Review of Resisting Independence: Popular Loyalism in the Revolutionary British Atlantic by Brad A. Jones (2020)

Review by Kacy Dowd Tillman

Jones, Brad A. Resisting Independence: Popular Loyalism in the Revolutionary British Atlantic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020. 324 pp.

Resisting Independence by Brad A. Jones explores loyalism as it played out in Glasgow, Scotland; Kingston, Jamaica; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and New York City. This book suggests that, while these four communities often defined loyalism diversely in terms of their own “local political cultures,” they nevertheless often collectively embraced a concept of liberty similar to that of the American patriots’ but rooted in devotion to the Crown. This project primarily contributes to the study of the Age of Revolutions broadly speaking and loyalism more specifically by articulating a commonality between loyalist communities in America, across the Atlantic, and in the Caribbean centered largely around common enemies, particularly the French and the Catholic Church. 

Jones’s book is organized chronologically and the chapters track “empire-wide loyalism” as ideologies became united, fractured, and then somewhat reunited once more (4). The first four chapters explore loyalism as it gradually developed in the years leading up to the American Revolution, particularly in response to the Stamp Act Crisis, Townshend duties, and Coercive and Quebec Acts. Chapter five concerns how loyalists became divided over how Britishness should be defined (140). Six suggests those same loyalists found some agreement in their Francophobia, which was exacerbated when France promised to aid the patriots in the war (174). And seven centers around the Gordon Riots and the Crown’s acceptance of the Catholic church via the English Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which inspired some unity amongst loyalist communities as they rallied around their collective mistrust of “popery” (177-178). 

Book cover of Resisting Independence by Brad A. Jones.

Jones leans on a wide range of newspaper articles to define loyalism. Building from Michael Warner’s assertion that political dissent often played out in newspapers before it did on the battlefield, Jones argues that loyalists turned to the papers to explore and express their own political ideologies. While loyalist scholars will likely be familiar with many of those newspaper sources — particularly Rivington’s Gazette — Jones’s project pulls from a vast array of underutilized archives, particularly in Scotland. Loyalist archives are often far-flung and rarely digitized, so the latter is no small feat. 

Resisting Independence is centered around some familiar but many understudied pre-Revolutionary moments, which provides a fresh look at how international schisms and concerns affected the struggle for independence in the Americas. Revolutionary studies often suggest the colonies fought for independence due to a desire for greater economic and political autonomy, which of course they did, but Jones adds to this conversation by suggesting resistance to that idea was often informed by religious ideology, namely a strong belief that Protestantism and the British monarchy were “uniquely capable of protecting their cherished rights as citizens” (4). Although this book is interested in articulating commonalities between these loyalist groups, Jones also recognizes the complexity of the tensions that existed between them and the government they supported (68). Kingston’s loyalism stemmed largely from a desire to preserve its rights to enslave people and profit from their labor (212). Halifax and Glasgow attempted to maintain their relationship to the Crown for its military protection and economic advantages, though Glasgow disapproved of and rioted against Britain’s support of “popish tyranny” (214, 218, 220, 108). New York shared concerns with the Glaswegians and Haligonians but often expressed its disapproval through crowd action and property destruction, which some of the other loyalist communities found violent and distasteful (222). 

If the book can be said to have a shortcoming, it is that the framing the author used is unnecessarily reductive and, at times, misrepresentative of the breadth of other loyalist studies with which the book is conversing. Jones writes that “[h]istorians of Loyalism have largely failed to grasp the importance of the British Atlantic,” citing Maya Jasanoff’s book and Jerry Bannister/Liam Riordan’s introduction to their collection as exceptions (11).[1] Several scholars, particularly of the Black loyalist migration, have written about loyalism in the British Atlantic — namely James W. St. G. Walker, Ruma Chopra, Sylvia Frey, and Cassandra Pybus. The author, however, believes that “[h]istorians who described enslaved Africans who sided with the British as Loyalists tend to do so by embracing a more general definition of a Loyalist as someone who simply opposed the rebellion or fought for broader universal rights” (237n20).[2] He says his project offers an alternative reading to books that have “mistakenly describe[d] both Indians and free and enslaved African Americans as fellow Loyalists,” implying neither could willingly adopt or have been applied that term, though it is not clear why (11). Such statements suggest the author is working with metrics of loyalism that loyalists of color could or would not embrace (such as publication in newspapers, passing legislation, or, with some exceptions, taking oaths of allegiance); such metrics edge out loyalists of color from the history of the American Revolution, thereby propagating a narrow, whitewashed version of the war.

The author also claims that scholars have “continue[d] to frame [loyalist] ideology in parochial terms, as defined by a North American population seemingly independent in their thinking and actions and both separate and different from loyal Britons elsewhere in the North Atlantic” (11). He cites regional studies such as Rebecca Brannon’s  From Revolution to Reunion as one of these parochial texts, which is slightly misleading. Although Brannon does focus on loyalism in South Carolina, which means she is studying a narrow geographic area of loyalists, she certainly frames regional loyalism in terms of national and international concerns, occasionally offering perspectives on far-flung South Carolinian exiles and reminding readers of those loyalists’ Scottish backgrounds.[3] He disagrees with scholars who suggest loyalists used “personal interests to define their political allegiances,” but dismissing the personal as political excludes female loyalists (and feminist studies) for any consideration, since that was their primary means of political expression. This framing is thus a significant problem and not only because it dismisses Black and female loyalists but also because it assumes that concerns such as maintaining slavery and Protestantism — two of the causes cited in this book as useful loyalist metrics — are not personal when, in actuality, they were.  

The book is worth reading for the perspectives it offers on the connections between loyalists in New York, Halifax, Glasgow, and Jamaica. It emphasizes the ways in which these communities rallied around common enemies to define themselves, which is useful for understanding a broader version of loyalism. It de-centers America in the American Revolution in a productive way, aligning with the trend in recent Revolutionary studies, and it emphasizes the germination of loyalism in the years leading up to the war — eschewing beginning the project at 1776 — which is fresh and insightful. It is well-written and the prose is clear, making it appropriate for any scholar, novice or not, and any student, from the undergraduate to graduate level, as long as the text is paired with other perspectives on women and loyalists of color in order to foster important conversations on the privileges and modes of expressing loyalty and loyalism.  

Kacy Dowd Tillman, PhD is a Professor of English and Writing and Co-Director of the Honors Program at the University of Tampa. She studies early American manuscript & print culture — particularly letters and diaries — and loyalism, a subject about which she has recently published in Stripped and Script: Loyalist Women Writers of the American Revolution with the University of Massachusetts Press (2019). Her new research projects include Black loyalism in The Book of Negroes and the intersection of fake news & the rhetoric of disease in early American novels. The courses she teaches at Tampa include gender studies, literature of the early American republic, and the early American origins of modern social justice movements. Follow her on Twitter @kacytillman.

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Title image: “A Correct Map of the United States of North America” (1787) by Thomas Bowen


[1]. Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: the Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire. Harper, 2012. Jerry Bannister and Liam Riordan, eds. The Loyal Atlantic: Remaking the British Atlantic in the Revolutionary Era. U of Toronto P, 2011.

[2]. James W. St. G. Walker. The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leon, 1783-1870. U of Toronto P, 1993. Ruma Chopra, Choosing Sides: Loyalists in Revolutionary America. Rowan and Littlefield, 2016. Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton UP, 1991. Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty. Beacon P, 2006.

[3]. Rebecca Brannon, From Revolution to Reunion: the Reintegration of the South Carolina Loyalists. U of South Carolina P, 2016.

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