The American Revolution produced different meanings for Patriots and Loyalists. After the end of the Revolutionary war, the pressing issue was no longer the problem of independence or the Imperial Crisis, but the problem of nationhood, and how this newly created nation should be run. Arthur Shaffer argued that the fact that “a diverse group of historians could produce . . . a nearly uniform picture of the American past can best be explained as a response to political and social conditions in the early republic.” Partisanship and division in politics were two pressing political issues in the early republic. Under such political turbulence, the intellectual elites called for the unity of the new nation. Shaffer pointed out that as intellectuals in a new nation, the historians “were anxious to define those qualities that made the nation unique, to provide an identity that would set it apart from its former metropolis.” Attempting to solidify the accomplishments of the American Revolution and redefine the new nation, the intellectuals launched a series of endeavors, including writing new histories of America. Some chose to write a more general history of the American colonies, and some chose to write the history specifically about the American Revolution.
Many scholars have focused on this patriotic phenomenon and explained how the history writings in this period consolidated a national identity. Loyalist historical writings, however, became the outsiders in this nationalist narrative. Not only the Patriots recalled their revolutionary experiences and then created and solidified their memories, but the Loyalists also left writings to construct their own historical memories of the Revolution. The diverse experiences among these two groups inevitably generated differing explanations on the Revolution’s causes and consequences. Most Americans today have been made familiar with the historical interpretations from the perspective of the winning side. In most cases, these interpretations came from the elites and attempted to establish an impression of a unified American nation. On the other hand, Loyalists attempted to justify their Loyalist cause by writing and publishing their descriptions of the Revolution.
Unlike the Patriots, the Loyalists did not have a new union to defend, but through writing histories and constructing historical memories, they attempted to justify their decisions and examine the origins of their miseries. They were the real losers of the American Revolution since they lost their properties, honor, and homes for the Loyalist cause. In their historical memories, they endeavored to defend their political decisions and demonstrated a view of the origins of the Revolution differing from the traditional Patriot view. The writings of two New York Loyalists, Thomas Jones and William Smith, Jr., illustrate their historical perspectives.
Thomas Jones, a judge of the New York provincial Supreme Court, was the author of History of New York During the Revolutionary War. He wrote it sometime between 1783 and 1788 while he was exiled in England. His manuscript was never published until 1879 in New York by the New-York Historical Society. His work demonstrated the historical interpretations of Anglican Loyalists, of which he was one.
William Smith was a lawyer and pamphlet writer, but more than that, he was a historian of his own time. He published two volumes of The History of the Province of New York, and left plentiful historical memoirs during the Revolutionary years. He was a fervent supporter of Whig principles during his political career and he was among the leaders of the resistance movement in pre-revolutionary New York. However, he ended up choosing to remain loyal to the British Empire. In 1780, he published a pamphlet, The Candid Retrospect: Or the American War Examined, by Whig Principles, to examine the causes of the origins of the Revolution. Although both Thomas Jones and William Smith became Loyalists during the Revolution, their historical views were different.
Thomas Jones’s History of New York During the Revolutionary War
The editor of Jones’s History of New York During the Revolutionary War claimed in the beginning of the preface that this book was a Loyalist history, not “an English account.” Being loyal to the British crown did not mean that Loyalists were less American. For Jones, remaining in the British Empire was the best option for the American colonies. He believed himself to be loyal to the American interest when he chose to remain loyal to the Crown.
As a member of the Church of England, Jones said that Episcopalians were “the friends of order, and good government, always making it a rule, never to interfere with, or molest the ruling powers, but ever to wait with patience till the time arrives which puts it in their power constitutionally to oppose their enemies.” However, he was not an inflexible advocate of the British government. In terms of the crisis stirred up by the Stamp Act, he said it “occasioned a universal tumult throughout the colony,” and “all ranks of people appeared unanimous in opposing its execution.” Therefore, “the peace of the province, as to any internal jarrings, or political tenets, among its inhabitants, was not in the least disturbed.” He did not welcome the British invasion of American rights, but he and other Loyalists preferred to protest within the boundary set up by British constitutional tradition. He was not a fervent supporter of the latest parliamentary measures, but he was unquestionably an advocate of the British constitutionalism.
