Review – Jasanoff, “Liberty’s Exiles”

Maya Jasanoff, “Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World” (2011) (read by L.J. Ganser) – When I was a kid, the town historian (not an official position- he was just a local who cared about it enough, from back when it was a company town even) used to tell people “legends” about Tories fleeing town during the revolution burying a treasure somewhere. My aunt and uncle, when they bought their house in the eighties, even agreed they’d turn the treasure over to the seller if it was found on their land! Nobody ever found it or much proof it ever existed. Chances are the story was an effort by said town historian to make the town’s history sound a little more exciting, though, he was quite resistant to other interesting tories that cast the town in a bad light, like anything about how the Know Nothings and the Klan were quite popular in town in their day.

Anyway… I listened to this book of what became of the Tories! Nothing about a treasure in the area of the old hometown, alas. This is some classic 2010s global history. This was a mostly-admirable movement in historiography that took advantage of information access advances (and the kind of funding clever sparks can get to travel) to try to write histories of stories that took place in multiple parts of the globe. The Tory story is a pretty good candidate for this treatment, because Tories/Loyalists — Americans who supported the British during the American Revolution — wound up all over the place, and Maya Jasanoff traces the fate of various ends of the “Loyalist Diaspora” in a number of places.

Probably the best known Loyalist destination was Canada. For a long time, before they shifted gears to a national identity based in liberal multiculturalism, the Canadians (the Anglos, anyway) made a big deal out of being descended from the Loyalists, literally or figuratively. “Canadians are Americans who reject revolution,” as Northrop Frye put it. It is true that the Loyalists did a lot to anchor Canada as an Anglo settler colony, balancing the population away from the earlier French settlers. Many other Tories went “back” to Britain, though many of them had been born in America, as had generations of forebears. One group tried settling “East Florida” — basically, the northern part before it gets into the panhandle — and maybe starting their own country before the Brits and the Spanish pulled the plug on that. Some went to Jamaica and other Caribbean colonies, especially the many Loyalist slaveholders. As some have taken pains to point out on social media, the British recruited numerous escaped slaves (only from Patriot slaveowners though!) during the war, and some of those became Loyalist refugees who helped found the British West African colony of Sierra Leone. 

Jasanoff does a good job of telling these stories and hitting notes about how different circumstances — most notably race and class — affected the fortunes of different parts of the Loyalist cohort, as did imperial rivalries. This is sort of the global history thing, especially as pitched to teachers teaching undergrads- compare and contrast, wring some thought out of the little tuition equivalents. Given that there were black, white, and Native American loyalists of a variety of social classes, this was a decent approach. 

It does leave some areas underexplored, though, and both of these tie in to that era of global history’s major weakness, it’s a disinclination to ask political questions that can’t be answered by a trip to the archive. The first I thought of was British disloyalty to their Loyalists. Jasanoff points out how often the British screwed over this group of people that put a lot on the line for them. It took a lot for a few of them to get land grants in Canada, a place that had basically nothing but grantable land at the time. The British completely gave up on the East Florida project to placate Spain, not exactly the toughest out. They did nothing to help accommodate Loyalists going to Jamaica, who found themselves trying to buy into one of the most hostile and expensive places to buy land you could think of. I’m not about to shed tears for incommoded slavers, but the British were also utterly transactional with the ex-slaves who fought for them, allowing numerous of them to be captured back into slavery, and they abandoned their Native American allies, after letting them think that maybe the British would back them in keeping the Americans from pouring over the Appalachians, completely. 

Jasanoff points to this… but doesn’t really interrogate it. The Loyalists kicked back, hard, enough to force concessions in a few places (mostly Canada, ironic given the tea-sipping more-royalist-than-the-king thing some Canadians used to affect). But it feels like getting more into how the British thought about it, beyond “bluff and unconcerned,” might have been beneficial. You figure a strategy had to go into it- and it continued, as every tool of the empire has found out, up to and including those other Loyalists, the ones the Brits keep around only to bully the (other) Irish. 

There’s another little-considered dynamic that enters into this: something like seventy-five thousand people fled the new US after the Revolution. That’s a lot, when you consider that the population at the time was only around three million. A lot of the Loyalists fled from fierce and bloody partisan fighting, massacres and counter-massacres, torture, the works. That kind of thing isn’t new to me. But it is when it’s between people who didn’t really have much of a racial, ethnic, religious, class, or any other difference we’re used to seeing lend themselves to this sort of internecine violence. This was pretty much exclusively white English-speaking Protestants from America doing it to same. There’s some similarity to the US Civil War, in that regard, but at least that one involves high racial/class stakes, even if it didn’t really take on the character of a war between truly different systems of arranging affairs until after the Emancipation Proclamation. 

What happened, less between the American and British armies (which fought reasonably cleanly and treated each other’s civilians well- very unusually well, for the British, or hell, compared to the American record with Native American civilians), than between Patriot and Loyalist civilians, seems an oddity, or maybe a sort of road not taken… a period when the possibilities seemed different and compelled people to take action that didn’t really correspond that much with what we today see as the usual lines. Jasanoff doesn’t explore this much, just providing some ghastly blow by blows to show why her Loyalist subjects wanted out so bad. I suppose, among other things, no one could have known that the US Constitution would take hold, the likes of Washington, Hamilton, and their allies in the American gentry would suppress any kind of mob-based funny business sooner rather than later. So people could have envisaged all kinds of apocalypses… still. Not trying to ding Jasanoff for not writing a different book. This is a pretty good one! ****

Review – Jasanoff, “Liberty’s Exiles”

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