Liberty's Exiles

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2012-03-06
  • Publisher: Vintage

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On November 25, 1783, the last British troops pulled out of New York City, bringing the American Revolution to an end. Patriots celebrated their departure and the confirmation of U.S. independence. But for tens of thousands of American loyalists, the British evacuation spelled worry, not jubilation. What would happen to them in the new United States? Would they and their families be safe? Facing grave doubts about their futures, some sixty thousand loyalistsone in forty members of the American populationdecided to leave their homes and become refugees elsewhere in the British Empire. They sailed for Britain, for Canada, for Jamaica, and for the Bahamas; some ventured as far as Sierra Leone and India. Wherever they went, the voyage out of America was a fresh beginning, and it carried them into a dynamic if uncertain new world. A groundbreaking history of the revolutionary era, Liberty's Exilestells the story of this remarkable global diaspora. Through painstaking archival research and vivid storytelling, award-winning historian Maya Jasanoff re-creates the journeys of ordinary individuals whose lives were overturned by extraordinary events. She tells of refugees like Elizabeth Johnston, a young mother from Georgia, who spent nearly thirty years as a migrant, searching for a home in Britain, Jamaica, and Canada. And of David George, a black preacher born into slavery, who found freedom and faith in the British Empire, and eventually led his followers to seek a new Jerusalem in Sierra Leone. Mohawk leader Joseph Brant resettled his people under British protection in Ontario, while the adventurer William Augustus Bowles tried to shape a loyalist Creek state in Florida. For all these people and more, it was the British Empirenot the United Statesthat held the promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Yet as they dispersed across the empire, the loyalists also carried things from their former homes, revealing an enduring American influence on the wider British world. Ambitious, original, and personality-filled, Liberty's Exilesis at once an intimate narrative history and a provocative new analysisa book that explores an unknown dimension of America's founding to illuminate the meanings of liberty itself.


From Chapter One
Civil War
Thomas Brown would always remember the day the American Revolution changed his life. It was the summer of 1775, the twenty-five-year-old’s first on his own American land. He had arrived in the colonies a year earlier from the blustery English port of Whitby, with seventy-four indentured servants in tow, to start a plantation in the Georgia backcountry, near Augusta. The newcomers must have marveled on reaching this strange, subtropical landscape, where giant black oaks stood like sixty-foot columns holding up the sky. Within nine months, Brown and his laborers had cut much of the forest into farms. He supervised his burgeoning 5,600-acre estate from a fine new great house, his tenants surrounding him in thirty-six farmhouses of their own. Horses filled Brown’s stables; cattle and hogs got fat off his grass and feed. He applied to the governor for more land, sent away to Britain for another shipload of workers, and enjoyed “the pleasing prospect to observe that his affairs in that country were likely to succeed beyond his most sanguine expectations.” But another force was set to transform Thomas Brown’s new world. He saw it coming one August day in the form of 130 armed men marching straight toward his house.
Brown knew, before coming to America, of the “troubles” that had been tearing up Anglo-American relations for a decade. A series of taxes imposed by Britain had triggered a heated conflict over the limits of parliamentary authority and the rights of colonial British subjects. Brown confidently reckoned that Georgia, a thousand miles away from New England, the center of unrest, had “no connection or concern” in such affairs. Even in 1774,investing his personal fortune and future in the American colonies looked like a good bet. But in April 1775, British and American troops exchanged the first shots of the revolution outside Boston—and no part of the colonies remained unconcerned for long. In Savannah and Charleston, the nearest major cities to Brown’s estate, patriots formed associations to organize support for the rebellion, and approached Brown and his neighbors to join. Did he have anything to gain by doing so? Not really. The fact that he had recently arrived—and in1775, 10 percent of the colonies’ white population had immigrated within the last fifteen years—mattered less to his calculations than that he intended to spend the rest of his life in the colonies. He owed his land and status to the patronage of the Georgia governor; he also held a position as a local magistrate. Besides, he figured, surely this provincial uprising had little chance of success when met with the full military might of the British Empire. Whatever he may have thought of the principles at stake, self-interest alone pointed out Brown’s choice. He refused patriot overtures, and signed on to a loyalist counterassociation instead. The next thing Brown knew, patriot invitations became demands, delivered by gangs like the one at his door.
