In a way, the American Revolution was also a civil war. By 1774, American colonists were divided into two camps: patriots and loyalists. Hotheaded patriots like the Sons of Liberty wanted to rid themselves of British rule at all costs. While the loyalists, either through stubborn loyalty to the crown or simple pragmatism, opposed all-out revolution.
It’s estimated that up to one-fifth of American colonists were loyalists and they didn’t all belong to elite British families tied to the crown or military, says Ben Marsh, a professor of American history at the University of Kent. Tens of thousands of merchants, farmers, Native Americans and enslaved people all had their reasons for preferring the known problems of British rule over an unpredictable independence.
But loyalists were on the losing side of the Revolution. Their businesses were ransacked, the homes confiscated, and after the war as many as 70,000 loyalists became refugees, fleeing to British imperial outposts in Canada and the Caribbean, or back to England itself.
Here are the stories of seven famous loyalists, most of whom paid a steep price for daring to oppose the Revolution:
1. William Franklin
William Franklin was an illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, but the two had a close relationship. They worked together on Poor Richard’s Almanack and the older Franklin used his influence to have William appointed governor of the colonial Province of New Jersey, where he earned a reputation as a reformer.
“Like other loyalists, William Franklin hated what the Crown was doing and thought it was wrong, but he didn’t disagree enough to warrant a revolution,” says Marsh.
As calls for war grew louder, Benjamin Franklin urged his son to resign and take a leadership post with the patriots, but William refused. On January 13, 1775, Governor Franklin made a plea to the New Jersey Legislature: “You have now pointed out to you, gentlemen, two roads,” he said, “one evidently leading to peace, happiness, and a restoration of the public tranquility—the other inevitably conducting you to anarchy, misery, and all the horrors of a civil war.”
When his state chose Revolution, Franklin was confined to house arrest for his loyalist views, then shipped to a prison in Connecticut, where he was caught communicating and plotting with other loyalists. Franklin was thrown into solitary confinement and wasn’t even let out to see his dying wife.
Franklin described his desperation in a letter to Gov. Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut. “I suffer so much in being thus buried alive, having no one to speak to day or night, and for the want of air and exercise,” wrote Franklin, “that I should deem it a favor to be immediately taken out and shot.”
Released as part of a prisoner exchange in 1778, Franklin became a loyalist leader in British-controlled New York and even organized guerilla attacks on patriot forces. He fled to London at the war’s end and never reconciled with his father.
2. Thomas Hutchinson
Born into a prominent Massachusetts family, Thomas Hutchinson was a successful merchant, a respected judge and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the explosive run-up to the Revolution.
In 1765, Hutchinson opposed the Stamp Act while lieutenant governor, but that didn’t stop an angry mob from looting and nearly destroying his home. Hutchinson was acting governor during the Boston Massacre and ensured that the British soldiers were tried for the deaths of six Bostonians, but he was still cast as the enemy.
“Hutchinson was a pragmatist trying to navigate a line between British policies, which were becoming more aggressive, and the demands of the patriots, but it was an impossible task,” says Marsh.
When patriots in other cities turned away British tea ships rather than pay the steep duties required by the Tea Act of 1773, Hutchinson stood his ground. He ordered that all duties be paid on the three tea ships docked in Boston Harbor, which the Sons of Liberty answered with the infamous Boston Tea Party.
Hutchinson sailed to England in 1774 in a last-ditch attempt to broker peace between the crown and the colonies, but he never returned to Massachusetts. Historians like Marsh see Hutchinson as a sympathetic figure who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“With the exception of a handful of nasty people, much of the rest of the loyalists are quite tragic stories of people whose loyalties, as far as they were concerned, remain pure and stable, but it was the rest of the world that changed,” says Marsh.
3. John Malcolm
John Malcolm is a far less sympathetic character than Franklin or Hutchinson. Malcolm was an overzealous and often cruel British customs officer who was tarred and feathered not once, but twice by patriot mobs.
The first incident happened in 1773, when Malcolm gleefully seized a Sons of Liberty ship at a port in Maine and threatened the crew with a sword if they didn’t heed his authority. When word spread of Malcolm’s behavior, a group of local sailors “disarm’d [him] of Sword, Cane, Hat & Wig,” poured hot tar and feathers over his clothes and paraded him through the streets for an hour.
If the public shaming was meant to humble Malcolm, it didn’t work. A year later, Malcolm got into trouble in Boston when he whacked a local shoemaker on the head for insolence. The shoemaker, it turns out, was a member of the Sons of Liberty and an angry crowd quickly gathered outside of Malcolm’s house.
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Stubborn and defiant to the core, the 50-year-old Malcolm taunted the crowd from his upstairs window, yelling, “You say I was tarred and feathered, and that it was not done in a proper manner, damn you let me see the man that dare do it better!”
