Written by: Rebecca Brannon, James Madison University
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain how British colonial policies regarding North America led to the Revolutionary War
- Explain how various factors contributed to the American victory in the Revolution
Use this Decision Point with the Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776 Primary Source to allow students to analyze the divide of colonists over loyalty to the crown.
The American Revolution was many things—a tax revolt, an international debate over good government and consent, and a revolution in pursuit of sovereignty. But at its heart, it was also a civil war between colonial Americans. The colonists increasingly had to take sides in this civil war. While some found it easy, others struggled to choose.
John Adams famously said Americans divided into three equal groups: the staunch Patriots, the Loyalists, and those remaining neutral. Yet a better estimate would put Loyalists at about 20 percent of the population. These were the colonists who were ultimately willing to fight for the Loyalist cause, or at least to publicly express their loyalism even when it was not popular. Perhaps another 30 percent to 40 percent of the population were Patriots who visibly supported the Revolution in some way. Others were determined to remain neutral, even as that became harder in the midst of a civil war.
The choice was complex. No clear deciding factor predicted who would become a Patriot, a Loyalist, or neither, and generations of historians have tried to find a common pattern without success. Groups such as Scotch-Irish immigrants in the newly settled backcountry regions leaned Loyalist at times because they opposed the eastern elites who ran the colonies. When sizable numbers of those elites became Patriots and led the government, some Protestant religious minorities and recently settled farmers decided that they trusted a far-off king more than the local elites, who were more likely to enact policies for the benefit of easterners than those who lived in the west.
Neutrals had differing motivations. Religious beliefs certainly influenced many. Quakers, Mennonites, and other pacifists (people opposed to all war) were neutrals and had their patriotism questioned as a result. Although many ordinary Anglicans (members of the Church of England, the official state church in several colonies) became Patriots despite their religious beliefs, the vast majority of Anglican clergymen were Loyalists. Many Anglicans wanted to remain loyal to the monarch as the head of state and head of the Church of England. This association of Anglicanism with Loyalism tarred the church for many years after the Revolution. Some Protestant minorities, especially Presbyterians, were slightly more likely to choose Loyalism than others.
Some neutrals did not much care who governed them so long as the government largely left them alone; others simply did not want to be on the losing side. It was a great risk to stake out a position, and the truth is most humans usually try to take the safe course. In places where the war stayed a distant concern, people found it easier to be neutral, or barring that, lukewarm in their support of either side. But where troops arrived on the doorstep, pressure grew rapidly to take a side and vigorously support it. In the port city of Boston, Patriots were motivated by political ideology, but also by economic concerns. In occupied New York City, artisans were under pressure to choose the Loyalist cause to keep working in the city. Farmers in the backcountry South who had tried to stay out of politics found one side or the other plundering their food and horses—and promptly chose the other side.
Historians have not found any connection between educational level, occupation, position in society, or economic status and the choice to be a Patriot or a Loyalist. Well-educated doctors, lawyers, and newspaper publishers all could be found on both sides. Families were split by the Revolution. Benjamin Franklin, a newspaper publisher and Enlightenment scientist, became a Patriot. He had secured a royal post for his son William Franklin as governor of New Jersey, and William chose to be a Loyalist. The two never spoke again.
Enslaved Africans and African Americans usually chose to support the British cause. In 1775, the last royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation offering male slaves their freedom in return for taking up arms to defend the king’s cause. In many ways, Dunmore’s Proclamation was the product of a truly desperate royal official who used it as a last-gasp way to raise troops and cause chaos. The British actually hesitated to support Dunmore’s Proclamation because they were aware it alienated planters who might otherwise support the king’s cause. (It might also unnerve otherwise-loyal colonists in the Caribbean colonies, who did not join the independence movement but depended on slavery to generate wealth.)
Yet as the War for Independence wore on, and British and Loyalist troops swept through the South from 1779 on, slaves took the gamble. More than 20 percent of the enslaved population voted with their feet and ran to British lines in South Carolina and Georgia during the war to claim their freedom. At the end of the war, these black Loyalists pressed the British to honor their promise of freedom, which they grudgingly did, providing transportation for them and many white Loyalists to the British colony of Nova Scotia in today’s Canada.
