American Historical Writers and the Loyalists, 1788-1856: Dissent, Consensus, and American Nationality

By Cheng, Eileen Ka-May | Journal of the Early Republic, December 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

American Historical Writers and the Loyalists, 1788-1856: Dissent, Consensus, and American Nationality


Cheng, Eileen Ka-May, Journal of the Early Republic


In an 1843 review of George Atkinson Ward's memoir of the loyalist Samuel Curwen, William Ware wrote of Curwen,

He was at heart, we think, his toryism notwithstanding, a real sound American. What we have said of him, the same thing of course should we say of all the loyalists . . . . Violent and vindictive as many of the Patriots were, such some of the loyalists must have been. But all this does not hinder that their sufferings and privations for conscience' sake,-if an American republican will allow a conscience to a revolutionary tory-may have been great and most truly deserving of our sympathy-of our sympathy for their suffering, our honor for the spirit in which it was borne.

Ware's balanced assessment of the loyalists might seem surprising, in light of conventional accounts of loyalist historiography, which have emphasized the hostility that characterized American perceptions of the loyalists. The loyalists were, as George A. Billias puts it, "the first un-Americans." For this reason, according to modern scholars, American historians, until the twentieth century, have paid little heed to the loyalists, either vilifying them superficially or ignoring them altogether. By this account, historians in Ware's time were especially guilty of this tendency. Reflecting the chauvinistic nationalism of this period, antebellum historians sought to promote a sense of national greatness by glorifying the revolutionaries at the expense of the loyalists.1

Yet Ware's sympathetic assessment revealed that views of the loyalists in his time were more complex than modern scholars have acknowledged. Although not typical, neither was Ware completely anomalous in his sympathy for the loyalists. Although the prevailing view of the loyalists was as unfavorable as modern scholars have claimed, a small but significant number of historical writers-whom I will call loyalist revisionists-had also begun to question this negative image of the loyalists by the 1820s. This essay will focus on three of the most important of these revisionists: Charles Francis Adams, Lorenzo Sabine, and William Gilmore Simms.

Like Ware, these historians sought to revise orthodox patriot interpretations by offering a more sympathetic and balanced portrayal of the loyalists.2 And like Ware, these historians were fascinated particularly with the loyalists' status as dissenters and their willingness to stand by their beliefs regardless of the cost to themselves. Even while they emphasized the loyalists' role as dissenters, these historians reclaimed the loyalists as Americans, revealing their belief that it was possible to dissent and be American.

These historians at the same time differed from each other on the basis for their reassessment of the loyalists, for they defined American identity in different ways. My analysis thus builds on and adds to the recent scholarship on American nationalism, which has emphasized the contested character of American nationalism. Despite efforts to create consensus, American nationalism, according to these scholars, allowed for and even encouraged conflict and dissent, for different groups interpreted nationalism in ways consistent with their own interests.3 Yet these scholars have paid less attention to how Americans actually conceived of the relationship between dissent and American nationalism. In other words, while they have demonstrated how Americans argued over nationalism, they have not given as much attention to the question of whether Americans believed such arguments were legitimate. If anything, by emphasizing how conflict occurred in spite of the desire for consensus, these scholars have suggested that such divisions did not reflect a belief in the value of dissent; on the contrary, conflict occurred because of the clash between different interest groups-each with its own brand of nationalism, and each unwilling to acknowledge other interpretations of national identity as legitimate.4 American nationalism was in this analysis both unifying and divisive, and simultaneously conformist and contested, revealing that these qualities were not mutually exclusive. …

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