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Loyalists in American History

Maya Welch, Christopher Prokes
  • Author
    Maya Welch

    Maya Welch is an experienced and Massachusetts certified history teacher who spent over seven years teaching middle and high school. She earned her Masters degree from Fordham University in Curriculum and Instruction and a Bachelor of Arts from the College of the Holy Cross in History and Education. Maya has developed curriculum, learning experiences, and lesson plans for geography, ancient civilizations, US history, and government and civics.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Prokes

    Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Discover what a Loyalist is. Study the Loyalist definition in U.S. history. Explore Loyalist propaganda, Loyalist facts, and see a list of famous Loyalists. Updated: 02/19/2022

What Is a Loyalist?

A Loyalist is a term that refers to people who remained loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. A Loyalist means that when war broke out between the Americans and the British in 1775, some Americans did not fight alongside American rebel Patriots, but with the British.

In the 18th century, the North American British colonies were thriving. There was significant population growth as immigrants arrived in the New World from England. The British Empire ruled over its colonies with mercantilist policies that relied on the colonies to economically benefit the mother country, Britain. Throughout much of their time under British rule, the colonies had flexibility and freedom in how they conducted their business and trade. That changed when Britain issued the Molasses Act in 1733, which taxed molasses, sugar, and rum in the colonies. Some colonists didn't understand the tax, or duty, especially without colonial say. In 1754, Great Britain went to war with France and called upon their colonies to support and help fight in the war. Colonies who volunteered were promised new land to settle and compensation for service. Instead, Britain plunged into debt and again relied on the colonies to make some of it up by issuing more taxes.


Loyalist soldier dressed in British uniform

Loyalist soldier wearing a British uniform


Rebel Patriots grew in number after the British placed more and more taxes on the colonies. However, a significant number of colonists remained supportive of British rule. It was an extremely difficult decision for colonists to decide to fight against king and country. When looking at the scenario, there seemed to be little hope for victory against the global superpower. It is hard to know the exact number of Loyalists during this time as some did not officially claim loyalty to the crown because of harsh treatment from the Patriots. There were different motivations for Loyalists to make the decision to declare loyalty to the British.

Loyalist Definition

When the American Revolution started, the colonists chose sides in the conflict. Loyalists were the colonists that supported the king during the American Revolution. This group made up a smaller percentage of the colonial population. There is some alignment with British political ideologies. Loyalists were also referred to as "Tories." Then name Tories references the British Conservative Party in Parliament. On the opposing side, the Whig party stood against the Tories on the matter of the rebelling American colonists. The Whigs felt sympathetic for the Patriots and their fight for independence. The clarity and strength of these parties was weak during the reign of King George III, but Whig and Tory sentiment aligned with opinions of the Patriots and Loyalists.

Loyalists defined themselves by their loyalty to the crown because they considered themselves to be British citizens, and any action taken alongside the Patriots would be seen as treason. Some Loyalists remained loyal because they were dependent on trade relations with Britain. Colonies like South Carolina had a significant number of Loyalists compared to colonies in the New England region. Some remained loyal because promises of compensation and freedom were made. People who were enslaved also made up a portion of the Loyalist numbers because they were promised their freedom at the end of the war.

That One Friend

Think of your group of friends. Ever notice how some of them are always opposed to what the group wants to do? If everyone decides to order pizza, they think tacos are the way to go. Maybe they're vocal about this, or maybe they quietly disagree so as not to make waves and start a fight. During the American Revolutionary period (ca. 1770-1785), the patriots fighting for independence also had those friends with contrary desires.

At that time in the colonies, you either wanted independence from Britain, or desired to stay under their control. Those against independence were called loyalists because they were loyal to Britain. Also called Tories, they were opposed by patriots, who wanted independence. Like that pesky few in your friend group, loyalists were sometimes hard to pin down because they feared speaking up and earning retribution.

Loyalist Propaganda

Propaganda was used by both the Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution. Propaganda is information that is either biased or exaggerated in order to promote a specific political cause or point of view. Loyalist propaganda was published to gain British support in the war. Publications like the Boston Chronicle, Royal Georgia Gazette, and The Massachusetts Gazette distributed writings and ideas that defended the royal government. Loyalist propaganda also targeted rebel Patriots by depicting their acts of violence toward government officials and tax collectors. Most famously, rebel Patriots tarred and feathered Loyalists and British officials. The tarring and feathering of John Malcolm is most widely known and is depicted in the image below.


John Malcolm being driven before being tarred and feathered

John Malcolm being driven away on wagon on his way to getting tarred and feathered


American Revolutionary War Slogans

It is estimated that about 20% of the American colonial population were Loyalists. After British defeat, many left America to avoid punishment and harsh treatment. The majority left to resettle in Canada. However, there were a number of slogans and sayings from the Loyalists that have survived history.

  • "I leave America, and every endearing connection, because I will not raise my hand against my Sovereign nor will I draw my sword against my Country. When I can conscientiously draw it in her favor, my life shall be cheerfully devoted to her service." -Isaac Wilkins, Rivington's New York Gazetteer, 11 May 1775.
  • "Every breach of the English Constitution, whether it proceeds from the Crown or the People, is, in its Effects, equally destructive to the Rights of both." -Gov. William Franklin, Address to the New Jersey Provincial Assembly, 13 January 1775, excerpt 3.

Loyalist Facts

Loyalists played a significant role in the American Revolution but often experienced violence and harsh treatment from their fellow Americans who supported the war effort.

Who Were the Loyalists?

