A review of Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, by Maya Jasanoff

Back in the 1970s, historians sometimes quipped that while the Loyalists had lost the American Revolution, they were on the verge of winning its Bicentennial. In 1972, Mary Beth Norton, then beginning her distinguished career at Cornell University, published The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in Britain, 1774-1789, which used the compensation claims filed by American loyalists to trace their broader experience. The next year, Robert Calhoon published The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, a wide-ranging narrative that illuminated just how diverse the loyalist affiliation could prove. Then, in 1974, came Bernard Bailyn's brilliant biography, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, which acutely but also touchingly explained how Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts and an extraordinarily able servant of empire, helped to provoke the controversies that brought the British empire in North America to its final crisis. It was not the most influential of Bailyn's many books, but some readers consider it his best, since he explains wonderfully how Hutchinson's skills in navigating the pathways of imperial influence blinded him to the resentments and jealousy his success provoked.

Bailyn's aim was to present Hutchinson as a tragic figure—meaning that American readers should be able to set aside the assumptions they bring to written accounts of their nation's political creation, and think just as sympathetically about its victims and foils as they think admiringly about its heroes, the revolutionary founders. It is a noble scholarly ambition, but a difficult task. There is no quorum in American culture—no royalist or parliamentarian remnant—maintaining sympathetic ties to the Revolution's losers. That may be a suitable role for our great northern neighbor in Canada, because the loyalist community formed much of the demographic basis for its Anglophone society and political culture. In the United States, however, the loyalists remain an absentee community, with no one to speak for their plight or legacy, much less sympathize with their residual devotion to crown and empire.

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Now Maya Jasanoff, another Harvard historian, offers a different kind of sympathetic account of the loyalists. Her story begins in Revolutionary America before 1783. But the sympathy readers should feel is not for the loyalists' losses and defeats there, but rather for the adventures on which they embarked in their flight into exile, which gave them new opportunities and challenges within the empire. Jasanoff's story follows two great arcs: one over time, the other across distance. Chronologically, her analysis really begins in 1783, when loyalists enjoying refuge behind British lines—mostly in New York City, Charleston, and Savannah—concluded that they would have no future in the independent American republic. Geographically, the story opens with loyalist settlements in Canada, and then sweeps down the Atlantic to the Bahamas, the West Indies, and then over to the Sierra Leone settlement in West Africa. Throughout, Jasanoff suggests that this experience of exile was part of what she calls "the spirit of 1783." This is Jasanoff's literary invention, and it operates to establish a diluted loyalist counterpart to the patriots' spirit of 1775-1776, when colonists were broadly united in the movement that led to independence, and loyalists in most American communities had to be extremely careful even about voicing their opinions, much less taking the grave risk of mobilizing as a political movement.

Jasanoff is a historian of the British Empire, not the American Revolution proper, and her first chapter on loyalism before 1783 gets her book off to a somewhat shaky start. She makes one minor error when she has Thomas Paine raising a toast at a dinner for the First Continental Congress. Unfortunately, Paine did not arrive in Philadelphia until a month after Congress adjourned; the toaster she quotes was actually Robert Treat Paine, one of the four Massachusetts delegates and a prominent member of his colony's bar. Jasanoff also gives Joseph Galloway's plan for an inter-colonial assembly to deal with imperial matters far more attention as a potential basis for reconciliation than it probably deserves. True, when it was introduced, Congress tabled its discussion by a narrow vote of six colonies to five, but that vote was procedural, not substantive, and had Galloway's scheme really enjoyed the support of five delegations, it likely would have been considered on its merits before Congress adjourned. Britain's refusal to accept the political legitimacy of the Continental Congress also indicates how little imagination London showed in response to the challenge of governing its defiant colonies.

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The opening chapters have one other omission that Jasanoff addresses only in an appendix estimating the total number of exiles: how many Americans can fairly be described as loyalists, and how did that political identification change over time, especially as British military operations made the open expression of loyalist sentiment possible? John Adams famously and belatedly conjured up an American population divided into thirds for, against, and neutral on "the cause," but most historians find that estimate speculative and useless. Other scholars have indicated that perhaps a fifth of the free colonial population had loyalist leanings. Even giving that estimate some credit, it is important to recall that the ability to align with the British through loyalist activities was likely to have varied enormously over the course of the war. In her appendix, Jasanoff estimates that 60,000 would be a reasonable estimate for the number of exiles. In addition, she broadens her description of loyalist exiles to include an estimated 18,000 African American ex-slave refugees, and the Mohawk who followed their leader, Joseph Brant, across the Niagara River into Canada.