The patriot mob was happy to oblige. They seized Malcolm and dragged him on a sled to King Street, where, instead of pouring the tar over his clothes, they stripped him naked in the freezing January air and applied the hot tar and feathers directly to his skin.
Malcolm fled to England a few months later carrying a box containing strips of his own flesh that peeled off when removing the tar, and a petition to the King over his “barbarous” treatment. He never returned to Boston, leaving behind a wife and children.
“As a loyalist, Malcolm is very two-dimensional and he’s used to great effect in the patriot propaganda of the time,” says Marsh, “like the famous cartoons of him being tarred and feathered in Boston.”
4. Thomas Brown
There were ardent loyalists outside of big cities like Boston and Philadelphia, too. One of the most famous was Thomas Brown, a wronged merchant from Georgia who took his vengeance on the patriots as the leader of the King’s Rangers.
Brown arrived in Georgia in 1774 just as the Revolution was heating up. Refusing to side with the patriots on boycotting trade with Britain, Brown was badly beaten by the Sons of Liberty and the soles of his feet were nearly burned off.
“He’s a much more interesting character in some ways than John Malcolm,” says Marsh. “Brown’s response was, ‘If you push me, I will push back.’ He turned his victimization into an angry militaristic retort.”
Brown fled to Florida, where he convinced the colonial governor to put him in charge of a regiment of loyalist fighters, who with help from local Indian tribes would ride against the patriots. In 1776, Brown was commissioned as lieutenant colonel of the Florida Rangers, later known as the King’s Rangers.
Brown led the King’s Rangers on raids along the Georgia-Florida border and fought the patriot armies in Savannah, Charleston and Augusta, where he was forced to surrender in 1781. Released as part of a prisoner exchange, Brown and many of his rangers eventually settled in the British-ruled Bahamas, where he was elected to the legislature and ran a sugar plantation.
5. Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea)
Known as Thayendanegea in his native Mohawk language, Joseph Brant was the most famous of the many Native American loyalists.
Brant enjoyed close family ties with Sir William Johnson, British superintendent of the Northern Indians of America, because Johnson had married Brant’s sister. Educated by the British and fluent in six tribal languages, Brant had “really good connections on both sides of the cultural divide,” says Marsh, “and he made the most of them during the war.”
It was Brant who convinced four of the Six Nations to fight for the British in 1775, arguing that the British were more likely to uphold their land agreements with the Indians than the Americans. Brant then traveled to England, met the King and became a favorite of the British aristocracy, who promised full support of Native American loyalists.
Brant returned to the colonies in 1776 where he fought alongside the British to retake New York, then led his Indian armies into battle in the Mohawk Valley. The patriot press portrayed Brant and his fighters as brutal savages, and “Monster Brant” (as he was known) was blamed for a Seneca raid in which 30 civilians were killed in retaliation for an earlier patriot attack.
“The patriot press made the most of the ways that the British are mobilizing enslaved and Indigenous people during the war to paint a story of America under duress from these external forces,” says Marsh. “Brant was nowhere near as bad as the patriot’s portray, but was an effective leader of his people both during and after the war.”
After the British surrender, Brant spent his remaining years trying to negotiate treaties with the British, Americans and Canadians to save tribal lands from white settlement.
6. Boston King
When the Revolution began, the British shrewdly recruited enslaved people to fight against their American masters. An estimated 12,000 slaves of African descent known as “Black Loyalists” took up arms for the British during the Revolutionary War and tens of thousands of others risked their lives to seek freedom behind the British lines.
Among them was Boston King, an enslaved man from South Carolina who survived smallpox and capture at sea to escape to safety in British-controlled New York. When the war ended, the British kept their word and negotiated “certificates of freedom” for 3,000 formerly enslaved people, including King and his wife Violet.
King and the other Black Loyalists were settled in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, where they suffered violence and famine, but survived to establish a community. We know King’s story because he became a prominent preacher and wrote his memoirs, which describe his journey to Sierra Leone with a shipload of other Black religious pilgrims, and his education in England.
7. Jonathan Boucher
Loyalist preacher Jonathan Boucher dared to baptize and educate formerly enslaved Black people in Virginia and Maryland, which made him controversial from the start. But when he took to his pulpit to oppose patriot firebrands like Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry, he put a target on his back.
“Boucher ended up preaching in his church with two loaded pistols,” says Marsh.
One day a patriot mob gathered outside the church and threatened that if Boucher stood up to preach they would drag him out. Ever defiant, Boucher shouted “God Save the King,” grabbed a local patriot leader, put a pistol to his neck and escaped with his life.
Boucher, once a close friend of George Washington, fled to Britain in 1775 where he wrote one of the first histories of the American Revolution outside of the United States.