Why Did The Loyalists Flee?

by Terese Svoboda

We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. –Ben Franklin

Watching the Oathkeepers cry during the federal court trials under the charge of sedition, I considered the fate of seditious Loyalists during the Revolutionary War whom they most closely resemble in the topsy-turvy world of contemporary politics. The Revolutionary War was a civil war, combatants were united with a common language and heritage that made each side virtually indistinguishable. Even before hostilities were underway, spies were everywhere, and treason inevitable. Defining treason is the first step in delineating one country from another, and indeed, the five-member “Committee on Spies’ ‘ was organized before the Declaration of Independence was written.[1]  But the records of the courts handling  treason during the Revolutionary War are handwritten and difficult to read, especially on microfilm, according to Bertrand Roehner, the historiographer I mentioned in my last column, who works at the Sorbonne.[2]

Historiography is the study of how historical recording and interpretations shift with time as a result of many factors. Roehner helped me collect documentation available on violence in postwar Japan for my 2008 memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, sharing information from his research into Allied Occupation archives in Australia, Britain and New Zealand, and from Japanese and American newspapers. I was specifically looking for evidence of executions of Americans convicted by US forces, but I was also interested in the Japanese response to GIs in that period. What Roehner gleaned contradicted the premise of John W. Dowers’ Pulitzer-winning book Embracing Defeat, which frames the Japanese as meek losers, resigned to their status and reliant solely on Americans for their welfare. Dowers omits the huge demonstrations organized by the Japanese populace that took place periodically, the guerilla snipers and mysterious murders and rail sabotage – as well as the many acts of violence committed by the Americans – rape, automobile “accidents.” Dower had not reviewed or could not access Roehner’s sources, partly due to MacArthur’s policy of total censorship – even the mention of censorship was forbidden – that has only recently been lifted in Japan. While we would like to consider our side of the Revolutionary War terror- and violence-free, carried out by well-behaved Americans, the truth might be that we won the war because we were just as (or more) violent as our opponent — which would explain why 200,000 Loyalists left their homes and went into exile.[3]

Executions for treason would be a quantifiable benchmark of the violence necessary to oust so many. Roehner asked the National Archives in Boston for records about the trials of treasonous Loyalists. The answer: “there were little to no trials for treason.”[4] “This is a commonly held belief,” says Roehner.[5]  “The most honest histories of what happened to the Loyalists were published at the beginning of the 20th century. In following decades,” he writes, “the story was progressively sanitized.”[6] In 1968 historian Paul H. Smith cites 8,000 trials for treason, and  comments that “loyalists have been eliminated from the national consciousness,” complaining that there’s a basic lack of quantitative information, making it hard to determine whether the Revolutionary cause was a truly radical movement. He echoes an article by historian R.R. Palmer in 1959.[7]

More recent documents offer confusing and contradictory information. Daniel Hearn, in Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960, published in 2005, mentions a 1777 New Jersey court holding one of the largest treason trials in American history, condemning all 36 to death.[8] Two pages later, he notes that New Jersey held another 18 in 1778,  the tally for only one year from only one state. Hearn has also written Legal Executions in New England. In it, he chronicles a total of 25 executions in New England for all crimes, including murder, from 1775 – 1782[9].  “A further (but still highly incomplete) count in the book provides the names of a few hundred persons who were executed,” writes Roehner.[10]

Courts-martials also convicted many Loyalists of treason, sedition or espionage. One estimate is that “at least 3,315 men were tried by American courts-martial from 1775 to 1783.”[11] Their handwritten and almost illegible death sentences are, unfortunately, scattered in city and county archives. Abandoning that resource, Roehner asked hundreds of jails for their registers, hoping to calculate the death toll. He received no replies. “There has been not a single investigation of civilian Loyalist prisoners,” writes Roehner.[12]

