An appropriate comment from Reddit during our Fourth of July Celebrations.

by w3woody

I know I’m a day late and a dollar short here, but I just encountered this comment (from 10 months ago) where a historian was asked about British loyalists during the revolutionary war.

His comment, which I’ve reproduced in full below, is an excellent explanation describing what the war for independence was really about. Hint: it wasn’t about taxes, not exactly.

Read in full, it’s fascinating.

And this is the best of what the Internet could be, in my opinion.


Hold on, hold on, hold on. I’ll tell you a bit about the Loyalists, but first, I must take issue with your characterization of much of the war in the body of your post, because much of this is exactly the kind of thing that the King and his supporters would have argued back then. Let me take it piece by piece.

The first thing you have to understand, though, was the legal structure at the time. These days, in the U.S., if a state or territory has a legal issue with the federal government, then the state or territory sues the U.S. government in federal court. If the lawsuit involves constitutional issues (that is, the U.S. Constitution which is the ultimate basis of U.S. law) then the lawsuit may reach all the way to the level of the Supreme Court. When they make a decision, legally speaking, it is the final ruling on the matter of law in regards to the constitutional issue at hand. Easy enough, right?

Well, back in colonial times, there was no U.S. Constitution. The ultimate authority in law for the Thirteen Colonies were their respective colonial charters, each of which was different. These were contracts between the people of the colony and the King, agreed to and signed by both sides, and these charters were what gave the colonies the legal authority to exist. They detailed what rights the colony had and what rights the King had and how the two sides interacted in a legal manner. These were not uniform, and some colonies enjoyed rights that others did not.

But there was no Supreme Court back then, either. The judicial structure was entirely different, and entirely separate. If you were a citizen of Massachusetts, including the governor and legislators of Massachusetts, you could only sue in Massachusetts court. They had no access to the British court system, so they couldn’t bring a formal case there. The only judicial relief they could get when Parliament overstepped their authority in regards to the rights established in the colonial charters was to petition the King. Essentially, the Virginia government, or some other colony’s government wrote a letter to the King: “Hey, the law Parliament passed is illegal. Here is the passage from the charter which shows why it is illegal. Here is precedent, etc. Now tell them to stop.” And you’d hope the King would see your point.

So, the British point of view of the Revolutionary War was that the Thirteen Colonies were pissed off for paying too much in taxes and not being represented in government, and that’s why they revolted. And the revolt was unjust because the taxes were fair and they were represented in government.

But the American point of view was that the rule of law was being violated. And it was being violated continuously, repeatedly, purposely, and egregiously. And when the colony’s stream of judicial relief to these matters began to be violated as well, they revolted. They revolted so they could establish their own rule of law which would be respected.

So let’s go back to the issues you brought up, and present them from the American side:

the granting of autonomy to the newly conquered Québec which allowed them to remain Francophone, use French civil law and practice their Catholic faith openly under the Protestant British administration.

OK, this has to do with the French and Indian War. Go back a little: both England/Britain and France claimed the “Ohio Country” which included the present states of Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. From the English side, this land belonged to the colony of Virginia, in accordance with Virginia’s colonial charter. Pennsylvania’s charter laid out its western border at roughly its current place, but Virginia’s original western border was the Mississippi River.

Before the mid-1700s, it didn’t really matter that Britain and France had overlapping land claims on the Ohio Country, since nobody had tried to settle it. But by the 1740s, there were enough people in America that interested Virginians formed a real estate company to go buy the land from the Indians and start selling it off to new settlers.

To prevent this, the French set up a series of military installations in the Ohio Country to protect their land claim. Virginia sent a regiment of the colonial militia under the command of George Washington, who was the younger brother of one of the investors in the land company. Washington had been appointed Captain of the militia by Virginia’s lieutenant governor, who was yet another investor in the Ohio Company of Virginia. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with the French in Ohio, Washington ambushed a contingent of French soldiers in the dead of night, which started the war. And this French and Indian War, in turn, was one of the causes of the much larger Seven Years War, which nearly bankrupted Britain.

