Jerry Bannister, Liam Riordan, eds. The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. xxi + 318 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4426-4208-9; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4426-1109-2.
Reviewed by Stephanie Seal (University of Southern Mississippi)
Published on H-War (February, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In the Defense of Tories: Loyalism in the British Atlantic World
In the past, many studies of the American Revolution have largely ignored the true historical significance of America’s loyalists. However, over the last decade the growing number of studies about loyalism in the Revolutionary Atlantic world has revealed the importance of loyalists and royalism to a clear understanding of the era. In The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era, editors Jerry Bannister and Liam Riordan explore how loyalism became an influential movement in the British Empire, arguing that it fundamentally shaped the British Atlantic and that the true consequences of colonization and the American Revolution cannot be fully understood without first understanding loyalism in the Atlantic world. The included essays, which were first presented at the “Loyalism and the Revolutionary Atlantic World” conference at the University of Maine in 2009, highlight loyalism’s scope and purpose within the historiography of the Revolutionary Era. The chapters offer diverse perspectives on the importance of loyalism, revolving around four main themes: aboriginal friendship and loyalist identity formation; loyalist print culture and literature; slavery and loyalist migration; and sectarian memory and loyalist politics. The Loyal Atlantic not only describes what loyalism is and how it functioned, but the collection illuminates how it grew and developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These essays ably describe how loyalism influenced Britain’s imperial power and governance in the Atlantic world.
One of the greatest contributions of The Loyal Atlantic is Bannister and Riordan’s creation of a unique definition of loyalism. Instead of branding all Tories who spoke out against American Whigs as loyalists, Bannister and Riordan look beyond the scope of politics and contend that loyalty to the monarch was more than just an idea, it was distinguished by an act. In fact, the loyalists who lived in America, the Caribbean, Ireland, Britain, and Canada became “loyalists” only after actively or tactically supporting the Crown. For example, the Tories who moved to Nova Scotia at the beginning of the Revolutionary War became much more ardent in their support of Great Britain when privateers attacked their coasts. Riordan and Bannister contend that it was those active loyalists who kept the colony British. The editors also draw into question Paul H. Smith’s widely cited statistic on loyalists in the American colonies. Smith argues that 20 percent of all white Americans during the Revolutionary Era were Tories by identifying loyalists in the British army and using family members as a multiplier. However, Riordan and Bannister explain that this common statistic severely undercounts the loyalist population during the Revolution. They argue that loyalists were far more numerous and that their presence was crucial to the expansion of the British world. Bannister and Riordan fault most historians of the Revolution of unthinkingly accepting national frameworks and unfairly labeling loyalists as “traitors” to the United States or “embarrassing outcasts” by the British (p. 6). Instead, the editors (and the collection’s authors) argue that loyalists played important political, cultural, and social roles throughout the empire.
In the first section of The Loyal Atlantic, contributors Keith Mason and John G. Reid examine the frameworks of British imperialism during the Revolutionary era. Mason’s chapter, “The American Loyalist Problem of Identity in the Revolutionary Atlantic World,” examines the loyalist struggle in the postwar era regarding issues of identity. With Americans creating a new national identity and the British reevaluating their own identity after losing the Revolutionary War, loyalists--as a major player in the conflict--struggled greatly to place themselves within the British Atlantic community. Mason’s work adds to the previous scholarship of Dror Wahrman, who examined the ways British subjects and Americans citizens defined themselves nationalistically during and after the war. Mason complicates that view by adding the role of loyalism to both identities, arguing that the presence of loyalists helped define the American Revolution as a civil war, since loyalists played an integral role in the communities that were devastated by the war. John G. Reid’s “Imperial-Aboriginal Friendship in Eighteenth-Century Mi’kma’ki/Wulstukwik” explores how loyalists and Celtic migrants played a vital role in continuing aboriginal-imperial friendships in North America. Reid also contends that historians’ attempts to define loyalism as allegiance to the Crown underestimate the power Tories held in negotiating relationships between the Crown and its aboriginal representatives. The relationship forged by loyalists and aboriginal groups allowed the British Empire to grow across the globe throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.
The second section of The Loyal Atlantic addresses the importance of print culture to the loyalist political realm. Philip Gould’s “Loyalists Respond to Common Sense: The Politics of Authorship in Revolutionary America” examines how loyalists living in the thirteen colonies combated Thomas Paine’s famous work through their own published responses. Gould sees this as the ideal case study to highlight the importance of loyalist print culture during the Revolution. Gwendolyn Davies provides an interesting juxtaposition to Gould’s assessment of loyalist print culture by examining the press in post-Revolutionary War New Brunswick. She contends that the loyalist writers of the postwar era created a distinctive sense of cultural identity in New Brunswick that lasted for generations.
