The First Continental Congress: Radicals, Loyalists, and Everything in Between

Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in the Year 1783. Britannia offers solace and a promise of compensation for her exiled American-born Loyalists. Engraving by Henry Moses after Benjamin West, 1783 / Library of Congress

Lecture by Dr. Joanne Freeman / 02.04.2010
Professor of History and American Studies
Yale University

Introduction: The Loyalists

Today we’re talking about Loyalists, and in doing so we’re going to be talking about the range of responses to the building crisis in British America. So basically over the course of the first few lectures here, we’ve looked at the logic behind some British policy; we’ve looked at the logic of resistance. Now we’re seeing a little momentum of resistance building up, so now also we need to look at people who maybe are not as eager to resist against the British government, and these are the Loyalists.

And it’s going to seem sort of opposite as to what I ought to be doing at this moment, but before we launch into looking at the Loyalists I actually want to go back for a moment to the First Continental Congress. Partly because, as you’ll hear when I’m talking about it, it’s actually the debates and proceedings and outcome of this First Continental Congress that really helps crystallize matters because, as we’ll see, it really is 1774, 1775 where you begin to have people who kind of identify themselves as Loyalists. And partly because, as you’ll see, even in the First Continental Congress itself there actually were a range of opinions. Not everybody in the Congress agreed on the level of what needed to be done. So it’s not as though in 1774 you had a blob of Patriot and then a blob of Loyalist. You had a spectrum of opinions throughout society.

Radical Voices in the First Continental Congress: The Grand Council and the Suffolk Resolves

First Continental congress coat of arms / Architect of the Capitol

So let’s look first at the First Continental Congress in a little bit more detail here. It wasn’t only composed of radicals though, as I’ll discuss in a moment, just the simple fact that this Congress was called was a pretty bold action. But even so, there was a range of opinions represented in the Congress. So there were some more radical types present — so you did have people like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry there, and already these people are radical in their thoughts, they’re already pondering the possibility of war — you’ll hear from Patrick Henry in a moment — but there were also moderates there who were more in favor of reconciliation or reform and who hoped that the meeting of the Congress would maybe show Parliament that the colonies were united and determined, and that maybe the simple fact that it met would inspire Parliament to modify some of its policies. And as we’ll see, it ends up being that those who were more radical in their leanings ultimately have a slight majority in this Continental Congress and so in the end they actually win the day, but it isn’t obvious that that’s going to be the case at the outset.

Now the delegates to this Congress met in Philadelphia in the beginning of September in 1774. There were 55 men present and, as I mentioned before, most of them had some kind of experience with politics in their individual colonies. Now if you do think about the fact that this Congress existed, just calling it into existence was something of a radical act, because if you think about it, this is a colonial congress, a self-appointed congress that granted itself power of some kind over all of the colonies and even, as we’re about to see, passed something that was in the equivalent of legislation that applied to all of the colonies. So in a sense that’s a pretty radical gesture.

And I found actually a satire written in 1774 that does a good job I think of showing how the Congress did seem radical to some and how to some it did not represent happy, good things that were about to happen but actually represented something frightening and out of control. And it’s — Actually, it’s a broadside, so it was a single sheet, and this is a satire so it was meant to be making fun of people who were just elected to the Continental Congress. This is actually from New York and it came out just after New York had decided who was going to go to the Continental Congress from New York. So these are people who were just making fun of the whole idea of having a Continental Congress. So it’s a broadside and it’s made to look like a very formal series of resolutions, and actually it’s titled “A Meeting of the True Sons of Liberty,” and I — after class I’ll post a link to it. It’s actually, as is everything these days, digitized so that you can actually see what it looks like.

