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Peace without Honor

The war was brought to a virtual termination by the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. The definitive articles of peace were signed at Versailles on September 3, 1783. During the two years that intervened between these events, the lot of the Loyalists was one of gloomy uncertainty. They found it hard to believe that the British government would abandon them to the mercy of their enemies; and yet the temper of the revolutionists toward them continued such that there seemed little hope of concession or conciliation. Success had not taught the rebels the grace of forgiveness. At the capitulation of Yorktown, Washington had refused to treat with the Loyalists in Cornwallis's army on the same terms as with the British regulars; and Cornwallis had been compelled to smuggle his Loyalist levies out of Yorktown on the ship that carried the news of his surrender to New York. As late as 1782 fresh confiscation laws had been passed in Georgia and the Carolinas; and in New York a law had been passed cancelling all debts due to Loyalists, on condition that one-fortieth of the debt was paid into the state treasury. These were straws which showed the way the wind was blowing.

In the negotiations leading up to the Peace of Versailles there were no clauses so long and bitterly discussed as those relating to the Loyalists. The British commissioners stood out at first for the principle of complete amnesty to them and restitution of all they had lost; and it is noteworthy that the French minister added his plea to theirs. But Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues refused to agree to this formula. They took the ground that they, as the representatives merely of the Continental Congress, had not the right to bind the individual states in such a matter. The argument was a quibble. Their real reason was that they were well aware that public opinion in America would not support them in such a concession. A few enlightened men in America, such as John Adams, favored a policy of compensation to the Loyalists, 'how little soever they deserve it, nay, how much soever they deserve the contrary'; but the attitude of the great majority of the Americans had been clearly demonstrated by a resolution passed in the legislature of Virginia on December 17, 1782, to the effect that all demands for the restitution of confiscated property were wholly inadmissible. Even some of the Loyalists had begun to realize that a revolution which had touched property was bound to be permanent, and that the American commissioners could no more give back to them their confiscated lands than Charles II was able to give back to his father's cavaliers the estates they had lost in the Civil War.

The American commissioners agreed, finally, that no future confiscations should take place, that imprisoned Loyalists should be released, that no further persecutions should be permitted, and that creditors on either side should 'meet with no lawful impediment' to the recovery of all good debts in sterling money. But with regard to the British demand for restitution, all they could be induced to sign was a promise that Congress would 'earnestly recommend to the legislatures of the respective states' a policy of amnesty and restitution.

In making this last recommendation, it is difficult not to convict the American commissioners of something very like hypocrisy. There seems to be no doubt that they knew the recommendation would not be complied with; and little or no attempt was made by them to persuade the states to comply with it. In after years the clause was represented by the Americans as a mere form of words, necessary to bring the negotiations to an end, and to save the face of the British government. To this day it has remained, except in one or two states, a dead letter. On the other hand it is impossible not to convict the British commissioners of a betrayal of the Loyalists. 'Never,' said Lord North in the House of Commons, 'never was the honor, the humanity, the principles, the policy of a nation so grossly abused, as in the desertion of those men who are now exposed to every punishment that desertion and poverty can inflict, because they were not rebels.' 'In ancient or in modern history,' said Lord Loughborough in the House of Lords, 'there cannot be found an instance of so shameful a desertion of men who have sacrificed all to their duty and to their reliance upon our faith.' It seems probable that the British commissioners could have obtained, on paper at any rate, better terms for the Loyalists. It is very doubtful if the Americans would have gone to war again over such a question. In 1783 the position of Great Britain was relatively not weaker, but stronger, than in 1781, when hostilities had ceased. The attitude of the French minister, and the state of the French finances, made it unlikely that France would lend her support to further hostilities. And there is no doubt that the American states were even more sorely in need of peace than was Great Britain.

When the terms of peace were announced, great was the bitterness among the Loyalists. One of them protested in Rivington's Gazette that 'even robbers, murderers, and rebels are faithful to their fellows and never betray each other,' and another sang,

'Tis an honor to serve the bravest of nations, And be left to be hanged in their capitulations.

If the terms of the peace had been observed, the plight of the Loyalists would have been bad enough. But as it was, the outcome proved even worse. Every clause in the treaty relating to the Loyalists was broken over and over again. There was no sign of an abatement of the popular feeling against them; indeed, in some places, the spirit of persecution seemed to blaze out anew. One of Washington's bitterest sayings was uttered at this time, when he said of the Loyalists that 'he could see nothing better for them than to commit suicide.' Loyalist creditors found it impossible to recover their debts in America, while they were themselves sued in the British courts by their American creditors, and their property was still being confiscated by the American legislatures. The legislature of New York publicly declined to reverse its policy of confiscation, on the ground that Great Britain had offered no compensation for the property which her friends had destroyed. Loyalists who ventured to return home under the treaty of peace were insulted, tarred and feathered, whipped, and even ham-strung. All over the country there were formed local committees or associations with the object of preventing renewed intercourse with the Loyalists and the restitution of Loyalist property. 'The proceedings of these people,' wrote Sir Guy Carleton, 'are not to be attributed to politics alone--it serves as a pretence, and under that cloak they act more boldly, but avarice and a desire of rapine are the great incentives.'

The Loyalists were even denied civil rights in most of the states. In 1784 an act was passed in New York declaring that all who had held office under the British, or helped to fit out vessels of war, or who had served as privates or officers in the British Army, or who had left the state, were guilty of 'misprision of treason,' and were disqualified from both the franchise and public office. There was in fact hardly a state in 1785 where the Loyalist was allowed to vote. In New York Loyalist lawyers were not allowed to practice until April 1786, and then only on condition of taking an 'oath of abjuration and allegiance.' In the same state, Loyalists were subjected to such invidious special taxation that in 1785 one of them confessed that 'those in New York whose estates have not been confiscated are so loaded with taxes and other grievances that there is nothing left but to sell out and move into the protection of the British government.'

It was clear that something would have to be done by the British government for the Loyalists' relief. 'It is utterly impossible,' wrote Sir Guy Carleton to Lord North, 'to leave exposed to the rage and violence of these people [the Americans] men of character whose only offence has been their attachment to the King's service.' Accordingly the British government made amends for its betrayal of the Loyalists by taking them under its wing. It arranged for the transportation of all those who wished to leave the revolted states; it offered them homes in the provinces of Nova Scotia and Quebec; it granted half-pay to the officers after their regiments were reduced; and it appointed a royal commission to provide compensation for the losses sustained.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The United Empire Loyalists, A Chronicle of the Great Migration, 1915

 

Chronicles of Canada


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