Our First Civil War

Our First Civil War

In the prologue to his latest book, bestselling author H.W. Brands writes: “In every colony, and then every state, were thousands of men and women who wanted nothing to do with independence.” This schism is the premise of “Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution.”

Brands, two of whose books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, also cites early on an example of a particularly brutal pitched battle between Patriot and Loyalist militias that went badly for rebels.

While this hardly breaks new historical ground, the author has announced—both in his title, “Our First Civil War: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution,” and in the prologue—that he will focus on this aspect of the Revolutionary War. The reader anticipates revelations on this front.

Indeed, many of America’s Founding Fathers wanted nothing to do with rebellion and independence initially—and even after repeated punitive acts promulgated by the British Parliament. In late 1773 George Washington and Ben Franklin condemned the Boston Tea Party. These were conservative men who felt that property rights, even British ones, should be respected.

But before long American rebels, under orders from Washington and others, would be jailing fellow colonials who remained loyal to King George III and confiscating their homes.

Franklin spent more than a decade in London before the outbreak of hostilities in America trying, in vain, to convince the British government to address various and proliferating colonial complaints. He held out for reconciliation well after many colonists had crossed the Rubicon—and he was viewed as too accommodating by some fellow patriots. Brands documents this at length, with many long quotes from Franklin and his British counterparts.

But once Franklin came around, he was all in. In 1776 He would renounce his own (albeit illegitimate) son William, whom he had helped in 1763 to become the royal governor of the colony of New Jersey. William was arrested by American forces and jailed in 1776, and his property was confiscated. The two never reconciled after the war.

The author ably documents the drift from petitioning to open rebellion and cites some anecdotes on the consequences experienced by Loyalists. He quotes liberally from letters between Patriot leaders such as Franklin and Washington.

But what Brands doesn’t do is delve deeply, or in any great detail, into the civil war that he has set up as his book’s errand. Loyalists and their contribution to the British cause appear infrequently throughout, almost on the order of a footnote to the narrative on America’s drift toward radicalization and war.

The reader is never provided with a clear sense of how many Loyalists there were, how many of them took up arms, and how effective their intransigence was for the British cause. There are thousands, of course, the reader learns, but not how many thousands. Perhaps such numbers are hard to ascertain with precision from the historical record, but if that is the case, the author doesn’t make it.

The reader is left to Google and learns, among other tidbits, that several historian peg the number of Loyalists as high as 400,000, or about one in five Americans of European origin. Some 65,000 of them fled a triumphant America to other parts of the British Empire during and after the war.