Maya Jasanoff: We should also remember the Loyalists this July 4th





[Maya Jasanoff is an associate professor of British history at Harvard University. She is the author of “Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850”]

Every Independence Day we celebrate the founding of the world’s most powerful — and for some, inspirational — nation. Yet for several months after July 4, 1776, the self-proclaimed United States of America looked set to go down in history as a nation that never was. That August, in the biggest battle of the Revolution, the British trounced the Continental Army on Long Island, nearly forcing an American surrender....

[Many loyalists signed a petition siding with the Crown.]

During three days in November 1776, this petition sat in Scott’s Tavern, on Wall Street, to be signed by anyone who wished. A frank declaration of dependence, it completely lacks the revolutionary genius and rhetorical grace of our hallowed July 4 document. Yet in all, more than 700 people put their names to the parchment — 12 times the number who signed the Declaration of Independence....

Loyalists are the American Revolution’s guilty secret: rarely spoken of, hauntingly present. At least one in five Americans is believed to have remained loyal to Britain during the war. They expressed their opinions passively and actively: refusing to forswear allegiance to the king, signing petitions or joining loyalist military regiments — as nearly 20,000 men did — to defend their vision of British America. In retaliation, they faced harassment from their peers, most vividly (if rarely) by tarring and feathering. Some would suffer for their loyalty in open battle; others faced sanctions from state legislatures, which could strip them of their land and possessions, imprison them or formally banish them....

Still, even as the loyalists put down roots in the British Empire, it seemed that they had not left every trace of America behind. For what should they promptly express abroad but an uncannily American desire for greater political representation — much to the chagrin of British officials. ...





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