The lesser-known history of the American loyalists
The American Revolution was routinely regarded at the time as a civil war between rebels who desired to break away from Great Britain and loyalists who retained allegiance to the monarchy. As Maya Jasanoff, associate professor of history at Harvard University and author of the award-winning Edge of Empire, tells us in her sweeping, consistently enlightening and beautifully written Liberty’s Exiles, there is much about the loyalists we do not often hear.
At the end of the war, 60,000 loyalists emigrated from the United States to every part of the British Empire, taking 15,000 black slaves with them. Loyalists came from varied social, geographic, ethnic and racial backgrounds, including former slaves who were granted freedom because they fought for the British Empire. Several nations of Native Americans also aligned themselves with the monarchy. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the loyalists was how varied a role ideology played in their decisions. Often much more important were such personal considerations as employers, profits, faith, land, family and even the desire to maintain the status quo: Many loyalists believed the revolution would fail.
Jasanoff has done original research on four continents, and the result is a compelling narrative that takes us into the ordinary lives of these refugees. After a vivid portrayal of the war as loyalists experienced it, including threats and violence directed at them and the imposition of anti-loyalist laws, Jasanoff then covers their evacuation from the U.S., their relocation and their often frustrated expectations for their new lives. Many refugees—particularly in British North America (the eastern provinces of present-day Canada), where the largest numbers of loyalists were sent—held protests similar to those heard earlier from American patriots, about the Empire’s unjust policies, which eventually had a significant influence on imperial reforms.
Wherever they relocated—to the Caribbean, to Africa, to India, to England—the loyalists, despite their earlier allegiance to the Crown, resisted imperial authority in other settings. Jasanoff paints lively portraits of such refugees as Elizabeth Johnston, who, at age 22, had already lived in five different places and arrived in a Jamaica full of staggering violence; Joseph Bryant, a Mohawk leader who hoped to bring about a new western Indian confederacy but died trying; and David George and George Liele, both born into slavery, who became influential Baptist leaders, establishing churches in Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and Kingston, Jamaica.
This richly rewarding narrative and analysis—the “first global history of the loyalist diaspora”—is an important look at the lesser-known consequences of the American Revolution.