This new book by Maya Jasanoff provides an interesting look at a topic not hitherto covered here at WWTFT. Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World is the result of a prodigious amount of research into not only what became of the British Loyalists, but also the impact of their exodus on the places they emigrated to and on the British Empire in general.
Jasanoff follows the path taken by nine main “characters” and numerous minor ones. The characters are used to demonstrate particular trends and provide examples, through the experiences of different migrations, of the situations in which the displaced Britons found themselves. If the book has a primary theme, it is that the loyalist Americans forced to evacuate their homes and find new places to settle, had a philosophical effect as significant in its way as the Spirit of 1776. Jasanoff returns to the significance of “the Spirit of 1783” again and again throughout the book. The date, is of course, marks the signing of the Treaty ending the war, and the subsequent evacuation of Loyalist citizens from New York.
Jasanoff defines this Spirit of 1783 as having three main facets:
Jasanoff returns to these themes throughout the book and demonstrates them vividly through the biographical details of the people she describes. Her chronicle begins while the war is still raging and she introduces some of her characters in a chapter entitled Civil War. (Today, we think of the American Revolution often as a fait accomplis and think of it as “The American Revolution.” However, had Britain prevailed it would only now be seen as they viewed it then, a civil war.) Most of the characters that Jasanoff focuses on are not people that will be familiar to many Americans. It is the historical connections and relations between these people, and in some cases, with well known American Patriots, that provides one of the interesting aspects of the book. Some in the book aren’t really individuals at all, but whole families. One such family is that of Beverly Robinson’s, a native Virginian who raised a loyal American Regiment. He was the patriarch of the Robinson family, and exemplified the travails and subsequent impact of the displaced loyalists on the British Empire. As it turns out, Beverly Robinson was a friend of John Jay’s. Although Jay hoped for reconciliation with Britain, in the event it was not possible, he was going to make a different choice than Robinson. Hoping to retain their friendship, he pleaded with Robinson’s wife:
Picture to your Imagination a City besieged, yourself & Children mixt with contending Armies — Should it be evacuated, where, with whom & in what Manner are you next to fly? Can you think of living under the restless wings of an Army? Should heaven determine that America shall be free, In what country are you prepared to spend the Remainder of your Days & how provide for your Children? These Things it is true may not happen, but don’t forget that they may.
Although Jay was correct in his predictions for the Robinsons, never in the book does Jasanoff suggest that the Loyalists picked the wrong side. While many suffered horribly as a result of their choice, from a perspective of principles, the Loyalists were every bit as justified in their opinions as their counter-parts, the people who came to be known as Patriots. After the American Revolution, the evolving liberal constitutional empire of Britain provided a viable and vital alternative to the democratic republics cropping up elsewhere in the world. The Loyalists had a pronounced effect on that evolution.
Jasanoff didn’t only choose aristocrats like the Robinsons as her subjects. She also devotes a significant portion of her book to the plight of the Indians who remained loyal to the crown. These fascinating characters include Joseph Brant, his sister Molly, and William Augustus Bowles. Jasanoff also follows the migrations of slaves and erstwhile slaves and explains the role of the different evangelical movements in these communities.
After setting the stage in the preliminary chapter, Jasanoff quickly moves on to the evacuation of New York and the logistical nightmare it posed to the British. Almost immediately, the reader is struck by how consistently the British tried to do the right thing. They felt that they were obligated to help the Loyalists, both as a matter of national pride and because it was “the right thing to do.” However, throughout all of the petitions and claims made by the displaced Americans, the British were careful to distinguish between a moral obligation and a legal one. In 1788, Edmund Burke told his colleagues that “the loyalists had no claim upon the House founded in strict right”; but that “the House was bound in honor and justice to take their claims in to consideration.” Taking care of the Loyalists did “the country the highest credit … It was a new and noble instance of national bounty and generosity.” This was critical to the Loyalist Americans who lost the bulk of their property, because the peace treaty that ended the war did little to guarantee remuneration from the United States. Benjamin Franklin, one of the treaty’s negotiators, had a particular ax to grind on this account, because of his relationship with his estranged Loyalist son, William. He was adamant about not having specific provision for righting the wrongs done to Loyalists in regard to their loss of property. To say he was bitter, would be an understatement. The matter of property claims resolution was left in the most general terms for the States to resolve as they would. There was nothing in the treaty to compel them to do so. Many of the Loyalists felt betrayed that their property rights had been dismissed so cavalierly.
Ironically, there was one particular “species of portable property,” which enabled some of the colonists to retain a portion of their wealth. This was, of course slaves. The irony of the situation is due to the confused and seemingly inconsistent policies that the British tried to enforce for their subjects. There were many slaves who were promised (and who were ultimately granted) their freedom if they fought for the British. On the other hand, at the time of the peace, Britain was hugely involved in the slave trade. It was big business. Compounding this, in many cases, the portable wealth represented by the slaves, was about the only thing remaining to some Loyalists.
