Rich, white, virulently anti-democratic, and more British than the British. The United Empire Loyalists, those colonials who stuck by the British Crown during the American Revolution and who afterwards fled to what would become Canada, still suffer from a certain image problem. And that’s here, where as English Canada’s founding fathers, they have been long celebrated by nationalistic historians, made into bulwarks of the classic Canadian whatever-we-are-we-are-not-Americans mindset. Everywhere else the Loyalists went in the British Empire—the Caribbean, Africa, India, Britain itself—they were largely forgotten. But nowhere was that more true than in the land of their birth. When the revolution ended in 1783, 60,000 Loyalists and their 15,000 slaves crammed on to Royal Navy vessels and sailed out of New York, Savannah and Charleston. And sailed out, too, from American historical consciousness, which has never liked to dwell on the civil war aspect of the War of Independence.
A new understanding of the Loyalists has started to emerge lately, though, especially through the works of American historians taking a fresh look at their country’s origins. Such books as Alan Taylor’s provocatively titled The Civil War of 1812 (2010) and Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff’s just-released Liberty’s Exiles, the first global study of the revolution’s losing side, offer Canadians an arrestingly foreign portrait of our founders. And of their widely varied backgrounds.
Among the extraordinary individuals featured in Jasanoff’s work are two ex-slaves, David George and George Liele. “I continue to be struck,” Jasanoff says in an interview, “how little the non-white component of the Loyalists is known in the U.S.” Those 15,000 slaves were, naturally, of African descent, but the 60,000 free exiles—two-thirds of whom came to Canada—included more than 2,000 Mohawk allies, and 8,000 free blacks. The latter were survivors of the 20,000 slaves, including some owned by George Washington, who had fled patriot owners for the British promise of emancipation for those who took up arms for the king.
The free blacks went primarily to Britain or Nova Scotia. From the former group, Jasanoff records the fate of seven, fallen afoul of the law, who were sent as prisoners on the first convict fleet to Botany Bay. That meant they capped their forced transatlantic voyages with a journey to the far side of the world, ending up—in a colonizing scheme first proposed by a Loyalist—among Australia’s founders. George, who had escaped his Virginia owner long before the revolution by fleeing to the South Carolina backcountry, converted to Baptism there under the influence of Liele. The two preachers stayed loyal to Britain, gained their legal freedom, and went on to found the first Baptist churches in Jamaica, Nova Scotia and Africa.
The Loyalists were also as mixed socially and economically as they were racially. Somewhere between a fifth and a third of the colonists remained loyal to Britain, meaning they were as liable to be small farmers or carpenters as wealthy landowners. Many, perhaps most, wished merely to survive the conflict. Individual decisions to fight—and afterwards to leave their native land—tended to turn, in Jasanoff’s opinion, on the degree of violence and loss suffered. Thomas Brown had only been in America for a year when the revolution began. In 1775, a crowd of patriots marched up to his Georgia home and demanded he choose sides. After Brown tried to drive them off with a pistol, the patriots seized him, fracturing his skull. Tied to a tree and scalped, tarred, feathered and roasted in a fire, Brown survived at the cost of two toes and lifelong headaches. The cost to the patriots was the creation of Burnfoot Brown, who became one of the most feared Loyalist commanders in the southern colonies.
Beyond their fidelity, what most marked the Loyalists was something that has been obscured by two centuries of nationalistic mythmaking: their Americanism—or, more exactly, their North Americanism. Like the rebels, they too wanted a new relationship between mother country and colonies. They constantly alarmed the British authorities—who, in Jasanoff’s words, found that “American Loyalists could shockingly resemble American patriots”—with their demands for representative assemblies. When Loyalist Joseph Galloway, speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Assembly, proposed in 1774 to create a union of internally independent colonies within the British Empire, he had effectively dreamed up the idea of Confederation a century before it became reality. And made himself, again a century before the fact, the first Canadian.