Chaim M. Rosenberg. The Loyalist Conscience: Principled Opposition to the American Revolution. Jefferson: McFarland, 2018. 232 pp. $49.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-3248-3.
Reviewed by Roxy Wylie (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Published on H-Nationalism (March, 2020)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
In his book The Loyalist Conscience: Principled Opposition to the American Revolution, Chaim Rosenberg explores the suppression of free speech and loss of property during the American Revolution. Proposing that Tories were just as American as their Patriot counterparts, Rosenberg researches private correspondence and diary entries, ranging from those in exile to Loyalists quietly riding out the storm. Their accounts vividly portray the loss, loneliness, and fear of retribution experienced during the turbulence of war. As a psychologist, Rosenberg believes that Loyalists who stayed behind and those who lived in exile suffered from depression and PTSD directly related to the constant turmoil they experienced. Their stories lead Rosenberg to conclude “that loyalists, with some notable exceptions, were not enemies of the American people. Indeed, they were as devoted to America as the patriots, but held the differing opinion that Great Britain did not seek to enslave its American colonies but sought to protect and nurture them” (p. 3).
Britain’s views on the colonies were not as clear. Though Rosenberg may disagree, there is room for doubt on whether the Crown shared Loyalist sentiments. English sentiment appears more pragmatic than nurturing as evidenced in Lord Hillsborough’s memo to King George III. As secretary of state for the colonies he wrote, “‘The great object of colonizing upon the continent of North America has been to improve and extend the commerce, navigation and manufactures of this kingdom’” (p. 5). Hillsborough’s memo suggests England considered the relationship as an extractive contract with the colonies for the benefit of empire rather than nurture of citizens—in modern vernacular,mercantilism.
Differences in thought between Patriots and Loyalists developed after the Seven Years’ War with the passing of the Stamp Act of 1765, which “placed a tax on legal documents, newspapers, magazines and many other types of papers used in the colonies” (p. 72). Rosenberg considers this act as the beginning of ill will towards Loyalists and Britain. However, this act was clearly not the first incendiary action from the British and would not be the last. Though the Stamp Act deepened the rift between Parliament and colonies, many people worked for peace. One advocate of reconciliation, Thomas Jefferson, proclaimed in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, “‘It is neither our wish nor our interest’ to separate from Great Britain” (p. 45). However, the Battles of Lexington and Concord sharpened divisions and left little room for neutrality in the fight for independence. People who maintained their loyalty to the Crown often had property confiscated and freedom of speech suppressed.
Revolutions and uprisings have long interested scholars. The American War for Independence is no exception. Contemporary historians on both sides of the Revolution wrote about their experiences and the causes of the uprising. Patriot physician, Princeton graduate, and prisoner of war Dr. David Ramsay argued that the cause of the war was Britain’s iron-handed trade restrictions on its colonies in order to “‘crush their native talents and keep them in a constant state of inferiority’” (p. 10). Massachusetts chief justice Peter Oliver, “insulted and hung in effigy” for his Loyalist sentiments and objections to salary garnishments, claimed Patriots believed “‘they did God good service in persecuting and destroying all those who dared to be of a different opinion from them’” (p. 9). Rosenberg contributes to the study of the Revolutionary War by exploring the complexities of freedom of speech in wartime and the tactics used to target people who remained loyal to the Crown. These tactics included, among other things, being forbidden to pray for the king from the pulpit and being forced to swear allegiance to the rebel cause or risk loss of property. Rosenberg boldly claims, “the American Loyalists were the victims of the Revolution, made scapegoats for the excesses of the British government” (p. 201). It is an exaggeration to call Loyalists scapegoats. It is common for sympathizers to be treated as enemies during times of war. In actuality, the real victims of the war were those who remained neutral on religious grounds, such as the Quakers. These dissenters often shared the Loyalist fate despite being peace-loving neighbors.
