Our understanding of loyalists in the American Revolution is a relic of the eighteenth-century turn from what one might call “constitutional sense” to a more “revolutionary sensibility” in Anglo-American political culture, a shift further reinforced by romantic nineteenth-century writers.[i] To understand them as they saw themselves unfurls a rather different historical narrative.
For most men and women in the English-speaking world shaped by the Augustan sense of moderation and reason as the keys to maintaining the security of the British constitution, a “tory” was, in the decades before the War for Independence, little more than an epithet used to tar one’s political opponents, without any meaningful connections to its original late-seventeenth-century connotations of deferential supporters of royal supremacy. The term gained currency throughout the American colonies in the 1770s, however, when the self-described “real” Whigs—those radicals whose passionate political persuasions were governed by sensibility of the sort ably described in recent works by historians such as Sarah Knott and Nicole Eustace—promiscuously applied “tory” to anyone who did not cooperate with their political program, by, for instance, speaking out for compromise with the British ministry or by failing to sign non-importation agreements.[ii]
In the revolutionary crisis in Virginia, the term seems to have first appeared in the local newspapers as late as 1774 and 1775 coupled with thinly-veiled, and quite impolite, threats of physical violence against loyalists such as John Randolph and Ralph Wormeley. “Patriot” polemicists branded them as archetypical anti-Whigs whose mere presence in the province represented a threat to liberty.[iii] But there is no evidence that either Randolph or Wormeley, or any other loyalist, ever seriously described himself or herself as a Tory. To do so would have been a rank betrayal of their constitutional sense of Augustan Britishness. John Randolph’s son, Edmund, acknowledged as much when he later reflected on the “multitudes” that “could now be cited, who…were branded as Tories, though spotless as to treason even in thought; who could not comprehend what was to be the issue of provoking the fury of the British nation and were yet innocent even as to wishes of harm to their country; who believed in a chance of reconciliation, if excesses were spared; who might feel sufficient irritation at the distant danger of an abstract principle.”[iv] It is highly unlikely that a proper Tory existed anywhere in British Virginia.
Yet the term stuck. Used so often by patriots against their opponents as a convenient way to paint over the complexities at stake in the constitutional crisis of the 1770s, and to bolster claims to American unity, a newly-fashioned Tory myth was enshrined in the first histories of the Revolution, resurrected in the party battles of the Early Republic, celebrated in the culture of the republic in places like “Tory Row” in antebellum Cambridge, Massachusetts, and further embellished by Whig historians.[v] The myth, created to reinforce a fiction of unified colonial opposition to British tyranny, became so firmly entrenched in the historiography of the American Revolution that, despite the work of a number of modern historians, few modern scholars bother to question it.[vi]
Historiographical misunderstandings of the term “loyalist” are somewhat easier to understand, and therefore rather more difficult to recover, because it was embraced by so many people who opposed the patriot movement.[vii] Clouding the matter is the fact that loyalists often spoke of their own cause in terms of support for the King or the authority of the Crown.
Samuel Johnson unhelpfully defined “loyalist” in 1756 as “One who professes uncommon adherence to his king.” Horace Walpole privately reflected on just how problematic and confusing the very concept of loyalty had become in eighteenth-century British political culture. “Loyalty is a word I do not find either in the Bible or the statute book,” Walpole wrote. “It is a French word & conveys a French Idea: but ought to have a reciprocal signification. It comes from Loy, the Law, but is now confounded with Royaute.” It ought, he observed, “to imply only Attachment to the Laws, & then Loyalty [would] be as much a Duty from the King to the people as from the people to the King.”[viii] For a Briton of any persuasion, on either side of the Atlantic, loyalty to a “British King” or to the “Hanoverian Succession” was not a blank, one-way commitment to monarchism but, in fact, was a celebration of the reciprocal bundle of loyalties built into the British constitution. For what else was a British monarch—as opposed to those of Spain or France, for example—but a sovereign whose authority, whose very existence, was determined by a constitution in which the representatives of the people reigned supreme?
But those Americans who practiced revolutionary sensibility were disconnected from the essentially English history that a proper understanding of the British constitution required. Patriots such as Thomas Jefferson were hardly unique among their Virginia contemporaries. They were among the growing sort who needed to be “Anglicized” in the ways explained by Jack Greene and others, unlike John Randolph and those Americans who had spent important parts of their lives in England and retained vital ties to it.[ix]
In the absence of a more direct alternative, Jefferson’s vision of an abstract, idealized imperial relationship was that of an empire, in an oft-repeated phrase that Adam Smith used to criticize the British ministry, that “existed in imagination only.”[x] Jefferson’s perception of the imperial relationship was a far cry from the mixed constitution and unseverable authority of King, Lords, and Commons conceived of by metro-centric Virginians such as Randolph, who once proudly described himself as “nurtured” in such “mixed Principles.”[xi] Their competing visions of the imperial tie could not be reconciled without a shared set of presumptions, drawn from a common understanding of political history, about the nature of that imperial tie to provide a discursive framework for mediation and accommodation of differences. The absence of such a framework was the sine qua non in creating a precondition for the separation of the American colonies—or at least those in the Chesapeake—from Great Britain. In a land where the English past had been forgotten by so many people that “tory” could be used once more without irony, the Tory myth became a potent weapon of proponents for independence.
[ii] Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution (2009); Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (2008); Paul Langford, “Old Whigs, Old Tories, and the American Revolution,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 8 no. 2 (1980), 106-130; Julie Flavell, “American Patriots in London and the Quest for Talks, 1774-5,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 20 (1992), 335-369.
[vi] See Robert Calhoon, The Loyalist Perception and Other Essays (1989). This criticism remains true for almost the entirety of the historiography of late colonial Virginia. Even the best works have not been immune. E.g., John E. Selby, The Revolution in Virginia: 1775-1783 (1988), xi.