Great Britain did win the French and Indian War against the French, so it wasn’t entirely a disaster. To Virginia, that meant that they now should have control of the Ohio Country, in accordance with the land boundaries set up in their colonial charter. But the King and Parliament were pissed off about the whole thing so, while organizing Quebec under English rule, they formally made the Ohio Country part of Quebec.

This pissed off Virginia lawmakers greatly, because not only did it violate the law as it was written in the Virginia colonial charter, but it kind of defeated the whole purpose as to why the Americans had fought the French and Indian War in the first place. In any case, regardless of the King’s personal feelings, Virginia’s legal position was that the King didn’t have the authority to unilaterally give Ohio to Quebec, since the contract both had signed back in the 1600s gave that land to Virginia. But what was their legal relief? The only thing they could do was peitition the King, who said no. There was no neutral third party they could appeal to.

Another is the so called “Intolerable Acts” which weren’t particularly intolerable by any sort of standard, they were taxes levied on the colonies to cover the cost of their defense

Again, this came down to a dispute not over the amount of taxes levied, but over the rule of law. For 140 years, Massachusetts had local authority over all tax issues, and the law had been respected that way. This is how it had been done under the original Plymouth charter, and after a re-org in 1686 revoked that charter which ended in a rebellion in Boston with the colonial governor captured, a new Massachusetts charter was issued in 1691.

Under this new charter, Parliament and the King of England had the right to “impose and levy proportionable and reasonable assessments, rates, and taxes upon the estates and persons” of Massachusetts as long as these new laws were “issued and disposed of by warrant under the hand of the Governor of [Massachusetts] with the advice and consent of the Council [i.e., the Massachusetts colonial legislature] for our service in the necessary defence and support of our Government of [Massachusetts] and the protection and preservation of the inhabitants there”.

In other words, the only way that Parliament and the King could raise taxes on the people of Massachusetts was to get authorization from the Massachusetts government.

This is how it had worked for 140 years, and this is what the law said, as the colonists understood it. And this is how Parliament had respected it for those 140 years as well. But now after the French and Indian War, Parliament began passing a series of laws that were essentially backdoor ways to tax the Thirteen Colonies, including Massachusetts. These schemes got more and more convoluted, including the Stamp Act, the Sugar Act, and the Tea Act among them.

Since Massachusetts couldn’t sue, they did what they could do which was petition the King. Parliament would back off, then pass something else which again violated the charter of Massachusetts, and Massachusetts would again have to petition the King. This began to escalate to the point that Parliament began to specifically target Massachusetts, which is what some of the Intolerable Acts were.

The Boston Port Act punished Massachusetts specifically because of their reaction to the illegal Tea Act. But more egregious than that was the Massachusetts Government Act, which revoked the Massachusetts charter and brought the colony under the authority of the King.

This completely undermined the basis of the rule of law in the Thirteen Colonies. Up until then, the laws were based on the colonial charters, which were contracts between the people of the respective colonies and the King.

But with the Massachusetts Government Act, the King and Parliament were now taking the position that, “No, these are not contracts between two sides. The King and Parliament have unilateral control over them, and they only exist because we allow them to exist.” In other words, they weren’t contracts at all. They were meaningless. They were completely one-sided. The charters existed at the pleasure of the King, and the colony’s basis in law could be revoked by him, unilaterally, at any time for any reason. In a word, this was tyranny.

The Massachusetts Government Act was a shot across the bow by Parliament, meant to be a warning to the other twelve colonies to not do what Massachusetts was doing, or you would be next.

Instead, the Thirteen Colonies banded together to fight this. The First Continental Congress petitioned the King for the repeal of the Intolerable Acts, making their case for why they were illegal in accordance with the colonial charters and English law. The King did not respond.

The Second Continental Congress then petitioned Parliament for their repeal, but Parliament responded that they did not recognize Congress. Send this petition thirteen times from your thirteen separate colonial governments, then we’ll talk.

At this point, Congress decided that they were just getting the run-around instead of having their legal issues dealt with. The judicial system had broken down, they could not get impartial judicial relief for their legal issues, the people of the Thirteen Colonies were entitled to the rule of law, and so they revolted.

