Washington is getting ready for Donald Trump’s big show. EPA-EFE/Shawn Thew

Fourth of July: national celebrations mask America’s centuries-old divisions

President Donald Trump’s extravagant celebration of the Fourth of July in 2019 – with special sections for favoured VIP guests, and political donors able to purchase tickets to the event – has attracted intense criticism. Many of his compatriots, for whom the nation’s birthday should have been a moment to celebrate unity and consensus, fear that Independence Day has been hijacked by narrow, partisan interests.

But while many commentators argue that contemporary US politics is marked by an unprecedented bitter and divisive tone, others are recognising that deep ideological divisions have been part of the nation’s heritage since its birth. Debates over the meaning of the Fourth of July, in particular, highlight that forgotten history.

For many Americans who were alive on July 4 1776, the Declaration of Independence, approved that day by the Continental Congress, represented not a new found liberty but a wrenching separation from an empire of which they were loyal subjects. When General James Robertson, governor of New York from 1779 to 1783, wrote that “I never had an idea of subduing the Americans; I meant to assist the good Americans subdue the bad”, the “good Americans” he referred to were these Loyalists.

The Committee of Five presenting the Declaration of Independence to Congress in 1776. John Trumbull (1756-1843)

The American Patriots who fought for independence, derided these Loyalists as “Tories”. The name derived originally from the Irish Gaelic word tóraidhe (outlaw). During the “Exclusion Crisis” of 1679-1681, the label had been attached, pejoratively, to the faction in parliament who supported the right of the Catholic James Stuart (later James II and VII) to the throne. Those Tories, in turn, labelled their opponents, who wanted James excluded from the succession, “Whigs”, (an obscure word of Scottish Gaelic origin, originally associated with rebellious Scottish Presbyterians). Thus were laid the foundations of British party politics.

American Patriots understood their revolution in these same terms. They were radical Whigs, often religious dissenters, opposed to royal prerogatives and advocates of natural rights philosophy. Inevitably, they castigated their local opponents as “Tories”, caricaturing them as the craven tools of monarchy and High Church Anglicans.

Liberty’s exiles

This one-dimensional view of the Loyalists endured for two centuries. Outside of Canada, where the contribution of Loyalist exiles from the rebellious colonies has long been celebrated, neither American nor British historians really challenged the negative “Tory” stereotype. For British historians, such as Sir John Fortescue, the tendency was to blame the Loyalists for their disjointed and uncoordinated support of regular forces.

American historians, such as Bernard Bailyn, who turned their attention to the “Tories”, generally thought them uninspiring and unprincipled. Yet historians, more conscious of the deep ideological divisions that have always shaped US society, are now revising their understanding of American Loyalists.

Andrew O’Shaunessy has argued that loyalism was a powerful force in preserving the empire in North America, where 13 out of 26 colonies rejected revolution and remained British. Maya Jasanoff has told the story of “liberty’s exiles” – a global history of the 60,000 Americans who fled the independent US and went on to shape the post-revolutionary world.

Ruma Chopra has established that the Loyalists did have a principled position – although they were sometimes quite “Whiggish” in their own politics, they rejected the extremes of “unnatural rebellion”. Joseph Teidemann, meanwhile, has drawn attention to the diverse backgrounds of “ordinary Loyalists” – farmers, Quaker pacifists, Anglicans, merchants, recent immigrants and military veterans who had settled in the colonies.

It is now generally recognised that such individuals numbered about 500,000 (around 20% of the rebellious colonies’ population). Yet these white Loyalists were not the only allies the Crown had in North America.

Fighting an American oppressor

Jim Piecuch has demonstrated how “three peoples” (white Loyalists, enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans) rallied to support the British Crown. Some 50,000 African-Americans escaped slavery on the plantations of their Patriot masters.

Black Loyalist fighting with British troops in the Battle of Jersey, 1781. John Singleton Copley

About 30,000 of these reached British lines. Many volunteered to take up arms and fought alongside the white Loyalists. After the conflict, 20,000 were evacuated by the British, where many joined other “Empire Loyalists” in settling Nova Scotia.
Many Native Americans, although under no illusions about the self-interest of the British, thought they posed less threat to their lands than the expansionist colonists and they too joined the Loyalist cause. Molly Brant and her younger brother Joseph, who led four of the six Iroquois Nations during the conflict, were particularly important allies. Like many Loyalists, they paid a high price for their service – in defeat, the power of the Iroquois Confederacy was broken.

Elsewhere, it was frequently Loyalist women who suffered most during the war. Their menfolk away serving in Loyalist regiments, they often faced the wrath of their Patriot neighbours. Flora Macdonald, of Skye Boat Song fame, was, like most Scottish migrants to America, a staunch Loyalist (as adherents to the Stuart cause and thus longstanding enemies of “Whiggery”, former Jacobites in particular were natural “Tories”). After her husband Allan MacDonald was taken prisoner, her home in North Carolina was ransacked and Flora spent much of the war in hiding.

The fate of Loyalists such as Flora Macdonald is a reminder that the search for consensus in the history of the United States is an illusion. Intense and partisan ideological divisions have always been integral to the nation’s politics.