So the broadside — series of resolutions, it reads: “Number one. Resolved, That in this general Time of resolving, we have as good a right to resolve as the most resolute.” Okay. [laughter] This is not a serious series of resolutions. “Number two. Resolved: That we have the whole Sense of the City, County, Province, and all the Colonies, concentrated in our own Persons.” Again something that’s not thrilling the people writing these resolutions. Number three. “Resolved: That these Resolves, and any we may afterward see [fit] to promulgate, shall be approved by all sensible and good Men in our Parent Country; and that [they shall] even make that ungracious Varlet, Lord North, it will make him “shake in his Shoes (when he sees them) and [split] his Breeches.” Okay. The eternal joke of people splitting their pants. That dates back to 1774 and practically earlier. I would assume it goes earlier than that, the eternal joke. So Lord North will shake in his shoes; it will make him split his breeches. Resolve number four:

“That any Act or [Acts] of Parliament which prevent the Colonies from triumphing over the Liberties, sporting with the [goods] or at Will claiming the Properties of the [British] Ministry, is a cruel Oppression in which all the Colonies [are] intimately concerned. Resolved . . . .That the Non-Payment of Debts contracted with [England] is the only Way to save the Credit of those who have [got] no Money to pay their Debts with.”

Okay. So that’s attacking the logic of people who don’t want to pay taxes. Well, they just don’t have money and they don’t feel like paying. Resolved: “That the best Way of approving our Loyalty, is to spit in the. . . King’s face; as the means of opening his Eyes.” Okay, and then, lastly:

Resolved: “That every Man, Woman or Child, who doth not agree with our Sentiments, whether he, she or they understand them or not, is an Enemy to his Country, wheresoever he was born. . . ,whatever he may think of it; and that he ought at least to be tarred and feathered, if not hanged, drawn and quartered; all Statutes, Laws and Ordinances whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Portrait of Patrick Henry by George Bagby Matthews, 1891 / Library of Congress

So that satire clearly throws within it a slew of accusations against this pending Continental Congress. You can see that it’s being accused of being arbitrary, of promoting lawlessness, of having a lack of tolerance for anybody who feels any differently; that it’s being accused of displaying a lack of respect or gratitude towards the mother country, maybe even vindictiveness; and — as it was clear in that first, “We resolve to be resolving in this time of resolving” — they’re also accusing it of having a stupid amount of self-importance, right? Continental Congress, harrumph. Sure. Go have your little Continental Congress. So any of the reasons would have been part of the reasoning why someone might have felt that this Continental Congress was not only not a good idea but potentially a dangerous idea.

So for one reason or another, people clearly found the calling of the Continental Congress somewhat remarkable. So the Congress’ first meeting was on September 5, and one of the first things that they had to debate, logically enough, is how the Congress is going to vote on issues. Should voting be based on the population of each colony, which obviously gives bigger colonies an advantage, or should each colony have one vote? The eternal question. Obviously, this is going to come back and hit us with a vengeance at the Constitutional Convention.

Now this whole debate — voting on voting — tried the patience of Patrick Henry. Okay. Patrick Henry, obviously one of the more radical members of this First Continental Congress, really impatient at the idea that they’re dilly-dallying about voting and how to calculate population of different colonies. So this is what Henry said in a burst of frustration. “Government is dissolved . . . We are in a state of nature, Sir . . . . The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian but an American.”

Clearly, he has a real talent for the bold statement, the memorable bold statement — I am not a Virginian but an American — kind of not as famous as the liberty or death thing but still clearly really bold, also clearly referring to the logic, John Locke, social contract. Just by saying that we’re in a state of nature, Henry is basically saying that the social contract between the colonies and the Crown has been broken. Clearly, he’s one of the more radical members of Congress, so everybody wouldn’t hear what he said and stand up and applaud and line up. ‘Yes, we’re in a state of nature. Go.’ He’s an extreme, but in fact you can see throughout the Continental Congress tension between a real spectrum of opinions. There were militant members really promoting resistance, even already kind of thinking maybe war is on the horizon, and then there were more moderate members promoting reconciliation or maybe reform of some kind.

And you can see the push of the more militant members and the sort of debate between the different kinds of opinions almost immediately within the first few weeks of meeting, with the arrival of what came to be called the Suffolk Resolves — Suffolk, Massachusetts. And again — obviously Suffolk, Massachusetts — not surprisingly, these what you will see as being very bold resolutions originate in Massachusetts. But they were not introduced by Massachusetts delegates. This is something John Adams does later too. Because Massachusetts is such a radical colony people — delegates from Massachusetts know that they had better not be the ones to promote anything that sounds radical because everybody will immediately dismiss it. So in this case the Massachusetts delegates know if they come forward and say, ‘We brought these resolves; we want you to consider them,’ people would probably assume that they were too extreme, but if they appear to come from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, well, then that becomes something that people will be more open to considering.

