Follow the Losers

Liberty’s Exiles
American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World
Maya Jasanoff
Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 460 pp.

In The Conservative Mind (1953), Russell Kirk argued that the American Revolution had mainly been “a conservative reaction, in the English political tradition, against royal innovation...a conservative restoration of colonial prerogatives,” and held up John Adams as an exemplary conservative thinker. Ignored by Kirk were those Americans who, remaining loyal to Britain, had opposed the revolution, and who appear to have as good a claim—and perhaps a better one—to be considered “conservative.”

Adams famously recalled that at the start of the revolution, a third of the populace was loyal to the king, a third favored the revolution, and the remaining third was uncommitted. But according to a modern estimate, loyalists actually made up only about one-fifth of the populace. By this estimate, then, out of the 2.5 million Americans in 1775, there were a half-million loyalists. During the war some nineteen thousand white loyalists joined provincial regiments, and about twenty thousand blacks who had been enslaved by (self-described) “patriots” accepted British offers of freedom in return for agreeing to fight.

“Loyalists are often stereotyped as members of a small conservative elite: rich, educated, Anglican, and with strong ties to Britain,” notes historian Maya Jasanoff in Liberty’s Exiles. The reality, however, was much more various. “Loyalists included recent immigrants and Mayflower descendants alike. They could be royal officials as...

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About the Author

Robert K. Landers is the author of An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell (Encounter Books).