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Empire of Liberty

Liberty's Exile: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. By Maya Jasanoff

By From the May 2011 issue

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Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World
By Maya Jasanoff
(Knopf, 480 pages, $30)

Maya Jasanoff's splendid new book, Liberty's Exiles, celebrates the idea of ordered liberty that American Loyalists took with them in exile, first to Canada, and then throughout the British Empire. They maintained their connection to Britain, and acceded to self-government in gradual steps. Theirs was a model not calculated to inflame the passions or result in television miniseries, but it was followed by more than 60 countries with a combined population of more than 2 billion people, and that is no small thing.

It has often been said that Britain learned from its mistakes in the 1770s, and that, after recognizing American independence in 1783, it wisely adopted a more prudent method of dealing with its colonies in the "Second British Empire" that arose from the ashes of the failed First Empire. But that is not Jasanoff's story. Instead, she proposes an ideological explanation for the development of liberty in the former British colonies.

There was a Spirit of 1776 that animated the Founders, but for the Loyalists there was also a "Spirit of 1783," and for Jasanoff these were really very similar. Both Patriots and Loyalists subscribed to the same Whiggish, Lockean principles. Where they differed was principally on the prudential question of whether they should take on the British Empire. "Of course, government derives its authority from the consent of the governed," said the Loyalists. "But do you really think that you can defeat the greatest military power in the world? Or that your taxes will go down when you build Tom Paine's navy?"

When the Loyalists went into exile, then, they took with them the same ideas about government that the Patriots held. These ideas, in turn, informed the movement to self-government throughout the Empire. The colonies would become independent, not through violent revolution, but through the quiet accession to self-government that Joseph Galloway had proposed to the Continental Congress in 1774 (which failed by only one vote), and which later was followed by Canada and throughout the Empire.

Jasanoff implicitly rejects the idea of American exceptionalism: we are not exceptional, she thinks, in our adherence to the libertarian ideals of the Founders. The Loyalists had the same understanding of liberty, and brought it with them throughout the Empire. The American Revolution, Patriots and Loyalists both, remade the world, and not only America.

The story of the Loyalist emigration to Canada has been told before, and indeed is central to the understanding the country has of itself. What is novel in Liberty's Exiles is the story of the Loyalist emigration to other parts of the Empire: the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Britain. As well, no one has presented the Loyalists' case with more sympathy, or better explained why they remained attached to the Crown. Indeed, many of the book's readers might wonder which side they would have been on, at the time.

AND YET THE BOOK is not without its weaknesses, chief of which is its casual acceptance of the Whig interpretation of history. To be on the side of liberty, she suggests, is to be a Whig and subscribe to the Founders' ideas on government. However, that works only if Whiggism embraces a good many people usually thought of as Tories: William Blackstone, Virginia's Lord Dunmore, and Sir Guy Carleton. These were people who, unlike many Patriots, sought to emancipate slaves, and the story of how African Americans fared in the Revolution will be uncomfortable reading for some. The same might be said of the Native Americans, many of whom became Native Canadians because of the Revolution.

The second difficulty is the book's identification of Whiggism with America. The Whig tradition in England antedates the Revolution and indeed antedates America. And when Lord Durham proposed responsible government on a not-entirely-willing Canada in 1839, he did so as an English, not a North American, Whig. (The Durham Report is the source of that wonderful phrase, "benign neglect," used to describe how Westminster had governed Canada.)

Finally, Jasanoff too easily identifies liberty with the Whig tradition of the Patriots. She recognizes that the Loyalists were less concerned with representative government than the Patriots, preferring good government to self-government. Behind that, however, was a different understanding of what liberty meant. For the Patriots of 1776, liberty meant principally independence from Great Britain and the right to elect members to a sovereign deliberative assembly. For their part, the Loyalists were less concerned about forms of government and more concerned about freedom from state interference. To be sure, Jefferson shared their views on personal freedom, but crucially this was the sense in which the Loyalists thought themselves already free and not in need of a revolution. Their understanding of liberty was labeled the "liberty of the moderns" by Benjamin Constant, in contrast to the Patriots' Liberty of the Ancients.

Jasanoff's book is well timed, for there is a growing sense that the United States is in decline. The Heritage Foundation's list of "free" countries is dominated by former British colonies, while the United States lags behind as "mostly free." Freedom, as Jasanoff notes, is not the property of America alone, but instead is enjoyed by a host of countries, especially those in the Anglosphere. Her explanation of why this is so might not be convincing, but she nevertheless usefully directs our attention to a common heritage of liberty. 

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About the Author

F.H. Buckley is Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law.