- Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City during the Revolution
American Revolution, Loyalists, New York City
Ruma Chopra’s study of New York loyalists does her subjects the honor of taking them seriously. Chopra views loyalists not as heads-in-the-sand reactionaries incapable of seeing the value of radical change but as men who wanted to preserve a system that worked for them and, they believed, for others. In order to reconstruct this perspective, Chopra manages to bring together political thought and material experience—in particular, the experience of military occupation—in ways that are both thoughtful and persuasive.
Chopra’s central contention is that the introduction of the British army into New York both supported and undermined loyalist politics of persuasion. Although the loyalists initially welcomed the British troops, seeing them as the facilitators of reunion, their enthusiasm for an occupied city did not last long. Most loyalists did not expect to live under martial law; they wanted a return to civil government as soon as possible so they could again enjoy the benefits of the British empire. Their arguments for an attachment to the empire depended on claims to civil liberties and the British constitution, none of which could be enjoyed in a city under military rule. As Chopra writes, “They believed just and balanced civil governance in New York City would win the hearts and minds of wavering colonists” (79). Yet it was hard to make an argument to nonloyalists for the superiority of the British system when New Yorkers faced military assaults on their borders and undisciplined soldiers at [End Page 697] home. Loyalists hoped to use New York as a persuasive model for living under imperial rule; it turned instead into a warning against capitulation to imperial power.
This is an interesting reworking of the arguments by John Shy and Sung Bok Kim (although Chopra does not acknowledge either) that the presence of troops had a notable impact on civilian populations. In 1973, Shy argued that the forced participation of adult men in the militia as well as the outrages committed by the British Army led to an increased politicization of Americans as they became committed to the Whig cause. Kim, by contrast, argued twenty years later that the same processes, at least in Westchester County, led to the opposite outcome of apathy and depoliticization. By asking what impact British troops, and particularly military rule, had on the loyalist political strategy, Chopra excavates a troubling paradox for New York loyalists.1
Chopra describes the Revolution in loyalist terms as an “unnatural rebellion.” In their eyes, New Yorkers had no reason to become radical; in the mid eighteenth century, they saw themselves happily connected to the British empire through trade and culture. The city’s elites bickered over local political power, but for the most part they agreed that they were a part of an empire that had some appropriate control over them. Apparently, enfranchised New Yorkers agreed with them, for they regularly returned members of both the Delancey and Livingston factions to office. The city’s heterogeneity, Chopra argues, meant that New Yorkers rarely formed clear political blocs based on class or ethnicity. The early revolutionary conflicts—Stamp Act riots, Quartering Act conflicts, soldiers chopping down the Liberty Tree, even the “Battle of Golden Hill”—seemed to produce more internal factionalism in New York City than it did loyalism or hostility to the British Empire itself.
Chopra suggests that no New Yorkers moved toward separation with Britain until the passage of the Coercion Acts against Boston in 1774. Benjamin Carp has recently argued that the Boston Tea Party of 1773 was in part the Bostonians’ attempt to prove to their radical neighbors in New York (and elsewhere) that they were committed to some form of [End Page 698] resistance; it would have been helpful to know what sense Chopra made of the non-importation movement in New York in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Does she interpret it as something different from “rebellion...