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Why People Chose to be Patriots or Loyalists in the Revolutionary War

Updated on April 11, 2015
An artist's depiction of the tarring and feathering of loyalist John Malcom in Boston. (The Granger Collection, NYC)
An artist's depiction of the tarring and feathering of loyalist John Malcom in Boston. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

Williamsburg, VA was started as a farming community called Middle Plantation in the early 1600’s. As early as 1677 the residents had lobbied for the capital to be moved from Jamestown to there as it had become an active, growing community. Jamestown had been burned down by Nathaniel Bacon in 1676 and the residents of Middle Plantation saw the opportunity to petition the governor to make it the new capital of Virginia. After another 20 years of growth Virginia’s General Assembly finally voted in June of 1699 to move the capital to Middle Plantation and renamed it to Williamsburg in honor of the king. (Jones, 1999)

Leading up to and throughout The Revolutionary War, not everyone was a Patriot; there were Loyalists that supported the king and parliament. The Patriots were fighting for freedom from the crown due to many reasons, all mainly based on excessive taxes. The 7 Years’ War (French and Indian War) that Britain fought with France 1756-1763 was very expensive. George Grenville, the chief minister of Britain, proposed new taxes on America asking the colonists to bear the share of running the empire. (Nash, 2008) This period was known as the Great Squeeze, Parliament passed one tax after another including the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townsend Acts, and the Tea Tax, all designed to squeeze as much revenue from the colonists as possible. (Shea, 2009)

It’s quite obvious why the colonists revolted and demanded independence from the King of England.

What isn’t so obvious is why someone would choose to be a Loyalist in the colonies. This is something that is rarely taught and there are relatively few books on the matter when compared to those about the Patriots.

Loyalists were colonists who took the British side during the Revolution. Most Loyalists believed in Parliament's supremacy over the Crown and the colonies alike. Revolutionaries used "the disaffected" to describe not only active opponents (Loyalists) but also people who tried to stay out of the conflict, including religious objectors like Quakers. Estimates of the number of Loyalists have varied. John Adams supposedly said that one-third of colonials favored the Revolution, one-third opposed, and one-third stayed neutral. (Countryman, 2003)

Early in The Revolutionary War, British forces captured New York and never lost it, loyalty to the crown in that area did not diminish very much, I would surmise that this would be due to the fact that it was under British control ensuring safety from the war. In the mid-Atlantic/southern colonies, areas that were settled and developed first, Patriotism was very high but some did choose to remain loyal to Britain.

Emotions in Williamsburg ran high, as it traced its roots back to the first established British colony in North America. Most Loyalists fled the area in 1775 and 1776 due to the confrontational climate in Virginia towards them, most of the Williamsburg loyalists who left reported the verbal and physical abuse they received as a principal reason for their choice. (Kelly, 1996)

Historian Robert Calhoun (1973) found that Loyalists tended to be older, more likely merchants and wealthier, but there were also many Loyalists of humble means. Many active Church of England members became Loyalists. Some recent arrivals from Britain, especially Scots, had a high Loyalist proportion. Loyalists in the South, however, were suppressed by the local Revolutionaries who controlled local and state government. Many people — such as some of the ex-Regulators in North Carolina — refused to join the Revolutionaries as they had earlier protested against corruption by the local authorities who later became Revolutionary leaders. Such pre-Revolutionary War oppression by the local Whigs contributed to the reason that much of backcountry North Carolina tended to be loyalist. (Calhoun, 2008)

In Patriot controlled areas Loyalists were subject to confiscation of property. Outspoken supporters of the king were also threatened with public humiliation (such as tarring and feathering) or physical attack.(Middlekauff, 2005)

The first wave of Williamsburg loyalists were mostly either merchants, professionals, officials of the College of William and Mary, or part of the ruling class like Governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore. Other defining characteristics of these early Loyalists were that most were born in Great Britain, were unmarried, and had lived in Virginia less than ten years. Most migrated to the colony hoping to establish themselves in the New World. But the troubles of 1775 and 1776 occurred before they could develop the ties that would make Virginia their “home.”

The social profile of the second wave of Williamsburg loyalists was similar in some ways to that of the 1775-1776 loyalists. The majority of both groups were born in Great Britain and, like the earlier Loyalists; the later ones had lived in Virginia only a short time (seven years on average) before openly declaring their loyalty. The Virginia-born loyalists of the second wave were a little younger on average than their 1775-1776 colleagues. More of the later loyalists were or had been married (40 percent versus 20 percent.) But the biggest difference between the two groups can be seen in their occupations. The occupations for far more of the second group cannot be determined; they left too few clues in the surviving records. For those whose occupations are known, those who became or were suspected of being Loyalists were artisans, unlike the group that were Loyalists in 1775 and 1776. Whereas the commercial and professional ranks dominated in 1775 and 1776, few of their kind can be found among the later Loyalists. (Kelly, The White Loyalists of Williamsburg, 1996)

Two other groups that had a large number of Loyalists were the black slaves and Native Americans. James Somersett, a slave taken to England by his master Charles Steuart, had run away. Recaptured and in chains in the hull of a ship bound for Jamaica, he sued for his freedom. In June 1772, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King's Bench, held that slavery "is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law." As "the law of England" neither "allowed" nor "approved" of slavery, Mansfield ruled that "the black must be discharged." Mansfield's decision outlawed slavery only in England; it did not apply to British colonies. (Selig, 1997)

By 1775, the House of Burgesses was totally committed to retaining slavery as a fundamental part of Virginia society. By the time of the American Revolution, Virginia politicians had been crafting slave codes for a century. They created new law governing slavery, based in part on practices on Caribbean islands - because slavery was not part of the common law in England. (Selby, 1988)

Lord Dunmore recognized that the slaves would be willing to support the British forces in hopes of gaining freedom. He issued a proclamation on November 7, 1775 saying in part:

“And I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be, foe the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Dignity”. (Marshall G. L., 1998)

With this proclamation, Lord Dunmore promised freedom to any slave that joined in the fight against the Patriots. Slaves became Loyalists not out of loyalty to Britain but by the hopes of freedom promised to them by fighting on the side of Britain.

