Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

Loyalty In The American Revolution

by Claudia Willetts

JL Finlay and DN Sprague in The Structure of Canadian History, look at the big picture of conditions that led to the emigration of those loyal to King George III. The authors tell us that it was not a majority of colonies in the British Empire that united to separate from the old arrangement. By 1763 there were nearly thirty distinct provinces that together made up the British possessions in the Western Hemisphere. Only thirteen joined the War of Independence, while the others remained passively neutral, unreceptive to American requests to join in, or actively hostile to the rebels’ attempts to force acquiescence. Two kinds of Loyalism were then evident. The first was Loyalism of whole provinces, the other was painfully personal and frequently ended in persecution or exile.

In The Loyalists: Revolution, Exile, Settlement, Christopher Moore sketches some of the background conditions from which the Loyalists escaped. Between 1774 and 1776 America underwent a rapid and astonishing transformation. For more than a decade colonial spokesmen had been objecting to the powers they were subjected to, powers they considered strong and arbitrary enough to be called parliamentary tyranny. Yet when armed resistance did begin, America suddenly discovered how limited that power really was. For many years, every protest against British policy had been kept within the boundaries of traditional theories of Englishmen’s liberties. Colonial spokesmen had simultaneously defied British authority and claimed to be loyal subjects of the Crown. That style of argument began to make room for other voices, as Thomas Paine showed in his political pamphlet Common Sense. Instead of demanding for Americans the rights of all loyal subjects, Paine offered a vitriolic attack on King George III, “the hardened sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England, the royal brute of Britain”. Further, he denounced the vaunted sharing of powers between King and Parliament as “a mere absurdity”. The language of dissent was transformed, and “liberty” ceased to refer to the rights of Englishmen, and began to mean American freedom from the English “tyrant” (King George III). From its opening phrases, the Declaration of Independence took it for granted that Britain was foreign, the king a tyrant, and Parliament corrupt.

Bruce Wilson tells us in As She Began: An Illustrated Introduction to Loyalist Ontario, that ideology was perhaps the most widely shared motivation for loyalty. A personal attachment to the Crown and fear of the impact of the revolution on American society were major factors in the decisions of many colonists. Many Loyalists agreed with the rebels that America had suffered wrongs at the hands of the mother country, but they believed that a solution to those ills could be worked out inside the Empire. When new and untried leaders, radicals and demagogues threatened the link to Great Britain by mob violence and extra-legal action, the Loyalists naturally resisted.

Wallace Brown and Hereward Senior continue this line of thought in Victorious in Defeat: The Loyalists in Canada. The authors offer the opinion that Loyalists were the victims of an angry mood in colonial American society, which presented the British, and the institution of monarchy and King George III in particular, as the enemies of liberty. Most Loyalists suffered because they tried to use their constitutional right to free speech, and that the revolution freed not only Americans, but also Canadians who proved that “subjects” could be as happy as “citizens.