- Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World
The loyalists-those Americans who supported the British during the American Revolution-have generally received scant attention from scholars. Recently, however, loyalist studies have undergone a minor renaissance, and both the definition of who the loyalists were [End Page 475] and the geographic scope of their activities have been expanded. My book, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (2008), broadened the study of loyalists by including Indians and African Americans who supported the British, and including the loyal provinces of East and West Florida. Jerry Bannister and Liam Riordan's anthology, The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era (2011), likewise included Indians and blacks while extending coverage to the Atlantic World. In the same vein, Maya Jasanoff provides a multiracial history of the loyalists in Liberty's Exiles, which extends its focus to the entire British empire and lengthens its time frame to the early nineteenth century.
Jasanoff opens with an overview of the revolution and the persecution that drove over fifty thousand white loyalists (bringing about fifteen thousand slaves with them), some five thousand free blacks, and hundreds of Indians to flee the United States when the British army withdrew in 1782-83. She personalizes the variety of postwar loyalist experience by focusing on several representative persons. Among these are New Yorker Beverley Robinson, who moved to England and whose five sons later served the British empire in Canada and Europe; Mohawk leader Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), who labored in his new Canadian homeland to rebuild an Indian confederacy to replace the Iroquois league that had been shattered by the revolution; Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, a Georgia refugee whose postwar travels spanned Scotland, Jamaica, and Nova Scotia; David George, a Baptist preacher and former slave who journeyed first to Nova Scotia and later to Sierra Leone in Africa; and William Augustus Bowles, who became an adoptive member of the Creek Indian confederacy and whose efforts to create an independent Creek state led him on an odyssey that included imprisonment by the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines. Jasanoff also chronicles the refugees' struggles with poverty, dislocation, and racism, and, for some, the reestablishment of successful lives in areas such as the Bahamas and India.
In addition to rebuilding their own lives, Jasanoff finds the loyalists [End Page 476] actively engaged in reshaping the British empire in accordance with what she terms the "spirit of 1783." This, Jasanoff explains, consisted of three elements. First, "loyalists were both agents and advocates" of postrevolutionary imperial expansion (p. 12). Second, British officials, in response to the American Revolution, came to conceive of the empire as a multiracial entity in which all subjects were entitled to share in both British political liberty and in the benefits of a humanitarian paternalism. Finally, British leaders recognized that in the complex global empire being constructed, strong, centralized government was necessary. The latter element conflicted with the views of many loyalists, whose experience in the American colonies led them to favor a more representative political system. Jasanoff stresses that loyalists did not share a coherent set of political beliefs beyond their commitment to the British crown and empire, a factor that led to conflict among refugees and between loyalists and imperial authorities.
Well written and thoroughly researched, Liberty's Exiles is an excellent work that will be as engaging to general readers as it will be useful to scholars of the American Revolution and British imperial history. Jasanoff effectively demonstrates the global influence of the loyalists, not as mere losers in the revolution, but as builders of the second British empire.
Jim Piecuch is an associate professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. He is the author of four books and several articles on the American Revolution.