British Loyalists were also joined by numerous Indian tribes, more especially the Iroquois tribes who occupied the lands from upstate New York, south to northern Pennsylvania with scatterings further south and north and extending west to the Great Lakes. Mohawk Chief William Brant feared that the Indians would lose their lands if the colonists achieved independence. In August, 1775, the Six Nations staged a big council fire near Albany, New York. After much debate, they decided that such a war was a private affair between the British and the colonists, and that they should stay out of it. Brant used all of his influence to engage the Indians to fight for the British cause, and ultimately succeeded in bringing four of these tribes, the Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas into an alliance with England. (Marshall G. L., Chief Joseph Brant: Mohawk, Loyalist, and Freemason, 1998)

Many Native Americans seemed to have had grown resentful of the colonist’s encroachment and the perceived theft of their land plus the harsh treatment that the Native Americans had received through clashes with colonists starting from Capt. James Smith to Bacon’s Rebellion. The general attitude was to fight against the colonists even though some did decide to fight on the side of the Patriots.

The Patriots fought for the relief from the burden of the heavy weight of excessive taxes, perceived lack of representation, and restrictions on freedom of speech and press through the Townsend Acts.

Loyalists were comprised of a few people from many classes. The wealthy were concerned with personal loss, most of those with power feared losing their power. The artisans that maintained British loyalty did so because they still considered themselves British due to that they had not been in the colonies long enough to establish any kind of home. They all were either Loyalists for fear of loss of personal gain or still having the instinct of loyalty to the king.

It is easy to see why many slaves and Native Americans would support the Loyalists. They may have had some disappointment had the British won. It does not appear that the recruitment of these two groups was out of concern for their well being, just as a way to get more troops. At the end of the war, the British treatment of both groups was bad if not atrocious.

Many thousands of runaway slaves who aided the British lost their freedom anyway. Many of them ended up in slavery in the Caribbean. Others, when they attempted to leave with the British, in places like Charleston and Savannah, were prevented. And there are incredible letters written by southerners of Africans after the siege of Charleston, swimming out to boats, and the British hacking away at their arms with cutlasses to keep them from following them. Of the many thousands of slaves who left the plantations, not many of them actually received their freedom. (Washington, 1998)

The Native Americans that fought for the British received no compensation from the king either. In the Preliminary Articles of Peace of 1782, no mention was made of the Indians. Despite their important role and visible presence, they had receded into the shadows of European diplomacy. Recognition of their existence and status was easier to ignore or deny in Europe than in America. Brant, the Mohawk Chief, was outraged that the King seemed to be selling out the Indians to the American Congress. Daniel Claus, the British agent for the Six Nations in Canada, was astounded that the English negotiator in Paris, Richard Oswald, had ignored, or been ignorant of, the boundaries of the Indian country established by the Fort Stanwix treaty line of 1768. "It might have been easily reserved and inserted that those lands the Crown relinquished to all the Indian Nations as their Right and property were out of its power to treat for, which would have saved the Honor of Government with respect to that Treaty," he wrote. Other Englishmen were outraged. "Our treaties with them were solemn," Lord Walsingham noted, "and ought to have been binding on our honour." (Graymont, 1975)

While history is filled with wrongs committed against people and will continue to be filled with wrongs, we cannot ignore the rights of freedom of speech that were won during this war. While many groups still struggle to get full use of these rights, The United States of America is the best hope for these rights to be expressed. Aside from the hopes of slaves and Native Americans, most other Loyalists were only loyal due to possible loss of personal gain without concerns for society as a whole. The fates of slaves and Native Americans, while tragic, would still have seen similar results under British rule.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Calhoun, R. M. (2008, May 19). Loyalists. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from New World Encyclopedia:

Countryman, E. (2003). Loyalists. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Dictionary of American History:

Graymont, B. (1975). The Iroquois in the American Revolution. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Jones, J. (1999). Middle Plantation. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from Colonial Williamsburg:

Kelly, K. P. (1996). The White Loyalists of Williamsburg. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Colonial Williamsburg:

Kelly, K. P. (1996). The White Loyalists of Williamsburg. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Colonial Williamsburg:

Kelly, K. P. (1996). The White Loyalists of Williamsburg. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Colonial Williamsburg:

Marshall, G. L. (1998). Chief Joseph Brant: Mohawk, Loyalist, and Freemason. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Archiving Early America:

Marshall, G. L. (1998). Chief Joseph Brant: Mohawk, Loyalist, and Freemason. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Archiving Early America:

Marshall, G. L. (1998). Chief Joseph Brant: Mohawk, Loyalist, and Freemason. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from Archiving Early America:

Middlekauff, R. (2005). The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. Oxford University Press .

Nash, J. H. (2008). Creating A Nation and a Society, Sixth Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.

Selby, J. E. (1988). The Revolution in Virginia 1775-1783. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Selig, R. A. (1997). The Revolution's Black Soldiers. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from AMERICANREVOLUTION.ORG:

Shea, G. S. (2009). Living Democracy, Second Edition. Pearson Education, Inc.

Washington, M. (1998). Africans in America. Retrieved June 26, 2009, from Revolution:

What Would You Have Done??

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