Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War
By Thomas B. Allen
(Harper, 416 pages, $26.99)
First of all, let’s get rid of the myth (blamed on John Adams) that during our War of Independence American opinion was neatly divided into thirds — one third Patriot, one third Loyalist, and one third who just wanted to be left alone. The Adams quote so often cited was in a letter he wrote in 1813 and referred to public opinion about the French Revolution and the subsequent war between France and England that complicated his ill-starred presidency.
This book is the first attempt in a generation to study the Loyalist side of what was really a nastier and more violent civil war than the one that divided our nation a hundred years later. And as historian Thomas Allen demonstrates in this thoroughly researched and evocatively written examination of those Americans who opposed separation from Mother England, there is a lot about our one-sided founding Patriot history that is just nonsense. In short, this book is a treat for your favorite arm-chair historian and should be on everyone’s holiday gift list.
The big myth that Allen puts to rest at once is the notion that our sainted Founding Fathers set out from the beginning of their taking up arms in a quest to build a new and independent democracy on the still largely unsettled continent. In truth, for quite some time after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, nearly all of the roughly 2.5 million people in the thirteen colonies merely wanted some reforms on taxes and regulations of the kind enjoyed by Britons back home.
Certainly this was true of George Washington. Allen recounts how Washington set out in early June 1775 from Mount Vernon to take command of the rag-tag Continental Army drawn up around the British garrison in Boston. He took the ferry at Alexandria, Virginia, to get across the Potomac. He spotted the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, an old friend and former tutor of his stepson, on the ferry coming the other way. Washington ordered the two craft to halt in mid-river to get the latest news from his friend.
As Allen writes, “Boucher bluntly told Washington that Americans would soon declare for independence. Washington denied that he was ‘joining in any such measures,’ Boucher recalled. Like most of his supporters, the new general believed that the colonies were seeking a redress of grievances, not independence.” To the point, the supposedly radicalized Continental Congress sent off yet another groveling petition to King George III assuring him of their devotion and loyalty to the Crown and begging for some relief from the more onerous taxes and trade restraints. The king, to his cost, refused to even read the document.
Another myth Allen lays to rest is the notion that the struggle, once it began in earnest, would lead to an inevitable victory for Our Side because of the nobility of Our Cause. In truth, the war was one for the British to lose and they did so through a combination of arrogance and stupidity that must cause gasps of admiration among Pentagon strategists even today. The British generals in charge of various campaigns just could not bring themselves to treat the American Loyalist volunteers who rallied to them as anything but social embarrassments. And despite the overwhelming Loyalist sentiments in all the major colonial cities — even Boston, but more so in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah — Washington managed to nullify that advantage by keeping the war in the open countryside where sentiment and supplies were more to his advantage.
More to the point, whatever the Tory sentiment among white colonials throughout the long war, the British clearly had greater support than the Patriots among two other critical population groups — the Indian tribes on the western frontier and among the roughly 500,000 free and enslaved Africans who, in some colonies, outnumbered the white population.
Virginia’s royal governor the Earl of Dunmore as early as 1775 proclaimed freedom for all slaves who would joint his newly raised Ethiopian Regiment; slaves from both Monticello and Mount Vernon were among the thousands who flocked to the British side. Washington at first banned any black volunteers from his army, but finally relented and allowed only freedmen to enlist.
The Indian attacks on frontier settlements in the South and service as scouts and guides in the campaigns through New England provoked an instant horror among the Patriot side that may have caused more harm than good for the British. Certainly, it drove Highland Scots settlers in the Carolinas to the rebel cause despite a preference for the Crown cause.
And Allen makes clear it did neither the Indians nor the Loyalist blacks any real good either. At the end of the war the British evacuation shipped hundreds of black allies and their families to dismal exiles in Nova Scotia and the Caribbean. One has to wonder how, when the drafters of the Constitution in 1786 came to deal with the political questions involving the rights of African and native Americans, whether the rancorous memory of their disloyalty did not prompt some measure of revenge by the Founders, especially those from the South.
And in the end another remarkable myth gets put away. It is true that many thousands of Tories fled north to Canada or uncomfortable exiles in Britain, but of the roughly half million white Americans who survived the war and remained loyal to the King and Crown, only about 100,000 of them then upped stakes and left for new lives elsewhere. Remarkably, as Allen points out, within a generation the emotional and political scars of that violent and emotionally fraught clash had largely healed.
This is a long overdue part of our history which is well and truly told by a seasoned historian. Savor it; give a copy to a friend.