Unfriendly to Liberty: Loyalist Networks and the Coming of the American Revolution in New York City


July 10, 2023
by Gene Procknow Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Unfriendly to Liberty: Loyalist Networks and the Coming of the American Revolution in New York City by Christopher F. Minty (Ithaca [New York]: Cornell University Press, 2023)

Who were the New York Loyalists? Why did they retain British allegiance? What is their lasting impact on American society? Revolutionary War historian and digital documentary editor Christopher F. Minty provides provocative and unexpected answers to these questions in his new monograph, Unfriendly to Liberty. Starting with the groundbreaking 1768 New York colonial elections, Minty recounts the next eight years of New York City’s increasingly intense and polarized political environment. He voices the story of the pre-war rise of two dominant political blocs—the Delanceyites, led by James Delancey, and the Sons of Liberty, led by Alexander McDougall. James Delancey was the force behind winning the 1768 and 1769 elections over the incumbent Livingston-led political family. Born in the home that became Fraunces Tavern, Delancey was highly educated and one of the wealthiest New Yorkers, having become heir to a vast family fortune. On the other hand, self-made merchant Alexander McDougall organized the opposing, more radical faction.

Contrary to most previous accounts of pre-revolution New York, Minty places Delancey and his followers at the story’s center. The Delanceyites rose to political prominence after their unexpected 1768 electoral success. Painting the previously-controlling Livingston family as not representative of the population and not working to advance their interests, the Delanceyites amassed controlling seats in New York’s colonial assembly. The winning electoral campaign featured innovative use of print media distributed through the city’s tavern culture to mobilize broad-based support.

Initiating the first colonial resistance since the universally hated Stamp Tax, the Delancey bloc and Alexander McDougall opposed the 1767 and 1768 Townsend Acts, believing they had an obligation to protect the public good and maintain economic independence. The two factions diverged when the New York Assembly voted to recognize the Quartering Act. After the Delancey politicians supported the Quartering Act, a group famously named the Sons of Liberty left the Delancey bloc and joined McDougall. From then on, the Delancey supporters opposed specific British government policies but favored remaining within the British Empire. McDougall’s supporters painted the Delanceyites as underwriting extractive and arbitrary British colonial policies and demanded the fundamental rights conferred under the British constitution (page 82).

Minty studiously investigates the early 1770s political gatherings, elections, and informal associations to track the pre-war activities of James Delancey’s and McDougall’s supporters. As the Revolutionary conflict neared, both sides vigorously sought new adherents based upon starkly differing world views.

Who Were the Loyalists?

While loyalty to the Crown was not predestined, Minty argues that the pre-war political environment mobilized New Yorkers to choose between two camps based on social, political, economic, historical, and cultural factors. After the 1776 British Army New York City invasion, most Delanceyites became British Crown Loyalists, and most Sons of Liberty and McDougall supporters joined the rebellion advocating American independence.

Minty adds new insights into the demographic composition of the Loyalist population. For example, he debunks that Loyalists were primarily wealthy merchants and Crown-appointed colonial politicians dependent upon British rule. Most Loyalists were people of modest means, such as artisans and farmers. Discrediting another myth that loyalists were primarily Anglicans, he finds that while Anglicans were disproportionately Loyalists, British Crown supporters included people from the Quaker, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, Lutheran, German Reformist, and Moravian faiths. As a result, he asserts that loyalism “cannot be over-homogenized” (p. 223). Loyalists “were a diverse group, representing the overall diversity of colonial North America” (p, 225). Meticulously researching and describing the people who became Loyalists is one of the book’s most valuable contributions.

Backing up his arguments, Minty compiled a detailed database of 9,338 people in the counties of New York, Kings, Queens, Suffolk, and Westchester he believed were committed loyalists based upon loyalty oaths, probate records, and petitions. He identified loyalists’ occupations, wealth, age, education, and religion where possible. Although not explicitly specified, the database likely includes primarily men, as Minty’s examples are all male. Adding a gender breakdown would help readers understand the characteristics of the Loyalists better.

Why did people choose to retain British loyalty?

