Good Losers

Yale University Art Gallery/Art Resource
The surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781; painting by John Trumbull

The loyalists of the American Revolution, that is, those who remained loyal to the British crown during the Revolutionary War, have not gotten much of a fair shake from historians. They were, after all, the losers in the Revolution, and history is usually not kind to losers, especially exiles or refugees from a lost war. Usually, but not always. History, or at least popular memory in folk songs and poems, has continued to remember the seven thousand French Acadians forcibly exiled from their homes in Nova Scotia by the British during the French and Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century and scattered throughout the thirteen British colonies. History also has never forgotten the losing efforts of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scottish Jacobites of 1745 to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. And the “lost cause” of the South in the Civil War was kept alive for decades and is still not completely dead. Still, as Maya Jasanoff points out in this spirited and engaging book, for over two centuries the story of the loyalist exiles from the American Revolution has been largely ignored—until now.

Jasanoff, who is professor of history at Harvard and author of a highly regarded work, Edge of Empire, that dealt with the ways in which British and French individuals experienced the culture of empire in India and Egypt, has turned her remarkable historical talents to the experiences of the tens of thousands of loyalists who felt compelled to leave the North American colonies that became the United States and migrated, sometimes moving from place to place, to both near and distant parts of the rapidly expanding British Empire. Jasanoff rightly claims that her book provides “the first global history of the loyalist diaspora.”

The American Revolution had international consequences that went beyond spreading the ideas of democratic republicanism. Indeed, Jasanoff persuasively contends that “the 1780s stand out as the most eventful single decade in British imperial history up to the 1940s.” What she calls the “spirit of 1783” that emerged out of the peace treaty with America animated the renewed British Empire well into the twentieth century. Ultimately, she says, it had more worldwide significance than the “spirit of 1776.” This “‘spirit of 1783’…provided a model of liberal constitutional empire that stood out as a vital alternative to the democratic republics taking shape [in this period] in the United States, France, and Latin America.”

The events of the 1780s created an enduring framework for the spread of the principles of British centralized hierarchy and liberal humanitarianism to the farthest reaches of the globe. It was Britain that defeated Napoleon and stood for ordered liberalism against the reactionary forces of the Holy Alliance. It was Britain that backed up the Monroe Doctrine and prevented conservative…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.