Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Meeting Notes: March 20, 2013

Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution," Ruma Chopra

For several centuries American history books and history courses frequently portrayed America’s loyalists as basically traitors to “The Glorious Cause” of our Founding Fathers and/or as greedy collaborators with the British Empire in order to make boatloads of money. 

In her March 20 program before Richmond’s American Revolution Roundtable Dr. Ruma Chopra presented a much more complete picture of the loyalists, including their backgrounds and what motivated them to remain loyal to the British crown. Dr. Chopra, an associate professor of history at San Jose State University, is the author of the book entitled “Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the American Revolution”. 

Dr. Chopra noted that loyalists were typically found throughout the British Empire in all economic and social classes. Many of the wealthy ones depended on strong trade ties with the mother country and frequently wanted to maintain the status quo. Many of the middle and lower class loyalists believed in devotion to the British Empire and shared pride in their British ancestry. Regardless of one’s economic background many loyalists were appalled at what they regarded as American rebels to the British crown, and viewed many of those who are now considered America’s Founding Fathers as little more than demagogues. Loyalists thought it was only natural to support Great Britain because the British colonies and the mother country shared the same ancestry, same skin color, same language, same religion and other natural similarities to the mother country which helped to make the 13 American colonies among the wealthiest in the world. As Dr. Chopra summarized, “Being connected to the richest empire in the world was a good reason to remain loyal.” 

In 1776 Great Britain had 26 colonies in North America, and in half of them the loyalists comprised a majority of support among white colonials. For example, the white colonials in Jamaica strongly supported the British crown because they depended on the British military for protection. Approximately 94% of Jamaica’s population consisted of slaves so the 6% whites feared a possible slave revolt far more than any political issues with the mother country. In Canada the colonies were considered economically valuable but politically weak, and therefore were easily ruled by Great Britain. The white colonial governments in West and East Florida were dependent on the British military since many of their residents were non-English, such as Hispanics and Seminoles.  

Not all North American loyalists to the British crown were white colonials. Many slaves regarded the American Revolution as their chance at emancipation in the event Great Britain won the war against the colonial slaveholders. In addition, most of North America’s Indian tribes saw the British as a means of preventing further white colonial expansion westward onto what the Indians regarded as their land, and their way of life for many centuries. 

When the British military captured New York City during the Fall of 1776, the local loyalists rejoiced at the arrival of what they regarded as their liberators. During 1774-1776, relations between American loyalists and rebels deteriorated very badly, and some New York loyalists were tarred and feathered. While under British protection, New York City became a major refuge for other loyalists who fled from nearby areas such as New Jersey, the New York Highlands, New England and Pennsylvania. Toward the end of the war New York City even became a refuge for loyalists who lived in the southern colonies. 

New York City’s population skyrocketed during the seven years of British occupation from approximately 5,000 in 1776 to 30,000 in 1783. This huge increase overwhelmed British military rule, and British authorities had trouble distinguishing true loyalists from those who were rebels, or those who were neutrals and simply wanted food, shelter and a job. Much to the disappointment of the loyalists, martial law was declared by the British when they captured New York City in the Fall of 1776 and remained in effect throughout the British seven-year occupation. 

Why didn’t New York City make the transition from British martial law to a loyalist civil government? Dr. Chopra said the British had several good reasons for maintaining martial law. 

The first of these was the ease and efficiency of martial law from the British perspective. Crimes such as arson and theft were quite common, and the British felt it was easier to deal with criminal suspects in their own manner rather than through a civil judicial process. Secondly, the British feared a civil government where the loyalists would seek revenge against those in rebellion to the British crown after the way many loyalists were persecuted prior to the war. In its own strange way martial law promoted a form of reconciliation between New York loyalists and rebels, in that the British military and not the loyalists and rebels served as New York’s legislative and judicial systems. 

The British also tried to promote reconciliation by discouraging loyalists from joining the British army. The British feared reprisals by loyalists soldiers against rebel prisoners and civilians, however the British also felt more comfortable with hiring Hessians and other European foreigners to fill the British ranks. By hiring fellow European soldiers the British felt they could maintain the chivalry, honor and gentlemanly traditions typically found on the European battlefields rather than allow the American Revolution to turn into some sort of savage guerilla conflict. The British discouraged the hiring of black loyalists to serve in its military for fear of upsetting many white loyalists. 

Despite the obstacles of martial law and not feeling welcome to join the British military, the loyalists remained remarkably resilient in trying to win concessions from the British. The loyalists were frequently successful in their petitions to British military authorities on such issues as obtaining food, obtaining civilian jobs with the British military and getting reimbursed for horses and other personal property taken by British soldiers. 

Not all of the obstacles which loyalists encountered were with the British or against the American rebels. Loyalists fought among themselves in New York City, especially between the New York City natives and the New York City refugees over such issues as obtaining jobs, food and other city provisions. Loyalists also fought with each other over who was a more sincere loyalist----those who were loyalists as early as 1776 versus those who became loyalists during the course of the war. 

When the war officially ended in 1783, approximately 60,000 loyalists fled the newly created United States. Approximately 30,000 of them moved to Nova Scotia, and another 8,000-10,000 moved to Great Britain. Others moved to the British colonies in the Caribbean, especially those loyalists who still owned slaves.  

In many cases life was hard for the loyalists who fled to Great Britain. The British natives frequently discriminated against the loyalists, accusing them of being more American than British. Approximately 10 years after the war many loyalists began to return to America. Although these loyalists had forfeited all of their real estate and considerable personal property when they fled in 1783, the loyalists who returned 10 years later were usually treated very well by their former rebel enemies. It seems that time had healed some of the old wounds between loyalists and rebels, and both groups tried to rebuild their lives as citizens of a new nation. 

Dr. Chopra noted that the failure of the British military to utilize the loyalists in greater military and civil capacities was probably a major contributing factor to losing the war. By not establishing any sort of model loyalist government in New York City or elsewhere in the 13 colonies, the British basically destroyed representative government in the areas they occupied until the war ended in 1783. These dictatorial actions frequently demoralized the loyalists who felt betrayed by their country---Great Britain. Many loyalists also resented the frequent British attitude of treating loyalists with suspicion, making the loyalists feel somewhat similar to prisoners within their own country. 

Dr. Chopra’s presentation brought insight to one of America’s generally forgotten major political groups of the American Revolution---those people who were “too British” to support American independence and were “too American” to enjoy the same rights as other British citizens while under British military protection/occupation. Yes, America’s loyalists were caught in the middle and when the war ended in 1783, they emerged as the war’s biggest losers.

-Bill Seward

1 comment:

  1. Very nice write up, Bill. I missed the meeting and now I at least gained some of the knowledge.