Book Review – Liberty’s Exiles – By Maya Jasanoff
Only a tiny fraction of the books written on the American Revolution are devoted to the loyalists — the residents of the 13 colonies who chose to leave their homes rather than become citizens of the new republic. Such a nation-bound approach to the writing of American history implies that the lives of those who left were not significant. Yet they were, and Maya Jasanoff, who teaches history at Harvard, has provided a richly informative account of those who made the choice to embrace imperial Britain. As earlier historians of the Revolution have pointed out, the loyalists tended to have strong connections to the imperial administration, belong to the Anglican Church and possess close business or family ties to Britain. But not all who left fitted such a profile. Escaped slaves had obvious reason to depart, and so did those whose property was confiscated by the revolutionaries. Most pervasively, of course, the loyalists shared a loyalty to the king.
Jasanoff estimates that 60,000 loyalists opted to leave America, including at least 8,000 free blacks. In addition, 15,000 enslaved people of African descent were carried away by their owners. The migration was hardly a small one: in proportion to population, the American Revolution resulted in five times more departures than its more violent French counterpart. Why did so many go? There were many reasons, but the largest and most obvious factor was the availability of the commodious British Empire. The loyalists were able to leave their homeland while remaining under the British king. And the king’s own loyalty to his American subjects also made a difference: his government provided the loyalists with transportation and established a mechanism for making claims on the British treasury for loss of property.
At the heart of this smart, deeply researched and elegantly written history is Jasanoff’s re-creation of the lives of those who emigrated — rich and poor, white, black and in some cases red. She brings these displaced people to life: we learn their reasons for leaving, their understanding of the losses and gains, and more generally the “bittersweet” experiences of even those who successfully rebuilt their lives. For the loyalists, Thomas Paine’s announcement that America was to be “an asylum of mankind” was a bad joke. In fact, the British Empire would be their asylum. Consider Jacob Bailey of Massachusetts, a Harvard classmate of John Adams, who found that our Revolutionary heroes were a “set of surly & savage beings who have power in their hands and murder in their hearts.” He left for Nova Scotia.
Like Bailey, most of the loyalists went to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Quebec. Some 8,000 whites and perhaps 5,000 blacks went to Britain itself. Southerners decamped to the Caribbean or East Florida, where they could continue to hold their slaves. Meanwhile, 2,000 free blacks, dissatisfied with their opportunities in Nova Scotia, demanded and received transportation by the British government to Sierra Leone, where they became the founding generation of the African colony that was established there by British abolitionists. Very few loyalists went to India or Australia.
The Iroquois, who were allied with Britain, were abandoned by British negotiators after the war and lost their lands to the Americans. Some, however, followed the Mohawk Joseph Brant to the Lake Ontario region, where they sought to establish a refuge on the border between the British Empire and the American Republic.
The Revolution produced many American heroes, but there were loyalist ones too. Near the end of the Paris peace negotiations that ended the war, a small but important amendment was added to the resulting treaty that prohibited the British from “carrying away any Negroes, or other property.” When he became aware of this proviso, Sir Guy Carleton, the commander of British forces in North America, acted. Charged with the task of evacuating 20,000 troops and 35,000 loyalists from New York, he made securing the freedom of the black loyalists a priority. He expedited the provision of documents establishing their freedom and hurried them onto a fleet of ships headed for Nova Scotia. The speed of this sequence of events infuriated George Washington. But Carleton responded that it was a matter of honor. “The Negroes in question,” he explained, “I found free when I arrived in New York, I had therefore no right . . . to prevent their going to any part of the world they thought proper.” Earlier, when Lord Dunmore, the colonial governor of Virginia, promised freedom to bondsmen who joined the British forces, as many as 20,000 — including slaves belonging to Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry — made the risky decision to escape. Jasanoff refers to this as an “emancipation,” though she might better have described it as a slave revolt, larger than any the Americas had yet to see.
In expanding the geography of the American Revolution, Jasanoff builds on two recent trends in historical scholarship. First, she recognizes the transnational, even global, dimensions of national histories, and second, she pays close attention to the workings of empire, including the beneficial ones. Within this enlarged framework, she argues that the American revolutionaries’ claim that they were establishing a “beacon of liberty” prompted the British, who thought of themselves in the same terms, to reform their empire along more liberal lines. She gives the phrase “spirit of 1783” to this new impulse to reform imperial rule, referring to the year the empire gave up the colonies.
This epithet suggests that the Revolution’s impact on the British was more coherent and far reaching than it really was. Yet in the years after American independence, the British did move deliberately toward a global empire that was marked by “hierarchical rule, liberal ideals and transcontinental reach.” Accusations of tyranny made by slave-holding Americans embarrassed many in Britain, who sought to restore their nation’s moral standing by assuming leadership in a humanitarian crusade against the slave trade. In the 19th century the large British presence on the world stage would be associated with such liberal values as anti-slavery, laissez-faire economics and the array of individual rights identified with the English constitution. Still, the transformation went only so far. By Jasanoff’s own account, the empire’s “liberalism” did not displace its commitment to “hierarchical rule.”
Along with other recent scholars, Jasanoff also seeks to challenge the idea that the British maintained two distinct empires — one primarily for trade, the other primarily for settlement and extracting resources. In following the loyalist diaspora and explicating its beliefs, she does much to link the empire’s North Atlantic and Asian parts. And yet it must be remembered that while the white settler societies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand were granted representative institutions, a great majority of the empire’s subjects were nonwhite and experienced imperial rule without such privileges. The spirit of 1783 may have traveled around the world, but it did not take up residence everywhere.
American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World
By Maya Jasanoff
460 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.