Guest Post: The Problem of Loyalism before the American Revolution

Today’s guest poster is Christopher Minty, a PhD candidate at the University of Stirling. His dissertation focuses on Loyalists in New York. 

Patriots and Loyalists

Over the past four years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a group of colonists who would go on to become Loyalists in the American Revolution. My dissertation examines 9,341 future Loyalists during the imperial crisis, 1763–1775, in New York and, essentially, tries to follow their collective paths to either voluntarily signing their name to a declaration, petition and/or subscription list affirming their continued allegiance to the prevailing political order or taking the oath of allegiance.

This public act is what I have referred to as “active Loyalism.” Of course, there were colonists who were “passive Loyalists” who did not make either of these statements, but to identify and account for their attitudes is beyond the purview of my current project.[1] By taking the start of the American Revolution as my endpoint, I then work my way from 1763 to 1775 to look for any patterns or explanations that may explain why these people all signed their names to a document supporting the continuation of British rule.

As I continued to gather source materials relating to these individuals, I then found out if they participated in the opposition movement(s) of the 1760s and early 1770s. Did they participate in the infamous Stamp Act riots of November 1765 where the temporary governor, Cadwallader Colden, was twice burned in effigy and had his carriage burnt to the ground? Were they Sons of Liberty? Did they advocate non-importation and promote its continuation following the partial repeal of the Townshend duties in 1770? By doing this, I found numerous instances when future Loyalists were prominent advocates of opposition to Parliament.

Joseph Allicocke, for instance, was an Irish wine-merchant who became a Loyalist in the American Revolution, but from 1765–1766 he was regularly referred to as “General Allicocke” because he was a prominent member of the Sons of Liberty. Indeed, in mid-November 1765 he wrote to his fellow Liberty Boy, John Lamb, criticizing the behavior of their equivalents in Philadelphia and remarked that he would muster Liberty Boys in New York “with a noble Possy of Jersey Folks” and “Eastern Lads” to relight their “Patriotic Fire.” Allicocke’s command over the Liberty Boys at this stage was so strong that he proudly declared they would quickly “swarm like the Industrious Bees, to assist with Heart and Hand to scourge the base Enemies of our Country and our greatest Darling LIBERTY whensoever or whereforever may happen.”[2]

Under ten years later, Allicocke would be forced to flee New York for attempting to supply British troops with provisions before they reinforced Boston. In addition, in 1783, upon his decision to become one of the Loyalist Diaspora, a French privateer commandeered his ship and he lost nearly everything he owned. What is more, in his compensation claim submitted to the British government, he received numerous statements from New Yorkers affirming his devout allegiance to Parliament and George III. Indeed, one statement from William Smith, Jr., a prominent lawyer in New York who criticized Allicocke in his diary, wrote that he had “never heard his moral Character ill spoken of,” despite knowing him over twenty years.[3]

Allicocke’s experiences during the imperial crisis were not unique. Men such as Frederick Rhinelander, Charles Nicoll, and Evert Bancker, Jr. would all go on to become Loyalists despite having participated in the opposition movement. Bancker, for instance, authored a short account-book in which he inscribed “Cash Account since the 11th June 1776 at the time the Enemy [i.e., the British] was Expected at New York.” Over the coming months and years, after the British entered New York, Bancker would sign every Loyalist declaration he could, take the oath of allegiance on two separate occasions, and claim that he was “uniformly Loyal early in the contest, and . . . took a decidid [sic] part in favour of the Crown”.[4] Other future Loyalists such as William Bayard, Abraham De La Noy, and Amos Underhill would also oppose the repeal of New York’s non-importation agreement in July 1770, arguing that because a duty on tea remained, it should remain in operation. These individuals, moreover, represent a fraction of New Yorkers who had acted against Parliamentary measures but would go on to become Loyalists.

Although some have noticed resistance by future Loyalists during the imperial crisis, few have offered more than a short footnote. Instead, scholarship has tended to focus upon prominent future Patriots—Philip Schuyler, Alexander McDougall, John Lamb, Isaac Sears—and how they influenced or controlled political activism during the imperial crisis. By doing this, it ignores the foot-soldiers of the imperial crisis and implicitly imposes a Whig interpretation of history that conflates resistance with revolution. But this is not the only outcome.

By using colonists political activism during the imperial crisis as the starting point of a journey to Patriotism, Loyalism appears as if it was somehow predetermined.[5] Admittedly, some have documented the participation of future Loyalists in acts of resistance, but none have gone into any degree of depth to account for that participation.[6]

Although my work seeks to improve this perception, I am continually reminded how issues of teleology and anachronism remain a problem. Over the course of my PhD, I have lost count of the number of e-mails and questions I have received looking for a Loyalist interpretation of X, Y, and Z, either for publications or for teaching purposes. Yes, some colonists who became Loyalists would offer a distinct interpretation; yet, if we are to move our historiographical focus away from prominent cases and focus on the vast majority—the people “out of doors”—we need to move beyond the notion that Loyalists, as a group, experienced the crisis differently. It then becomes crucial to remember that prior to 1775 there was no such thing as a “Loyalist,” and a colonist only became a “Loyalist” if he or she engaged in a voluntary act to demonstrate it, such as signing a “declaration of dependence” at a local tavern in November 1776.[7]

I am extremely interested in the thoughts of The Junto readers on Loyalists both prior to and during the American Revolution. Do you share my concerns regarding anachronism and teleology? If so, how do you think we can move beyond it? If not, why not? What of those Loyalists who chose to stay in their local communities after the Revolution? Of course, they were no longer “Loyalists,” but did that mean (or require) that they had somehow emancipated themselves from their former position?


