Loyalists vs Patriots in 1776
As the year 1776 unfolded, American colonists were confronted with the question of independence. Some favored it, others rejected it, and a third group remained uncommitted.
This political question caused hard feelings between colonial Americans. More and more colonists were forced to take sides in this bitter conflict. Some chose. Some refused. Battle lines were drawn. The question divided families, communities, churches, schools, and local governments.
Those who spoke out in favor of separating from England’s political system—some 30 to 40% of the population—took the name of Patriot, even though they were rebels, committing treason against King George III and Parliament, and if caught, tried by jury, and found guilty, were subject to execution.
Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” He understood fully the possible tragic consequences when he signed the Declaration of Independence.
Then, those who remained faithful to the British government—some 20% of the colonies’ existing population—took the name of Loyalist, or Royalist, or Tory.
Thus, some 40 to 50% of the remaining population considered themselves neutral, uncommitted. “Some neutrals did not much care who governed them, so long as the government left them alone. Others did want to be on a losing side. It was a great risk to stake out a position.”
A recent arrival from England, known only as “an Englishman,” published a pamphlet that he entitled Common Sense on January 10, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Readers quickly learned that the author’s name was Thomas Paine. His pamphlet sold 150,000 copies, a run-away best-seller.
In it, he argued for independence, and based his argument upon two ideas.
First, that “the nature of the British monarchy and constitution was so corrupt that the only solution was immediate and complete separation.” And, second, that “the resources of the colonies were sufficient to defeat any military force that the British might dispatch to the colonies.”
Many colonists read his words and agreed. They dared to hope for independence, and in their ability to govern themselves. Others were appalled. Whereas Paine saw a quick and easy military victory, others saw “rivers of blood,” and where he saw democracy, others saw a mob’s chaotic rule.
For two months no one dared to step forth and argue for loyalty to the British government.
Then, on March 13, 1776, a short pamphlet entitled Plain Truth appeared in bookstores. Its author identified himself as “Candidus.” In recent years, historians have determined that the author was James Chalmers, a wealthy landowner then in Kent County, Maryland, on the eastern shore.
In Plain Truth, Chalmers said of Paine, “His first indecent attack is against the English constitution, which, with all of its imperfections is, and ever will be, the pride and envy of mankind.”
Second, Chalmers did not believe that “the colonists could ever defeat Great Britain’s might army and navy. The English outgunned the colonists’ rag-tag militia. Alone, they could not win. They must join forces with a great European power, like France or Spain, in order to gain even a slim chance.”
Then, on April 17, 1776, “Candidus” published a second pamphlet, Additions to Plain Truth, and in it, Chalmers warned the colonists of the high price of an ugly war.
“Should this war prove unsuccessful on the part of Great Britain, we cannot imagine that it will terminate, e’er many bloody fields are lost and won; I say, it will not end in less than ten years.”
Actually, the war for independence spread across six and half years, from Lexington and Concord, in April of 1775, to Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in October of 1781.
The colonists now had three pamphlets in front of them to read. They could agree with Thomas Paine and fight for independence, or side with “Candidus” and hope that the British will defeat the colonists with little loss of life and property, and that the British will reconcile with the colonists.
Historians since 1776 have searched in vain for reasons to explain why one colonist would chose the Patriots’ cause and another the Loyalists’ cause. The choice was not due to “a person’s educational level, occupation, social class, or economic status.” It was individual, made at a personal level.
Some Loyalists, who could see that Paine, Jefferson, and other Patriots would win the propaganda war, gave up and fled to Canada or to England, but only between 80,000 and 90,000 did so.
One Patriot, Benjamin Franklin, remained forever bitter about one Loyalist’s choice, that of his son William Franklin, then the Governor of New Jersey. In his will, dated July 17, 1788, Ben left to William, “all the lands I hold in the province of Nova Scotia,” 2,000 acres of forest.
Ben then says, “The part he acted against me in the late war will account for my leaving him no more of an estate [than] he endeavored to deprive me of.” Much to William’s regret, he chose King and Parliament, rather than his dad’s experiment in self-government and independence.