What Did the Tories Want in the American Revolution?


Thomas B. Allen is the author of "Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War."

The grand story of the American Revolution forms the backdrop of today’s Tea Party, whose members tell us to look to our nation’s origin, when patriots also protested taxes and governance.  But when we remember how America began, we should also remember that within the Revolution there raged a civil war.  The rebels fought not only the British but also other Americans who called themselves Loyalists.  The rebels called them Tories, a derogatory label linked to the Irish word for outlaw.

Tens of thousands of those Tories fled the country after the war, leaving behind an unanswered question:  Why did some Americans choose to fight for the king?  The answer is hard to find.

Four months after the Declaration of Independence, hundreds of New York Tories signed a “Declaration of Dependence.”  Although the document gives “Testimony of our Zeal to preserve and support the Constitutional Supremacy of Great Britain over the Colonies,” it does not contain any sharply defined reason that explains why Tories opposed the Revolution.  Loyalty to the king was apparently reason enough.  The traitorous idea of Independence was merely answered by the regal idea of Dependence.

Tories did not do much writing about themselves.  Lorenzo Sabine, a nineteenth-century historian, said of the Tories:  “Men who… separate themselves from their friends and kindred, who are driven from their homes, who surrender the hopes and expectations of life, and who become outlaws, wanderers, and exiles—such men leave few memorials behind them.  Their papers are scattered and lost, and their very names pass from human recollection.”

One memoir that does survive was written by Comfort Tiffany, a Connecticut farmer and schoolteacher who spent more than a year under house arrest for his outspoken Tory views.  But it was a long time before his words emerged from the past.  His manuscript was handed down from one generation to the next until it was donated to the Library of Congress in 2000.

Tiffany does not give a personal reason for his choice. He calls the war a “Shocking and unhappy Struggle Between prince and people”—the people being unruly rebels who were “Giddy, Rude and profligate.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Tiffany believed that the rebels, by denouncing a king with divinely endowed authority, committed blasphemy.  He mourned the loss of “The Remarkable Zeal The New Englanders once had for The Sabbath” and said that under the rebels “The Form and matter of prayr is Changed, and . . . That what was once Good Is now Become Sinfull….” 

Just as church congregations were sundered by the Revolution, families also divided.  Stephen Jarvis, a teenager working on the family farm in Connecticut when the Revolution began, enlisted in a rebel militia commanded by one of his uncles.  As Stephen told it, he enlisted to defy his father—and perhaps to impress his girlfriend, Amelia Glover.  Soon, though, because “My father was one of those persons called Torries,” he deserted the rebels and enlisted in an elite Tory force, the Queen’s American Rangers, one of more than two hundred Loyalist military units formed during the Revolution.

Like Tiffany’s manuscript, Jarvis’s journal remained unknown for a long time.  The document did not become public until it was snatched from a rubbish barrel and published in 1907.  The document was described as “An American’s Experience in the British Army,” rather than in a Tory regiment.  The mistake was understandable.  By the early twentieth century, the memory of a Tory-Rebel civil war had been totally eclipsed by the subsequent civil war between the North and the South.

Stephen fought the rebels in battles from Pennsylvania to Georgia, never flinching from shooting at fellow Americans.  In one battle, he had a man-to-man encounter with a Continental Army soldier, described simply as “the enemy” who “fired and missed me and my horse, and before he could raise his rifle, he was a dead man.”

When the war ended, after serving as a Tory soldier for seven years, Stephen returned to Danbury —wearing the green uniform of a Queen’s Ranger.  He naively expected that he and Amelia could be married in an Anglican church by a clergyman who was a relative and settle in their hometown.  He did not know that, because the clergy’s duties included prayers for the King, the rebels had forced the closing of Anglican churches.  Nor did he seem to realize that under a Connecticut anti-Tory law he could be charged with treason.

After taming a mob that burst into his father’s house, Stephen hastily arranged for a clergyman to perform the marriage ceremony there.  But, continually threatened by former neighbors and unable to live in their native land, Stephen and Amelia joined some 80,000 Tories who left America, including about 3,500 ex-slaves who had been freed when they went over to the British side.  Most of the exiles went to Canada, where they were given tracts of wilderness land.

By the time Stephen and Amelia Jarvis arrived in Canada with their infant daughter, Stephen’s cousin, William Jarvis—like Stephen, a veteran of the Queen’s American Rangers—was on his way toward founding a political dynasty in what was essentially a new country.

Canada.  That is the answer to the question of what the Tories wanted in America: a federal system of parliamentary government under a constitutional monarchy as part of the British Empire.  And, Canadians say, thanks to being founded by non-revolutionaries, they have a country full of people who have a character of quiet fortitude, a virtue they trace directly back to the Loyalists—Canadians’ preferred term.  

In 1789, the Crown authorized a Mark of Honour for Loyalists: the right to put after their names the letters U.E., showing that they had “adhered to the Unity of the Empire.” Their descendants inherited that right, and U.E. appears after Canadian names to this day.