December 9, 1781: Loyalist Despairs at British Defeat

On This Day...

December 9, 1781, Loyalist Despairs at British Defeat. In 1781, Loyalist lawyer Ward Chipman of Boston wrote despairingly to his friend Jonathan Sewall who had gone into exile in London. Chipman confessed, "the mortification of seeing our Enemies . . . triumphant in such a cause is too much for my Spirits." Chipman, Sewall, and many others in Massachusetts did not support the war for independence. Some abandoned estates and fortunes and "quit America" when war broke out, seeking to escape, as Sewall said, "bombs, great guns, . . . battles, sieges, murder, plague, . . . famine, rebellion, and the Devil." They expected to return when the British troops had suppressed the rebellion. The Sewalls spent 12 years in England before moving to Canada in 1787.



Not everyone in revolutionary Massachusetts wanted to break with the Mother Country. At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the American colonists celebrated their place in the triumphant British empire. But dissatisfaction grew when Parliament began to pass unpopular laws, such as the Revenue Acts. Colonists took to debating the system that gave the crown power over colonial trade and government. The citizenry was divided into those who supported the status quo, those who favored independence, and the moderate majority who sought compromise. Initially, there was more contention in urban areas than in the countryside, where farming took precedence over politics.

With the arrival of British soldiers in Boston in 1768 and the tumultuous events, such as the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party, that followed, protest against British rule intensified. The punitive measures imposed by Parliament in the spring of 1774 only accelerated the trend. The British decision to shut down town meetings and control the appointment of judges politicized rural folk who had previously been uncommitted.

By the summer of 1774, Loyalists were finding life in Massachusetts increasingly dangerous, especially in the countryside. Mobs of angry citizens threatened the homes, families, and even the lives of government officials in rural areas. Dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, Crown appointees were forced to renounce their offices publicly and take oaths of fidelity to the patriot cause. Those who refused were treated harshly. In some cases, they were tarred and feathered; in others they were fired upon or their property was invaded and ransacked.

The action of the rural mobs confirmed the Loaylists' worst fears about democracy: mass participation in government would lead to anarchy. They believed ardently that the British political system was the world's best and that social disintegration would be the result of allowing "common men" an active role in government.

By the autumn, many Massachusetts residents who were still faithful to the king had fled to Boston, where the presence of the British army provided a measure of security. Loyalists refugees swelled the city's population by approximately 1,700. Most were merchants, officeholders, or professional men such as doctors, lawyers, and Anglican clergy. Almost all had relatives who supported independence, so they were painfully aware of how divided the colony was.

Jonathan Sewall maintained his loyalty to the crown at terrible cost. He came from a prestigious Bay Colony family. When his father died bankrupt, members of the colony's elite saw to it that he attended Harvard, received training as a lawyer, developed a thriving legal practice, and received appointments to lucrative government offices. As young men, Sewall and John Adams were close friends who admired each other's legal minds; they parted ways when Adams became an outspoken critic of the British government. Sewall believed that thwarted personal ambition and private jealousies motivated Adams, John Hancock, and other well-educated and affluent men who supported the patriot cause.

Sewall himself was ambitions and successful. He had been appointed to numerous government offices, including Attorney General of the colony. By the summer of 1775, his high public profile made him a target for anti-British mobs. One group of angry patriots arrived at his home on "Tory Row," as Brattle Street in Cambridge was known, one September evening while Sewall was away. His quick-thinking wife Esther struck a bargain to keep them from pillaging the house; she offered up the contents of the family's wine cellar if the mob would disperse. It did.

Fearful and despondent, Jonathan Sewall and his family were among the first Loyalists to leave for England. The prospect of spending the winter in an overcrowded, disease-ridden city where food and fuel were scarce prompted over 400 adult Loyalists to abandon Boston that autumn; another 500 men left when the British evacuated the city the following March. Many Loyalists moved to Nova Scotia; others, including the Sewalls, went to England. Confident that the vaunted British Army would quickly crush the rebels, the exiles expected that their absence from America would be brief.

The agonizing wait in England literally drove Jonathan Sewall mad. His loyalty to the king had cost him his property and his position. Once in London, he discovered that the British elite looked down on him and other Loyalist refugees as middle-class, even second-class, "colonials." His wife Esther was intensely homesick. Although she was loyal to her husband and the crown, the rest of her family (including her sister Dorothy, who was married to John Hancock) were all committed patriots. A deeply disturbed Jonathan Sewall interpreted Esther's unhappiness as criticism of the way he had managed their affairs. Convinced that his wife and British officials were persecuting him, he withdrew into paranoia.

Most Loyalists who fled Massachusetts eventually returned. Some came back as soon as the Continental Army left Cambridge in the spring of 1776; others waited. By 1782 over half had returned. After the war ended, most were allowed to reclaim at least a part of any property the U.S. government had seized; in time, they were reintegrated back into their communities.

Some of the most prominent Loyalists, however, were forever barred from the new nation. Like most of the permanently exiled, the Sewalls eventually emigrated to Canada. Although the British government partially reimbursed him for his losses, Sewall sank further into mental illness and died, as his old friend John Adams put it, "of a broken heart."



A self-guided tour of the major Loyalist sites is online at The Tory Trail.


If You Go:

The Tory Trail



Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Loyalist, by Carol Berkin (Columbia University Press, 1974).

The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution, by James H. Stark (A.M. Kelly, 1910).

The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord, by Ray Raphael (The New Press, 2002).





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Max Strozier


Web Page Created:

09 December 2008


Web Page Updated:

22 December 2010