So this set of resolves was sent to the Congress supposedly from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which is I guess Boston’s county, and they became known as the Suffolk Resolves, so here is a list of some of the things that these declared. Okay. Number one: They declared the Intolerable Acts or the Coercive Acts — however you want to refer to them — as being unconstitutional and not to be obeyed. Number two: They said that Massachusetts — which you remember that their government had been dissolved, things had been changed because of everything that had been going on in Boston — Massachusetts should create a new assembly for itself to collect all colonial taxes and withhold them from the Crown until the Massachusetts government had been restored to its constitutional foundation. Number three: The resolves advised people to arm themselves and form their own militia in preparation for resisting the possibility of British attack. Number four: They proposed that the jailing of any patriot leader gave people the right to jail British officials. And then finally, they recommended stringent economic sanctions against Britain.

Sketch of Joseph Galloway by Thomas Emmet, 1885 / New York Public Library

Okay. Clearly, those are really radical resolutions on a bunch of levels. Now they were proposed; they were read; they were presented. Some in the Continental Congress applauded them but they were not initially acted on for obvious reasons, because they made a lot of delegates extremely nervous. As delegate Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania said, the Suffolk Resolves, quote, “contained a complete declaration of war against Great Britain.” Okay. They seemed pretty extreme. Galloway was typical of many who felt that just failing to recognize Parliament’s right to regulate trade didn’t accomplish anything, and as a matter of fact he wasn’t even sure that that was right in theory.

So Galloway at this moment came up with his own suggestion about the best course of action. And although in comparison with the really radical Suffolk Resolves his suggestions are going to sound conservative, he actually are promoting ideas that in and of themselves, as you’ll hear, are radical. So basically Galloway tries to come up with a way to change the basis of the relationship between the American colonies and the mother country. And so he suggests a new plan of union that he thinks are going to — it’s going to settle the whole matter. So Galloway’s plan of union suggested forming a separate American legislature. He called it, I think, the Grand Council, and it would be elected by colonial assemblies. And individual colonies would continue to govern their own internal affairs and the Grand Council would regulate commercial, civil and criminal matters that affected the colonies generally as a whole.

Now according to Galloway’s plan, this Grand Council could veto parliamentary legislation — clearly that’s a pretty bold gesture — but still it would be inferior to Parliament, which could still initiate legislation relevant to the colonies. In essence the Grand Council would be kind of an inferior branch of the British Parliament. And the great principle behind Galloway’s plan was, quote, “that no law should bind America without her consent.” So that’s really what he’s trying to do here is devise a way for the colonists to consent to what’s being passed in Parliament.

Now interestingly, the vote over Galloway’s plan of union was close but it was ultimately defeated, and I suppose looking back in the long view of time it probably wasn’t likely that the British government would have approved of the creation of a kind of second colonial parliament. And, as we’ll see, that’s unlikely particularly when you look later at how Parliament responded to these continental congresses, and in a sense you could say the Continental Congress was a sort of temporary version of a Grand Council. So the fact that Parliament wasn’t too keen on that would suggest they wouldn’t be very excited about a little baby colonial parliament — branch of Parliament being established.

Even so, Galloway later declared that his plan lost due to what he called the violent party, and he felt the violent party was in control of the Continental Congress, and in a sense he was right because the more radical members did have a very slight majority. And the defeat of Galloway’s plan actually ended up mobilizing these more radical members because it suggested that the moderates didn’t have the power to accomplish their goals.

So with this new burst of confidence in their strength, with the defeat of Galloway’s plan, these radicals proposed and passed the Suffolk Resolves on October 8, 1774. So they actually passed them. To many in Congress, this seemed like an incredibly bold act of unity among the colonies, and even though the individual resolves were radical, to many what they noticed most of all was that it appeared to be an act of unity. In a sense it was responding to Massachusetts and to Massachusetts’ plight with an action that would affect all of the colonies. As John Adams put it, “This day convinced me that America will support . . . Massachusetts or perish with her,” so he took it like many others as a really interesting sign of colonial unity.