[1] For instance, see “First Declaration of Dependence,” Y1776, New-York Historical Society; “Second Declaration of Dependence,” Y1776, New-York Historical Society; New-York Gazette: and, the Weekly Mercury, 17 April 1775; Oaths of Allegiance tendered in New York, 28 March 1777, CO 5/1108, ff. 71–101, The National Archives, Kew. Other sources are readily available and references are available on request.

[2] Joseph Allicocke to John Lamb, 21 November 1765, John Lamb papers, 1762–1779, New-York Historical Society.

[3] For Allicocke’s claim, see AO 12/24, ff. 355–360; AO 13/63, ff. 50–109, 411, The National Archives, Kew.

[4]“Oaths of Allegiance Tendered by Col. William Axtell in Brooklin [sic],” October 1776, Sir Henry Clinton papers, Vol. 274, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan; “An Alphabetical List…,” CO 5/1108, ff. 71–101, Bancker at f. 73, The National Archives, Kew. He is listed as a merchant; “Cash Account since the 11th June 1776 at the time the Enemy was Expected at New York,” Bancker papers, New-York Historical Society; “Petition by Evert Bancker[, Jr.] to the British Commission on Claims of Loyalists,” Bancker family papers, Box 2, New York Public Library.

[5] I am aware that some people—Rev. Dr. Myles Cooper, Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury, Jr., and Cadwallader Colden, for instance—were always against the opposition movement and did experience the imperial crisis differently. My work focuses on “ordinary” Loyalists, or the people “out of doors,” and attempts to interpret community behavior and activism on the most local level.

[6] For instance, Pauline Maier and Joseph Tiedemann both documented Allicocke’s political activism, but focused more on those who would become Patriots. See Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973); Joseph S. Tiedemann, Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763–1776 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).

[7] “Declaration of Dependence,” Y1776, New-York Historical Society.

11 comments on “Guest Post: The Problem of Loyalism before the American Revolution

  1. I think one way to approach this is to draw a distinction between big-L and little-l loyalism. “Loyalism” is a political ideology that makes best sense in an oppositional, pick-a-side context, while “loyalism” is more like the default position of most of the empire most of the time prior to 1775. It can contain within it all kinds of expressions of dissent, as your (very interesting sounding) work shows. Calling someone a Loyalist in 1765 is certainly anachronistic, even if we know they were to become one. However, calling them, and most everyone in the colonies at that time, “loyalists” is not. I would guess that the majority of those who went on to become big-P Patriots would also claim they were loyal to the crown during that period.

    • I think if we’re going to really parse the terms, “loyalist” doesn’t make much sense even in 1765 and is equally anachronistic as using “Loyalist,” at least in the way we are defining the terms. There was a great complexity in the modes and depth of loyalty between the colonists and the crown and the colonists and Parliament, which were not always the same. I would ask: Do we even need the term “loyalist?” Contemporary characterizations of “Whig” and “Tory” had multiple layers of meaning, including those derived from their historical contexts. They were also highly contingent. During the imperial crisis, “Tory” often referred to someone who sided with the crown or Parliament in a specific instance or on a specific issue, not as some ultimate declaration of unshakeable loyalty. Perhaps we over-complicate the problem by de-complicating loyal colonists, i.e., when we use “Loyalism” (and “Loyalist”), it implies some form of ideological foundation but colonists’ motivations for supporting either the rebels or Britain were incredibly varied.

      Decades ago, William Benton tried to address the problem Christopher is talking about by characterizing Loyalists who had originally resisted British imperial reform as “Whig-Loyalists.” In some ways, the “problem” of resistance by eventual Loyalists buttresses McConville’s interpretation because they were willing to resist Parliament in the 1760s but unwilling to break from the King in 1775-6. So it would seem the argument there is that their connection to Britain was more to the King than Parliament, but that ignores the fact that there were imperial economic considerations especially on the part of New York City merchants, particularly those engaged in transatlantic trade. Similarly, “passive Loyalists” could easily include people who were more ideologically inclined to resistance arguments but who simply did not think the rebels stood any chance of winning. My point is that even as we try to narrow and specialize the terminology or even redefine the taxonomy of imperial and revolutionary politics, there is an almost infinite regress of ever more complicating questions. One inventive way to get around that is to deal with individuals, as the author does.

      • Thanks for the reply, Alexandra, and thank you for following up, Michael.