Free blacks, on the other hand, lived lives similar to those of poor white colonists, and they often chose the Patriot side for similar reasons. Crispus Attucks worked as a sailor and on the docks, and he joined fellow dockworkers on March 5, 1770, to protest now-hated British policies. In the Boston Massacre that night, he became the first African American to die for the American Revolution.
New England states offered male slaves freedom in return for their military service, although their owners had to agree to allow them to serve. Historians estimate that approximately five thousand African Americans served in the Continental Army during the war.
For all the debate over political ideals in the lead-up to the War for Independence, much of what motivated most people may have been more practical. Many were persuaded more by their own personal concerns about their farm goods or the need to feed their families than they were by political ideas. When the Revolutionary War ended, the debate shifted to the kind of government the Americans were creating.
1. What best describes the Patriots before and during the American Revolution?
- Patriots usually had strong economic ties to Great Britain and were hesitant to risk their livelihoods by joining the cause.
- Patriots supported the cause of liberty and independence for the colonies, which meant active support of the war effort.
- Most Patriots had religious commitments that prevented them from joining a side, even though it made them unpopular.
- Support for the war increased over time, and by the end of the conflict, every colonist identified as a Patriot.
2. What best describes the Loyalists before and during the American Revolution?
- Loyalists were willing to risk treason and death to support colonial independence and remained devoted to the ideas of enlightenment.
- Loyalists continued to support the British Parliament or king, believing their economic or political interests would be best served by fighting for, or at least speaking up for, the British.
- Most Loyalists identified as pacifists and were morally unable to choose a side, owing to their religious beliefs.
- Loyalists tended to be upper middle class, educated elites; their social identity was woven to that of the crown.
3. Which of the following generalizations is true about Loyalists, Patriots, and neutrals?
- The Declaration of Independence was a turning point that decided for each of these groups who they would support in the Revolution.
- Loyalists were typically upper class, Patriots typically middle class, and neutrals usually lower class.
- There was no deciding factor; instead, each person made choices on the basis of political beliefs, economic opportunity, and proximity to war.
- Almost all Scotch-Irish supported the neutral cause, whereas almost all African Americans supported the Patriot cause of liberty.
4. How did the Revolutionary War affect the U.S. relationship with the Church of England?
- Most in the colonies remained devoted to their Anglican religion, and the church itself experienced little change.
- Loyalists were unwilling to support the Church of England because it conflicted with their views on liberty, resulting in a decline of Anglicanism in the colonies.
- Adherence to religious freedom was respected to such a degree that religious affiliation with the Anglican Church did not matter to the colonists.
- The Church of England was associated with Loyalists, so Patriots distrusted it to such an extent that the reputation of Anglicans was marred after the conclusion of the war.
5. Which of the following is not true about the relationship between African Americans and the Loyalist Cause?
- Many Loyalists in the Caribbean relied on slave labor and were hesitant about the possibility of their property being freed.
- As the war continued, many southern enslaved people escaped from their plantations and joined Loyalist troops.
- Free Blacks overwhelmingly supported the Loyalists because that gave them opportunities elsewhere in the British empire.
- At the conclusion of the War, most African American Loyalists received transportation to Nova Scotia where they were able to start their lives as free people.
6. If the Patriots had lost the war, what would have been a likely consequence for them?
- Patriots would be punished for rebelling against the Crown, and the organizers would likely face death.
- Their allies would safely transport Patriots out of the colonies.
- Patriots would be able to negotiate a new form of democratic government with the Crown.
- Patriots would immediately realize their mistake and become Loyalists once again.
Free Response Questions
- Explain why the American Revolution was a civil war.
- Explain how religious beliefs and social standing influenced some colonists’ decisions to choose a side in the American Revolution.
- Explain how economic realities influenced some colonists’ decisions to choose a side in the American Revolution.