Since their founding, the American colonies were under British control. Great Britain wanted to expand its empire throughout the world, so they established colonies anywhere they could. Over time, many in the 13 colonies (what would become the United States) started rumbling for independence, rather than having some monarchy 3,000 miles away telling them what do to.

But not everyone wanted this freedom. Many people were happy with status quo and felt there was no reason to forcefully oppose actions of the British government. If anything needed to change, it should be done peacefully. They believed if people were to take up arms or riot, that would lead to a terrible situation with mob rule and no control. Think of your group of friends again, and what happens when they fight over what to do -- sometimes, everyone picks sides and gets angry with each other, and you end up at home in the basement watching reruns. Not fun.

Loyalists who wanted to maintain the support of Britain weren't the loudest and most outspoken group, save for a few examples, so their exact number is unknown, but generally ranges from one fifth to one third of colonists. Not exactly a majority.

Many Patriots, who were opposed to Great Britain, served in the Continental Army
Patriots

Though small in number, loyalists were diverse and lived everywhere. A blacksmith, a merchant, a minister, African Americans thinking Britain would free them, Native Americans; the list goes on. Some simply supported Britain. Others actually took up arms and fought as guerrillas (think special forces) against the Continental Army, as some from New York did.

Internal Ideas: Loyalist Beliefs and Facts

Loyalists were keen on getting their way, just not forcefully. There were some who did use harsher actions, but most did not. It wasn't always easy to identify who was a loyalist, as they came from all walks of life. For example, a letter from a 'Jersey Farmer' appeared in a local pamphlet (early newspaper) in 1775:

I am a plain countryman, and know that many of my good honest neighbors disapprove of most of the late (recent) measures and proceedings of the Congress, as well as myself.

It's obvious here that this farmer wants to state his (and others') opposition to the Congress (who were patriots), but wanted to remain anonymous.

Surely, you have some strong opinions of those friends who disagree with the group. Patriots in fact had their own views of the loyalists. Many believed loyalists to be only interested in themselves, making money off their support of Britain, and weak minded because they would not speak up. They were also biased towards the idea of America, and were considered untrustworthy.

A common punishment for Loyalists was to be tarred and feathered
Tar and Feather

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Additional Info

That One Friend

Think of your group of friends. Ever notice how some of them are always opposed to what the group wants to do? If everyone decides to order pizza, they think tacos are the way to go. Maybe they're vocal about this, or maybe they quietly disagree so as not to make waves and start a fight. During the American Revolutionary period (ca. 1770-1785), the patriots fighting for independence also had those friends with contrary desires.

At that time in the colonies, you either wanted independence from Britain, or desired to stay under their control. Those against independence were called loyalists because they were loyal to Britain. Also called Tories, they were opposed by patriots, who wanted independence. Like that pesky few in your friend group, loyalists were sometimes hard to pin down because they feared speaking up and earning retribution.

Who Were the Loyalists?

Since their founding, the American colonies were under British control. Great Britain wanted to expand its empire throughout the world, so they established colonies anywhere they could. Over time, many in the 13 colonies (what would become the United States) started rumbling for independence, rather than having some monarchy 3,000 miles away telling them what do to.

But not everyone wanted this freedom. Many people were happy with status quo and felt there was no reason to forcefully oppose actions of the British government. If anything needed to change, it should be done peacefully. They believed if people were to take up arms or riot, that would lead to a terrible situation with mob rule and no control. Think of your group of friends again, and what happens when they fight over what to do -- sometimes, everyone picks sides and gets angry with each other, and you end up at home in the basement watching reruns. Not fun.

Loyalists who wanted to maintain the support of Britain weren't the loudest and most outspoken group, save for a few examples, so their exact number is unknown, but generally ranges from one fifth to one third of colonists. Not exactly a majority.

Many Patriots, who were opposed to Great Britain, served in the Continental Army
Patriots

Though small in number, loyalists were diverse and lived everywhere. A blacksmith, a merchant, a minister, African Americans thinking Britain would free them, Native Americans; the list goes on. Some simply supported Britain. Others actually took up arms and fought as guerrillas (think special forces) against the Continental Army, as some from New York did.

Internal Ideas: Loyalist Beliefs and Facts

Loyalists were keen on getting their way, just not forcefully. There were some who did use harsher actions, but most did not. It wasn't always easy to identify who was a loyalist, as they came from all walks of life. For example, a letter from a 'Jersey Farmer' appeared in a local pamphlet (early newspaper) in 1775:

I am a plain countryman, and know that many of my good honest neighbors disapprove of most of the late (recent) measures and proceedings of the Congress, as well as myself.

It's obvious here that this farmer wants to state his (and others') opposition to the Congress (who were patriots), but wanted to remain anonymous.

Surely, you have some strong opinions of those friends who disagree with the group. Patriots in fact had their own views of the loyalists. Many believed loyalists to be only interested in themselves, making money off their support of Britain, and weak minded because they would not speak up. They were also biased towards the idea of America, and were considered untrustworthy.

A common punishment for Loyalists was to be tarred and feathered
Tar and Feather

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Patriot vs. Loyalist?

A Patriot refers to someone who believed in independence from Britain. A Loyalist refers to someone who defended British rule.

Why would someone be a Loyalist?

Loyalists were American colonists who remained loyal to the British crown and opposed the fight for independence and separation from Britain. People who were Loyalists believed that they were English citizens, and joining the revolutionary cause would mean serious consequences. They also sided with Britain because their industries depended on their business.

What is an example of a Loyalist?

A Loyalist is most widely associated with the American Revolution. It is the term that describes someone who remained loyal to the British crown during the war.

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