Deliberations over Declaration and Resolves, and the Impact of the Continental Association

The Suffolk Resolves House, 1370 Canton Avenue, Milton MA / Photo by James L. Woodward, Wikimedia Commons

Now of course not everybody had such a thrilled reaction to the Suffolk Resolves. One completely baffled Loyalist observer said that he could only explain the acceptance of the Suffolk Resolves by assuming that the delegates, quote, “came into this vote immediately after drinking thirty-two bumpers of [the best] Madeira.” Okay. They just must have been drunk. There is no other explanation. This makes no sense. The eternal explanation for all of history: I guess they must have been drunk or crazy. Okay. So clearly, a sure sign here that the colonies are not just going to be backing down.

Six days later on October 14, Congress approved the Declaration and Resolves — and they had agonized over that for a month so they didn’t just pass it; they actually had been pondering it all along. And the Declaration and Resolves actually represented one of the goals of this Continental Congress — to write a clear statement of colonial rights. However, this was not as easy as it might sound because America was pretty much following an uncharted path. Never before in Western history had colonies dared to rebel against the mother country in quite this way, so now they had to somehow put on paper a way to justify it. Why were they doing this and as important — actually in a sense maybe more important — could all of the colonies agree on the specifics of colonial rights? Could they actually even sit down and make a statement that everybody agreed on?

And the difficulties that the delegates had in writing this draft really demonstrates once again how really difficult it was to define the precise terms of the colonies’ problem with the mother country, the precise terms for the proper relationship between the colonies and the mother country. Even when they sat down to do it — ‘Okay. Here we are, the committee in the First Continental Congress, and we’re going to form the Declaration and Resolves and write down the reasons for our actions.’ Even with such deliberate desire on their part, it was difficult for them to commit this to writing. It was difficult for them to find the right words and to agree.

And the Declaration and Resolves was drafted by a committee. John Adams was on the committee — which is good because then he gets to tell us afterwards about the creation of the Declaration and Resolves because he always likes to explain his role in every important moment of the American Revolution. So he was there.

And the committee ended up basically stating in their draft that the Declaration and Resolves were going to be based on three things. Their explanation for what was going on in the colonies was going to be based on three things: Number one, the laws of nature; number two, the principles of the English constitution; and number three, the charters of the colonies. So all of those things, the laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, the charters of the colonies, all of those things were cited as justification for what was going on, but in a sense the real basis of what was coming out here in the Declaration and Resolves — and so in a sense what they were really most grounded on — was going to be their sense of rights as English subjects, the power of Parliament. It was really going to be their understanding of the English constitution.

And you can hear how important this particular fact was to them just in looking at the list of colonial rights that they included in this declaration as being violated. So they listed that the right of assembly was being violated, the right of petition, the right to be tried by a jury of their peers, the right to be free of a standing army, the right to choose their own assemblies. All of these things are really basic English constitutional rights that these colonists are starting they feel they’ve been violated.

As John Adams later explained, the biggest challenge in drafting the declaration was in describing what he called, quote, “the authority of Parliament.” What he said was the authority of Parliament was “indeed the essence of the whole controversy; some were for a flat denial of all authority; others for denying the power of taxation only; some for denying internal, but admitting external, taxation.” So even within this little committee — there’s only a few people on the committee — even there, there are all these opinions on exactly what’s supposed to be happening in the relationship with the mother country. And as Adams puts it, “After a multitude of motions had been made, discussed, negatived, it seemed as if we should never agree upon anything.” So they just can’t state what their resolves are. However, ultimately they managed to do it. John Adams did a lot towards contributing one particular article in this document that said Parliament could not tax them, but the colonies would “cheerfully” submit to bona fide regulation of external commerce.

Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull, 1792 / White House Blue Room

So we have two things. Right. We have the Suffolk Resolves. We have the Declaration and Resolves. The Continental Congress also drafted a petition to the King and it was a restrained — it was a respectful petition basically trying to inform the King of the evil plot hatching in Parliament to rob the colonies of their rights. The petition warned the King that there were, quote, “designing and dangerous men” in Parliament, and that they were trying to intervene between the King and his faithful subjects. Now clearly you can hear at this point, the focus here is on Parliament. By petitioning the King, this Congress is suggesting that the King is really still a figure who can be reasoned with, that the King is someone who they’re appealing to in person to help with the problem with Parliament.

Okay. Suffolk Resolves, Declaration and Resolves, petition to the King. The final thing that the Congress did was agree on a way to secure the repeal of all offensive parliamentary legislation. And they decided to do this in the way that they had always protested British attacks on their rights — surprise, surprise — non-importation. Right? They think that always works, non-importation; we’re going back to non-importation. But this time they decided to really form a network of local non-importation committees and towns throughout the colonies to actually enforce non-importation. They called their plan the Continental Association, so clearly this is more ambitious at least in what they’re suggesting it is, in their desire for what they want it to be. And as it happened before, they included in their plan localized Committees of Inspection that would watch to see who’s violating the boycott, who’s drinking tea, who’s buying luxuries.

Now, the creation of the Continental Association didn’t just encourage non-importation. It actually had a number of other impacts on the colonies as a whole and on sort of what’s developing in the colonies. First, by creating the Continental Association and ensuring that it was going to have a really widespread, localized influence, the Continental Congress essentially created a localized government structure that down the road would be vital in organizing the war effort and maintaining order throughout the war. So they’re creating kind of a network — just by declaring that this exists — that goes throughout the colonies. Second, in the process of doing that the Association brought literally thousands of people into the war effort as committee members. Third, although the Continental Congress was an unofficial congress that didn’t have any real authority, by creating the Continental Association it basically passed a piece of legislation that applied throughout the colonies. Committees of Inspection considered themselves the enforcement agencies of the Continental Congress, not enforcement agencies of their local colonial legislature, and in some colonies committees actually created — I’m sorry — communities actually created Committees of Inspection on their own, without even waiting for their own colonial legislature to ask them, or even for it to meet. They just knew that this was happening and communities in and of themselves created their own Committees of Inspection. And then fourth, over time as the colonies moved into war and as colonial governments really began to falter and run into complications — as the crisis really magnified — these Committees of Inspection were able to step into the void and assert some kind of centralized organized — hopefully — authority.

Okay. So the Continental Association went into effect and this time, more than any of the previous attempts at non-importation, people really are beginning to realize that there’s a crisis at hand, so more people complied with non-importation now than ever before. And at times before it had been successful, but now we actually reach a new high of people complying with this. And just one example of this: In 1774, New York imported roughly 437,000 pounds sterling worth of British goods. Okay, 437 [correction: 437,000] pounds sterling. One year later, 1775, in New York this number had dropped to roughly 1,000 pounds sterling. Okay. That’s huge. Right? That’s real compliance with non-importation.

And the Congress’ final act was to agree to meet the following spring in May of 1775 if their grievances had not been addressed by that time. So basically they conclude by saying, ‘Okay. We’re going to now give Britain time to hear what we’ve said — the several months it’s going to take it to get across the ocean to England. They can respond and take several months to communicate back with us and we’ll see what happens, and if we haven’t been addressed we will have another continental congress in May of 1775.’

Taking Sides: The King’s Friends, or the Loyalists

Now as you can imagine, the adjournment of the First Continental Congress left relations between the colonies and the mother country in kind of a precarious state. The Congress and its activities also made it increasingly obvious that there were two sides forming on the question of the proper workings of the imperial system and how best to respond to the ongoing problem. Now all along, there had been people who had more sympathy towards the Crown than others, people like Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson — he is now Governor — or like the people throughout the colonies who accepted the position of stamp distributor, for example.

