Tories: Loyalists to the King

by Paul Pavao

Tories were colonists who helped and even fought with the British during the American Revolutionary War. Also known as Loyalists for their loyalty to the British crown, their contention with the Whigs (Patriots) was so intense that their savage fighting can justly be called America's first civil war.

The American Revolution ... was not a straight battle between Americans and the British. The colonists themselves were divided. In fact Dr [sic] Wallace Brown went as far as to call it more of a civil war than the 1861-1865 hostilities. (Gail Saunders, Bahamian Loyalists and Their Slaves [MacMillan Education LTD, London and Oxford: 1983] p. 1)

I am going to do something out of the ordinary for and begin by recommending a book and a web site. The writing of Thomas B. Allen, author of Tories: Fighting for the King in America's First Civil War, is so captivating and thorough that there is no way that we will be able to improve on it.

The research and plethora of quotes in his book and on his web site are exhilarating for people that love history like we do. Such excellent writing deserves to be commended and recommended.

He introduces the subject of the Loyalists at with flourish:

The Revolution is usually portrayed as a conflict between the Patriots and the British. But there is another narrative: the bloody fighting between Americans, a civil war whose savagery shocked even battle-hardened Redcoats and Hessians. As debate and protests evolved into war, mudslinging and rhetorical arguments between Rebels and Tories evolved into tar-and-feathering, house-burning, and lynching.

That said, here we provide a shorter and hopefully just as interesting overview of the Loyalists before, during, and after the American Revolutionary War.

Number of Tories

Tories fighting with Patriots, photo from History of the United States by Charles A. and Mary R. BeardTories fighting with Patriots, photo from History of the United States by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard; public domain

There is no good way to determine what percentage of the colonists remained loyal to Britain. Charles and Mary Beard's History of the United States gives the evidence as cited by both the Patriots and the Tories:

By one process or another, those who were to be citizens of the new republic were separated from those who preferred to be subjects of King George. Just what proportion of the Americans favored independence and what share remained loyal to the British monarchy there is no way of knowing. The question of revolution was not submitted to popular vote, and on the point of numbers we have conflicting evidence. On the patriot side, there is the testimony of a careful and informed observer, John Adams, who asserted that two-thirds of the people were for the American cause and not more than one-third opposed the Revolution at all stages.

     On behalf of the loyalists, or Tories as they were popularly known, extravagant claims were made. Joseph Galloway, who had been a member of the first Continental Congress and had fled to England when he saw its temper, testified before a committee of Parliament in 1779 that not one-fifth of the American people supported the insurrection and that "many more than four-fifths of the people prefer a union with Great Britain upon constitutional principles to independence." At the same time General Robertson, who had lived in America twenty-four years, declared that "more than two-thirds of the people would prefer the king's government to the Congress' tyranny." In an address to the king in that year a committee of American loyalists asserted that "the number of Americans in his Majesty's army exceeded the number of troops enlisted by Congress to oppose them."

~(Charles A. & Mary R. Beard, History of the United States [The MacMillan Company, NY:1921])

That is the evidence as presented in the Beard's History of the United States, but in the two sections that follow, also primarily taken from their book, it is plain to see that the Tories could not have been even a majority, much less over 80% of the population.

Tories were clearly outnumbered prior to the war. It is the only way the state governments could have separated them out of the population to imprison or expel them.

When the first Continental Congress agreed not to allow the importation of British goods, it provided for the creation of local committees to enforce the rules. ... Before these bodies those who persisted in buying British goods were summoned and warned or punished according to circumstances. As soon as the new state constitutions were put into effect, local committees set to work in the same way to ferret out all who were not outspoken in their support of the new order of things.(ibid.)

The persecution of the Tories which began in earnest after 1774 was terrible. Each State passed legislation requiring inhabitants to take oaths to the new United States or be deemed traitors. Some Loyalists had their property confiscated; others were socially ostracized and their businesses boycotted. (Gail Saunders, op. cit. p. 2)

Patriot mobs treated them even more cruelly.

The work of the official agencies ... was sometimes supplemented by mob violence. A few Tories were hanged without trial, and others were tarred and feathered. One was placed upon a cake of ice and held there "until his loyalty to King George might cool." (Beard, op. cit.)

Surely this did not happen because the Loyalists feared to defend themselves, for when the British arrived they took up arms in droves.

Act prohibiting the return of Tories/Loyalists to MassachussettsAct prohibiting Tories from returning to Massachusetts
public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Without being outnumbered, they could not have been intimidated by state governments. Tories the highest members of society. They held many important positions in both government and society in the colonies, and their allegiance was to the king and Parliament. If they had been the majority there would have been no revolution, for they could easily have prevented it.

When General Howe evacuated Boston, more than a thousand people fled with him. This great company, according to a careful historian, "formed the aristocracy of the province by virtue of their official rank; of their dignified callings and professions; of their hereditary wealth and of their culture." The act of banishment passed by Massachusetts in 1778, listing over 300 Tories, "reads like the social register of the oldest and noblest families of New England," more than one out of five being graduates of Harvard College. The same was true of New York and Philadelphia; namely, that the leading loyalists were prominent officials of the old order, clergymen and wealthy merchants. (ibid.)

Clearly a batch of Loyalists that "formed the aristocracy of the province by virtue of their official rank," and who were also a majority, could not have been driven from their homes, imprisoned, or run out by mobs.

But they were. The Beards even refer to the conquest of the Loyalists as something The Tories themselves knew was "inevitable."

With passion the loyalists fought against the inevitable or with anguish of heart they left as refugees for a life of uncertainty in Canada or the mother country. (ibid.)

The Tories Fight Back

While the Tories were under persecution before the war, once the war began they had opportunity to defend themselves.

The Tories who remained in America joined the British army by the thousands or in other ways aided the royal cause. Those who were skillful with the pen assailed the patriots in editorials, rhymes, satires, and political catechisms. They declared that the members of Congress were "obscure, pettifogging attorneys, bankrupt shopkeepers, outlawed smugglers, etc." (ibid.)

The Tories After the Revolutionary War

As we know, even with the help of the Loyalists, the British lost the war. After the war, however, they continued to provide land in Canada to the Tories:

The greatest reward for loyalty came in the form of grants of land in the Canadian wilderness. As many as 100,000 Loyalists eventually migrated to Canada. (

Others simply fled. Estimates are that between 80,000 and 100,000 Loyalists fled to the West Indies, and a few went to Great Britain, besides the 100,000 that received land in Canada.

Return to Slavery and the Revolutionary War


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