And this is why the Founding Fathers issued the Declaration of Independence. We all remember the beginning of the document, about “all men are created equal” and the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. But most of the document details the various ways in which the King and Parliament had undermined the rule of law as detailed in the colonial charters, and the subsequent efforts the King and Parliament had then made in order to prevent them from obtaining judicial relief from these violations. The colonists were standing up for the rule of law, and were now determined to set up their own system of government because the British system could no longer be trusted to uphold the colonists’ rights.

So, yeah, most of the reasons you hear about the war is rah-rah rhetoric on both sides. “Taxation without representation” and such is useful sloganeering to get popular support, but the legal issues at the heart of the Revolution were fairly clearly on the side of the Thirteen Colonies. The fact that they didn’t want to pay a larger share of the French and Indian/Seven Years War debt was a separate issue, and was not at all as clearly on the side of the Thirteen Colonies. But the more important issue, the structure of law and what the Parliament had the legal authority to do, particularly with the Massachusetts Government Act, was very much on the side of the colonies. And there was no clear way for them to ever get a fair shake with judicial relief, since the King got to act at his own arbiter.

Finally, there’s the reality that for all the rhetoric about liberty, the United States was intended to be an aristocratic slaver republic, Congress in it’s original form and franchise was less representative than parliament and it was only due to the British Empire’s embargo on the slave trade in the early 19th century that the slave economy of America began to whither, which made abolitionism a viable popular movement.

This is a very skewed representation, and you are conflating into one issue that the Founding Fathers saw as two. Cries of “liberty!” were in response to the political situation as outlined above. Slavery was something else entirely. Another commenter has already addressed this, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

I will update this post with some sources if asked, but for now, let me move on to addressing the question in the title of your post. You brought up several different issues and I thought it only right to respond to them all since you mentioned you are doing this for home schooling purposes.

EDIT: Thanks for the gold, for this post and the one above!!! I really appreciate it!

EDIT 2: Thanks to commenters down thread, I realize I probably should have been more circumspect in my assertion above. The Thirteen Colonies definitely had a very valid and reasonable argument to make in regards to the nature of the contracts defined in their colonial charters. Britain’s argument was in favor of “parliamentary sovereignty” which means what Parliament says, goes. This is a difference that is at the core of the American philosophy of government, separating it from Britain/the UK’s parliamentary law. The American philosophy holds that power is derived from the people and any right not explicitly granted to the government is retained by the people. The British philosophy is a lot different, and it’s well outside the scope of my expertise, so I’ll defer to anybody else who can talk about the origins of “parliamentary sovereignty” and the philosophy behind English law and from where its power derives.


Here are a few of the more notable Loyalists. Most of the top ranking military men for the British forces were British-born members of the Royal Navy and the other armed services. The following individuals are some of the prominent Americans who joined up on the Loyalist side (or, in Patriot parlance, the “Tory” side), which I believe is what you are asking about:

In New York, one of the most prominent Loyalists was Oliver Delancey. The Delanceys were one of the most prominent political families in New York politics. Oliver’s older brother James (who had died back in 1760) had served as Lieutenant Governor, and under his tenure, King’s College was established, which was renamed Columbia University at the end of the Revolution. Oliver himself had served in the New York Assembly (the colonial legislature) since the French and Indian War.

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, Oliver Delancey joined with General William Howe’s forces anchored on Staten Island. The British invaded Long Island in August, Delancey fighting alongside them, helping to capture and occupy New York City, which the British held for the remainder of the war.

Delancey then raised a Loyalist regiment of Tory New Yorkers from Manhattan, Long Island, and upstate New York. Oliver Delancey’s New Yorkers consisted of 1500 soldiers who fought at several of the important battles on the New York front early in the war, including the Battle of Lake George and the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga. (Sources 1, 2, 3, 4.)

In 1777, Delancey was captured by the Patriots though his son and nephew continued to fight as commanders of Loyalist forces. Oliver was accused of treason, and all his property was confiscated. He was released in 1783 at the end of the war, at which point he was exiled to England, where he died in Yorkshire in 1785. (Sources 1, 2.)