A more recent example of whitewashing is Carlton F. W. Larson’s  2019  book, The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution. “The larger the rebellion, the less likely it is that any particular participant will be executed for treason” is his rationale for the low numbers.[13] According to Larson, during the Revolution, there were only forty-six treason trials with grand juries,  of which only five Loyalists were condemned to death.[14] “Maybe,” Roehner writes, “but there were hundreds of persons attainted of high treason (i.e. to be hanged) without any trial at all.”[15] The book does list “75 persons (name, occupation, address) from Philadelphia and surroundings “attainted of high treason.”[16] Even the reviewer of the Trials of Allegiance remarks on its “remarkably low conviction and execution rates.[17] In addition, Larson writes that in order to reduce the potential for revenge killings, the British did not execute any Americans for rebelling, admitting that this “was a significant departure from previous rebellions in the British dominions.” He does not even count Major John Andre who was executed in revenge for Nathan Hale’s hanging. Larson also maintains that banishments were not permanent, referring to the second most grievous threat the Patriots had to frighten the Loyalists. Roehner says that is as dishonest as saying “there were no incidents of Japanese violence toward the Allies in postwar Japan.” Roehner goes on:

If the banishments had been temporary one can be sure that the British government would not have awarded compensations to the Loyalists who fled. Only well connected Loyalists, and only those who had remained fairly neutral received permission to come back.[18]

With regard to colonial historian Don Corbly’s  preface to ​​Pennsylvania’s Traitors and Criminals During the Revolutionary War, Rohener notes that the author offers digitized copies of documents published in 1907, but his 2022 version shows subtle but important differences. “Forfeited Estate of Abraham Judder, Traytor” has become “Estate of Abraham Judder.” All similar titles are changed as well. In addition, Roehner has another, even more curious, observation: “Series 6, Vol.12” comprises 972 pages against only 455 for Corbly’s book.”  [19] That’s a lot of the past omitted.

Roehner points to further discrepancies. Revolutionary archives in Pennsylvania “comprise no less than 138 printed volumes (each has some 800 pages), all available online. With so much data at hand it would seem that one is in ideal conditions for writing a history of the Revolution.” He compares it with the 44 volumes of official history written by SCAP, an acronym for the Allies’ 150,000 troops and some 5,500 bureaucrats that governed during the Occupation, which yielded little to no information about military executions. Crucial omissions in the Pennsylvanian archive, according to Roehner, are similar to those he found in the Occupation records, “namely minimizing the incidents and making the Patriots appear more benevolent. Very few records of punishing the Loyalists are available, including trials and death sentences.”[20]

In my memoir, research about who was actually executed in postwar Japan was equally obscured: pages torn from books, indexes removed, archival boxes empty. I had eyewitnesses, among them my own uncle, but paper proof was slim at best. Roehner’s investigation into the American Revolution’s lack of documentation intrigued me.

Yes, Loyalists were threatened with tar and feathering if they spoke out, yes, the Patriots often confiscated their land. Although Canada offered property, along with “axes, one cow between two families, some cloth for the women-folk to make clothes and they would use wood from the forest with which to build a house and make furniture,”[21] such bleak refugee status would not be undertaken lightly. After all, some eighty-five years later, Southerners did not move en masse out of the country at the end of the Civil War.

When Washington hung a Continental Army traitor for attempted assassination, he said: “I am hopeful this example will produce many salutary consequences and deter others from entering into the like traitorous practices.”[22]  How many more examples did it take to make the Loyalists pack up? When John Andre, a well-liked British spymaster, was executed, those who captured him received a farm, a pension and a silver medal. Was that incentive the tipping point? It makes sense that the significant number of black Loyalist soldiers — roughly 20,000 –  would leave the colonies because they were promised freedom in Canada – even one of George Washington’s slaves fought for the British and left for Canada.[23] [24] The thousands of Loyalist Iroquois and other Native Americans soldiers who resettled in Canada had occupied their land in America for centuries.[25] The Gnadenhutten massacre in 1782, the last year of the Revolution, might partially explain their exit. Patriots raped the women of a pacifist Moravian religious colony which consisted of primarily Lenape and Mohican Christian converts, then murdered all 96 of them, including 34 children.There were no hangings: the Patriots chopped up the Native Americans with hatchets, then scalped them.[26]

Victors are good at rewriting history and promoting the slow erosion of the more brutal facts. According to Roehner, “A part of the British archives about mutinies, court martials and executions during WWI are still closed to historians.” [27] While British military and civilian authorities were ruthless in ferreting out spies and informants suspected of aiding the revolution, surely the Patriots did the same.[28]  Louis Arthur Norton writes in his 2022 article “Justice, Deterrence, and Fitful Revenge During the Revolutionary Warthat “the Americans averaged just over one execution per year, and the British less than one over the eight-year war.” Later he writes:  “Countless men on both sides of the conflict were executed for treachery, betrayal, or perfidy,” and finally, he equivocates: ”…there were many undocumented killings, but not on the scale of the French or Russian revolutions.[29].” It takes a Frenchman, Bertrand Roehner, someone not wed to a certain slant of patriotism, to look closer.


