When war broke out in the American colonies between British forces and colonial patriots, many loyalists joined the British military as militiamen, spies and saboteurs. While they didn't always agree with all aspects of British colonial policy, they believed revolution was unnecessarily risky. Also called "Tories" after the political party that opposed the Whigs in British politics, those who favored maintaining ties with Great Britain constituted as much as one-third of the colonial population.
A Nation Divided
It's often said history is written by the victors, and for this reason most accounts of Tories come from colonial patriots who paint them as cowardly, antidemocratic collaborators. However, many loyalists were relatively well-off businessmen or politicians, and risked losing substantial wealth and privilege if they backed a revolution that failed. These colonists were proud of being Britons and valued their historic, cultural and economic ties to Great Britain. For Tories, relationships with their families and communities superseded abstract political theories and arguments. For other reasons, a significant number of blacks and Native Americans living in the Colonies also sided with the British. The large proportion of the colonial population identifying as loyalists led writer James Fenimore Cooper to argue the bulk of the war was Americans fighting other Americans rather than a foreign power.
Life, Liberty and Property
As the war progressed, revolutionary colonists lashed out against loyalists, who they saw as traitors in their midst. The patriots were supported by rebel colonial governments that passed laws prohibiting Tories from practicing their trades, voting, holding political office, or owning property. Anglican churches also were prohibited from holding services. In many colonies such as North Carolina, residents were made to sign pledges of loyalty to American independence and serve in revolutionary militias. Those who didn't were ostracized from society and frequently confined to their homes. In March 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution affirming patriots could disarm loyalists and use their weapons for the revolution.
Colonial governments did little to curb mob violence against loyalists who refused to sign oaths of allegiance to the patriot cause. Loyalists were publicly dunked in lakes, hung from poles, or tarred and feathered by angry mobs. The expression "lynching" got its name from Colonel Charles Lynch, a patriot from Virginia, who made a habit of hanging any loyalists he captured. Given the threat of intimidation and violence from passionate patriot crowds, many loyalists simply signed the oath rather than endure public humiliation, torture or death.
Restoration of Rights
About three months after the practice had been officially sanctioned, the Continental Congress passed another resolution forbidding patriots from damaging or confiscating peoples' property simply because they were loyalist. Tories were to be tried by jury. Many loyalists had already fled the Colonies, with as many as 80,000 crossing the border into Canada. As the war drew to a close, the colonial delegates who negotiated the Treaty of Paris pledged to restore any property that had been taken from Tories and prevent their further persecution in the new independent republic. The British government itself paid more than $50 million to compensate for losses loyalists suffered during the war.
- Common-Place: What is a Loyalist?
- A Patriot's History of the United States: The "Barbarism of the Times"
- North Carolina Digital History: Which Side to Take -- Revolutionary or Loyalist?
- Library of Congress Teacher Resources: Continental Congress Resolutions Concerning Loyalists, 1776
- History.com: Treaty of Paris (1783)
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