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Secession: Should the American Revolutionaries Have Quit to Appease the Loyalists?

When advocates of secession in the United States bring up “national divorce,” a common objection we hear is that secession can’t be allowed because it would make some people worse off. For example, we’re told that if, say, a majority of Floridians voted to secede, that still can’t be allowed because there would still be…

When advocates of secession in the United States bring up “national divorce,” a common objection we hear is that secession can’t be allowed because it would make some people worse off. For example, we’re told that if, say, a majority of Floridians voted to secede, that still can’t be allowed because there would still be a minority that opposes secession. We especially hear this in the context of so-called red states—where, presumably, a majority of residents are some sort of conservative or Republican. It is assumed that if those states seceded, “progressives” or Democrats would be worse off. But this works in the other direction also. Several years ago, when the topic of California secession was in the news, we were told that if the presumably left-wing state of California were allowed to secede, that would harm the conservative minority. Thus, California secession cannot be allowed even from the “red state” perspective.

Sometimes, advocates of secession respond to this objection by suggesting that the borders of the seceding region could be redrawn to account for variations in demographics within the population. For example, this might mean splitting Illinois between the “blue” Chicago area and the “red” southern part of the state. Opponents of secession are ready for this one, too: we’re told that doesn’t work because there are likely to be no clean lines of demarcation between population groups on both sides of the secession question. Even when the majority supports secession, opponents are likely to live alongside secessionists, and the antisecession minority’s wishes must not be disregarded. This “minority rights” position, we are told, makes secession an impossibility. After all, there will always be some minority population that opposes secession everywhere.

For some insight into this reality, we need look no farther than the American Revolution itself. The United States is the product of a secession movement in which there was a sizable minority population on the losing side. This minority is known today as the Loyalists, and they failed to prevent secession in spite of the fact that they numbered perhaps as much as half the population in some parts of the colonies during the secession crisis that began in 1775. In other words, the Americans who voted for the Declaration of Independence in 1776 ignored the Loyalist opposition and doubled down on their secessionist position anyway. In the end, many Loyalists emigrated to avoid living under the new republican governments. This was all exacerbated by the fact the British government chose war over negotiation. The war empowered the most fanatical and violent segments of the secessionist population, and this led to more reprisals against Loyalists. (This was not inevitable, of course. Secession is not in itself a violent act, but only brings violence when the established regime chooses violence to prevent separation.)

Yet even if a peaceful transition had been allowed, this leaves us with an important question: Should the American secessionists—people like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—have let the Loyalists veto the Declaration of Independence? If we accept the claim that the presence of antsecessionist minorities in Florida, California, or any other state today renders secession a nonstarter, then the answer must be yes. We must conclude that the Continental Congress should have listened to the Loyalists and scrapped the idea of American independence.

Even today, however, most Americans apparently disagree. In a recent YouGov survey, only 5 percent of Americans said they “have regrets” about the United States’ secession from the British Empire. Even after years of increased focus on the Loyalists in scholarship and in school curricula, disapproval of the American Revolution remains very much a minority position. As far as the American public is concerned, at least, there are apparently some times when the antisecessionist minority does not get to dictate the workability of a secessionist movement.

Yet the outcome of the revolution was nothing like the massacre that modern opponents of secession often imagine will necessarily be inflicted on the losing side in any modern secession movement. The example of the Loyalists does show that even after independence from Britain was secured, and when other British colonies were open to Loyalists, only a small minority of Loyalists actually chose to leave the United States. Most Loyalists successfully sought reintegration into the general public in the new American republics.

The Loyalist Minority in the Revolution

Some historians contend that less than half of the population actually supported the revolution. Even accounting for an unusually high degree of enthusiasm among those who did support secession—as John Ferling suggests was the case—that leaves about half the population either neutral or actively opposed. Demographic information about North America in the late eighteenth century is not exactly robust, but most estimates suggest that those who did actively oppose the revolution likely amounted to about one-fifth of the population. This amounted to about five hundred thousand Loyalists in a population of approximately 2.6 million in the early years of the war. In other words, this is no insignificant number.

Of those half a million Loyalists, it appears around twenty thousand were opposed to secession to the point that they were willing to fight and die by taking up arms in the British army. 

The number of Loyalists varied by colony, but Loyalists were represented in communities across the colonies and were neither overwhelmingly rural nor urban. Many were farmers, but many were not. Thousands of them owned slaves. New England appears to have enjoyed the most support for the “patriots,” while the Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies saw more Loyalist support. Yet Loyalists could be found in sizable numbers in all the colonies and in all cities. They are believed to have been especially numerous in New Jersey and New York—perhaps totaling nearly half the population—but were also clearly a significant portion of the population in Pennsylvania and the Southern colonies.