[1] Willing, Richard. “Congress’s “Committee on Spies” and the Court-Martial Policies of General Washington.” Journal of the American Revolution. https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/01/congresss-committee-on-spies-and-the-court-martial-policies-of-general-washington/ 12 Jan 2021.

[2] Email Roehner to author, 17 Oct 2022.

[3] “Tories: Loyalists to  the King.”” Revolutionary War. https://www.revolutionary-war.net/tories-loyalists-to-the-king/ 4 March 2020.

[4]    Email Roehner to NARA 15 July 2021.

[5]    Email Roehner to author. 19 Oct 2022.

[6]    Emal Roehner to author  21 Oct 2022

[7] JCC, 5: 417, 475; Paul H. Smith, “The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength,” William and Mary Quarterly, 25, No. 2 (Apr 1968), 264, 269. See also Palmer, R.R. “The Age of Democratic Revolution.” Princeton UP, 1959. I. 190.

[8]    Hearn, Daniel, Legal executions in New Jersey. A comprehensive registry 1691-1963. McFarland and Co. 2005. 37- 40.

[9]  Hearn, Daniel. Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960.  McFarland & Company 27 March 2008.410-411.

[10] Email Roehner to author 19 Oct 2022.

[11] Willing, Richard. Congress’s “Committee on Spies” and the Court-Martial Policies of General Washington.” Journal of the American Revolution. .https://allthingsliberty.com/2021/01/congresss-committee-on-spies-and-the-court-martial-policies-of-general-washington/ 12 Jan 2021.

[12] Email Roehner to author 19 Oct 2022.

[13] Larson, Carlton F.W.  The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution. New York:Oxford University Press. 2019.23.

[14] Procknow, Gene. “Treasonous Executions in Revolutionary America.” Researching the American Revolution.https://researchingtheamericanrevolution.com/2022/09/26/treasonous-executions-in-revolutionary-america/ 26 Sept 2022

[15]   Email Roehner to author. 22 Oct 2022.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Procknow.

[18] Email Roehner to author 21 Oct 2022.

[19]Email Roehner to author. 22 Oct 2022.

[20] Email Roehner to author. 27 Oct 2022.

[21] DeBruin, Jennifer. “Exploring the role of the Loyalist spies.CountryLive. https://www.countylive.ca/exploring-the-role-of-the-loyalist-spies/ 21 Feb 2019.

[22]  Brockell, Gillian. ”The plot to assassinate George Washington – and how it was foiled.” Washington Post. https://www.abqjournal.com/1281911/the-plot-to-assassinate-george-washington-and-how-it-was-foiled.html. 17 Feb 2019.

[23] NBC News. “From Slaves to British Loyalists; ‘The Book of Negroes’ Revealed.” https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/slaves-british-loyalists-book-negroes-revealed-n307161.  16 Aug 2015.

[24] Gates, Jr., Henry Louise Gates. “George Washington’s Runaway Slave, Harry.” The African Americans. PBS .https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/george-washingtons-runaway-slave-harry

[25]United Empire Loyalist” Citizendium. https://en.citizendium.org/wiki/United_Empire_Loyalists. 19 May 2022.

[26]Kupfer, Shannnon.“The Poor Defenseless Ones Together Bowed in Prayer”: The Gnadenhutten Massacre” Ohio Memory. https://ohiomemory.ohiohistory.org/archives/2686 and “Gnadenhutten massacre”Place and See. https://placeandsee.com/wiki/gnadenhutten-massacre 29 July 2021.

[27] Email Roehner to author 17 Oct 2022.

[28] “Revolutionary War British Espionage.” Evolution of Espionage in America. Intel.go vhttps://www.intelligence.gov/evolution-of-espionage/revolutionary-war/british-espionage

[29] Norton, Louis Artnur. “Justice, Deterrence, and Fitful Revenge During the Revolutionary War.” Journal of the American Revolution. https://allthingsliberty.com/2022/08/justice-deterrence-and-fitful-revenge-during-the-revolutionary-war/ 18 Aug 2022.