Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Americans rediscover loyalists

Every few years historians in the United States get a frisson from rediscovering that not all Americans supported the cause of "liberty" during that unpleasantness in the 1770s and 1780s. Maya Jasanoff's new Liberty's Exiles  sounds like a terrific piece of historical writing, actually, but any Canadian historian who has even dabbled in the field will not exactly be thunderstruck to learn that loyalism “cut right across the social, geographical, racial and ethnic spectrum of early America—making Loyalists every bit as ‘American’ as their patriot fellow subjects. Loyalists included recent immigrants and Mayflower descendants alike."

By coincidence, I have been reading David Mills's 1988 study The Idea of Loyalty in Upper Canada 1784-1850.  It's accurately titled: the study is less about the historical loyalist exiles who interest Jasanoff than about the struggle, mostly among non-"loyalists" (in that sense), to capture and define the label loyalty. The concept starts out being very much the property of the conservative elite, but as reform views entrench themselves in the political scene, the reformers become adept at defining their position of political dissent based on constitutional rights as true loyalty in the best British tradition.
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