Standing on the porch, the sticky heat clinging to him like a second shirt, Brown tried to put the men off calmly. He had no wish to fight his own neighbors, he said, but he “could never enter into an Engagement to take up arms against the Country which gave him being.” The conversation quickly turned to confrontation. Some of the patriots “threatened that unless he would subscribe the association they would drag him by force to Augusta.” Brown backed into the house to seize his weapons, “determined to defend himself as long as he was able against any violence.” “It would be at the peril of that man who should attempt it!” he declared, brandishing his pistols. Six men lunged at him. Blades flashed, a gun fired, a rifle butt swung up over his head—and smashed squarely down onto his skull. Then blackness.
What came next he would reconstruct later, from flashes of recollection in a semiconscious haze. Shattered head throbbing, body bleeding, he rattles over a track. They reach Augusta. He is tossed to the ground, his arms lashed around the trunk of a tree. He sees his bare legs splayed out in front of him, funny-looking foreign things, and he sees hot brown pitch poured over them, scalding, clinging to his skin. Under his feet the men pile up kindling and set it alight. The flame catches the tar, sears his flesh. His feet are on fire, two of his toes charred into stubs. The attackers seize his broken head by the hair and pull it out in clumps. Knives take care of the rest, cutting off strips of scalp, making the blood run down over his ears, face, and neck. Half scalped, skull fractured, lamed, slashed, and battered, Brown—remarkably—survives. Later, a doctor comes to the place where he is confined and bandages him up, setting his broken bones on course to heal. A sympathetic guard, moved by the spectacle of this badly damaged man, agrees to let Brown get away. He slips out of custody and rides over the border into South Carolina to take shelter with a loyalist friend.
In years to come Brown frequently recalled how the patriots “tortured him in the most inhuman manner.” He did not choose to describe how he was then carted through the streets of Augusta for public mockery—and how he, like many victims of such assaults, ultimately broke down and agreed to sign the association (an action he promptly renounced after his escape). But the personal humiliation of giving in to his attackers could only have contributed to the passion of Brown’s response. The incident turned him from a noncombatant into a militant enemy of the revolution. Within a matter of weeks, his feet so badly injured he could not walk, his head still wrapped in bandages, Brown rallied hundreds of backcountry residents to form a loyalist militia, the King’s Rangers, and fight back. Physically and mentally brutalized by the patriots, Brown in turn earned notoriety as a particularly ruthless, vindictive loyalist commander.
A rich historical tradition has portrayed the American Revolution first and foremost as a war of ideals—not a war of ordeals. Yet for Brown and thousands more civilians caught in the conflict, this was what the revolution looked like: mobs on the march, neighbors turned enemies, critical decisions forced under stress. As the revolution gathered momentum across the colonies, one American after another faced a choice. Would they join the rebellion or stay loyal to the king and empire? Their answers had to do with a host of factors, including core values and beliefs, self-interest, local circumstance, and personal relationships. But no matter how contingent, their responses could have unexpectedly far-ranging results.
What was a loyalist, and what kind of America and British Empire did loyalists want? It is important to note at the outset that, as fellow American colonists, loyalists and patriots had more in common with one another than they did with metropolitan Britons. Both loyalists and patriots shared preoccupations with access to land, the maintenance of slavery, and regulation of colonial trade. Nor did their places of origin necessarily serve as a leading indicator of political difference. While Thomas Brown remained loyal, for instance, one of the indentured servants he brought from the Orkney Islands promptly ran
off and joined a patriot militia. Ultimately choices about loyalty depended more on employers, occupations, profits, land, faith, family, and friendships than on any implicit identification as an American or a Briton. At the start of the war, colonists often saw themselves both as American, in the sense that they were colonial residents, and as British, in the sense of being British subjects.
