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Persecution of the Loyalists

In the autumn of the year 1779 an English poet, writing in the seclusion of his garden at Olney, paid his respects to the American revolutionists in the following lines:

Yon roaring boys, who rave and fight On t'other side the Atlantic, I always held them in the right, But most so when most frantic.

When lawless mobs insult the court, That man shall be my toast, If breaking windows be the sport, Who bravely breaks the most.

But oh! for him my fancy culls The choicest flowers she bears, Who constitutionally pulls Your house about your ears.

When William Cowper wrote these lines, his sources of information with regard to affairs in America were probably slight; but had he been writing at the seat of war he could not have touched off the treatment of the Loyalists by the revolutionists with more effective irony.

There were two kinds of persecution to which the Loyalists were subjected--that which was perpetrated by 'lawless mobs,' and that which was carried out 'constitutionally.'

It was at the hands of the mob that the Loyalists first suffered persecution. Probably the worst of the revolutionary mobs was that which paraded the streets of Boston. In 1765, at the time of the Stamp Act agitation, large crowds in Boston attacked and destroyed the magnificent houses of Andrew Oliver and Thomas Hutchinson. They broke down the doors with broadaxes, destroyed the furniture, stole the money and jewels, scattered the books and papers, and, having drunk the wines in the cellar, proceeded to the dismantling of the roof and walls. The owners of the houses barely escaped with their lives. In 1768 the same mob wantonly attacked the British troops in Boston, and so precipitated what American historians used to term 'the Boston Massacre'; and in 1773 the famous band of 'Boston Indians' threw the tea into Boston harbor.

In other places the excesses of the mob were nearly as great. In New York they were active in destroying printing-presses from which had issued Tory pamphlets, in breaking windows of private houses, in stealing live stock and personal effects, and in destroying property. A favorite pastime was tarring and feathering 'obnoxious Tories.' This consisted in stripping the victim naked, smearing him with a coat of tar and feathers, and parading him about the streets in a cart for the contemplation of his neighbors. Another amusement was making Tories ride the rail. This consisted in putting the 'unhappy victims upon sharp rails with one leg on each side; each rail was carried upon the shoulders of two tall men, with a man on each side to keep the poor wretch straight and fixed in his seat.'

Even clergymen were not free from the attentions of the mob. The Rev. Jonathan Boucher tells us that he was compelled to preach with loaded pistols placed on the pulpit cushions beside him. On one occasion he was prevented from entering the pulpit by two hundred armed men, whose leader warned him not to attempt to preach. 'I returned for answer,' says Boucher, 'that there was but one way by which they could keep me out of it, and that was by taking away my life. At the proper time, with my sermon in one hand and a loaded pistol in the other, like Nehemiah I prepared to ascend my pulpit, when one of my friends, Mr David Crauford, having got behind me, threw his arms round me and held me fast. He assured me that he had heard the most positive orders given to twenty men picked out for the purpose, to fire on me the moment I got into the pulpit.'

That the practices of the mob were not frowned upon by the revolutionary leaders, there is good reason for believing. The provincial Congress of New York, in December 1776, went so far as to order the committee of public safety to secure all the pitch and tar 'necessary for the public use and public safety.' Even Washington seems to have approved of persecution of the Tories by the mob. In 1776 General Putnam, meeting a procession of the Sons of Liberty who were parading a number of Tories on rails up and down the street's of New York, attempted to put a stop to the barbarous proceeding. Washington, on hearing of this, administered a reprimand to Putnam, declaring 'that to discourage such proceedings was to injure the cause of liberty in which they were engaged, and that nobody would attempt it but an enemy to his country.'

Very early in the Revolution the Whigs began to organize. They first formed themselves into local associations, similar to the Puritan associations in the Great Rebellion in England, and announced that they would 'hold all those persons inimical to the liberties of the colonies who shall refuse to subscribe this association.' In connection with these associations there sprang up local committees.

From garrets, cellars, rushing through the street, The new-born statesmen in committee meet,

sang a Loyalist verse-writer. Very soon there was completed an organization, stretching from the Continental Congress and the provincial congresses at one end down to the pettiest parish committees on the other, which was destined to prove a most effective engine for stamping out loyalism, and which was to contribute in no small degree to the success of the Revolution.

Though the action of the mob never entirely disappeared, the persecution of the Tories was taken over, as soon as the Revolution got under way, by this semi-official organization. What usually happened was that the Continental or provincial Congress laid down the general policy to be followed, and the local committees carried it out in detail. Thus, when early in 1776 the Continental Congress recommended the disarming of the Tories, it was the local committees which carried the recommendation into effect. During this early period the conduct of the revolutionary authorities was remarkably moderate. They arrested the Tories, tried them, held them at bail for their good behavior, quarantined them in their houses, exiled them to other districts, but only in extreme cases did they imprison them. There was, of course, a good deal of hardship entailed on the Tories; and occasionally the agents of the revolutionary committees acted without authority, as when Colonel Dayton, who was sent to arrest Sir John Johnson at his home in the Mohawk valley, sacked Johnson Hall and carried off Lady Johnson a prisoner, on finding that Sir John Johnson had escaped to Canada with many of his Highland retainers. But, as a rule, in this early period, the measures taken both by the revolutionary committees and by the army officers were easily defensible on the ground of military necessity.

