The Reintegration of South Carolina Loyalists after the Revolutionary War

Rebecca Brannon, From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (University of South Carolina Press, 2016).

51rsxcybgfl-_sx312_bo1204203200_In her award-winning Liberty’s Exiles, Harvard University’s Maya Jasanoff offered a lively account of the Loyalist diaspora, those individuals who left the newly formed United States as a consequence of their Loyalism. In her highly anticipated appendix, Jasanoff stated that over 60,000 Loyalists left in search of a new home—but what of those who stayed? Until recently, the reintegration of some 400,000 Loyalists into American society has been an overlooked topic. As James Madison University’s Rebecca Brannon notes, “Historians of American Loyalism have long favored those who left . . . over those who stayed” (p. 5), and with her well-researched From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists (University of South Carolina Press, 2016), Brannon takes a major step to address this obvious historiographical oversight.

Adjusted from her 2007 University of Michigan dissertation, in five chapters, Brannon further complicates Loyalist studies by arguing that “the majority of South Carolina Loyalists . . . became Loyalists for pragmatic reasons” (p. 1). Ideology, though important, did not define their position. The people Brannon focuses on sided with the Crown “in an effort to maintain their lives, their status, and their fortunes” (p. 1). Their Loyalism was, she continues, “self-interest” (p. 1). These Loyalists’ reintegration, then, was a natural step—the subsequent pragmatic move to ensure their economic, political, and social status was not affected.

Thus Brannon sets out how seventy percent of the 232 men identified in the Confiscation Act of 1782 reintegrated into South Carolinian society. “South Carolinians,” she argues, “offered the most generous reconciliation to Loyalists across the new United States despite suffering the worst extremities of violent civil war” (p. 10). Of particular importance to Brannon’s narrative are the efforts of prominent Patriots Aedanus Burke, John F. Grimke, and Christopher Gadsden, who she quotes in the introduction: “He that forgets and forgives most . . . is the best citizen” (p. 11). Burke, for instance, used his position as a circuit court judge to promote order and justice for Loyalists and, equally important, white citizens through newspapers.

The success of these Patriots, Brannon shows, however, was largely enabled by a supportive government infrastructure and population. Equally important, she discusses the Loyalists’ willingness to apologize as well as their determination to make themselves useful members of the communities in which they lived. To do this, Brannon notes, they developed their existing social networks to reinforce their places within a new, independent South Carolina. As such, two years after Loyalists’ property was confiscated and many were banished from the state, the South Carolina General Assembly readmitted most of the Loyalists—effectively reassimilating them into the fabric of society—without imposing many governmental impositions. With the likes of Burke and Gadsden shaping popular opinion and the legislature moving toward reintegration, most, though not all, South Carolinians accepted that having former Loyalists amongst them was preferable to any attempts at revenge through punishment.

Of course, those South Carolina Loyalists who were reintegrated were happy at the state’s clemency. As Charles Atkins noted, in 1785, former Loyalists were “encouraged by the Humanity of the late Legislature, in restoring to their former happy Condition, several of his Country men in a similar situation with himself” (p. 135).

Brannon also briefly touches on how other states dealt with former Loyalists. She notes, “the majority of Loyalists who stayed and reintegrated themselves across the United States were well accepted” (p. 155), and shows how the Loyalist activities of Philip Barton Key, of Maryland, did not severely affect his life after the Revolutionary War. Key opened a successful law practice and served in the House of Representatives. His nephew, Francis Scott Key, also wrote “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” in 1814, which was later adopted as the United States’ national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The blend of Loyalism and Patriotism within the Key family was no doubt reflected in other families across the United States.

Nowhere is this more evident than in New York City. Indeed, the Livingston family that included noted Patriots Philip, William, and Robert R. Livingston also included Loyalists such as John Livingston. Also in New York, prominent Loyalist Frederick Rhinelander reassimilated into society after the war, despite being identified by George Washington as a potential counterrevolutionary, and later became a New York City socialite. Of particular note, Cadwallader D. Colden, the grandson of New York’s notoriously reviled Cadwallader Colden, became the 54th mayor of New York City. His family Loyalism, it seems, did not hurt his rise in local politics. Loyalism, then, it appears, did not hinder socio-political prosperity after the Revolutionary War. In contrast to those Loyalists who struggled in various places across the British Empire, those who stayed made new lives for themselves.

From Revolution to Reunion is a well-written, lucid book that will stimulate further scholarship on the reintegration of the Loyalists into U.S. society after the Revolutionary War. With several recently completed dissertations on or related to this topic—by Brett Palfreyman, Aaron N. Coleman, and Kimberly M. Nath, to name a few—Brannon has defined the parameters of this aspect of the field of Loyalist studies. I am excited about learning more about the hundreds of thousands of Loyalists who became Americans. Once we learn more about them, as Brannon notes, we may be able to understand “the reality of the American Revolution as a civil war” (p. 169).

3 responses

  1. Argh, this is a classic case of “I wish I’d had this book when I was finishing my own,” because South Carolina loyalists, and Aedanus Burke’s intervention, play quite a big part in Gentlemen Revolutionaries. It’s really interesting that, to judge from your comments Chris, Brannon sees Burke and Gadsden as quite powerful forces in “shaping public opinion” — to me it seems like they were more or less on the losing side, at least in the early years around the Jacksonborough assembly. I’d be fascinated to know if Brannon sees the loyalist integration question as a class issue, and one connected to battles over democracy, as I obviously do. The most important reason that state elites want loyalists reintegrated is (as some say quite openly) their capital and connections are needed to help reboot the economy!

  2. Pingback: Q&A with Rebecca Brannon and Joseph S. Moore, editors of The Consequences of Loyalism « The Junto


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: