J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Estimating Loyalist Strength and Numbers

So how many Loyalists were in the thirteen colonies/states during the Revolutionary War? It’s just a myth that John Adams said a third of Americans were against the Revolution and a third were neutral about it. It’s tough to parse what Adams meant when he estimated the fraction of Loyalists in the population.

Furthermore, loyalty to the British Empire changed over the course of the war. In mid-1775, most American colonists were probably hoping for a political compromise with the Crown, now that Parliament could see how serious they were about preserving their liberties. A year on, the Declaration of Independence was greeted with enthusiasm. Several years of war and inflation later, and the Continental Congress was rather unpopular but most people had probably committed to independence.

Most white men, that is. Even harder than figuring out the loyalties of the enfranchised population is trying to discern the political ideas of the much larger group of children, women, blacks (most of them enslaved), and Native Americans.

Finally, individuals could feel conflicted, or switch sides, or keep quiet about their preferences, depending on their circumstances. Naturally your family could feel a lot more loyal to the king if the British army was camped nearby, or the Continental Army had just cleaned out your winter supplies on a foraging expedition. And vice versa. Nothing makes you wish the war was over as quickly as possible than seeing it outside your own doorway.

Loyalists themselves tended to overestimate their popularity, and underestimate the solidity of the Whig or Patriot forces. They were constantly telling each other and friends back in Britain that people would come to their senses and return to the king any minute now.

Very soon.

Any minute now.

Still waiting...

And that’s one of the most reliable measures of Loyalist strength: the British government lost the war. The Patriots didn’t win because they had better weapons or training; the royal troops were better equipped (especially at the start) and fully professional. In fact, the Continentals lost most of the big battlefield confrontations. The new U.S. of A.’s big advantage, even above the French alliance, was broader support from the American population.

The best numerical study of this question is still Paul H. Smith’s 1968 William & Mary Quarterly article, “The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength.” Looking at the number of colonists who fought or worked for the British government and/or left with its troops, Smith concluded that the Loyalist population for all thirteen colonies was “16% of the total population, or 19.8% of the white Americans.” Not a third, but not negligible, either.

(We also have to recall what Prof. Jeremy Black pointed out in Lexington this spring: Britain had twenty-six colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and the other thirteen remained solidly loyal. These included the biggest in geographic size and in economic value.)

In Massachusetts and in New England as a whole, the Loyalist population was smaller than in the thirteen colonies overall. This conclusion is clear from several standpoints:

  • The pro-government party in the Massachusetts General Court lost vote after vote in the years leading up to 1775. Crowds closed the provincial courts in the summer of 1774 through sheer numbers. More towns voted to send delegates to the first Provincial Congress of 1774 than to the usual legislature. Resistance to the Crown was a very popular cause.
  • Starting in September 1774, Loyalist families moved into Boston to be under the army’s protection, yet when the army sailed away in March 1776 only about a thousand civilians left with it. That was only about one of every 300 Massachusetts citizens.
  • During the war, the British military occupied two easily defended New England ports for several months each (Boston, Newport), held the island fort on the Penobscot in Maine, and made some fast overnight raids on Concord, Danbury, and New London. But the only large body of British troops that ever managed to sleep overnight in the New England countryside was the “Convention Army”: prisoners of war captured in the Saratoga campaign. The British military knew New England was hostile territory for them.
In contrast, there were enough Loyalists (or neutrals) in the middle colonies for the British military to occupy New York for most of the war, and to march through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and points south basically at will until 1781. The British reestablished a royal government in Georgia, and took Charleston on their second try. The war in the southern colonies was truly a civil war, the sides closely matched.

Why was New England more united in opposition to the Crown than other regions? I suspect that was because New Englanders were highly homogeneous in ethnic background (English), religion (Congregationalist), and culture (farming communities governed by town meetings). The result was like a monoculture, miles and miles of fields planted with the same crop, and in 1774 the meme that men had to resist the London government or lose their freedoms spread across the region like a crop blight.


Anonymous said...

Much of my dissertation focused on this issue, focusing on N.C. I did not try to get numbers, as this is impossible to do, but did get a good feel for the various regions where people tended to be loyalists, neutrals, and Patriots. Just not enough in the records to get to any real #'s.

Unknown said...

In regard to the New England population at the time of the Revolution, it must be remembered that most were of families that had sided with Cromwell against the king during the English Civil War, which did spill over to America. So they were predisposed to resistance to the Crown in the name of personal liberty. " In God we Trust" started with the Roundheads during that war, and was only later used as a motto in America. So much of the outlook and sentiment which fueled revolt at the time of the revolution was carried over from the earlier conflict.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that New England was unusual within the British Empire in its heritage of support for the Roundheads in the English Civil War. Only there did anyone view Cromwell’s Protectorate as still a Good Thing. And that heritage did make New Englanders more open to the idea (expressed openly by the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew) that it could be just to resist the Crown.

That said, I certainly wouldn’t link the Cromwellian tradition or that attitude to the cause of “personal liberty.” The Puritan republic, including its New England branch, was dedicated to imposing a religious order on society. Like the Revolution in its early stages, it valued the freedom of the community over the freedom of individuals.