Convening the first Continental Congress was usually viewed by his contemporaries as an important event leading to American independence. Jones, however, recalled that it was not the original purpose of the Congress. He said that the New York Loyalists agreed to join the Congress to redress grievances and “to form a happy, perpetual, and lasting, alliance, between Great Britain and America.” The New York delegates to the Congress included some Anglicans, so the New York Loyalists felt safe. He claimed that, “A redress of grievances, and a firm union between Great Britain and America upon constitutional principles was their only aim. This they hoped for, this they wished for, this they expected. To this purport they also verbally instructed their delegates.” However, such hopes, Jones wrote, were “frustrated by the artful cabals of the republicans in Congress.” The New York Loyalists were disappointed to find their delegates were converted to “fixed republicans,” and so they decided at a public meeting to oppose any future delegation.
While the Continental Congresses were remembered to be the institutions that promoted American rights and played a crucial role at forming popular sovereignty, Jones remembered it in a very different way. He believed that the Congresses brought confusion and disorder, and even intruded on their rights. Jones wrote that the republicans “threatened destruction to any person who should oppose the election of delegates” He wrote, “The whole city became one continued scene of riot, tumult, and confusion. Troops were enlisted for the service of rebellion, the Loyalists threatened with the gallows, and the property of the Crown plundered and seized upon wherever it could be found.” To appease the tumult, the Congress passed an Association to unify revolutionary efforts. The Patriots believed that it would maintain the peace and keep the power out of the hands of the mob. However, Jones thought it was the pretended reason, and the true reason was “to strengthen and cement the solemn league and covenant.” Jones thought the Patriots wanted to claim power to control the government and society.
As a Loyalist historian, Jones recorded some events not usually recorded in Patriot histories. For example, he wrote that in August 1775, a group of “select party of republicans” “set off about midnight with a full design of seizing the Rev. Dr. Cooper,” who was then President of Kings College. A student overheard their conversation and warned Cooper just in time to allow him enough time to run out of his house. About this Dr. Myles Cooper, Jones wrote, “I knew him well. He was honest, just, learned, and liberal; judicious, sensible, friendly, and convivial; he loved good company, and good company loved him; he was by no means dissipated. He loved God, honoured his King, esteemed his friends and hated rebellion.” By depicting the unfair treatment of Cooper by the Revolutionaries, he painted an image in which the Revolutionaries were the brutal villains.
Jones reflected on a pamphlet written in response to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, “in which the fallacy of every argument contained in Common Sense was fully refuted.” He asserted that “great pains had been taken in its fabrication, and all the sophistry of Congress could never have made a proper reply to it.” However, the revolutionary leaders did not allow the response to be published. “A meeting was summoned, the parties met, . . . attacked the house of the printer, broke open the doors, pulled him out of his bed, and forcibly seized upon and destroyed the whole impression with the original manuscript.” Jones wrote, “This act was publicly boasted of . . . as an act of heroism, of patriotism, and of virtue.” Sarcastically, he said, “These were the people contending for liberty.” He chided the Revolutionaries that they “engrossed the whole to themselves and allowed not a little to their opponents, they published whatever they pleased, and threatened destruction to any printer who should dare to print an answer to any of their inflammatory, detestable publications.” He condemned such violations of freedom of publication. He pointed out that the day after this raid, every printer received a notice, saying, “Sir, if you print, or suffer to be printed in your press anything against the rights and liberties of America, or in favour of our inveterate foes, the King, Ministry, and Parliament of Great Britain, death and destruction, ruin and perdition, shall be your portion.” He recalled that if any printer tried to publish anything in favor of Britain, “his life would not only have been in danger, but his property would have been destroyed, and his family ruined.”
Jones did not recall the Revolutionary history as a Briton, but as an American Loyalist. He complained about British measures during the Imperial Crisis and during the war. He believed that the British government made many mistakes. For example, in 1776, in an attack on the revolutionary fort at Sullivan’s Island, the British navy and army failed to coordinate the attack as planned but was seriously damaged. The army was unable to cross a stretch of water because the depth had been greatly underestimated. Jones criticized the incompetence of British military leaders. He blamed the British general for failing to discovered the depth of water before the attack. “This occasioned the failure of the attack, and of course all prospect of success in the Southern Colonies at that time.”
