Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Loyalist's Journey

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

A Loyalist's Journey

Article excerpt

In May 1769 Scottish-born merchant James Parker was swept up in the turmoil and street theater of prerevolutionary America. Retreating to his fortified Norfolk town house, he confronted an angry crowd busily engaged in seizing his stores. With characteristic stubbornness, the defiant Scot "put out the muzle of a Gun, & demanded they Should lay them down again which they very readily did." He then ordered them out of his enclosure. As he recounted to a close friend, Charles Steuart, "[T]his they also comply'd with threatening at the same time to be back soon to destroy my house or catch me from home & do me an injury." Having faced down the crowd, Parker still remained wary. He sent his pregnant wife and young son out of town and guarded his property until the unrest subsided. Although a longtime resident of Norfolk, he felt, as he confided to Steuart, like a besieged "forreigner" in his adopted home.(1)

This incident during which an American crowd threatened his person, family, and property profoundly disturbed Parker. It was unquestionably an important milestone on his road to becoming a Loyalist. Like others who had initially expressed sympathy for American grievances, Parker from this point on dismissed the colonists' case. Fearing they had lapsed into "rash madness, Unjustice, & Partiallity," he became disillusioned with their novel methods of protest. The final straw came with the outcome of the First Continental Congress of 1774. Its decisions pointed toward independence and the triumph of "Insolence, Contempt & Confusion" in America. Finding that prospect intolerable, Parker left Norfolk to join the earl of Dunmore's forces. He saw service in various theaters during the Revolutionary War before settling as a disillusioned exile in London.(2)

Why should we be interested in Parker's story, given its seemingly predictable and conventional course? The simple reason is that his career illuminates a neglected aspect of the Loyalist saga, namely the experience of the middling ranks. Recent work on the American Revolution's opponents largely ignores this broad band of mainstream Loyalist conviction. Emphasizing constitutional and theoretical questions, the literature on Tory political philosophy has concentrated almost exclusively on the views of notables such as Thomas Hutchinson and Joseph Galloway.(3) By contrast, local studies focus on rank and file Tories in particular communities. They privilege circumstances over ideology in explaining revolutionary allegiances.(4) Although this work, centering on kin and family ties, ethnic background, and social and economic pressures, does occasionally pay attention to popular belief, the concept of localism invariably occupies center stage.(5)

The juxtaposition of these two approaches has contributed misleading and mutually reinforcing dichotomies--between the Tory leadership and the rank and file on the one hand, and abstract ideology and social reality on the other. The divergence between historical practitioners has, in effect, compartmeritalized the Loyalist experience in a way that distorts and simplifies it. To paint a more rounded and satisfying picture, it is necessary to bridge that divide: first, by paying attention to the movement's middling ranks;(6) then, in the light of that research, by examining the issue of Loyalist motivation in a less schematic fashion.

Middling Tories such as James Parker occupy a unique position, both with regard to Loyalism itself and its modern-day historical treatment. Neither leading Tory theorists nor historically silent yeoman farmers, they were individuals fully capable of assimilating, even engaging in, political debate as they articulated their reasons for opposing the Revolution. Yet they were not immune from the web of circumstances that supposedly determined the issue for the rank and file. The middling ranks' experience therefore provides an excellent opportunity to analyze the interplay between ideology and social environment in Loyalist motivation. …

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