By late 1774 and 1775, as people really began to take sides and warfare began to seem at least possible to some people, the people who were sympathetic to the British administration began to face some difficult choices. Known at this point as the King’s Friends or the Friends of Government, they began to find it more and more difficult if not impossible to remain neutral. Thousands of people were becoming involved in the war effort. Troops, which of course in Boston they called, quote, “military executioners” — They had a real flair for propaganda in Boston. Troops, whether you called them military executioners or not, were being sent to America in increasing numbers. So people were beginning to take sides, and those who felt loyal to the British government had to decide on a course of action, because to not declare your loyalty to the protesting colonists was often as good as declaring your enmity to them.

Many Loyalists would soon declare with some justification that by forcing people to sign oaths — like, they were loyal to the Patriot cause, by inspecting people’s purchases to see if they were complying with non-importation — that the Continental Association was supposedly fighting for American liberty by curbing individual liberties. As one Loyalist wrote, the only liberty that the Patriots wanted was the liberty, quote, “of knocking out any Man’s Brains that dares presume to speak his Mind freely upon the present Contest.” Okay. These are people who are beginning to feel irked that there seems to be a majority building in some way, certainly a loud group of people expressing anger and resentment and resistance, and if you don’t agree, people are beginning to feel somewhat threatened.

Now traditionally these Loyalists have often been depicted as timid or conservative men who maybe were too afraid to side with the rebels, maybe were afraid to fight the system, or were afraid of losing their wealth or status, but obviously the truth is more complex than that. Choosing to remain loyal to the Crown in the midst of a building resistant movement was not an easy choice. And ultimately it really required in some cases some degree of bravery, because it really did put your livelihood, your property, and even sometimes your physical safety at risk because it potentially forced you to put yourself on the opposing side from your friends, sometimes even your family.

Actually, a good number of years ago, I had someone write a senior essay with me and he found a diary from roughly this period of a person whose family — he was from New England and I don’t remember where he was from — his family divided over what to do. And half of the family felt like they wanted to remain loyal to the Crown and half didn’t, and the diary is really fascinating. It just shows this person trying to figure out what to do and no matter what he does, actually, members of his family are going to cut him off. And it really — It was a good senior essay if I do say so myself — but it also was really a fascinating diary because it just really showed one family being just torn apart by increasingly passionate political ideas but equally important by just having to take a stand in a community that’s swaying one way or another.

And you can see what I’m talking about. Actually, it’s another diary and this one I have a quote from as opposed to the random senior essay I’m remembering from years past. There’s a diary of a fellow named Samuel Curwen. He did not describe himself as a Loyalist. He described himself as a, quote, “moderate man” — and I’m going to come back to that too, that Loyalist and moderate are not always the same thing — but he described himself as a moderate man and he said that until 1775 he lived in Massachusetts. Obviously, by 1775 it would be difficult to be a moderate man, and in 1775 after Lexington and Concord, Curwen became actually fearful for his life in that radical colony.

Portrait of Dr. Benjamin Rush by Charles William Peale, 1818 / Library of Congress

So as he put it, “I left my late peaceful home (in my sixtieth year),” so he’s been living there for 60 years “in search of personal security, and those rights which by the laws of God, I ought to have enjoyed undisturbed there.” So he’s a moderate and he feels actually threatened in Massachusetts and he decides he needs to move, so he heads to Philadelphia hoping, as he put it, “to find an asylum amongst Quakers and Dutchmen.” So he’s actually seeking out a population of people who maybe aren’t going to be as radical as the people he’s coming from. And he says in his diary that when he arrived in Philadelphia a friend came to meet his boat at the dock and this friend’s opening remark — so the first thing that the friend said to him — was, “We will protect you, though you’re a Tory,” and this guy said, it “embarrassed me not a little.” Okay. So he basically feels like — and he says this at one point — he feels like he has the mark of Cain. No matter where he goes people are sort of like: ‘oh, you’re a Tory, are you? Well, we’ll protect you because we like you.’