AP Practice Questions
Refer to the excerpt provided.
“But what topics of reconciliation are now left for men who think as I do, to address our countrymen? To recommend reverence for the monarch, or affection for the mother country? Will the distinctions between the prince and the ministers, between the people and their representatives, wipe out the stain of blood? Or have we the slightest reason to hope that those ministers and representatives will not be supported throughout the tragedy, as they have been through the first act? No. While we revere and love our mother country, her sword is opening our veins. The same delusions will still prevail, till France and Spain, if not other powers, long jealous of Britain’s force and fame, will fall upon her, embarrassed with an exhausting civil war, and crush, or at least depress her, then turn their arms on these provinces, which must submit to wear their chains or wade through seas of blood to a dear bought and at best a frequently convulsed and precarious independence.”
Letter from John Dickinson to Arthur Lee in response to Lexington and Concord, April 29, 1775
- British troops opened fire on colonists, signaling a willingness to use violence.
- An alliance was signed with the French to gain economic and military support.
- American Indians led a coordinated attack on frontier outposts, stunning the British troops there.
- Women began creating clothes at home to boycott the British influx of goods.
- lack of united feelings about American independence
- high literacy rates among the colonies compared with other places in the world
- likelihood of men to discuss current events in the eighteenth century
- extreme enthusiasm for revolution without regard for the consequences
Refer to the excerpt provided.
“Where the money is to come from which will defray this enormous annual expense of three millions sterling, and all those other debts, I know not; unless the author of Common Sense, or some other ingenious projector, can discover the Philosopher’s Stone, by which iron and other base metals may be transmuted into gold. Certain I am that our commerce and agriculture, the two principal sources of our wealth, will not support such an expense. The whole of our exports from the Thirteen United Colonies in the year 1769, amounted only to £2,887,898 sterling; which is not so much, by near half a million, as our annual expense would be, were we Independent of Great-Britain. Those exports, with no inconsiderable part of the profits arising from them, it is well known, centered finally in Britain, to pay the merchants and manufacturers there for goods we had imported thence; and yet left us still in debt! What then must our situation be, or what the state of our trade, when oppressed with such a burden of annual expense! When every article of commerce, every necessary of life, together with our lands, must be heavily taxed, to defray that expense!”
Charles Inglis, Anglican Church Minister in New York City, The Costs of Revolution, 1776
- Economic concerns influenced the decision of some to stay loyal to Great Britain.
- The primary concerns for many were the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and liberty.
- Colonists along the Atlantic seaboard agreed that taxes were a necessary part of the economy.
- Independence was the solution to the financial woes of the merchants in the colonies.
5. Which of the following places the sentiments in the excerpt in proper historical context?
- Colonists traded with all European powers equally, competing for the best profits.
- A system of mercantilism limited the colonists’ legal trade options and, therefore, their profits.
- Countries poured money into researching alchemy to create gold out of other minerals.
- Colonies had been illegally printing paper currency to offset the large amount of taxes levied on them by the British.
6. Which of the following post-war developments ensured a continuation of the sentiments provided?
- U.S. products were well made and able to compete internationally, producing quick profits for the new country.
- British manufactured goods continued to flood the market and fare better than U.S. products for decades after the conflict.
- U.S. merchants were able to trade with all countries, allowing them to quickly pay off their debts.
- British taxes continued to hurt the U.S. economy as the new nation struggled to pay war debts and taxes.
Peter Oliver. Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion. 1781. https://books.google.com/books/about/Peter_Oliver_s_Origin_Progress_of_the_Am.html?id=08IL5DO_q94C
Brannon, Rebecca. From Revolution to Reunion: The Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016
Brown, Wallace. The King’s Friends: The Composition and Motives of the American Loyalist Claimants. Providence: Brown University Press, 1965.
Calhoon, Robert M. The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760–1781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
Chopra, Ruma. Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York City During the Revolution (Jeffersonian America). Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011.
Jasanoff, Maya. Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Piecuch, Jim. Three Peoples One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775–1782. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.