But with the Declaration of Independence a new order of things was inaugurated. That measure revolutionized the political situation. With the severance of the Imperial tie, loyalism became tantamount to treason to the state; and Loyalists laid themselves open to all the penalties of treason. The Declaration of Independence was followed by the test laws. These laws compelled every one to abjure allegiance to the British crown, and swear allegiance to the state in which he resided. A record was kept of those who took the oath, and to them were given certificates without which no traveler was safe from arrest. Those who failed to take the oath became liable to imprisonment, confiscation of property, banishment, and even death.

Even among the Whigs there was a good deal of opposition to the test laws. Peter Van Schaak, a moderate Whig of New York state, so strongly disapproved of the test laws that he seceded from the revolutionary party. 'Had you,' he wrote, 'at the beginning of the war, permitted every one differing in sentiment from you, to take the other side, or at least to have removed out of the State, with their property ... it would have been a conduct magnanimous and just. But, now, after restraining those persons from removing; punishing them, if, in the attempt, they were apprehended; selling their estates if they escaped; compelling them to the duties of subjects under heavy penalties; deriving aid from them in the prosecution of the war ... now to compel them to take an oath is an act of severity.'

Of course, the test laws were not rigidly or universally enforced. In Pennsylvania only a small proportion of the population took the oath. In New York, out of one thousand Tories arrested for failure to take the oath, six hundred were allowed to go on bail, and the rest were merely acquitted or imprisoned. On the whole the American revolutionists were not bloody-minded men; they inaugurated no September Massacres, no Reign of Terror, no dragonnades. There was a distinct aversion among them to applying the death penalty. 'We shall have many unhappy persons to take their trials for their life next Oyer court,' wrote a North Carolina patriot. 'Law should be strictly adhered to, severity exercised, but the doors of mercy should never be shut.'

The test laws, nevertheless, and the other discriminating laws passed against the Loyalists provided the excuse for a great deal of barbarism and ruthlessness. In Pennsylvania bills of attainder were passed against no fewer than four hundred and ninety persons. The property of nearly all these persons was confiscated, and several of them were put to death. A detailed account has come down to us of the hanging of two Loyalists of Philadelphia named Roberts and Carlisle. These two men had shown great zeal for the king's cause when the British Army was in Philadelphia. After Philadelphia was evacuated, they were seized by the Whigs, tried, and condemned to be hanged. Roberts's wife and children went before Congress and on their knees begged for mercy; but in vain. One November morning of 1778 the two men were marched to the gallows, with halters round their necks. At the gallows, wrote a spectator, Roberts's behavior 'did honor to human nature.'

He nothing common did or mean Upon that memorable scene

Addressing the spectators, he told them that his conscience acquitted him of guilt; that he suffered for doing his duty to his sovereign; and that his blood would one day be required at their hands. Then he turned to his children and charged them to remember the principles for which he died, and to adhere to them while they had breath.

But if these judicial murders were few and far between, in other respects the revolutionists showed the Tories little mercy. Both those who remained in the country and those who fled from it were subjected to an attack on their personal fortunes which gradually impoverished them. This was carried on at first by a nibbling system of fines and special taxation. Loyalists were fined for evading military service, for the hire of substitutes, for any manifestation of loyalty. They were subjected to double and treble taxes; and in New York and South Carolina they had to make good all robberies committed in their counties. Then the revolutionary leaders turned to the expedient of confiscation. From the very first some of the patriots, without doubt, had an eye on Loyalist property; and when the coffers of the Continental Congress had been emptied, the idea gained ground that the Revolution might be financed by the confiscation of Loyalist estates. Late in 1777 the plan was embodied in a resolution of the Continental Congress, and the states were recommended to invest the proceeds in continental loan certificates. The idea proved very popular; and in spite of a great deal of corruption in connection with the sale and transfer of the land, large sums found their way as a result into the state exchequers. In New York alone over 3,600,000 pounds worth of property was acquired by the state.

The Tory who refused to take the oath of allegiance became in fact an outlaw. He did not have in the courts of law even the rights of a foreigner. If his neighbors owed him money, he had no legal redress. He might be assaulted, insulted, blackmailed, or slandered, yet the law granted him no remedy. No relative or friend could leave an orphan child to his guardianship. He could be the executor or administrator of no man's estate. He could neither buy land nor transfer it to another. If he was a lawyer, he was denied the right to practice his profession.

This strict legal view of the status of the Loyalist may not have been always and everywhere enforced. There were Loyalists, such as the Rev. Mather Byles of Boston, who refused to be molested, and who survived the Revolution unharmed. But when all allowance is made for these exceptions, it is not difficult to understand how the great majority of avowed Tories came to take refuge within the British lines, to enlist under the British flag, and, when the Revolution had proved successful, to leave their homes for ever and begin life anew amid other surroundings. The persecution to which they were subjected left them no alternative.


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

 

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