Another prominent Loyalist was William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin and governor of the colony of New Jersey. With the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he remained loyal to the king, and was placed under house arrest, and eventually transported to a military prison in Connecticut. While imprisoned, it was discovered that he had been aiding the enemy from behind bars, and he was moved to a different prison. He was later released to British-controlled New York City in 1779 as part of a prisoner exchange.

While there, he continued to aid Loyalist forces, and was central to the “Asgill Affair” in which a Patriot militia commander was hanged. The two sides of the Revolution were only imprisoning, not executing, each others’ soldiers, and this action had likely been taken on William Franklin’s orders. George Washington demanded the release of a Patriot POW also captured in the affair in response, or else the Patriots would execute one of the British POWs in retaliation.

Like other Loyalist leaders, William Franklin had all his land and valuables confiscated under the authority of the Continental Congress, and with the writing on the wall, Franklin left for England in 1782. He lived in London the rest of his life, probably the most vocal and visible Loyalist in England of the post-war period. He reached out to his father by letter to reconcile in 1784, and the two did reconcile personally, though Benjamin was careful to maintain that he would not reconcile with him politically. In part of their reconciliation, Benjamin made sure that some of William’s land holdings went to William’s son who had been a Patriot during the war. William Franklin remained loyal to Great Britain until his death in 1813, and hoped that the U.S. would rejoin the Empire one day. (Sources 1, 2, 3, 4.)

Another of the most prominent American-born Loyalists during the Revolutionary War was Cortlandt Skinner, who was the Attorney General of New Jersey at the war’s outset. He was an outspoken critic of what the Continental Congress was doing, and after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a warrant was issued for Skinner’s arrest. He fled New Jersey for Staten Island, joining up with General William Howe’s forces, and participated in the Battle of Brooklyn.

Skinner fought throughout the war, eventually attaining the rank of Brigadier-General, as high a rank as any American-born Loyalist achieved during the Revolution, matching the aforementioned Oliver Delancey. The battalions under the name “Skinner’s Greens” from New Jersey numbered more than 2000 Loyalist soldiers. These soldiers fought in several battles during the New York and New Jersey campaigns, including at the Battle of Trenton.

At the end of the war, having lost all land holdings and possessions, Skinner and his family were exiled to England. Cortlandt Skinner ultimately settled in Bristol, where he died in 1799 “universally known and beloved.” (Sources 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

There is of course also the well known Benedict Arnold, who I trust most people know a bit about. He was a little different in that he started as a Patriot and was a military commander, and didn’t join the Tory side until midway through the war. He also died in England, in 1801.

One thing to note about all these Loyalists who were exiled to England and “lost everything”: the British government mostly made up for it. Having served the Loyalist military, they had the values of their confiscated North American land compensated for — if not entirely, at least partially. They were also entitled to a war pension, which kept them in regular income through the rest of their lives.

For the common Loyalist soldiers not in the higher realms of government, the re-compensation for land and valuables confiscated by the U.S government was free land in Canada. Beginning the summer before Evacuation Day on November 25, 1783, the day that the British left New York City and the Revolutionary War was officially over, the British government began evacuating Loyalist soldiers, officials, and their families to Canada. Generally, they were granted 100 acres for their services, plus another 50 acres for their spouse, and 50 acres for each child up to 250 acres total. Loyalists from New England and the South were generally taken by sea to the Maritime colonies, while Loyalists from the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania headed to Ontario (“Upper Canada”) via the Hudson and the Mohawk Rivers to Lake Ontario.

About 60,000 Americans became part of this group of United Empire Loyalists, and their story is a big part of the founding of English-speaking Canada. It is the foundation of the history of Ontario, and the United Empire Loyalists more than doubled the English-speaking population of the Maritime provinces upon their arrival in the 1780s and 1790s (Sources 1, 2, 3.)

FURTHER READING:

The Men Who Lost
America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the
Empire

Tories: Fighting for
the King in America’s First Civil War

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