In early 1775, the contest between the Delanceyites and the Sons of Liberty moved beyond local New York political issues to a full-fledged imperial crisis. At the beginning of the year, both political factions believed that Parliament’s “unending march towards imperial authoritarianism had gone too far” (p. 191). While there was an agreement for needed change, the two sides advocated starkly different tactics to redress their grievances. The Delanceyites sought to resolve New York’s complaints within the existing colonial administration system. In April 1775, James Delancey sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to plead the New Yorkers’ case for reforming the colonial administration. He petitioned Parliament for reconciliation and recognition of New Yorkers’ rights that would peaceably settle the crisis.

McDougall’s followers supported an extra-legal New York provincial convention to select delegates for a second Continental Congress rather than the prior city-wide nomination and voting process to send representatives to the first Congress. The Delancyites balked at this new approach, and Isaac Low, a prominent Delanceyite, refused to participate in the provincial congress and be renominated as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Going the other way, John Jay switched his allegiance, supported the Sons of Liberty, and accepted going to Philadelphia as a delegate.

The New York political divisions hardened with news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. From this point forward, both sides sought to increase their ranks and began amassing guns and ammunition. While the two factions prepared for armed conflict, there is a question about the willingness among their adherents to fight. Why did some Delancyites join a provincial unit or militia to subdue the Rebels, and others did not? The answer to this question would help assess the relative intensity of the Loyalists/Rebel factions. A willingness to fight indicates a very high attachment to the British Crown. Minty’s analysis could benefit from cross-referencing muster roles by identifying which of the 9,338 Loyalists in the database served in a Provincial regiment or a Loyalist militia unit.

Additionally, muster rolls might add numerous Loyalists to Minty’s database. Evidence from Philip R. N. Katcher’s compilation indicates that more than twenty Provincial units were recruited from the New York City area during the war. For example, Oliver Delancey, Sr. recruited an eponymously named Delancey’s Brigade of approximately seventeen hundred and fifty soldiers.[1] It would be interesting to see which soldiers are among the identified Loyalists in Minty’s database.

What are the Loyalists’ lasting impacts?

Readers of Revolutionary Era scholarship usually don’t think of the lasting impact of Loyalism, as the Revolutionaries generally replaced Loyalists in the Early Republic’s narratives. Minty disputes this notion. He asserts that the Loyalist Delanceyites “laid the groundwork for establishing an expansive and more inclusive political republic in the 1780s and beyond” (p. 6). As evidence, during the intense pre-war political contest with McDougall’s supporters, James Delancey’s followers pushed for broader political participation through innovative and engaging methods. The Delanceyites expanded the electorate to include non-elite white males. They developed followership among this new group of voters through the print media, coffee houses, tavern meetings, and by opening viewing galleries for the New York Assembly. Minty concludes that, due to the pre-war political disputes, non-elites became part of the political process through intense partisanship and associations developed by the Delanceyites. As a result, Loyalism left its indelible stamp on New York politics.

In addition to inalterably changing the political landscape, certain Loyalists remained in New York after the war, becoming United States citizens. Many non-fleeing Loyalists had their property seized in retribution but were left in peace to rebuild their lives. As a result, several Loyalist families flourished in the Early Republic, such as the Banckers, Goelets, and the Coldens. Paradoxically, high-profile Rebel leaders such as Alexander McDougall, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay tamped down post-war anti-Loyalist sentiments and welcomed them into associations such as the Chamber of Commerce and other areas of business and the community.

I highly recommend Unfriendly to Liberty for placing the Loyalists at the story’s center, its valuable database, and insights into how the Loyalists changed New York’s political process. Additionally, those readers familiar with Alexander McDougall through his yeoman service as Washington’s trusted general will benefit from properly recognizing his pre-war radical organizing efforts among New Yorkers. Readers will ponder why other Revolutionary Era historians neglect McDougall, given the prominent Sons of Liberty role described by Minty and his competent military track record.[2] Lastly, there are many further opportunities to expand and exploit the Loyalist database, which the digitally-inclined author will hopefully pursue.

PLEASE CONSIDER PURCHASING THIS BOOK FROM AMAZON IN CLOTH or in KINDLE. (As an Amazon Associate, JAR earns from qualifying purchases. This helps toward providing our content free of charge.)

[1]Philip R. N. Katcher, Encyclopedia of British, Provincial, and German Army Units, 1775-1783 (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1973), 84–85.

[2]For example, Maj. Gen. Charles Lee evaluated Alexander McDougall as “a sensible brave Officer.” Charles Lee, The Lee Papers, ed. Henry Edward Bunbury (New York: New York Historical Society, 1872), II:262.

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