Framing and the Loyalists

Trying to post more, and thus gathering some scraps that have found their way into my notebook over the past few months.

The plight of the Loyalists during and after the Revolutionary War is interesting to me, especially how they’re portrayed in our history books.  For instance, look at the framing here in Joseph Ellis’s Revolutionary Summer, speaking about the initial votes for war:

In Pennsylvania the Quaker elite remained resolutely committed to a political solution at all costs. And in New York, many of the wealthiest merchants remained outspokenly loyal to the crown.  Despite the looming menace of the British invasion, both legislatures refused to alter instructions to their delegates to the Continental Congress.

What then happened in both colonies exposed the latent political power of the bottom-up approach.  In Pennsylvania, the radical mechanics of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s most ardent constituency, soon supported by petitions from four surrounding counties, challenged the authority of the current legislature to speak for the people.  In effect, they argued that the elected representatives had forfeited their right to govern by ignoring the seismic shift in popular opinion on the independence question over recent months.  And, in a dazzling display of political agility, these  mechanics, artisans, and ordinary farmers mobilized enough supporters to create a provisional government dominated by pro-independence representatives.  (Their key reform was to expand the electorate by limiting the property qualification to vote, thereby ensuring a comfortable majority in the constitutional convention and the new legislature.)  One of their first acts was to register their “willingness to concur in a vote of the Congress declaring the United Colonies free and independent states.” (pg. 53)

So, elites and the wealthy (implicitly “the bad guys”) wish to remain loyal to Britain “despite the looming menace of the British invasion.”  Wait, why would their loyalty to Britain be in spite of this impending military action?  Weren’t the Loyalists in favor of suppressing their rebellious fellow colonists?  What happens next is that the revolutionaries usurped the power of the legally elected representatives because those representatives didn’t agree with the revolutionaries in order to institute reforms which allowed those revolutionaries to take power.*   In other words, they used the mob to overthrow the government. Yet, the way it’s written works to suppress any niggling suspicion that the Revolutionaries might have been less than honorable in their dealings.  After all, they’re just realizing the “latent power of the bottom-up approach.”

This is all especially interesting to me because Ellis spends a lot of time dwelling on what he takes to be the two fundamental contradictions at the heart of the early American project, slavery and the limited franchise, particularly that the vote was denied to women.  I’m not convinced that these are the contradictions he makes them out to be, or at least that they’re the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the ideals of the Revolution.  What I take to be the fundamental contradiction is nicely illustrated by the fate of the Loyalists, and it operates under the surface of a great deal of America’s political understanding to this day, long after the questions of slavery and women’s suffrage have been addressed:  you’re free to choose whatever you’d like, as long as you make the right choice.  



*n.b. Not agreeing with the Revolutionaries obviously means that the representatives had forfeit their right to govern.   If they were fit to govern, they would agree with the Revolutionaries, who are obviously correct (see also, French Revolution, Russian Revolution, every revolution ever).  Later, Ellis describes the confiscation of Loyalist and Neutral properties during the struggle for New York, taking care to note how civilized and careful it was.  One wonders if the people whose homes and property were being stolen agreed with this assessment.

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