Maya Jasanoff's "Liberty's Exiles," on British Loyalists after the revolution

Sunday, March 13, 2011; B07

What happens to people who take the losing side in a revolution or a civil war?

In this ambitious, empathetic and sometimes lyrical book, Maya Jasanoff tells the story of the loyalist exiles of the American Revolution - the 60,000 people who fled the 13 colonies of North America after their countrymen declared their independence, founded a republic and successfully defended their revolution in a war that set friends, neighbors and family members against one another. Those stalwart defenders of British rule eventually dispersed into far-flung parts of the world. Although other historians have studied the loyalists and parts of their widespread migration, "Liberty's Exiles" justly claims to be "the first global history of the loyalist diaspora."

Historians estimate the total number of loyalists at about 20 percent of the population of the United States at the time of the revolution, or roughly a half-million men, women and children. Most of them remained in the new nation. The exiles were the outer fringes of the category, people so committed to the crown or so alienated from the "patriots" that they had to leave. Why?

Jasanoff says the exiles acted from "a range of reasons, ideological and otherwise," although, as the Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton argued in a classic essay almost 40 years ago, most loyalists shared the same basic 17th-century English Whig ideas that moved the revolutionaries. Unlike other colonists, however, they refused to embrace the republic. Royal officeholders instinctively sided with the king; slaves fled to the British in search of freedom; recent English immigrants such as Georgia's Thomas Brown could not "take up arms against the Country which gave him being."

In describing prewar conditions, Jasanoff sometimes accepts questionable loyalist views uncritically. The Sons of Liberty, in fact, were not "street gangs" that "smashed property and assaulted individuals," but an organized resistance movement that worked to contain violence while opposing the Stamp Act. Nor was the plan of union proposed by loyalist Joseph Galloway in 1774, which would have made an American Congress a subordinate part of the British Parliament, either a "compelling" solution to the Anglo-American conflict or "the last concerted American attempt to preserve ties with the British Empire." Galloway's plan was incompatible with both Britain's unwillingness to compromise parliamentary sovereignty and the colonists' emergent conviction that Parliament had no right to govern them.

It was "wartime violence" - between cadres of patriots and loyalists in the countryside, and between contending armies - that "pushed thousands of Loyalists into British lines" for what they thought would be a temporary stay. At the war's end, they were clustered in New York, Charleston and Savannah, where they "heard terrifying reports . . . of loyalists hunted down and murdered by vindictive patriots." They also learned that some state legislatures had confiscated loyalist property and banished hundreds of prominent loyalists on pain of death for "treasonable Practices." When the British offered land and free passage to other parts of the empire, the decision to accept was, for many, painful but obvious.

The result was a massive evacuation of both soldiers and civilians that Jasanoff describes in emotionally wrenching detail. More than half the emigres went to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick (founded in 1784) or Quebec, where British settlers quickly outnumbered the French population. Eight thousand whites and 5,000 free blacks went to Britain; about 6,000 white Southern loyalists, slaves in tow, went to the Bahamas or Jamaica. In time, many moved again - to found Sierra Leone, a black British colony in Africa, or to serve with the British army in India (where two of Benedict Arnold's sons ended up). In 1787, the first shipment of prisoners to the new British penal colony in Australia included seven black loyalists.

These migrations contributed to what Jasanoff calls "the spirit of 1783," as Britain recovered from its losses in America and extended its power, with loyalist support, across the globe, building a new empire that would last deep into the 20th century. Britain also decided that the 13 colonies "had been given too much liberty, not too little," and tightened the reins of imperial authority. That provoked opposition from loyalists, who carried an American language of rights, above all on the familiar issue of representation, into Canada, the Bahamas and Sierra Leone.

Jasanoff skillfully threads the stories of individual loyalists through her narrative as she beautifully describes, one by one, the often inhospitable places they went. She follows the life of David George, an escaped Virginia slave, as he traveled from Savannah to Nova Scotia, where he became a Baptist preacher who eventually led his black congregation to Sierra Leone; of Joseph Brant, a Mohawk Indian who tried to establish a new homeland for the Iroquois between Lakes Erie and Ontario; of William Augustus Bowles, a peripatetic Marylander who "went native" and attempted to found a Creek state in Spanish Florida.

Above all, however, Jasanoff follows Elizabeth Lichtenstein, the daughter of a Georgia loyalist, from her marriage at age 17 to William Martin Johnston, a loyalist officer and medical student, through their evacuation from Savannah to Charleston (when she was seven months pregnant with a second child) and, for Elizabeth, to eastern Florida, which she sadly left after Britain ceded Florida back to Spain. Over the next two decades the Johnstons were frequently separated from each other and their many children as they shuttled between Edinburgh and disease-ridden Jamaica, unable to find a livelihood or a lasting refuge in either place. Elizabeth could never reestablish a bond with her difficult oldest daughter. She buried a young son in Scotland and in Jamaica lost three more children - two little girls, a toddler and an infant, to scarlet fever and the after-effects of smallpox inoculation, then her oldest son to yellow fever - and, finally, her husband. It's no wonder that she struggled with melancholy.

Elizabeth and several of her children eventually found a home in Nova Scotia, but until her death in 1848 she bore the scars of a political decision made by her father almost three-quarters of a century earlier. That she had helped extend the British empire in her own small way was, I suspect, not much comfort.

Pauline Maier is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of American history at MIT and the author of "Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788."


American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World

By Maya Jasanoff

Knopf. 460 pp. $30

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