Thomas N. Ingersoll’s The Loyalist Problem in Revolutionary New England begins with an observation from Mercy Otis Warren, the author of one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution (History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution ). Warren, who was wife and sister, respectively, to two of Massachusetts’s leading revolutionaries, noted that during the Revolution the loyalists “experienced much clemency from the opposite party, yet, perhaps not in the full latitude that policy might have dictated” (Ingersoll, 1). Warren admitted that while some patriots mistreated their loyalist neighbors, this behavior was generally an anomaly. “Overall,” writes Ingersoll, Warren “thought most loyalists enjoyed a generous policy at the hands of the rebels, and the victors banished only those exiles who worked with ‘settled rancor’ against their countrymen” (1). Warren’s assessment of the patriots’ policy toward the loyalists is at the heart of Ingersoll’s deeply researched, persuasively argued, and well-written book. “The argument of the present book,” he states, “is that Warren’s view is a balanced one … the rebels did not aim to drive out the opponents, so most loyalists never had to leave the United States.” In the end, “the rebels demonstrated a remarkable degree of toleration” (1). Ingersoll uses the book’s first chapter to provide readers with a glimpse at New England society on the eve of the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. That the American Revolution began in New England was not a coincidence. The region’s capable local leaders and well-informed, self-governing townspeople possessed a strong historical consciousness that emphasized democratic-republican principles: “a fluid society based on popular sovereignty and the equality of free men, religious freedom from orthodoxy, and civil supremacy over the crown’s mounted and mailed generals” (5). The outbreak of the Revolution in New England was the culmination of a historical narrative that traced back to England in 1628, both the year of the Petition of Right in England and “the year the first Puritans began colonizing Massachusetts Bay” (2); through the “Roundheads,” blamed for the execution of England’s Charles I in 1649; to radicals like Samuel Adams. Ingersoll’s is not a study of loyalists and loyalism in New England per se, as the book’s title suggests; instead it is “a history of the rebels, their attitudes toward loyalism, and policies to manage loyalists” (4). Ingersoll examines the sources of the patriots’ “generous” and “humane” policy toward the loyalists. He writes: “This is a social and cultural history of a radical ideology of liberty, democracy, and equality, from within the core of English history, by weighing rebel policies to define and control loyalists” (1–2). It was this radical ideology, rooted in English history, that “fueled the American Revolution” (215). Ingersoll uses the treatment of New England’s loyalists to support his argument that the patriots “demonstrated a remarkable degree of toleration” (1) that guaranteed the Revolution’s short- and long-term success. The patriots’ toleration of the loyalists and loyalism stemmed from their willingness to adhere to one of the linchpins of English radicalism: liberty of conscience. The loyalists’ potential for collaboration with the British, their critique of New Englanders as a rebellious people who sought to “revive the dark and stormy” years of Oliver Cromwell’s England (50), and their rejection of rebellion based on the belief that “inequality and privilege are natural, monarchy necessary, and stability essential” tested patriots’ unity as well as their ability to tolerate dissent (1). The loyalists’ characterization of New Englanders as unapologetic radicals with a historical proclivity for rebelliousness heightened suspicions held by other colonists. Thus, New Englanders recognized that it was important “to avoid excess, especially in their region, in the interest of intercolonial unity” (3). They understood that moderation would undermine loyalist arguments and make it easier to “encourage a majority of colonists to consider independence” (185). As Ingersoll explains, all patriots “in positions of responsibility urged decorum and forbearance, strict avoidance of civil bloodshed … there was not to be strict suppression of nonconformity” (186). Guided by a respect for liberty of conscience as well as by an awareness of history, the patriots chose “not to inscribe the story of the Revolution in spite and gore” (1). Instead, they adopted a policy toward the loyalists that was humane and at the same time “shrewd, for it did not make sense to scatter bitter political enemies around the Atlantic world” (2). In 1783, many loyalists remained in their communities “after suffering little for their beliefs” (2). Only the most recalcitrant loyalists faced the confiscation and dissolution of their estates and exile. The patriots’ moderation toward the loyalists was inspired by the lessons of history and by the principles of liberal toleration. They understood, writes Ingersoll, that “revolutions must be measured by their generosity, by the survivors rather than the victims” (189). That many loyalists remained in the new nation and some exiles eventually returned was “the ultimate test of the Revolution’s radicalism” (2) and, more importantly, the highest expression of its democratic-republican ideals. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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