Section 3 of the volume examines the importance of loyalists in the post-Revolutionary British Caribbean. Jennifer K. Snyder’s chapter, “Repercussions: Loyalist Slaves in St. Augustine and Beyond,” discusses how white loyalists and runaway slaves from the southern United States were forced to negotiate their newly entwined lives under duress. Once white and black loyalists fled the overwhelming violence in the wartime South, the delineation between freedom and enslavement was complicated, specifically in St. Augustine. Carole Watterson Troxler’s “Uses of the Bahamas by Southern Loyalist Exiles” examines how the loyalists of New York and the southern colonies who relocated to the Bahamas after the war rebuilt their lives on the island both economically and culturally. Troxler also describes how a loyalist-altered plantation culture and dependence on trade dominated Bahamian society after the arrival of loyalists.
In the final section of the book, Allison O’Mahen Malcom and Allan Blackstock examine the themes of loyalism, religion, and politics at the conclusion of the American Revolution. Malcom’s “Loyal Orangemen and Republican Nativists” argues that religion played a critical role in defining loyalist culture in Upper Canada after the Revolutionary War and well into the nineteenth century. She contends that ultra-Protestantism, complete devotion to the British monarchy, anti-Americanism, and conservatism blended to create the model for loyal Canadian identity, an ideology she defines as “Orangeism.” This combination created a political order of Orangemen, who used their mutual devotion to the crown and Protestantism to build a “free society” away from a medieval religion and American patriotism. Blackstock’s “Papineau-O’Connell Instruments: Irish Loyalism and the Transnational Dimensions of the 1837 Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada” examines the lives of French Canadians and Irish Catholics in Canada after the Revolution. Like Malcom, Blackstock traces these groups from the post-Revolution era through the nineteenth century. He argues that while the loyalist press in Ulster and Connacht was facilitated by Orangeism and westward emigration, its editorial manipulation of the 1837 revolts was conditioned by Irish circumstances. The author also describes how information in the press spread from the New World to the Old World and ultimately how Catholic and Protestant rhetoric spawned rebellions throughout Canada during the War of 1812.
The four themes of The Loyal Atlantic not only add to the historiography of loyalism, the Revolution, and the Atlantic world, but offer new approaches to studying the loyalist exiles of the American Revolution and how their post-Revolution lives affected the British Empire. In his afterward, eminent loyalist historian Robert Calhoon admonishes Neo-Whig historians of the American Revolution, such as the late Edmund Morgan, Jack Greene, and Bernard Bailyn, for failing to recognize the crucial role of loyalists during the Revolution and for not investigating the lives of loyalists during and after the war. Calhoon contends that his own work, as well as the work of Leslie Upton, Carol Berkin, Mary Beth Norton, Ann Zimmer, Janice Potter, William Pencak, and the authors of this collection, have managed to break into the common narrative of the American Revolution created by Neo-Whig scholars and highlight the indispensable role loyalists played in the conflict.
While The Loyal Atlantic introduces seven important new voices about loyalism to the historiography, the book also reveals a problem within the spectrum of loyalist studies. The relative newness of the modern field of loyalist studies currently defies organization into easy categories. Every chapter in The Loyal Atlantic details the importance of loyalists to the Revolution, the British Empire, and the larger Atlantic world. However, at times the editors appear to overreach to combine chapters into thematic sections, a problem which can also be found in another important collection on the topic, The Other Loyalists, edited by Eugene Fingerhut and Joseph Tiedemann (2005).This organizational predicament is by no means the fault of the editors; it lies within the historiography. Without a larger, unifying work on loyalists in North America, the myriad studies of loyalism have become scattered and fragmented (except the studies of loyalism in New York). Therefore, categorizing and organizing the historiography on loyalism can be difficult. Some progress has been made recently in Ruma Chopra’s 2013 Choosing Sides: Loyalists in Revolutionary America, which features loyalist documents from all over British North America and across the spectrums of race, politics, and gender. While Choosing Sides is an edited document collection, its organization gives hope for an eventual grand synthesis of the secondary works on loyalism. Despite the problems with organization in the loyalist historiography, Bannister and Riordan have done a commendable job and edited a vital collection for historians of loyalism and anyone interested in the Revolutionary Atlantic world.
The essays in The Loyal Atlantic not only expand the historiography of loyalism, but they introduce a new perspective on how Tories changed the Revolution, the early republic, and the Atlantic world. These essays show that loyalists were not simply “traitors” labeled as such by American Whigs, but complex individuals with diverse political, religious, and cultural motivations. Loyalists were not passive historical actors, but active in the press, in imperial communication, and in creating their own communities. They not only changed the way Americans viewed themselves, but also created a new sense of “Britishness” in the Atlantic world. The Loyal Atlantic successfully illustrates that loyalists were not just an “other” in the Atlantic world, but instead were a major force in the American Revolution and in the postwar era.
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Stephanie Seal. Review of Bannister, Jerry; Riordan, Liam, eds., The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era.
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