What truly divided colonial Americans into loyalists and patriots was the mounting pressure of revolutionary events: threats, violence, the imposition of oaths, and ultimately war. By 1776, the patriots renounced the king’s authority, and developed fresh political and philosophical justifications for doing so—whereas loyalists wanted to remain British subjects, and wanted the thirteen colonies to remain part of the British Empire. On these fundamental points, loyalists could largely agree. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think loyalists were ideologically uniform—or that they simply wanted to preserve the status quo. In fact, many leading loyalists sought to reform the imperial relationship. They resisted the prospect of authoritarian rule, and were quick to defend their rights to representation. Indeed, during the colonial protests of the 1760s and 1770s, future loyalists and patriots alike spoke out in unison against perceived British tyranny. They tended to share provincial perspectives on rights and liberties, and a common language of grievance against the abuse of imperial authority. This would have important repercussions in the postwar years, when loyalist refugees found their expectations as British subjects to be at odds with those of their metropolitan British rulers.
The troubles in the colonies all started, strangely enough, with Britain’s greatest imperial victory. Triumph in the Seven Years’ War in1763 brought the empire French Canada, Spanish Florida, valuable Caribbean islands, and an important foothold in India. But Britain had also racked up an enormous debt. To offset the costs, Parliament passed a series of measures in the colonies designed to promote imperial security and prosperity. Instead, it unintentionally provoked colonial resistance. Most notoriously, the Stamp Act of 1765, a seemingly innocuous tax on paper products, spectacularly backfired when Americans (and many Britons) denounced it as an abuse of imperial power, imposed by a parliament that did not adequately represent colonists. Many future loyalists were vocal opponents of the Stamp Act, though these protests also saw the first systematic attacks against American “tories,” suspected of wanting to enhance royal and aristocratic power. Street gangs like the self-described Sons of Liberty smashed property and assaulted individuals—most vividly by tarring and feathering, a new hallmark of patriot justice.
Violence was a familiar colonial phenomenon by the time a1773 tax on tea touched off the worst trouble yet. One December night, Boston’s Sons of Liberty, their faces streaked to resemble Indian warriors, stormed onto British tea ships anchored in Boston harbor and tipped the valuable cargo overboard. Parliament responded by passing the so-called Coercive Acts, closing the port of Boston and demanding repayment for the tea. Americans swiftly branded these the “Intolerable Acts.” Delegates from around the thirteen colonies decided to convene a continental congress in Philadelphia and develop a coordinated response.
A few congressmen arrived in Philadelphia in September 1774already primed for war. They must have cheered enthusiastically at a congressional dinner when the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine—who had recently arrived from England to throw his support behind the patriot cause—raised a toast, declaring, “May the collision of British Flint and American Steel produce that spark of liberty which shall illumine . . . posterity”! But the majority of delegates would have cheered more comfortably when the company drank to the “Union of Britain and the Colonies on a constitutional foundation.” The prospect of war seemed to most congressmen an unnecessary, not to say suicidal, extreme. Far preferable was finding a way to assert colonial rights and liberties while remaining within the imperial fold.
The speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly, Joseph Galloway, offered Congress a compelling plan to achieve this. Galloway agreed with most of his colleagues that the colonies—while they held “in abhorrence the idea of being considered independent”—could not adequately “be represented in the Parliament of Great Britain.” Instead, Galloway suggested that America have a parliament of its own: a “Grand Council,” to be headed by a president general. Made up of representatives from each colony, this American parliament would “hold and exercise all the legislative rights, powers, and authorities” required for running colonial affairs. It would also have the power to veto any legislation bearing on America produced by the British parliament. The colonies would thereby enjoy domestic self-government while retaining the benefits of imperial trade and protection. Such a “Plan of Union,” Galloway argued, was the only way forward if the colonies wanted to stave off “all the horrors of a civil war” and the inevitable “ruin of America.”