And he said he found it very difficult to find a place to stay, to find a boarding house in Philadelphia, because people just refused to take him in. As he put it, “so many refused as made it fearful whether, like Cain, I had not a discouraging mark upon me, or a strong feature of Toryism” — like somehow people are looking at me and saying I look like a Tory? Like, how was it that they weren’t giving me any place to stay? So that’s one person’s diary, but again it shows you how this person felt threatened and then this person, even having moved to feel safer, ends up in Philadelphia and still feels as though he’s certainly outside of the majority and not having an easy time of it even among his friends. So clearly choosing to remain loyal to the Crown, or even like Curwen just choosing to be moderate in your principles, could be a really difficult choice with some pretty serious consequences.

Now — there were many reasons why one might choose to remain loyal to the Crown or to be moderate. And in a way just sort of using the term “Loyalist” and throwing it around doesn’t do the complexity of this justice, because there were any number of reasons why you might not want to go along with colonial resistance. Some people maybe were really aggressively loyal to the Crown. Maybe that was where their actions were coming from. Maybe some people just were not excited about the idea of independence and war, and maybe that would have been their breaking point. Some, like the Quakers, may have been just trying to remain neutral or pacifist, which, as you’ve just heard, could be a difficult thing to do. And some, probably like this Curwen, might have just wanted to be aloof from the whole matter and — again — did not find that very easy to do.

After the war, Dr. Benjamin Rush — who, as you’ll hear in this little quote, was obviously supportive of colonial resistance — explained that to him there had been four different kinds of Torys during the Revolution. Okay. This is Rush’s category of Tories. Quote: “There were. . . Furious Tories who had recourse to violence and even to arms. . . .” There were “Writing and talking Tories” — which I always think: as opposed to the illiterate mute Tories? [laughter] And obviously he’s saying, the ones who were really loud, okay, but still. So there are furious Tories, writing and talking Tories, “Silent but busy Tories” who are “disseminating Tory pamphlets and newspapers and. . . circulating intelligence,” and then number four: “Peaceable and conscientious Tories who patiently submitted to the measures of the governing powers, and who showed nearly equal kindness to the distress of both parties during the war.”

This is Rush’s way of looking at things, and clearly that’s his own little eccentric point of view, but let’s talk for a minute here about what we’re talking about in the way of numbers, as far as how many Loyalists are there, what are we talking about roughly percentage-wise. Historians estimate that roughly fifteen to twenty percent of white males were Loyalist by the war’s end, and in this sense, when I’m using the word “Loyalist” here, I’m actually meaning people who did something overt to support the Crown during the Revolution, like signing addresses, bearing arms against the continental troops, doing business with the British army, seeking military protection from the British army or going into exile. So just people who were doing those activities: fifteen to twenty percent of white males.

When you add to that percentage those who just wanted to avoid involving themselves in the struggle you end up with roughly half of the white male colonists not falling into the category of “Patriot” or, if you use a term that the Loyalists would have used, “rebel.” So all in all, only about half of the white male population actively supported colonial resistance, and at different times of the war, depending on the immediate circumstances, obviously people changed their views.

Loyalist Demographics

Obituary of Patrick Carr, the fifth and final victim of the Boston Massacre, published in “The Boston Gazette, and Country Journal” on 19 March 1770, with an engraving of his coffin by Paul Revere. / Library of Congress

Now there were any number of reasons to stay loyal to the Crown.

Wealth and poverty, high status and low, every kind of ethnicity could be found on both sides of the crisis, and from colony to colony different kinds of people chose different sides depending on regional circumstances. So for example: In New York a lot of the landed gentry tended to be Loyalist. In Virginia, the landed gentry tended to not be Loyalist. In Massachusetts, small farmers tended to be Patriots. In New York and North Carolina the — or at least the up-country of North Carolina — small farmers did not necessarily tend to be Patriots. So it obviously varied region by region, depending on local circumstances.

In general terms — In very general terms, you could say that Loyalism was stronger in the middle states than in New England and stronger in the lower South than in the upper South, and very strong particularly in New York, which the British ended up holding throughout most of the war, and weakest in Massachusetts, Virginia and Connecticut. Connecticut stood up. But there’s a reason for that because those are among the oldest colonies with a very long tradition of self-government, aggressive self-government.