Jones also complained about the British treatment of Loyalists. He recorded what happened to Dr. Tredwell when General Howe occupied Long Island. Lieutenant Colonel Birch accidentally met Dr. Tredwell, who was “a gentleman of fortune, of character, and of one of the first families upon the island, and as warm and steady a Loyalist as ever had an existence.” Birch saw Tredwell’s horse and wanted it. Seeing Tredwell was alone, Birch ordered him to dismount and unsaddle his horse. Tredwell was angry and disclosed his identity. However, Birch still ordered him to dismount and had a servant to unsaddle the horse. Birch gave him the saddle and told him “to carry home the saddle upon his own back and be damned.” Jones complained, “There was no civil law. . . . instead of being suffered to present a memorial to the General upon the occasion, upon his application at headquarters for that purpose, the aides-de-camp charged the Doctor with being a rebel and threatened him with the prevost.” Jones recognized that the British treated Loyalists as “others” rather than as fellow citizens. Lack of self-restraint and discipline not only hurt military honor, but also hurt the sentiment of the Loyalists.
In his History, Jones blamed partisan conflict as the cause of the rebellion. Throughout his History, he highlighted the Presbyterians headed by William Smith, Jr. and his family. Whenever he mentioned the mob who plundered and pursued the Loyalists, he rarely forgot to remind his readers of the link between William Smith and the Presbyterians, even though he never alleged that William Smith had actually joined the mob.
Even though Smith later chose the British side, Jones did not trust Smith’s motives for remaining loyal. He argued that if Smith were truly loyal to the Crown, he should have returned to New York when New York was taken back by the British. But he did not. Jones asserted that the intelligence brought in by the Loyalists indicated that Smith “was warmly attached to the American cause, though acting with as much cunning, art, hypocrisy, and dissimulation as possible.” He accused Smith of drawing a constitution for the “rebel Government of New York,” at the request of the provincial convention. Jones implied that Smith’s loyalty to the Crown was controversial and not sincere.
Jones recorded many anecdotes to build up a suspicious image of Smith’s personality. Through these anecdotes, Jones depicted Smith as someone who was unreliable and cunning, and who worked only for his own interests. He pointed out that Smith’s property was not confiscated by Patriots, which was really suspicious in Jones’s eyes. He wrote, “the rebel power . . . looked upon Smith as their real, true, and steady friend.” Even though Smith stayed in New York throughout the whole Revolutionary War and was exiled to Canada afterwards, Jones believed that he was still the same person he was in 1753, “except only, that after an experience of 30 years he has greatly improved in all that art, cunning, chicanery, dissimulation, hypocrisy, and adulation . . . the true characteristic of a person professing the religion of a New England dissenter, and the politics of an English republican.”
Jones disagreed with parliamentary taxation of the American colonies; however, he preferred to fix this unfortunate situation in harmony with the British Constitution. The way that he remembered and described the history of New York on the eve of the American Revolution showed that he valued social order and harmony more than he valued rights. He valued rights, but because of his belief in social order, he did not believe that the American Whigs, or in his own term, the republicans, stirred up all the tumult based on their pursuit of liberties. Rather, he believed that their actions were based on their desire for power. He prioritized social order and British Constitution as his political values; therefore, when he recalled the revolutionary years, he intentionally emphasized the disorder and confusion caused by the revolutionaries, as well as the paradox of the American Revolution: in order to fight against the tyrannical rule of the British Parliament, the Revolutionaries established arbitrary institutes to carry out the revolution and produced more injustice to promote their own interests.
William Smith’s The Candid Retrospect
While Jones chose to write a history to demonstrate what he remembered, William Smith, Jones’s life-time rival, even though he had diligently kept a diary, never wrote a history of New York during the Revolutionary era. In 1780, he published a pamphlet, The Candid Retrospect. In his title, he claimed to examine the Revolution by “Whig principles.” Although he did not write this pamphlet in the form of history, the arguments therein regarding the origins of the Revolution reflected his historical memory, or, at least, what he wanted others to know and think about the Revolution.
In the beginning of this pamphlet, Smith summarized the Americans’ political claims in twelve articles. In these, he included the principles that he believed to be fundamental to the bound between the Great Britain and the American colonies. He recognized that national sovereignty was absolute, and any endeavor to change the government that would lead to civil war was blameful. He emphasized that the grants, charters, and regulations that governed the colonies were “a great national covenant between the Mother Country and the Colonies” and were essential to the happiness of the whole empire. He argued that the national covenant “bound the parent country to protect and promote the Colonies, according to the good faith implied in the grants and charters.” He further claimed that “neither of the contracting parties may dissolve this compact; as long as their joint aim in the union, to wit, their mutual prosperity, can be attained by it.”
