Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The American Tory

The American Tory
© 1972 ed. Morten Borden, Penn Borden
141 pages

American colonists yearning for independence from Britain called themselves Patriots, not in opposition against the not-yet-arrived royal army, but to set their cause against that of the Loyalists. Not all colonists supported separation from Britain; even in the steamy summer of 1776, with war already waging, some congressmen were reluctant to shove away any hope of reconciliation with the mother country. They were bristling against their rights offended as Englishmen, were they not?  The American Tory collects the reactions and thoughts of loyalists during the revolutionary period to the turmoil happening around them, as well as accounts of how they were treated by the revolutionaries, and how they and the patriots regarded one another.

'Tory' first described the defenders of the king's cause during the English Civil War, and is sometimes used as a byword for conservative. In the United States, 'tory' seems have been hurled at loyalists with particular hatred. Good, then, that they be given a chance to speak. This is exclusively a collection of excerpts from letters, speeches, assembly minutes, and official proclamations from the period, including two essays comprising histories of the revolution from the patriot and loyalist views. The collection offers a look into the myriad reasons that loyalists gave for staying true; ardent devotion to England,  fear of revolution driving everything to ruin,  and an abiding distrust of those agitating for separation. The Congress made a lot of noise about violated rights, but what if their real motives were more base? What if Adams and Washington simply wanted to create grander names for themselves than peace and cooperation allowed for?  And where did those rights come from, after all, if not the English law, embodied in the person of George III?

Although the patriots liked to dismiss the loyalists as fainthearted and timid, too afraid to make a progressive leap into the future, the abuse many endured for their abiding convictions puts the lie to that. The far easier course would have been the sunshine patriotism Tom Paine grumbled about in The Crisis.  There is pragmatic sense in the tories' belief that rights depended on the application of force -- rights unobserved have no functional existence--  and the able bedrock of the law --  but who wants to depend on the state for the defense of their rights?  The United States still avers to live by natural rights, but do the actions of its government live up to that? Certainly not, and nor did the king and his parliament's.  The struggle between a people's rights and their government's desires is never over, and the strife between the tories and patriots was less a battle between good and evil and more the ancestor of our own debates today.   There is much value in this little book, not only for giving the loyalists a nuanced opinion, but in showing how similarly their passions were expressed.  Both sides used the same language, referring to the respective opposition as a junta, and both taking stands in defense of liberty. The tories saw liberty threatened by disorder and wars; the patriots, by a peace accomplished at the price of subservience; both feared the others' banditti

Such realizations are helpful now, as in any time, to realize how people are more often linked than their passion will allow them to admit. There is still room for civility, here evidenced by one Tory expressing his admiration of George Washington and hoping, if he is defeated, it is a noble defeat, one worthy of the man.   This is in short a fascinating and profoundly helpful work for those seeking to understand the revolution and its causes.


  1. Your review of this book reminds one of the similarities between the Tories and the revolutionaries. Perhaps if the British had been a little less heavy-handed history might have gone in a different direction.

  2. As much as I love the revolutionary heritage, the bad blood between America and England for a generation or two is be regretted. I'm hoping to be able to read "The Men Who Lost America" sometime in the next week or two (it was lost in the mail, so I had to reorder it), which will shed some light on how things could have gone differently.


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