Scholars who have studied Loyalists have noted that there seemed to be several types of people who ended up being more likely to become Loyalists. One likely Loyalist — and this won’t be surprising — would have been people who were connected with the British government by some kind of an official appointment, or were related to somebody who had an official royal appointment. For these people remaining loyal was not necessarily due to self-interested reasons, although certainly self-interest could have played a part, but as important loyal officeholders or people related to them had closer contact with the British government than most others, and thus they were better able to see the logic of politics in England, so they had more reason to be skeptical of claims about a conspiracy afoot in England to destroy colonial rights.

For example, Thomas Hutchison up in Massachusetts was honestly baffled by the accusation that there was a plot against colonial liberties and that somehow he was part of it. He knew that he personally wasn’t conspiring against the colonies, so he wasn’t quite sure what people were talking about, and because of that he had good reason to doubt the enterprise of what was going on. So that’s one potential Loyalist.

A second kind of person who tended to become a Loyalist was — again logically enough — people who were in a religious or cultural minority, and who thus already felt a little defensive and not necessarily trusting in the whim of the majority — or the whim of the angry, resistant majority. And I’m going to go into this in more detail in a future lecture, but for logical reasons a good many African-American slaves ended up becoming Loyalists for good reason having to do with the chance of earning their freedom. So that’s a second kind.

A third kind of Loyalist consisted of people who lived out in the hinterlands in the backcountry away from the eastern seaboard. And this is for a couple of reasons, but one of the main ones is, if you think about it the main vehicle or one of the main vehicles for radical ideas would have been newspapers. And newspapers largely circulated in large port cities. And I’ve quoted already a number of times from the Boston Gazette, which would have been hard to get out in the hinterland somewhere. Tories called the Boston Gazette — That’s where Samuel Adams wrote a lot of his things — Tories called the Boston Gazette the “Weekly Dung Barge.” I think everybody just wins here in the propaganda game. It’s equally impressive on all sides in the propaganda game.

People out in the frontier in Virginia or the Carolinas who didn’t have a lot of access to newspapers might have been harder to convince of a great plot against their liberties. As one historian wrote, “Not having been exposed to the ‘disease,’ how could they catch it?” None of these people had a particular reason to be swept up in the resistance movement, and they had reasons to resist it.

By 1774, all of these people — royal officeholders, cultural or religious minorities, people living out on the frontier — were conscious minorities, people who felt either weak or threatened, particularly considering raging events in cities along the seaboard. So in a way, you could say that many Loyalists were simply more afraid of the rebelling colonies than they were of the Crown. Almost all of them had interests that they felt needed protection from a raging American majority.

Now these Loyalists did not necessarily have vast ideological differences from people who came to be known as the American Patriots, but they might have, and in fact some Loyalists actually believed precisely what the rebels believed in reverse. So in the same way that the colonists thought there was this plot forming in Parliament to curb colonial liberties, some Loyalists saw a plot forming among radical colonists who were falsely claiming to represent the people. Right? That makes perfect sense. Many of these Loyalists did not part with the colonial majority until well into the imperial crisis, and for many, as we’ll see, it’s not until independence becomes probable, and when real, actual separation from the mother country is at hand, that they felt compelled to declare their loyalty to the Crown and actually break away.

This was actually part of the agony of the Revolution, the fact that many people just weren’t sure of what they should do. They weren’t sure how they felt about the crisis. They weren’t sure what side to take. They weren’t sure that they wanted to take a side. They weren’t sure what would happen if they did. And on all sides people still cared about the colonies. They just had different visions about the right course of action — and people had to just make these sorts of decisions about their loyalties on an individual level, and obviously there were many different levels of loyalty to the British government.


In a sense, it’s really easy to analyze and pass judgment on the decision to become a Loyalist, but I think it’s just as easy to analyze and pass judgment on the decision to resist the Crown. I think one way or another, people were evaluating what was happening. People were thinking about what they thought the proper course of action should be and then making individual choices for any number of reasons, some of them ideological, some of them personal, having to do with your family, having to do with your livelihood, having to do with your safety and security.

So one way or another, making this decision was kind of an extreme act. And the period that we’re now at in this course — 1774, 1775 — is precisely when those sorts of decisions have to be made.