- Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution
Since the publication of Alexander Flick’s Loyalism in New York over a century ago (1901), Loyalists studies have focused on New York perhaps more than on any other individual colony. In the past decade alone, Judith Van Buskirk (2003) and Phillip Pappas (2009) have published specialized studies on New York Loyalists. But despite the number of works on Loyalists in general and New York Loyalists in particular, none has focused exclusively on the Loyalist experience in New York City during the Revolution. Ruma Chopra’s Unnatural Rebellion is the first examination of this surprisingly neglected topic. The result is not only a much-needed work, but also one of the most important recent contributions to our understanding of this group.
Chopra opens by noting how, prior to the Revolution, New York City and its residents sat at a crucial economic epicenter of the British Atlantic world, which forged strong ties between New York and England. These ties created profits for New York’s various merchants as well as positions of authority for its landed elite. As she explains, these close ties to England rested on more than lined pockets, however, as New Yorkers “forged their identity in the wake of empire” (28) and celebrated their shared cultural, constitutional, and religious ties to the mother country. By 1765, New Yorkers were, in essence, British-Americans. Because they considered themselves as such, they resisted Parliament’s tightening of imperial control in the decade following the Stamp Act by asserting their English liberties and labeling England’s actions arbitrary and unconstitutional. (Here Chopra’s work would have benefited from a deeper examination of Loyalist legal and political thinking.) At the same time, however, New Yorkers hesitated to embrace aggressive or radical [End Page 465] resistance against England. This was especially true of the elite, who feared that any disruption of the imperial connection would “overturn the fragile accommodation of diverse interests within New York” (28). Hence, Chopra suggests, a strong personal identification with England’s social and constitutional culture, coupled with the economic and political benefits of being part of the British Empire, were what made New York Loyalists consider the American rebellion “unnatural.”
With the coming of the American War for Independence, New York City became the British military’s headquarters, and remained so for the duration of the war. The protection English forces provided led to its becoming the major refugee center for fleeing Loyalists across the continent, and a doubling in population to 25,000 by 1781. At first, the local Loyalists welcomed British troops, believing that New York City would become a symbol of England’s commitment to constitutional government. Nor did they protest when British generals implemented martial law in the city, believing the measure a temporary necessity. Chopra’s detailed discussion of how the Loyalists attempted to follow constitutional norms and petition for the return of civil government, only to realize (somewhat slowly) that New York City was a “garrisoned city under siege” (79), is the strongest and most interesting part of her book. But even with the stark reality of military rule in New York City, mounting frustration with England’s neglect of them, and its inability to suppress the American rebellion, Loyalists never wavered in their hopes of reconciliation. “More than British tyranny,” explains Chopra, Loyalist leaders “dreaded the future of the colonies under rebel anarchy or French rule” (107).
Despite this unifying fear, Loyalist opinion fractured by 1778, dividing between militant hardliners like William Franklin and William Smith—who anticipated, Chopra suggests, the growth of their influence in British imperial affairs if the British followed their advice and crushed the rebellion—and moderate Loyalists who pursued wartime profiteering. To British officials, these factions further complicated the already difficult task of balancing a large-scale civilian population with military needs and discipline. With the influx of poor whites and blacks, as well as escaped slaves who fled to New York City for survival, those problems mounted...