Jasanoff does not provide an authoritative account of the emergence of loyalism as an American political phenomenon. But that is not her concern. Her real point of departure is the situation that loyalist refugees living behind British lines and the empire faced in 1782-1783, as the negotiations ending the Revolutionary War and the global conflict to which it led went forward in Paris. The British might have done more to assert and secure the rights of potential refugees to remain in America—but they did not. All the loyalists got from the negotiations was an article pledging the Continental Congress to ask the states to adopt laws permitting loyalists to sue for the recovery of confiscated property—a measure the states were extremely unlikely to adopt. (By contrast, the Treaty of Paris explicitly allowed British mercantile creditors to sue for the recovery of pre-war debts, with interest.) Among the three American negotiators, Benjamin Franklin, rather than John Jay or John Adams, was most adamant in asserting that the loyalists could expect nothing from their former countrymen. Franklin's attitude owed something to his repudiation of his son William, the last royal governor of New Jersey, who placed loyalty to king above loyalty to father. But it also reflected the widespread American conviction that key loyalists (most famously Hutchinson) were the true source of the misperceptions and miscalculations that led Britain to prefer war to negotiations in 1775-1776.

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With tens of thousands of loyalists concentrated in the main occupied cities (New York, Charleston, and Savannah), the British faced the urgent task of planning for the evacuation of the refugees. Here is where Jasanoff's key concept comes into play. "The ‘spirit of 1783' had three major elements," she observes. First, the refugees' flight coincided with the concurrent alteration in the global character of the British Empire, a process of expansion in which they inevitably became involved. Second, the need to recompense the loyalists for their losses in North America generated a form of paternalism that embraced "a clarified commitment to liberty and humanitarian ideals," an attitude that extended even to ex-slaves (although loyalists who carried their slaves with them into exile retained their ownership rights). Yet, in the third place, the empire remained just that, and the lessons the British government learned by 1783 included the need for "centralized, hierarchical government"—a commitment to authority that often fitted poorly with the traditional Anglo-American belief in representation and rights.

This was less a conscious "spirit" of empire, in the same sense that active memories of the patriotism of 1775 did stir Americans later, than a set of characteristics that applied in greater or lesser force over time. The great merit of Jasanoff's deeply researched and engagingly written book is that it links both newly formed loyalist communities and a select group of illustrative individuals singled out for special attention, on the one hand, with the broad process of restless migration that had been so much a part of British imperialism since its 17th-century inception, on the other. In details too numerous and varied to capture here, and with genuine breadth of geographical vision, Jasanoff deftly sketches the challenges loyalists encountered as they struggled to restore a modicum of prosperity in such challenging environments as the arid Bahamas, where salvaging goods from wrecked ships and raking salt-ponds was the best that life seemed to offer.

Resisting any temptation to oversimplify the character of her subjects' experience, or give them an ideological coherence they never possessed, Jasanoff succeeds in restoring to the exiles the complexity of their situation and responses to it. In her story, the Revolution mattered not for its overt political consequences, but for releasing thousands of migrants, white and black, newly freed or still enslaved, into an ongoing process of building separate communities within an imperial framework. In this mobile world, the population of Liberty's Exiles retained a distinct liberty of their own, moving and often re-moving opportunistically, or out of circumstances, across the arc of empire.

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Her favorite character seems to be Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, whose father, a loyalist soldier, began life outside St. Petersburg as a German Protestant subject of Catherine the Great. Her father emigrated to Georgia in 1762, married a Huguenot woman who died when their sole child, Elizabeth, was 10, became a small planter, and sided with the king when the Revolution came. Calling the immigrant Lichtenstein a loyalist American colonist makes little sense analytically. Elizabeth married William Johnston, a loyalist officer when she was 15. The Johnstons moved from Savannah to Charleston and East Florida, then on to Edinburgh, where William became a physician. Then they came back to Jamaica, where William practiced medicine. Elizabeth lived again in Scotland, Nova Scotia (on her own), and then in Jamaica after her husband died there in 1807 and she liquidated his affairs.

Elizabeth's wandering life says little about loyalism but much about the physical disruption and mobility the Revolution generated. Like much of the best recent work in the complementary fields of Atlantic and global history, this book captures what the mobility of imperialism was like, not only in pushing the refugees into new settlements, but in making further resettlements possible as well. Perhaps the greatest liberty of exile was mobility itself.