        I agree with Michael that by using the term “loyalist” for pre-1775/6 colonists is anachronistic, that is, it infers that there was an opposing group or groups. I think it is safe to say that most, although maybe not all, colonists were advocates of Parliamentary rule and, as we know, it took a series of events, individuals, and ideas to make them think otherwise. Even then, there were Patriots who were extremely reluctant to make the final push towards independence. (John Dickinson, John Jay and James Duane spring to mind here.) I think this indicates just how contentious and radical a step declaring independence really was, especially given the fact that men such as Dickinson, Jay and Duane were not overly enthused at the prospect of that final separation. To move beyond anachronism and teleology, I think we need to really focus on the parameters of allegiance and how it was positively and negatively influenced by a whole range of factors, whether it be over coffee the local coffeehouse, exchanging gossip at a store, drinking countless quarts of ale at the tavern, or on private reflection.

        Benton’s study, in my opinion, was a noble attempt at explaining the complexities of allegiance, but given that he focused on more prominent, elite members of society, it does little to account for the vast majority. Admittedly, to examine the ‘people of doors’ and interpret where their allegiances lay, and how or when it changed over time and place, would not be an easy talk. Yet, given the right methodological approach and source base, I think it could be done through a series of case studies, either on individual colonies or even on a county or township basis.

        If studies like this could be done, I actually think it would demonstrate that the terms “Loyalist” and “Patriot” are so misleading that they could in fact be irrelevant.

        • Christopher wrote: “If studies like this could be done, I actually think it would demonstrate that the terms “Loyalist” and “Patriot” are so misleading that they could in fact be irrelevant.”

          That was exactly the point I (quite inelegantly) made. I think if you buy into the emotional bond with Britain (or just the crown) interpretation even a little bit, it’s hard to imagine any kind of ideological argument holding down to the micro-level. And if it won’t work on a micro-level, it would (or should) take some real theoretical/methodological sophistry to get it to hold on a macro-level. We’re talking about individuals making personal decisions in the most uncertain time of their lives each with their own variable interests and concerns.

          In terms of being able to speak beyond the individual level, one thing that I wonder is to what degree was peer pressure a major factor. That is, were people more likely to choose the side that the majority of their neighbors were choosing? I’d suspect that there were counties that almost wholly supported either side. In that case, you would have fodder for county-level case studies.

  2. Kacy Tillman says:

    I’m really interested in this topic, though I wrote about female loyalists of the American Revolution, so a bit after the time you’re studying. Still, the idea of what makes a Loyalist (bit or little “L”) is something that needs to be discussed. I tried my hand at it for Common-Place this summer — http://www.common-place.org/vol-13/no-04/tillman/

  3. willmonk says:

    Today’s author, Christopher Minty, has a nice blog piece on the David Library of the American Revolution Facebook page this morning, and Kacy Tillman’s piece above mentions Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, who is subject to a great biography by the late Anne Ousterhout that is worth finding. I have argued with people at Wikipedia over using the word “patriot,” to no avail. It would be terrific if there were a more precise and impartial term for patriots/rebels and Tories/Loyalists.

  4. J. L. Bell says:

    I usually avoid the terms “Loyalist” and “Patriot” until I’m writing about late 1774 or later, when the political dividing lines were really firming up and becoming militarized. Before then I can use “Whig” for the folks resisting new rules from the royal government, but I don’t have a one-word term for their opponents. I’ve found only one full-throated champion of royal authority whom I’m ready to call a Tory (Rev. Henry Caner). So I usually write something like “friend of the royal government.” That requires more typing, but I haven’t stooped to using an acronym yet!

    • I agree, though I am not as reticent to use the term “Tory” in the 1760s and early 1770s. Colonists’ use of the word was not to denote a political ideology or political party but was used in a more circumscribed manner, i.e., anyone who supported the Crown or Parliament’s position on any given issue. Their use of it doesn’t seem to have been to denote “champion[s] of royal authority” so much as supporters of a piece of Parliamentary legislation or of an action or position of the King. At least, this is how it seems to me.

      Their use of the term “Whig” is similar. In the colonies, a “Whig” is someone who opposed the authority of the crown (when being used in a manner interpreted as absolute). A “Tory” was one who supported the Crown. These terms are not being used according to their 18th-century meanings/connotations in Britain but their 17th-century meanings. A British Whig in the 18th-century was quite far from opposing the authority of the crown, after all.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’m not surprised that “Tory” frequently “was used in a more circumscribed manner,” but the argument that “colonists’ use of the word was not to denote a political ideology or political party” left me somewhat disconcerted. Food for thought.

    I support the “peer pressure” suggestion for “loyalist” communities. “Micro-level” discussions on protests, books, pamphlets, and newspapers (such as the adoration of Anglican institutions and competing Anglo-Saxon histories) merged with wartime exigencies to produce “patriot” and “loyalist” perspectives, often presented as logical conclusions to prewar rationale. I suppose that point was made—and criticized—nearly half a century ago, but worth repeating. Conversely, draconian measures drafted by town councils and county coalitions in state legislatures imagined such communities before policing them.

  6. […] Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Houghton Library at Harvard University. This is his second guest post for The […]

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