Galloway’s plan was the most significant colonial reform project on the eve of the revolution, though it did not come out of a vacuum. Galloway’s mentor Benjamin Franklin had proposed a very similar idea himself twenty years earlier (developed with the governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson, later reviled as a “tory”), the Albany Plan of Union of 1754.“Join, or Die,” Franklin had inscribed under a memorable political cartoon showing the colonies as segments of a cut-up serpent—indicating the importance of continental union to American prosperity. Galloway sent his own plan of union to Franklin, then living in London, who circulated the scheme among high-ranking British officials; Franklin’s only objection was that it might embroil America in too many British imperial wars. Franklin’s son William, the governor of New Jersey, wholeheartedly endorsed it. After all, it had much to commend it to American sensibilities. By granting the colonies control over virtually everything but the ability to go to war, Galloway’s plan proposed a greater degree of autonomy for the American colonies than any other British domain enjoyed, including Scotland. His proposed American legislature would have fewer constraints than the Irish parliament, too. Most important, Galloway argued, his plan would aid the development of America itself. If the colonies were going to continue to grow and flourish, there had to be some overarching authority binding them together, in the spirit of Franklin’s “Join, or Die”; perhaps, he suggested, an “American constitution.”
For one long late-September day in 1774, Congress debated Galloway’s plan of union. The New York delegation was particularly well disposed toward it, with the respected lawyer John Jay speaking out clearly in its favor. It was “almost a perfect plan,” declared an upstanding young South Carolina planter. Galloway congratulated himself that “all the men of property, and many of the ablest speakers, supported the motion.” But not all his colleagues were convinced. “We are not to consent by the representatives of representatives,” insisted Patrick Henry of Virginia. Samuel Adams, the founder of the Sons of Liberty, believed the colonies would do better by withdrawing from the British Empire altogether. When Galloway’s plan came to a vote, five colonies voted in its favor versus six against—and the plan was tabled. Instead of moving toward closer union with Britain, Congress issued a set of resolutions asserting Americans’ entitlement to “all the rights, liberties, and immunities” of British subjects, in terms anticipating those of the Declaration of Independence.
The closeness of the vote on Galloway’s plan poses an intriguing “what if” for historians. What if one vote had gone the other way? What would have happened to the thirteen colonies if Galloway’s scheme had been adopted? Ireland might provide one answer: following a series of reforms in1782, the Irish parliament received something of the legislative freedom Galloway sought for America. In 1800, Ireland would be united with GreatBritain outright and its parliament absorbed by Westminster. But a better answer would take shape in North America itself, in 1867, when the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia united to become a federal, self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Canada—as this confederation was called—was the first example of “home rule” (autonomy over domestic policy) in the empire, and provided a template for self-government movements in later-nineteenth-century Ireland and India. In 1774 Philadelphia, Galloway advanced a model of imperial reform that anticipated home rule by generations. It was a prime example of how loyalists possessed dynamic political visions of their own.
Galloway could not have taken much comfort in seeing one part of his prophecy come true. By rejecting his plan—the last concerted American attempt to preserve ties with the British Empire—Congress moved inexorably closer to civil war. With tensions already near breaking point, it was mostly a matter of time before something touched off outright conflict.
The alarm came before dawn on the morning of April 19, 1775,when militia members in Lexington, Massachusetts, were rustled out of bed with news that British soldiers were coming from Boston to seize a patriot weapons store in nearby Concord. The militia mustered on Lexington Green as fast as they could and hastily readied their muskets as seven hundred well-disciplined British regulars marched, wheeled, and advanced toward them. Then a gun went off. Nobody knew who fired the “shot heard ’round the world” (as the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson would famously dub it), British redcoat or American militiaman. But that didn’t really matter. For despite their differences in power and purpose, the two groups of men were more alike than any other enemies they had faced. To them and thousands more now engulfed by war, the American Revolution did not look like a world-historical drama about the forging of a new nation. This was a bitter civil war about the division of an old empire. It accelerated a painful process in which British subjects were increasingly divided into opposing camps, as Americans and Britons. The problem for loyalists was that they had affiliations to both, being at once rooted American colonists and committed British subjects.

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