Dishonoring the Loyalists

By Tim Compeau

A crowd of Boston revolutionaries insulted the loyalist James Murray and snatched the wig from his head. Another New England crowd tarred and feathered Captain John Malcolm and made him renounce the King. Cadwallader Colden Jr. was shackled to an African American slave; Peter Guire was branded with the letters “GR” (George Rex); Thomas Brown was scalped; Dr. Abner Beebe was rolled in pig manure and paraded before a group of women; Edward Brimley’s home was invaded and his wife put on display for the townspeople. By the end of the American Revolution, thousands of loyalists were stripped of their right to own property and run a household. Joseph Galloway, a Pennsylvania loyalist, wrote that these diverse insults, abuses, and punishments were “penalties more severe than death itself,” and that is exactly what the revolutionaries intended.[1] All of these attacks were designed to dishonor and emasculate the internal enemies of the American Revolution.

The Age of Revolutions was also the “Age of Honor.” As Bertram Wyatt-Brown convincingly argued, grasping the importance of honor “helps explain the intensity of American colonial resentments.”[2] In a world of masters and slaves, of patricians and plebeians, and of provincials and cosmopolitans, honor and manhood cut to the very heart of eighteenth-century cosmology. The Revolution may have toppled aristocratic privilege in the former colonies, but old ideas of honor persisted and even intensified.[3] Historians have examined the ubiquitous language of manhood and the rituals of honor in colonial and Revolutionary America, but how these same ideas were used by and employed against loyalist Americans is a question that I have been tackling. Honor, according to anthropologists, functions as a right to respect – a claim made on others to treat someone with the dignity and deference due to their rank.[4] American revolutionaries dramatically rejected the loyalists’ right to respect, and in many cases that rejection was sufficient to drive Crown supporters from American society.

Exploring the symbols, rituals, and language used to attack loyalists provides fascinating insights into commonly held ideals of honorable masculinity and racial hierarchy. In stripping away the constituent elements of their enemies’ manhood, the patriots were making statements about their own self-perceptions and revealed what they believed to be hegemonic, manly traits, such as personal independence, civic virtue, and dignity – the ideas invoked throughout Revolutionary writings. Both sides claimed to represent honorable manhood, but the patriots, through their control of the majority of printing presses and their populist tone, successfully cast loyalists and their political allegiance as unmanly and dishonorable. Alexander Hamilton wrote in his pamphlet that all loyalist ideas smacked of “impotence” and displayed a “defect in vigour,” when compared to the “manly and virtuous [patriot] struggle.”[5] Thomas Paine described a loyalist as an “apostate from the order of manhood” and declared that any man who supported the British had the “heart of a coward” and was “unworthy [of] the name of husband, father, friend, or lover[.]”[6] For their part, the loyalists believed they were the truly honorable party, and compared the rebels to insolent children, or to weak men carried away by their passions, yet the loyalists never found their Tom Paine. The patriot press overwhelmed pro-British arguments, and in the process created the archetype of a sometimes effete, sometimes savage and cruel Tory who stood as the dark inversion of the righteous patriot.

When the patriots sought to dishonor their loyalist enemies, they had an entire arsenal of racial archetypes and stereotypes at their disposal. The scalping, shackling, and branding described above were punishments intended to mark white loyalist bodies and illustrate how far these formerly powerful men had fallen. Patriot writers compared loyalists to slaves or to ferocious Native American warriors. By the end of the war it was common to read of attacks by “Tories and Indians” and in a few cases, newspapers reported that frontier raiders were actually “Tories, painted like [Indians].”[7]   In short, patriots argued that by betraying their manhood, their country, and their race, loyalists were morally and even physically transformed.

The trope of the dishonored loyalist persisted for generations after the conflict in American historiography and popular memory. The Tory was a special kind of villain in the tale of America’s founding: a former friend who now burned civilians in their homes, led Native warriors to attack settlers, and provoked slaves to turn on their masters. David Ramsay described the loyalists in The History of the American Revolution (1789) as “cowards, who not only wanted [i.e. lacked] spirit to defend their constitutional rights, but who unnaturally co-operated with strangers in fixing the chains of foreign domination on themselves and on their countrymen.”[8] The idea of loyalist Americans “unnaturally” collaborating with the enemies of liberty appears numerous times in nineteenth-century historical fiction. In Lawrence Labree’s Rebels and Tories, Or, The Blood of the Mohawk (1851), he explains that “our worst foes were not the English, nor their savage allies…” but rather it was the “Tories [who] were equally cruel and bloodthirsty, and often added to their other atrocities, the most unpardonable treachery.” Likewise, the novelist Harold Frederic describes “the wanton baseness and beast-like bloodthirstiness [of]…native-born Tories[.]”[9] In the early twentieth century, the American historian Claude Halstead Van Tyne wrote that he understood “why a Tory was ‘a devil in human shape’ in the eyes of the patriots” because loyalists engaged in “acts of war [i.e. looting and pillaging] which especially aroused the hatred of the patriots” and it was only just that the loyalists were driven from American society.[10] Professional historians of the twentieth century took a far more measured tone and approach when exploring the loyalists, but popular depictions in film and television from Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), to Disney’s Swamp Fox (1960), to The Patriot (2000), and to AMC’s TURN still  resonate with the archetypes of stalwart patriots and weak, cruel loyalists that were first created during the American Revolution.

The loyalists played an important role in shaping revolutionary ideals of manhood and honor. By degrading their internal enemy, the patriots elevated their own place in society. The patriot rank and file could be assured that by rejecting loyalism and embracing the Revolution, they would be free from the sort of insults and dishonors inflicted on Tories. Regardless of their rank, by virtue of their political choice, patriots were empowered as men, whereas loyalists became archetypes of dishonored Americans.

Tim Compeau teaches history at Western University and Huron University College in London, Ontario, Canada. He is also a post-doctoral researcher in digital history at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. You can follow him on Twitter @TimCompeau and visit his website

Title Image: “The Bostonian’s paying the excise-man, or tarring & feathering.” London: 1774.

[1] Joseph Galloway, A Candid Examination of the Mutual Claims of Great-Britain, and the colonies… (New York: Rivington, 1775), 1.

[2] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1890s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 32.

[3] Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2001), xxi. For an in-depth discussion on duelling in the early republic, see Chapter 4, “Duelling as Politics,” 159-198.

[4] Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[5] Alexander Hamilton, A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress from the Calumnies of their Enemies in Answer to A Letter Under the Signature A.W. Farmer (New-York: James Rivington, 1774),3, 6, 22.

[6] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1776), 40, 66.

[7] Connecticut Courant, July 28 1778.

[8] David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1789), 240.

[9] Lawrence Labree, Rebels and Tories; Or, The Blood of the Mohawks! A Tale of the American Revolution (New York: Dewitt & Davenport, 1851),32. Harold Frederic, In the Valley (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890) 328.

Further Readings:

For my full study of honor and loyalism in the American Revolution see: Timothy J. Compeau, “Dishonoured Americans: Loyalist Manhood and Political Death in Revolutionary America” (2015). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. Paper 2712.

Some excellent work on the loyalists in the American Revolution has been published in recent years, including:

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Ruma Chopra, Unnatural Rebellion: Loyalists in New York during the Revolution. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Jerry Bannister and Liam Riordan eds. The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.

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