Loyalists were not a well-defined interest group, however. Those who explicitly opposed American secession did so for a variety of reasons, and it’s difficult to calculate their numbers because “loyalism meant different things to different persons in different situations.” There does not appear to be any single unifying factor “beyond a general hostility to all things patriot.”

The Cost of the War for the Loyalists

In any case, those who did actively oppose secession paid a price. As historian Maya Jasanoff put it:

Loyalists expressed their views passively and actively: they refused to swear loyalty oaths to the new assemblies; they moved to cities and regions under British control; and nineteen thousand joined loyalist regiments to fight for their vision of British colonial America. In retaliation they faced harassment from their peers—most vividly, if rarely, by tarring and feathering—and sanctions from state legislatures, which could strip them of their land and possessions or imprison or formally banish them.

Consequently, once it became clear the secessionists were likely to win, many Loyalists relocated to areas where they found the local environment more inviting. Proportionally, the dislocations were very large:

The American Revolutionary War appears to stand alone in one important respect. In total numbers of displaced persons, it seems to represent the apex, at least during the second half of the eighteenth century. . . .  [I]n comparison to the much bloodier and more costly civil wars associated with revolutionary France, in proportion to total population, the American Revolutionary War produced a much higher number of refugees.

How many of the five hundred thousand Loyalists actually left? Jasanoff concludes: “Sixty thousand loyalists with fifteen thousand slaves in tow left the thirteen colonies to build new lives elsewhere in the British world. This figure represents roughly one in forty members of the population (compared with one in two hundred who emigrated from revolutionary France).”

Only a Minority of Loyalists Actually Emigrated

Many went to Britain, and more than half went to Canada. In the far south of the American colonies, many moved to the British Floridas and to the Bahamas.

The fact that the American Revolution produced more refugees per capita than the French Revolution is often held up to highlight Loyalist deprivation. Yet the Loyalists never faced anything remotely comparable to the terrors imposed on the outgoing French ruling class by the Jacobins. Rather, the high number of Loyalist refugees at least partly reflects the fact that surviving British colonies gave Loyalist refugees positive incentives to move. For example, those who fled the colonies could apply to the British government, which offered to compensate many Loyalists for lost property. Canada, of course, provided cheap land, English-speaking neighbors, and streamlined legal immigration for tens of thousands of Loyalists. In some areas of upper Canada in the late eighteenth century, Loyalists made up the majority of the population. Loyalist slave owners could take their slaves to the British domains of the Caribbean, where slavery would remain legal for several more decades.

In spite of these options, however, it appears that less than 15 percent of Loyalists actually chose to emigrate. Put another way, in spite of the many Loyalists who were victimized by the more fanatical elements of the secessionist cause, a lopsided majority of Loyalists—perhaps 80 percent or more—apparently chose to stay in the new United States.

The Loyalists Had Options, but The Secessionists Didn’t

While many Loyalists were targeted by locals during the revolution, many others were at least left alone to the point that emigration was not worth the trouble.

Moreover, once the war was over, wartime discrimination against Loyalists abated and state legislatures created avenues for former Loyalists to become full citizens. Among Loyalists, “attempts to become part of a newly independent America were generally successful. Thus, after several years of struggle most former Loyalists who wanted to return were able to do so.”

On the other hand, had the secessionists lost the conflict, they would have been on the receiving end of harassment for being “rebels” and “traitors.” Indeed, had the secessionists lost, they would have likely faced far worse options than the Loyalists did. The Loyalists, after all, had access to jurisdictions that were still within the empire. They were welcomed into these areas and even offered compensation. The political decentralization of the English-speaking world following American secession offered the Loyalists options among culturally English areas. Had the secessionists failed, they would have had nowhere to go except distant places where English was not spoken and where the legal, cultural, and political realities were entirely different. Those who remained would have faced arrest for “treason” and other crimes. In other words, the price paid by the Loyalist minority was likely relatively far less than the price that secessionists would have paid had the revolution failed.

Majority Will versus Minority Will

Yet the minority-rights objection suggests that the potential unappealing fate of the Loyalist minority would have been sufficient to cancel American independence. It remains unclear, however, why the Loyalist minority was entitled to hold the larger secessionist population hostage.

After all, there is no political principle that tells us the minority is always right. Such an assertion is no more true than the dangerous claim that the majority is always right. Moreover, if a minority in opposition to secession is sufficient to veto secession, why is majority secessionism not sufficient to veto the status quo? Opponents of secession don’t tell us. Ultimately, the answer cannot be found in slavish devotion to the current political borders. In real life, political realities change. Regime legitimacy fades. Just as Jefferson notes in the Declaration of Indenpendence, sometimes it “becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” Jefferson also notes, of course, that this is not always prudent, and he is right. There are many practical reasons in many circumstances to not favor secession. Not among these reasons, however, is the idea that we must never support secession because a minority group in the seceding territory might oppose it.

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