Rosenberg agrees with the argument that the War for Independence was a civil war. He believes it is similar to the US Civil War in that both conflicts “shaped the history of the nation, pitting brother against brother and turning friends and neighbors into enemies” (p. 200). To strengthen this argument, Rosenberg digs deep into family genealogies to show how leading families shared common roots dating back to the Mayflower. While Patriots foresaw slavery under British rule, Loyalist colonists believed Britain had only their best interest at heart. Rosenberg includes many painful accounts of families and friendships destroyed due to irreconcilable political divisions. These divisions affected all walks of life. For example, Reverend Jonathan Boucher, tutor to George Washington’s stepson, believed “that kings had the divine right to govern and that people were not born equal” (p. 31). Boucher severed connections with Washington and became an exile due to his outspoken support and prayers for the king. Several Adams cousins lost property and went into exile and John Adams lamented how the conflict “‘seduced from my bosom, three of the most intimate friends I ever had in my life, Jonathan Sewall, Samuel Quincy and Daniel Leonard’” (p. 37). The most prominent division occurred between Benjamin Franklin and his son William Franklin. Despite holding opposing views, they remained affectionate during the conflict until William, the Loyalist governor of New Jersey, was arrested and imprisoned for three years. During his incarceration, Benjamin did not visit his son or allow his grandson to visit. While in exile, William wrote to his father hoping for a renewal of relationship while justifying his loyalism stating, “‘I have uniformly acted from a strong sense of what I conceived my duty to my king and regard for my country required’”(p. 60).
The above examples, a sample of the numerous accounts included in this volume, attest to Rosenberg’s attention to detail. He does an excellent job allowing the voices of the Loyalist population to be heard. However, eliminating some of the many examples would have made the book less fragmented and more cohesive. Furthermore, the personal accounts and letters of Loyalists could have been compared with rebel accounts of loss and hardship. Both Patriots and Loyalists had much at stake during the Revolution. Both lost lives, properties, and fortunes. Both received brutal treatment at the hands of their enemies. Rosenberg’s research illuminates the reality of life for a minority during the conflict, a side rarely heard. He extends his discussion of suppression of speech into other conflicts in US history. Fear often became the main culprit for violating rights and many people seek to balance fear and action. This is a valid point because free speech can easily be portrayed as sedition if not popular with the majority.
To the disappointment of the British, most Loyalists neither fought nor aided the British in the conflict. Rosenberg attributes the lack of support and militia—only fifty militia bands were Loyalist in total—to the ousting and exile of leading pamphleteers in the years prior to the conflict. However, this is a weak conclusion. Both sides had strong pamphleteers before Loyalist leaders were hounded into exile. Heavily influenced by John Locke and the rights of the individual, as opposed to divine right of kings, Patriots were prepared to die for their freedom. Most Loyalists, on the other hand, chose to remain as neutral as possible, riding out the storm as best they could. While Rosenberg, and Loyalists themselves, argue they loved America too much to fight against it, others might contend that they did not believe in their cause enough to fight.
Though estimates vary throughout the book, Loyalists were always in the minority. Rosenberg estimates between sixty thousand to eighty thousand fled the country (p. 4). Many died in exile and those who could return had to fight to regain lands seized during the war. While in exile, representatives from all thirteen colonies appealed for charity from fellow exiles and compensation from the English Parliament to help defray the costs of living in exile. Britons did not seem to sympathize with their colonial counterparts and in fact considered them second-class citizens. The king and Parliament were not particularly sympathetic, either. Perhaps this supports Rosenberg’s supposition that Loyalists were more American than British. However, it is also evident that the Crown and the average Briton saw colonists as beneath them and not equals, just as Patriots had claimed from the beginning.
Exiles in Canada faced similar trials having to carving a new life, although they did so in the Canadian wilderness and not on the streets of London. Rosenberg illuminates how Canadian and US history overlap. The diligent, hardworking Edward Winslow Jr. and other Loyalists were “‘determined to build a second America peopled by those ‘firmly attached to the crown and the laws of empire’” (p. 174). New Brunswick and Ontario testify to their efforts. They created what had been proposed in the states: a local representative parliament that could tax and govern its own people under the distant eye of the Crown. While fellow exiles were building lives in England and Canada, those who wished to return to the colonies met varying degrees of hostility depending on which state they entered. Alexander Hamilton, along with other Patriot leaders, helped returning exiles retrieve lands and property, claiming they would stabilize and boost the economy. John Adams, on the other hand, saw returning Tories as a continued threat. Rosenberg ends with the passing of the first and fifth amendments to the Constitution helping guarantee that what had happened to the Tories would not happen again.
The Loyalist Conscience sheds light on the motivations of those who remained faithful to the king during the American War for Independence. Their side of the story is often lost in the retelling, but it is an important part of the history of US independence. Rosenberg brings some balance to our understanding of the struggle for independence and drives home the true cost on both sides for this freedom. He also contributes to the understanding how people define freedom of speech in times of war.
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Roxy Wylie. Review of Rosenberg, Chaim M., The Loyalist Conscience: Principled Opposition to the American Revolution.
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