Smith believed that both the Great Britain and America needed to be held responsible for this unnatural rebellion. Passing the Stamp Act, he asserted, was “a new and awful idea of the constitution” that “the Parent Country held up to her Colonies.” This parliamentary act, he believed, sent out a message to the Americans: “You Americans are absolutely ours . . . The Privileges and securities of Englishmen cannot be yours unless you return to the old realm . . . All America is subject to our taxations; nor will we hear your complaints, until you first own our authority to deal with you as we please, and acknowledge that such benefits as you request, are to be expected not as of right, but of grace.” He blamed Britain for breaking the practiced rules that had guided the relationship between the American colonies and their mother country, and for attempting to redefine the imperial tie. Even though Smith recognized that Britain had the supreme authority to govern the whole empire, such an attempt to unilaterally and forcefully alter the imperial relationship was not acceptable to him.
Smith believed that the source of the animosity was “the pride and avarice of Great-Britain, in assuming an authority, inconsistent with the compact by which the empire had been long profoundly united.” Although the Americans aroused great turmoil protesting the Stamp Act, they had returned to peace after Parliament repealed it. However, the Townshend duties revived the previous unwelcomed claims and also revitalized colonial resistance. Smith claimed that colonial resistance was justifiable since “representations and petitions having been tried without effect, what could be expected from the mere influence of dissuasions against the purchase of the duties article?” The British reaction to colonial resistance, such as the Coercive Acts, for him, was “utterly unjustifiable, and an infraction of the league.” He believed that “it was the duty of the American Assemblies, and of the Congress acting for the whole continent . . . to tender a plan to the Mother Country, for restoring peace.”
Instead of declaring war against colonies, Smith thought Britain should rebuke the colonial denial of its authority in all cases respecting domestic polity and should be specific in where the American colonies should or would return to, “on condition of their contributing to the necessities of the Empire.” He asserted that Britain and the American colonies would have a better chance to reach reconciliation, “had it explicitly asserted, that the right reserved to Parliament, of approving the quantum of the Colony contributions toward the common defence, was not claimed upon the supposition, that Parliament authoritatively command levies, but only on her right to judge of the exercise or defect of a due sympathy in any branch of the empire, to the general necessities of the whole body.” He believed that while the British Parliament had to claim the supreme sovereignty of the whole empire, it should specify the rights and obligations it would enforce. It should not, Smith insisted, claim the right to tax the American colonies directly, but should claim its right to approve the quantum of colonial contribution. It would maintain the status of the Parliament, fund the common defense, and at the same time ease the animosity. He blamed Britain for trying to redefine the imperial relationship, and did not try to find middle ground. Smith took a typical Whiggish stand. He cared about constitutional rights and tried to be flexible in terms of the application of those rights in order to maintain the integrity of the British Empire. In his historical memory, he blamed the British government for lack of flexibility, but assigned more blame for the Patriots.
Smith accused the Patriots of overstating their claims of rights. Patriots claimed an exclusive right of legislation not only in taxation, but also in internal polity. Smith believed such claim “was a departure in terms from the original league; since it left no authority to the Parliament of Great-Britain over the Plantations.” America would therefore become the ally of Britain, not a member of the Empire. Even though he thought the Continental Congress was justifiable, he did not believe it was legal. Smith suspected Congress’s action was directed by their desire for power. He blamed Congress for radicalizing the conflict while there were still chances for reconciliation. He insisted that Congress’s “continuance of hostilities after the petition to the King . . . confirmed the charge of her commencing a war to maintain an illiberal dominion.” He believed that Congress would have done better if, while it expressed its complaints to the King, it had also shown that it did not mean to “exclude Parliament from participating in the regulations respecting the internal polity of the Colonies.” Not doing so, Congress confirmed the suspicion that it designed “to involve the Empire in blood.” He blamed both Britain and America for “inattention to the obligations they were under to pursue the measures requisite to a reconciliation.”
In retrospect, Smith earnestly wished that these two parties could have reached an agreement to avoid eventual separation and war. He believed that Britain’s best hope was founded on the dependence and union of America. He contended that Britain had also made efforts by repealing the Boston Port Act and two other coercive statutes in 1775, and thus “opened a door to pacification” and offered ways to communicate. Congress, however, did not respond and did not make the American public aware of the British attempt. Smith thought such concealment explained Congress’s true intent, which “favour the perilous design of drawing the people into the precipitate renunciation of the dependency of the Colonies . . . and of plunging their countrymen into a tedious and desolating war.” He criticized the Patriots for turning “the quarrel to their own emolument, at the expense of the blood and treasure of their country,” and ruining those who “have taken no part in the controversy” and were eager for “a return to their ancient union, according to that compact which eminently advanced the common prosperity, antecedent to the year 1764.”
