BOOK REVIEW: Dishonored Americans: The Political Death of Loyalists in Revolutionary America by Timothy Compeau (University of Virginia Press, 2023)
Early American scholars treated Loyalists of the American Revolution as bystanders and stereotypical villains in the story. This was part of a larger attempt to unify American colonists during and after the war. Some Loyalists wrote their own stories; mainly elites attempted to justify imperial actions or theorize why the British lost the colonies.
Telling a larger picture of these Loyalists means thorough research of primary sources, specifically, ones that tell who these Loyalists were and how the war affected them. There has been growing research in the field of Loyalist studies, particularly in the Ontario and Nova Scotia areas, notable places of Loyalist refugees. Yet, according to Maya Jasanoff, traditional Loyalist studies still examine Patriot and Loyalist ideologies and philosophies. Ruma Chopra also states that Loyalists lose agency when scholars only analyze their treatment at the hands of radical Patriots.
Timothy Compeau’s Dishonored Americans attempts to rectify these issues by placing his analysis in the center of honor culture and masculinity. Patriots encouraged “political death” of Loyalists, which intensified the civil war of the revolution. Patriots perceived Loyalists as dangerous, but each side weaponized honor culture to craft their own identities. Drawing heavily from his 2015 doctoral dissertation, Compeau argues that while Patriots attacked the benchmarks of manhood and honor, each side formed its own ideals. Compeau draws on experiences of mainly white men, notably from South Carolina, which he argues is due to the extensive documentation of Loyalists in this area.
The monograph is arranged thematically around how honor is applied based on captivity, vengeance, and patriarchy. Compeau defines “honor” in colonial and early America as being applied to mostly white upper-class “gentlemen.” Elements of honor may include having a home, enslaved people, a business, or all three. Despite never stating it outright, possessions determined the status of these men. Compeau illustrates an unconscious weaponization of these ideas, seen when Patriots attacked Loyalist homes, businesses, and clothing. Attacks on Loyalists did vary depending on the Patriot group partaking in them, and the Loyalists they were directed towards. Attacks ranged from radical destruction of property, raping of upper-class Loyalist women, or physical attacks, to confiscation of property and hurling insults.
Compeau uses examples like these in chapter one to illustrate how dishonoring centered around these symbols. The “gentlemen” of upper and middling classes derived their patriarchal status from their possessions: property, business, land, enslaved people, or material possessions. Compeau argues that attacks on homes and businesses were an attempt by radical Patriots to dishonor their enemies’ status.
Attacks on honor operated within the social customs of the time, utilizing racialized or gendered symbols. For example, physical assaults such as branding of Loyalists are comparable to enslaved Africans already enduring this. Branding white Loyalists meant bringing them down the totem pole of social hierarchy. These physical attacks had ties to slavery and the “coercive power of the law and master class.” Radical Patriots used physical violence in the name of popular justice. Attacks on the physical bodies of Loyalists were rare, especially upon those of a higher social class. Many male Loyalists were perceived to be either feminine or not controlling enough of their wives. (Elizabeth Loring comes to mind.) What is most intriguing about the monograph is not only who were considered to be “gentlemen” of honor, but also which people were not. Attacks on Loyalists underscore the beliefs of some Patriots that liberty and honor did not apply to all people. Some Patriots believed Loyalists dishonorable for fighting alongside Native Americans and enlisted slaves. This way of thinking applied to some Loyalists too; for example, one Loyalist captive complained of being chained between an “Indian and a Negro.” The problem with female Loyalists was complex; some Patriots regarded them as innocent bystanders, and others regarded them as traitors to their country. However, Loyalist women who stayed behind enemy lines had their homes and possessions confiscated.
The so-called rules for ostracizing white male Loyalists sometimes meant things were done on a case-by-case basis. Compeau’s second chapter, on captivity, explains how honor worked at a time when political ideologies differed. The idea of honor was fluid depending on which side attempted to claim it. Laws of European customs were “thrown into disarray,” but honor extended to those who offered mutual respect. Loyalists who did not acknowledge the Continental army as legitimate, either by lying about their association with other Loyalists or by escaping their paroles, suffered harsher treatment. Loyalists that “performed” like gentlemen appealed to some elite Patriots, allowing them to escape this kind of treatment. Cadwallader Colden Jr. ‘s theatrics of appeals spared him from captivity with commoners. He was allowed “imprisonment” on his private ship with a servant and a five-day holiday. Patriots from the middling classes did not agree with this. William Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s son) was imprisoned in horrific conditions due to violating his parole, which was seen as denouncing the Continental government’s legitimacy. Honor again extended only to an elite few.
The Loyalist story is more complex in Compeau’s following chapters on revenge, honor, and rebirth. These chapters explain how some ousted Loyalists believed they were justified in seeking revenge. Again, they were caught in eighteenth century concepts of honor and masculinity. They also fought against repeated Patriot propaganda of Loyalist “criminals.” Compeau splits Loyalists into two camps: neutral and combatant. Both were torn between restraining the “primal” passions of physical violence and the “genteel” nature of Christian restraint, along with British redress of grievances. Patriot press further complicated the issue by depicting Loyalist militia victories as villainous, treacherous, and weak. Once again, these depictions correlated with African American and other minority stereotypes. Loyalist militia assistance by Native Americans and enslaved was not taken kindly by some Patriots. This again supports Compeau’s argument that honor culture was gendered and racialized.
The final chapters illustrate how defeat became a part of the Loyalist identity. Loyalist men presented themselves as worthy, self-sacrificing British citizens. As such, they believed the Crown had to restore these privileges and their former status. Compeau illustrates the clash between these Loyalist refugees and the reigning British Parliament overseas. His sources include newspapers, family histories, and grievances through the Loyalist Claims Commission. At first, these stories got lost in the Loyalist interpretation of losing the Revolution. Loyalists addressed their plight, sometimes publicly in their commission claims. They always used language that demonstrated honor: in the case of Loyalists, it meant explaining sacrifices they made in the name of loyalty to the Crown.
Compeau’s monograph challenges the idea that Patriots and Loyalists were completely different; both used and understood concepts of masculinity and honor. Loyalists were not passive; the monograph demonstrates attempts by Loyalists to prevent certain injustices and use their political ostracization as a badge of honor. Compeau does talk about how early American writers and propaganda created a stereotyped image of Loyalists. While he is not attempting to only write about the upper elite whites, there are lingering questions about Loyalist enslaved people, women, Native Americans, and those from the lower classes. The weakest part of the work is that Compeau appears to be falling into this trope. Perhaps more work can be done to illustrate how these experiences fit into this idea of agency and culture in Loyalist studies. Nevertheless, Compeau’s Dishonored Americans continues to showcase Loyalist stories, and their importance to the study of the American Revolution.
Timothy Compeau, “Dishonoured Americans: Loyalist Manhood and Political Death in Revolutionary America” (2015), ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/2712.