When the Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, a significant number of Americans remained faithful to Britain and George III, while others with indeterminate political views believed that undertaking a war against a strong imperial power was foolhardy. Throughout the conflict, Americans who opposed the war, the revolution and independence became known as Loyalists. Supporters of the revolution often used more derogatory terms, such as Tories or Royalists, while referring to themselves as Patriots.
Studying the fate of Loyalists provides interesting insight into how the revolution treated dissenters and outsiders – even those who were themselves born in America. Most research suggests that as many as 20 per cent of the population, or 500,000 Americans, were Loyalist at the commencement of war, while the historian Middlekauff argues that revolutionaries outnumbered Loyalists in all states.
The exception to this was New York which, because it was occupied by the British military for the duration of the war, became a haven for outspoken Loyalists. However nowhere else were Loyalists numerous enough, concentrated enough or strong enough to oppose the revolution.
“Samuel Adams and John Adams had to content with these loyal subjects when they set about to arouse America to rebellion and final independence. The great majority of men could be regarded as indifferent, ready to stampede and rush along with the successful party; yet even among the masses, this traditional love of kingship had to be reckoned with and combated. Loyalty was the normal condition, the state that had existed and did exist; and it was the Whigs – the Patriots – who must do the converting, the changing of men’s opinions to suit a new order of things which the revolutionaries believed necessary for their own and their country’s welfare.”
Claude H. Van Tyne
In places where the revolution enjoyed significant support, such as Massachusetts, Loyalists were vilified in propaganda as spies, money-hungry capitalists and enemies of the revolution. There were constant threats of violence, such as tarring-and-feathering, against those who continued to support the king, though few Loyalists were actually killed by Patriots – at least until the British campaign in the south in 1780.
Many Loyalist families fled their homes because of threats or intimidation It is believed that around 80,000 Loyalists fled America during or after the Revolutionary War, most to Canada and some to British colonies in the Caribbean or to England itself. Their property was seized under acts of attainder, then surrendered to the state to fund the war effort. Since Loyalists tended by be government officials or hold some kind of local office, these positions were quickly filled by ambitious Patriots, further shifting the balance in support of the revolution.