Review: Resisting Independence: Popular Loyalism in the Revolutionary British Atlantic


April 19, 2021
by George Kotlik Also by this Author


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Resisting Independence: Popular Loyalism in the Revolutionary British Atlantic by Brad A. Jones (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021)

In Resisting Independence: Popular Loyalism in the Revolutionary British Atlantic, Brad A. Jones reminds readers that “the American Revolution . . . was as much a story of loyalty as it was rebellion” (page 2). Jones’s book seeks to show how revolutionary challenge inadvertently created a new, shared loyalist ideology. As such, Resisting Independence focuses on four major port cities: New York City, Kingston (Jamaica), Halifax (Nova Scotia), and Glasgow (Scotland). These cities show how the American Revolution shaped a transatlantic understanding of British loyalism. In response to patriot arguments against the Crown, which caused loyal Britons to question what defined their attachment to the empire, a new understanding of loyalism emerged, characterized by a strengthened defense of monarchy and constituted government. Prior to Jones’s study, assertions from notable scholars claim that the development of British loyalism was the result of efforts from British inhabitants on the mainland. Jones argues that British subjects who lived and worked beyond mainland Britain were just as involved in the reimagining of loyalty and loyalism. On balance, the inhabitants of the aforementioned four communities emerged from the Revolutionary War even more committed to “a balanced, representative British monarchy.” Consequently, they helped shape a new empire-wide definition of loyalism (4).

Redefinition did not occur uniformly. It was shaped by local experiences and circumstances. The American Revolution brought about a crisis of what it meant to be British. Britons across the empire highlighted certain rights and liberties over others, producing unique perspectives on the matter. Kingstonians believed race was linked to ideas of freedom and national identity. Their claim to the rights of British subjects came to depend on their ability to dominate African slaves. Kingstonians were invested in a British identity premised on the right of its subjects to enslave others and engage in the slave trade. Haligonians (residents of Halifax) and loyal New Yorkers emphasized the principles of consent and representation and underlined these key components in their identity. This belief stemmed from their suffering, endured for nearly two decades under cruel, repressive governments (both British and American). Glaswegians (residents of Glasgow) understood the American Revolutionary War as an attack on their economic interests and Protestant loyal ties. Their definitions of what it meant to be British revolved around a more inclusive conception of loyalism, increased representation in Parliament, and a greater defense of their Protestant faith. Because the aforementioned communities differed in their definitions of loyalism, Britons were thus both united and divided in their understandings of loyalty. Greater demands placed on the British government to protect the rights and liberties of British subjects proved to be the unifying characteristic between these communities.

Resisting Independence follows a chronological narrative of the American Revolution and War. It begins chapter one by talking about the importance of newspapers in shaping popular notions of loyalism. Newspapers, constituting a vast multilayered communication network, exchanged information and “shaped how residents understood their empire and place within it” (23). As such, newspapers played a key role in defining local political cultures. Chapters two and three show how the imperial crisis divided Britons and communities over the meaning and importance of a shared imperial identity. This produced competing transatlantic understandings of loyalism which were often at odds with one another (103). Chapters four through seven look at how the war impacted a transatlantic loyalist ideology. Postwar loyalists demonstrated a devotion to the British monarchy. These loyalists constructed a shared narrative that framed American republicanism and French Catholicism as greater threats to personal liberty (226). At length, the American Revolution strengthened loyalist attitudes towards the monarchy and empire. Loyalists continued to understand what it meant to be British within the context of their own local interests and political cultures (227).

Resisting Independence is an enjoyable read. Refreshingly, it does not demand expert knowledge on loyalism. Jones’s writing demonstrates a superb balance, being both scholarly and accessible. Even so, it is important to note that Jones tends to delay the delivery of his point—a fact that becomes tiresome at times. This observation should not, however, discourage readers from consuming this work. Afterall, Jones made a complex topic approachable. Given the inaccessible nature of some academic writing, examples like this are true gems.

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