site. Divided into many different sections, all packed with information. Read up on Loyalist regiments, genealogy, re-enactment groups, black Loyalists, uniforms, music and more, more, more. Just take a minute to get the hang of the navigation, and you'll be knee-deep in Loyalist info.

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Thomas Hutchinson
From being the "most popular man in the colony" to his eventual exile back to England, Thomas Hutchinson's turbulent life is profiled on Bartleby.com's Great Books Online page. This bio covers Hutchinson's troubles with rebellious colonists, as well as providing some commentary on his History of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay. No images to see, just a quick overview of one of the more famous Loyalists.

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Tar and Feathers in Revolutionary America
America at the time of the Revolution was a great place if your opinions matched those of the Patriots. Opponents to the popular uprising were often treated to the harshest forms of punishment. This in-depth essay on using tar and feathering to silence Loyalists and others comes to you from Brandeis University. Sorry, no images of what some colonists referred to as "new-fashioned discipline."

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The Birchtown Archaeology Project
When black Loyalists fled the colonies for Nova Scotia in 1783, they landed at Shelburne and were assigned land which became known as Birchtown. More than 2 centuries later an excavation took place at Birchtown; it continues to provide clues as to how life was for these 18th century refugees. Visit the dig and have a look at some of the artifacts at this Nova Scotia Museum site.

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In 1775, Lord Dunsmore issued the first emanicpation proclamation in American history — however qualified and motivated by military desperation : "I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms."
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In the battle over taxes, patriot and loyalist did their part to keep a certain medieval tradition alive: "Yankee Doodle came to town / For to buy a firelock, / We will tar and feather him / And so we will John Hancock."
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By Jack Kelly

George Washington called the American victory in the Revolutionary war “little short of a standing miracle.” In 1776, an overwhelming British army had defeated his poorly trained force, driven them out of New York City, and chased them across New Jersey. Washington then lost Philadelphia, and his men had barely survived the wretched winter at Valley Forge. In 1780, the British captured the major southern port at Charleston, imprisoning the American garrison there, and utterly defeated a second patriot army. Before that year was out, his long-suffering troops were on the verge of mutiny and one of his senior generals had gone over to the enemy.

A year later he had effectively won the war. How was it possible? Of the many factors that influenced the war’s outcome, here are the ones that were among the most decisive.

The British should have won because . . .

. . . they had a professional military establishment. Although we often think of the redcoats as hardened veterans, most were raw recruits. But the British military establishment was well organized and formidable. They enjoyed a very seasoned officer corps, many of their top generals having joined the ranks as boys and seen action in wars with the French. They were well versed in military theory and how to apply it. Just as important, the British had a robust governmental bureaucracy devoted to war. Various ministries, boards and departments were experienced in supply, armaments, transportation, accounting, and the other logistical duties that are the foundation of any military effort. The Americans went to war with amateur officer and untrained troops; and they lacked the organization needed to supply and maintain an army in the field.

. . . they had naval superiority. Even more than their crack army, the British navy gave the nation a crucial advantage in a war against Americans, who were concentrated in a string of coastal settlements. Almost all of America’s major cities, from Boston to New York to Charleston, were vulnerable from the sea. The British could move troops, guns and supplies at will; the patriots were forced to trudge along notoriously bad roads.

. . . they had a fifth column. The colonists’ task would have been hard enough if they had been united. But many colonials were determined to stay loyal to the king, and a good portion of them were willing to take up arms against their more radical countrymen. When the British captured a city like New York or Philadelphia, they were welcomed as liberators by much of the population. Tory spies contributed significantly to British intelligence. Much of the British strategy, from the beginning of the war until the end, was aimed at encouraging and supporting uprisings of armed loyalists who would sweep the deluded patriots aside and restore order in the colonies.

The Americans did win because . . .


Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851. Image is in the public domain, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

. . . they had an organized militia. Because of the persistent myth that it was raw American citizen-soldiers who defeated the arrogant British, historians have had to emphasize that militia units, the true citizen-soldiers, did not form the backbone of the American military. It was the Continental Army that won battles, but local militiamen performed two immensely valuable services: they secured the home-front, responding quickly to any British incursion, and they reinforced the Continentals during crucial battles. Lightly trained militiamen often proved unreliable fighters, but at critical moments, from Bunker Hill to Kings Mountain, they showed remarkable courage and prevailed.

. . . they won the support of France. The French declaration of war on Britain in 1778 was tremendously heartening for the patriots. France had the wealth, the guns, the troops and the ships. At first the alliance failed to bear fruit. Joint operations at Newport, Rhode Island and Savannah, Georgia, disappointed both sides. Yet French muskets, uniforms, gunpowder and money helped sustain the Continental Army. French soldiers and sailors enabled Washington to trap and defeat British General Cornwallis at Yorktown. The threat from French forces required Britain to transfer resources to the West Indies and even to worry about a French invasion of their sceptered isle. It was from this wider war that the American patriots to emerge victorious.

. . . they persevered. Americans won their independence because they continued to fight. Again and again during the war, they reached points when they could have thrown in the towel. At times, the Continental Army seemed only weeks or days from disbanding. In spite of defeat after defeat, in spite of no pay, rampant disease and inadequate supplies, they kept at it. George Washington was no military genius. But his faith in the cause, his determination to fight, and the mutual love he came to share with his officers and men carried him through many dark nights. “He never has more resources,” a Frenchman observed, “than when he seems to have no more.” Inspired by leaders like Nathanael Greene and Anthony Wayne and Henry Knox, thousands of men gave up their youth, their health, and sometimes their lives, for independence. Against such perseverance, it was the British who finally had to admit defeat.

The calculus of warfare is subtle and complex, depending as it does on human ingenuity and audacity, on pure luck, and on a thousand unknowns. We know history has no direction. Yet in studying history, we inevitably see trends that seem to have a purpose. With the spread of Enlightenment ideas, the late 1700s was a time when it was possible for the age-old concepts of monarchy and aristocracy to crack. In the American Revolution they did crack, allowing a new idea of republican government to blossom in North America. James Russell Lowell later wrote of the British soldiers:

“They came three thousand miles and died,
To keep the past upon its throne.”

In the American Revolution, the past lost, the future won.

Read more about the incredible women of the Revolutionary War here.


JACK KELLY is a journalist, novelist, and historian. He has contributed to American Heritage, American Legacy, Invention & Technology, and other national periodicals, and is a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in Nonfiction Literature. He has appeared on The History Channel, been interviewed on National Public Radio, and conducted book signings across the country. He lives near Kingston in New York’s Hudson Valley, where much of the action of the Revolutionary War took place. His latest book is Band of Giants.

Tagged with: 1776, American Revolution, Battle of the Bulge, British, Bunker Hill, Cornwallis, Jack Kelly, James Russell Lowell, military family, Patriots, Revolutionary War, Valley Forge
Posted in Military History, Modern History