Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

A 'Great National Calamity': Sir William Pepperell and Isaac Royall, Reluctant Loyalists

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

A 'Great National Calamity': Sir William Pepperell and Isaac Royall, Reluctant Loyalists

Article excerpt

The tranquillity of England's most fashionable sea-side town could not alleviate the depression which gripped the thirty-five year-old American in the winter of 1781. Sir William Pepperrell of Kittery, Massachusetts, the only American baronet, had been a widower and refugee for six years. In his absence, he had been proscribed as a loyalist by his rebellious countrymen and deprived of his estates. Exile in Brighton had become nigh unbearable, despite the comfort afforded by his four young children -- his "dear little folks"- and other distressed loyalists. Now, as Christmas beckoned, he was stunned by news of a "great national calamity distressing beyond measure" and which "filled [him] with horror."

General Cornwallis's capitulation at Yorktown, Virginia, in late October, was the beginning of the end of Britain's attempts to force the Americans into submission. Pepperrell found refuge in self-denial. How, having started the war, could the king and the first minister, Frederich Lord North, consider giving up the "Constitutional dependence" of the American colonies when it would mean the "annihilation" of Britain's American empire? Even at this late hour, Pepperrell trusted that political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic could settle their differences and forge a lasting union.1

Britain's folly was to ignore what loyalists like Pepperrell and his father-in-law Isaac Royall had to say, not at the end of the Revolutionary War, but at its beginning. Not all of those Americans who became loyalists when the fighting began dismissed colonial grievances. Some promoted schemes for reconciling aspirations for legislative selfgovernment with British sovereignty, which, it has been argued, amounted to a viable alternative to independence and the status quo.2 Before the war, Pepperrell and Royall were "friends of government,"3 an amorphous coalition of disaffected moderate Whigs like themselves, intractable conservatives or "tories," and proto-loyalists of both camps who strove to repair Britain's fractured relationship with Massachusetts. Friends of government disagreed privately on many issues, but in 1773 and 1774 were united in their efforts to resolve disagreements between Britain and America.4

Pepperrell and Royall represented the center-ground in Massachusetts politics on imperial issues. They urged the British and the royal governors to be more sympathetic to American interests and concerns. But they were also hostile to the radical Whigs, who led the colonial protest movement in the 1760s and early 1770s, most of whom became patriots. In the last years of peace, friends of government like Pepperrell and Royall came to fear that internal revolution and military conflict were the only probable outcomes of American resistance and British recalcitrance.

By examining their response to the Revolution we can understand more clearly the predicament of moderates everywhere in the colonies. With connections to both sides - the British and the royal governors on the one hand and the radical Whigs on the other - they were subject to competing forces. When war divided Americans into loyalists and patriots, Pepperrell and Royall would have preferred to remain neutral. Pepperrell's loyalism certainly involved an element of reflection; Royall's, however, was far more the result of circumstances.

Both men had brief opportunities to shape deliberations on the "American Question." In June 1773, the Rev. William Gordon, the Congregational pastor of Roxbury, proposed to the earl of Dartmouth, the American Secretary, that Pepperrell, his wealthy Anglican neighbor, would make an excellent governor. Pepperrell was just twenty-seven years old, but Gordon refused to accept that his inexperience would count against him. Pepperrell had spent several years in England where he became acquainted with Lord North. His patrician credentials and his whiggish tendencies, Gordon reasoned, made him the ideal candidate to replace the current governor, the discredited native-son, Thomas Hutchinson. …

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