He argued that Congress needed to take the most responsibility for the unfortunate war, and that Congress should retract the declaration which renounced the whole Parliamentary authority in civil polity, “when but few of the Colonies had thought of even temporary establishments for common order, nor any of them had authorized their Delegates to vote for a disunion.” He further stated that Congress had no right “to give success to the unwarrantable project for dismembering the Empire, then concealed from the multitude, can bind the rest of their countrymen, . . . to support a weak and wicked faction, in an obstinate prosecution of the war.” He asked his readers to consider: “Who then are the real enemies of America, if not they who have perverted the virtuous aims of the main body of the people for the defence of their rights and privileges, into a war for dominion?” He accused the Patriots of opposing all peaceful negotiations and forming a league with France to “gratify the corrupt aims of private ambition and interest.” Congress, he argued, “by force and fraud” prevented people’s return to “the blessings of peace, liberty and safety, under a most generous plan tendered by Great-Britain . . . for advancing and perpetuating the prosperity of the whole Empire.” Because Congress refused the negotiation due to their own pursuit of power and interests, Smith believed that Britain was justified in exerting its power to suppress the American rebels, and the American Revolution had “degenerated from a struggle for liberty, into an Unnatural Rebellion.” In sum, Smith appropriated his historical knowledge in his political argument, in which he blamed the Patriots for breaking away from their historical experiences and inventing a new political system. The rebellion was “unnatural” because it was not a fight for liberty, but a break from tradition and a product of political ambition.
Smith was more empathetic to the American claims. Actually, he was among the first people who made those claims. In his historical memory and his justification of the Loyalist cause, he did not alter this basic assumption: the British government made mistakes in altering their imperial policies and breaking the old norm that had sustained this imperial relationship. However, when he recalled the origins of the Revolution, he remonstrated the Patriots for overstating and over-expanding those arguments of rights. The assumption that guided his judgement was that the Parliament held supreme sovereignty over the whole empire; therefore, the colonists could hope to limit the exercise of parliamentary authority in colonies, but could not and should not completely exclude parliamentary authority. This given defined his perception of American rights and restricted the development of his argument of liberty. Bound by such embedded concepts, Smith could not have joined the Revolution. When he recalled the origins of the Revolution, he argued that the British government, even though it made several mistakes, held the legitimate sovereignty over the American colonies, and the rebellious colonists overstated their appeal to rights.
On the other hand, Jones’s historical memory was affected by his experiences of political struggles he had in 1750s and 1760s which contributed to his anger and suspicion towards William Smith and his colleagues. His witnessing of the struggle to establish an Anglican college solidified his suspicions of the motives of the revolutionaries, and reinforced his desire for peace and order. He agreed with the theoretical attacks on parliamentary taxation, but could not support the protestors. He suspected their motives, attacked their morality, and doubted their real intents. His accounts and judgements were filled with the language of honor. While the Patriots claimed that it was honorable to defend liberty, Jones implied that the Patriots had lost their honor as they gave up their moral standards for political and social interests. Jones built his attack on partisanship on the foundation of taken-for-granted moral principles that suffused his historical narratives. Historical memories are not just memories, but are another form of political argument. Therefore, Jones’s and Smith’s embedded cultural apperceptions that were the foundation of their political ideologies also shaped their historical memories.
For the history of the American Revolution, two great examples are Mercy Otis Warren’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (Boston, 1805) and David Ramsay’s The History of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1789).
Most of the scholarly discussion has focused on the Patriots’ history. However, some recent research starts to make the connection between Patriots’ history and Loyalists’ history. For example, Eileen Ka-May Cheng, “Plagiarism in Pursuit of Historical Truth: George Chalmers and the Patriotic Legacy of Loyalist History,” in Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation Making from Independence to the Civil War, edited by Michael A. McDonnell, Clare Corbould, Frances M. Clarke, and W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 144-61.
William Smith, The History of the Province of New York, from the first discovery to the year MDCCXXXII (London, 1757). William Smith, The History of the Late Province of New York, from Its Discovery to the Appointment of Governor Colden in 1762 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1829).
William H. W. Sabine ed., Historical Memoirs of William Smith Vol. I: From 16 March 1763 to 9 July 1776 (New York, 1956). William H. W. Sabine ed., Historical Memoirs of William Smith Vol. II: From 12 July 1776 to 25 July 1778 (New York, 1958).