The conundrums faced by the British government about how manumitted slaves would be treated and what they were “entitled” to, form a big part of the author’s second point in her thesis on the impact of the Spirit of 1783. On the one hand, the British tried to honor the claims of Americans who’s “property” was stolen. During the war certain plantations had been taken over by the British, and worked, slaves and all, for the benefit of the British army. When the war came to a close, these “sequestered estates” were returned to their owners along with their slaves. Some of the fleeing Loyalists made off with slaves who did not belong to them. John Cruden, one of the book’s main subjects, took his job of chasing down American-owned slaves stolen by departing Loyalists, very seriously. During the war, he had been one of those in charge of running the “sequestered estates.” His zeal in returning, “stolen property” is oddly juxtaposed against the steadfast refusal of the British to renege on their bargain with escaped slaves who agreed to fight. (They did however, make every effort to distinguish between those who pledged their allegiance before the cessation of hostilities and those that attempted to do so afterward. Consequently, many were returned to their “rightful” owners.)
The treatment of Loyalists, slaves, and former slaves, in the places they were relocated to, is perhaps no where better exemplified than in the conduct of the Loyalist Claims Commission. The British were able to turn their abject failure to retain the American colonies into a point of pride through their conduct afterward. It also cemented the primacy and paternalistic character of the government.
The American Revolution made clear that overseas subjects — even white ones — would not necessarily be considered as extensions of those in the metropolis, in the way that American colonists once hoped to be treated (though that did not stop overseas subjects from seeking enhanced rights and representation). What they got instead was embedded in Burke’s idea of “national bounty,” a phrase that touched on the fundamental ethos of this post-revolutionary empire. British officials self-consciously advertised their moral responsibility toward overseas subjects. It did not matter if you had white skin or black, wore saris or moccasins, kneeled [sic] in a mosque or took Catholic communion: you would still win imperial protection and responsible government.
In spite of Britain’s best efforts, many of the displaced Loyalists were poorly served. These people were relocated to Nova Scotia and Halifax in North America, to Florida (and then when Florida was ceded to Spain, directed elsewhere), to Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Britain. Each of these moves repeated many of the same mistakes; delays in granting promised land; unfulfilled promises of exemption from taxation; and problems integrating the different racial constituencies. Jasanoff’s book is filled with interesting people, heart rending disappointments and in some cases, happy endings.
There are villains, bigots, insane people, evangelists, and heroes interspersed throughout the book. In the latter category, was John Clarkson, an abolitionist who managed yet another migration of disaffected black Loyalists from British North America to Sierra Leone. Although he was only supposed to facilitate the move by arranging transport and persuading people to dislocate themselves again, the Sierra Leone Company, under whose auspices the venture was formed, appointed him superintendent of the new colony, Freetown.
The position was the last thing he wanted. “I had positively declared before I left England, that nothing should induce me to continue in Africa, ” he moaned to the deaf pages of his diary, “or to undertake anything more than collecting the people in America and afterwards seeing them properly conducted to Sierra Leone.” He had been sick and stressed for months, and he longed to sail home to England to recover and rejoin his patiently waiting fiancee. “But what can I do?” When he considered the real “affection & regard” he felt for the loyalists, “and my ardent zeal for the civilization of the surrounding nations, and Africa …. I have made up my mind to take the consequences … and to remain with the poor Nova Scotians till the Colony is established or lost.”
He did not have an easy time of it, and was eventually recalled for being too sympathetic to the plight of the colonists. The problems he faced were daunting and difficult and it was impossible to please everyone. But, the Nova Scotians trusted him and allowed him latitude in the time it took to fulfill the promises that were made. Unfortunately, his successors were not so honorable. After Clarkson’s departure, his colony attempted to rebel in protest to the breaking of promises made to them. The rebellion was suppressed, and in an interesting historical aside, Jasanoff notes that among the two dozen rebel leaders banished from Freetown was George Washington’s former slave Harry Washington, who had made his escape from Mount Vernon 20 years earlier.
It is, unfortunately, impossible to do this monumental work justice in the space of a review. There is simply too much to cover. For example, toward the end of the book the author sprinkles in some pretty interesting items about the progeny of Benedict Arnold in India. Then there is the tale of William Augustus Bowles, “leader” of the Creek Indians and his exile to Asia, how he ended up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, got back to Florida, and died in a Havana jail. Jasanoff’s book leaves the reader wondering how absorbing the displaced Americans has affected present-day Nova Scotia, Halifax, Jamaica and Britain. Recommendation: Read the book!