What Happened To British Loyalists After The Revolutionary War? Not everyone celebrated when the British surrendered at Yorktown. About a fifth of all colonists remained loyal to the Crown; for them, the American victory spelled exodus and, often, more violence.
NPR logo

What Happened To British Loyalists After The Revolutionary War?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/419824333/419824334" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
What Happened To British Loyalists After The Revolutionary War?

What Happened To British Loyalists After The Revolutionary War?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/419824333/419824334" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are heading into the 4th of July weekend, a time to celebrate freedom and democracy and these United States. But when the Revolutionary War ended in 1781, not everyone was celebrating. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the population back then were loyal to the British Crown and thus were not so thrilled when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. What became of these loyalists who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history? To answer that question, we are joined by Maya Jasanoff. She's a professor of history at Harvard University.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MAYA JASANOFF: My pleasure, thanks.

MARTIN: First of all, what was it like to live as someone who was loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolution? I mean, is it something people were public about? Weren't you just considered a traitor, and tarred and feathered?

JASANOFF: Well, that's certainly the stereotype and there were definitely instances of people being beaten up on by gangs would come to their house and harass them for being on the wrong side. It has to be said that some loyalists certainly were able to just kind of lie low and go about their business and try to not say too much about politics. But if you were living on the front lines of these advancing armies going back and forth across the colonies, it could be really a difficult choice and a difficult situation to be in.

MARTIN: What about after the war? What happened to them?

JASANOFF: So the fighting actually continued, in the backcountry of the South in particular. And it was in regions like that that loyalists still tried to fight for the empire that they believed in.

MARTIN: Even after the war had officially come to a close?

JASANOFF: Yes, and it's a part of the war that we tend to not think too much about or learn about in school. But there was a lot of bloodshed, and particularly in the South. And gangs of revolutionaries, gangs of loyalists, would attack each other, go to each other's plantations. In fact, some of the big battles in the South happened after the surrender at Yorktown.

So what all of this means is that there was a climate of violence and a climate of fear for many loyalists. And it meant that when the peace negotiations were going on, they were really concerned about what kinds of protections they might have in the new United States. And during this period, many felt that the protections that the U.S. was offering were not promises that they could really get behind. And so when the British pulled out in city after city in the United States, up to tens of thousands of loyalists sometimes went with the retreating army to Britain and other parts of the British Empire.

MARTIN: Did many go to Canada?

JASANOFF: Yeah, so about half of the loyalists who left the United States ended up going north to Canada, settling in the province of Nova Scotia and also becoming pioneering settlers in the province of New Brunswick.

MARTIN: How do history books commemorate these people?

JASANOFF: You know, it's an interesting question. On the American side, of course, they're losers. And history is, as we know, written by the winners. So there's not much place for the loyalists - especially the loyalists who left - in standard American history. But the British also have a kind of complicated relationship to the loyalists. And I think the reason is that the British have a complicated relationship to the Revolutionary War and to the United States, which is a place that they wanted to hold on to and failed to. And the loyalists were, at times, a very uneasy reminder of this defeat.

MARTIN: Maya Jasanoff is a professor of history at Harvard University.

Thanks so much for talking with us.

JASANOFF: Thanks so much for having me.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.