I need to share something I’ve learned in my research about the American Revolution that absolutely has me stunned. Because my story focuses on the British occupation of New York, I’ve had to delve deep into the Loyalist position.
Now understand this…I have always seen myself as a patriot. I’ve visited Boston and walked the Freedom Trail, I’ve gone to Philadelphia and put my hand in the crack of the Liberty Bell. I’ve watched 1776 more times than I can count and I’ve gone to Valley Forge, Monticello and Mount Vernon…some of them more than once. I like Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson, would probably fight with John Adams and be a little bit shy of George Washington. If you asked me the woman from history I’d most like to meet? Hands down, no contest…Abigail Adams. I have so many questions I’d love to ask her!
Because I so closely identify with the side of the rebellion here, I have never really understood the Tory side. Those who called themselves “Loyalists” always seemed blind to me. How could they want to remain with the oppressor unless they were 1) evil or 2) stupid?
Well, of course, they weren’t the first. With the exception of a few who advocated for what today we call a “scorched earth” policy (New York’s own Governor Tryon among the worst of that lot!), most of the British officers felt they were in the right to punish malcontents who disrupted the peace. And make no mistake…the rebels had their share of nasty characters. Tarring and feathering is painful – and often deadly.
And my research is showing me the Loyalists weren’t stupid, either. Most shared the rebel’s opinions concerning the wrongness of the taxes, the abandonment of civil rule for martial law, and the quartering of British soldiers in their homes. That is what has stunned me. Loyalists felt the same way as the patriots did.
So why didn’t they join the rebellion? That had me stumped for quite a while, but I get it now. The key lies in the phrase “Unnatural rebellion.” There’s a book by that title that provides a wonderful, balanced presentation of opinions by Ruma Chopra and I highly recommend it. She’s not the only one to explain it, but she’s the one who helped me understand it the most.
To the patriots, separation from the Mother Country was the only logical step left for them. They’d tried all the legal means and Parliament and the King refused to acknowledge the depth of their grievances. The men of the Second Continental Congress understood and were grateful for all the help England had given the colonies over the years, but the reality was, we needed to grow and they didn’t understand that. Separation was the only alternative.
But to the Loyalists, separation was anathema. It wasn’t legal. It could never be right. Yes, Parliament didn’t understand the needs of the colonies, but they only needed the right words, the right speaker and they would understand. The British military forces were the greatest in the world—why would one not want to be a part of that? Oaths of loyalty had been taken to King and Country – those were not to be broken.
So even though New York was under martial law starting the day after the Howe brothers sailed into the harbor, Loyalists flocked to the city from all over the colonies not because they felt the British were in the right, but because they felt the Patriots were in the wrong.
It’s really an Erasmus/Martin Luther situation. Those two were great friends, both of whom chafed under what they saw as corruption and wrongdoing in the church they served as priests just a century and a half before the Revolution. Erasmus counseled for change within the system. Martin Luther felt a more radical approach was needed, finally listing the ninety-five things that needed addressing and going very public with them.
We know the upshot of that little list. Because Martin Luther wouldn’t back down, despite his friend’s pleas to stay with in the church and work with the other priests, he was tossed out and his followers started a new church.
Of course, this led to others taking that step as well and the single church now became many. Those who stayed the course needed a name for their religion to distinguish it from all the others and chose the word “catholic” – a word that means “universal.” Those who left were “protest-ants” because they were protesting the wrongs within the church. Hence, they became the “Protestants.”*
I’m sure there are many more examples throughout history, but the point is, I’m getting it now. When people are stomped on and their rights taken away, when they are not paid a living wage and are starving and hungry, some will go outside the law and rebel and others will work within the law to change the situation.
I just realized something else. Tomorrow Americans head to the polls to vote for Governors and state representatives. Some of us also have law proposals on the ballot that we need to make decisions about. It is our chance to work within the law to make changes we feel strongly about.
Am I still a patriot? Yes. Breaking with the rulers who didn’t understand was the right thing to do then. Am I a rebel today? Less so. I feel my vote counts and am willing to stay within the system to make a change. Does that make me a Loyalist? I’m beginning to wonder…
Play safe, VOTE, and thanks for listening :)
*A simplistic telling of events, but you get my point. I hope.