The Loyalist Arguments

The Loyalist Arguments
AP Photo/Mel Evans

Historians over recent decades have put considerable effort into recovering forgotten or marginalized perspectives from the past. Some perspectives, however, have been more marginalized than others. Less likely to draw sympathetic attention today, those viewpoints seem to provide at best subjects for historical curiosity because they stand apart from both established narratives and more recent efforts to revise or widen them. American Loyalists—nearly a third of the colonial population who opposed independence—offer a case in point. But recovering their perspective involves more than just an antiquarian exercise in digging up old ideas. Understanding how those who questioned and often resisted the fight for independence saw the matter brings issues at stake during the 1770s in focus on their own terms rather than those set by later generations.

The prizewinning colonial historian Alan Taylor argues persuasively that framing the American Revolution as a clash between British and Americans imposes a cohesive identity on a complex and divided reality along the Atlantic seaboard. It also obscures the fact that many in Britain, including Edmund Burke, opposed efforts to bring colonists to heel and instead urged reconciliation. What became a global struggle with intervention by France and Spain began as a provincial revolt and then escalated into a civil war within the British Atlantic world. Indeed, perceptive observers drew parallels with the English Civil War of the 1640 casting New Englanders as latter-day Cromwellians. William Jones, an Anglican High Churchman, described the struggle as a Presbyterian war. Religion shaped attitudes on both sides.

Gregg Frazer takes that insight for a starting point in his comprehensive account of Loyalist thought. While many who embraced independence framed the struggle as an appeal to heaven with God on their side, Loyalists—who considered themselves no less American than their opponents—strongly disagreed. The strongest case for their position, as Frasier points out, came from clergymen. Many of those arguments inverted or mirrored those of Patriots by appealing to rights and the rule of law. God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy's Case Against the American Revolution traces them while taking into account divergent viewpoints on both sides.

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