British Loyalists vs. American Patriots During the American Revolution

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  • 0:05 A House Divided
  • 2:33 White Men
  • 4:39 Political Minorities
  • 5:57 What Became of Loyalists
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In this lesson, learn about the difficult decisions faced by individuals as the American Revolution erupted. Would you have been a Loyalist or a Patriot? Are you sure about that?

A House Divided

Today, it's easy for Americans to say they would have been devoted Patriots from the start. After all, history is on their side. But if you had lived back then, you might have made a different decision. Colonists had a lot of conflicting loyalties and legitimate fears. One man's story might help you understand.

William had always done everything with his dad. As a child, he went on his business trips with him. They did experiments together. As a young man, the two were business partners. Then, at the ripe age of 32, William's father helped him get appointed as the royal governor of New Jersey. After all, his dad had taught him to be a good citizen, love the king, and respect authority. But his was a tough job in the days just before the revolution.

Like a lot of Americans, William didn't approve of the actions that the British government had taken against its own citizens. But he believed that the relationship between the king and colonies could and would be restored and that he was in a position of influence to help make that possible. Who knows? Maybe one day, he would even be the colonies' first Member of Parliament?

At first, his dad agreed with him and did everything he could to help solve the problems between Britain and the colonies. But eventually, his father was won completely to the Patriot cause and put pressure on William to quit his job and join them.

What should he have done? What would you have done? William decided that he should remain loyal to Great Britain. History shows that he chose poorly. When the Continental Congress overthrew the royal governments, William was sent to solitary confinement for two years, losing his hair, his teeth, his wife, and in a sense, his dad. His father didn't die, but after being sent to England in a prisoner exchange, William sent his father a letter. This is the response he received:

'Nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen Sensations, as to find myself deserted in my old Age by my only Son; and not only deserted, but to find him taking up Arms against me, in a Cause, wherein my good Fame, Fortune and Life were all at Stakeā€¦.Your Situation was such that few would have censured your remaining (neutral), tho' there are Natural Duties which precede political ones, and cannot be extinguish'd by them.'

Despite William's attempts, the two never reconciled. After the Revolution, his father disowned him, saying that if England had won, there wouldn't have been any inheritance for William, anyway.

William's father was Benjamin Franklin.

White Men Choose Sides

Pie chart showing Loyalist and Patriot sentiments among white men
Loyalist Patriot Pie Chart

During the American Revolution, colonists like Benjamin Franklin who supported republicanism and eventually, independence, came to be known as Patriots. Historians estimate that about 40-45% of white men were patriots. Those men who chose to continue supporting the king, like William Franklin, were called Loyalists, or Tories. They made up about 15-20% of the white male population. The last 35-45% never publicly chose sides.

Just like political affiliations today, loyalists, patriots, and neutrals came from all social and economic classes, and many people took sides based not on principle but on who they thought was going to win or which side would profit them the most personally. But then, as now, there were demographic trends.

Poor farmers, craftsmen, and small merchants, influenced by the ideas of social equality expressed in works like Thomas Paine's Common Sense, were more likely to be Patriots. So were intellectuals with a strong belief in the Enlightenment. Religious converts of the Great Awakening made strong connections between their faith and a developing sense of nationalism. Loyalists tended to be older colonists, or those with strong ties to England, such as recent immigrants. Wealthy merchants and planters often had business interests with the empire, as did large farmers who profited by supplying the British army. Some opposed the violence they saw in groups like the Sons of Liberty and feared a government run by extremists.

Of course, many people never took a position. The largest group of neutral colonists was the Quakers, who are pacifists as a rule. They, and other religious pacifists, tried to carry on with life as usual, showing favoritism to none. But their willingness to do business with Britain led to resentment and mistreatment by the Patriots. Other neutral colonists definitely had an opinion about the war but were too scared to announce it publicly. Many colonists were confused - both sides seemed right and wrong. Some colonists, such as those way out on the frontier, weren't affected by all the politics and just didn't care.

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