Tuesday, February 4, 2014
February 4, 2014: House Histories: Loyalists
[Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) is one of the 19th century’s most interesting historical novels—but the real House is full of significant American histories in its own right. This week I’ll blog about five such histories, leading up to a special weekend Guest Post from one of Salem’s foremost AmericanStudiers!]
On the sizeable American community we hardly ever think about at all, and why we should.
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the House was sold to Samuel Ingersoll in 1782 by the third generation of its original family, the Turners; they did so because John Turner III had lost more or less all of the family’s sizeable fortune during the Revolutionary War. As best historians can tell, Turner lost it all not only because of excessive spending and poor financial acumen but also, and most saliently, because he and his family were Loyalists, supporters of Great Britain during the lead-up to and events of the Revolution. By 1782, only a year before the war’s conclusion with the Treaty of Paris (1783), the Loyalist position had become a clear loser, economically and socially as well as militarily, as reflected concisely in Turner’s loss of the House in that year.
Thanks to the power of hindsight, because the Revolution ended the way it did, it’s easy to think of the Loyalist position as a loser’s choice from the get-go. But it wasn’t, and not only because of just how fully the war went against the colonists for the first few years (nor because of how crucial French aid was to the ultimate turning of that tide). While there were of course no opinion polls in the 1770s, it’s also quite likely the case that Loyalists (or Tories, as they were often known) outnumbered Revolutionaries for much of the Revolution’s early period. Which, if we’re able to step back from our false sense of the Revolution’s inevitability, makes all the sense in the world—pragmatic sense, given the overwhelming power and military superiority of Britain and what would have happened to Revolutionaries had they lost the war; and philosophical sense, given how absolute of a change the Revolutionaries were arguing and fighting for.
In any case, the Loyalists represented a sizeable Revolutionary community, a third side in the conflict that complicates a binary America-England vision of the war. And outside of Benedict Arnold (who of course is remembered much more as a traitor than a Tory), I’m not sure we include Loyalists in our collective memories and narratives at all. Perhaps the new TV series Turn, which premieres on AMC later this year, will feature Loyalist characters, although the initial glimpses seem to pit its early Revolutionary spy protagonists against British forces rather than their Tory neighbors. Which is really the most central point of better remembering the Loyalist community—that the Revolution was far more of a Civil War than we like to admit, pitting neighbor against neighbor, Americans against Americans, all fighting for their homes and their vision of a homeland. Such a shift in our narratives would be hugely difficult, of course—but far more reflective of the complexities of history and, as a result, of their relationship to our own divisions and debates.
Next House history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?