Becoming Traitors; the Motivations of Loyalist Colonists


Who are the people who remained loyal to the English Crown? What made them think that the British would prevail? What discouraged them from joining the rebellion? The days leading up to the official Declaration of Independence were rife with varying points of view. Even among the progressive voices, that denounced England for overstepping it’s rights, a call to arms was not the first choice. Attempts at diplomacy and steps to further the autonomy held by the colonies were highly favored. On the other side of the debate, there still was a large part of the population that for various reasons desired to remain under British rule. While there’s some commonality in the demographics of those who favored loyalty and those that didn’t, the schism ran deep and divided the colonies. The country became a very treacherous place to meander once the fighting finally broke out. With battle lines moving back and forth, and both armies occupying the same cities at various times, the loyalty that had a month earlier provided you with ease and security, could become the biggest liability to your well being imaginable. With the reasons varying for why different groups of people remained loyal to England, it’s worth looking at what some of those reasons were. They can tell us a lot about how people almost three centuries ago made up their minds about a conflict that would go on to shape the world. It will remind us that we still share many of the same hopes and fears that shaped the way the colonists saw the world in their time.

The British Empire



One of the largest groups of people that were in favor of British rule were wealthy merchants. Men in the sea-port cities like Boston and New York. Men who came from recognizable families, who had been established in the colonies for some time. They had cornered the market in their particular trade, and held longstanding trade agreements and contracts with British companies. They also had the protection of the British Navy to guard against piracy and allow them to export their goods to foreign countries safely.  The British Empire at the time stretched around the globe and was continuing to expand. Anything that might destroy the potential that was wrapped up in these markets was unwanted. They had built well oiled machines of industry and didn’t want to see anything that might jeopardize those relations. They were concerned with the heavy burden of taxes that would be imposed on them to pay for the costs that a new country would incur. Most felt that the way things were with England, while not always ideal, were at least known variables. Ones that they understood and were accustomed to dealing with. The idea of a new nation, and all the headaches that would be involved were more than they cared to undertake.




The women who have to see their children head off to war are almost always on the side of peace. The caretakers whose sole occupation was to raise up their offspring, understood more than anyone the folly of war. Across class, mothers would exert their influence in efforts to avoid sending their sons of to battle. They stood to lose more than any businessman or farmer. They were not concerned with profit loss, they feared losing their most cherished possessions. They would advocate temperance in families that were being torn apart by different ideologies. Not wanting to tempt fate, the pull to remain loyal to England might seem like precisely the thing that would keep their children safe. Often their allegiance to the idea of motherland played a role. The nationalistic sense of duty to remain true to the country of their origin was strong.


Immigrant Farmers

A large population of the colonists were first generation immigrants. People who had left their home countries in search of  the opportunity for personal enrichment. These people had made the decision to pack up their families and leave behind everything they knew. They left behind loved ones and the support systems that they had been a part of for generations. Saving up the money to pay for the ocean crossing, they were taking a gigantic risk. When it paid out these immigrants who often came from impoverished backgrounds found themselves with the ability to provide for themselves. Buying land and building farms, they poured their sweat into the land they now owned. Their self-sufficiency would demand a large amount of their labor. The work they undertook of clearing fields and tending crops was back breaking, but the outcome was theirs and they reaped the rewards.

During the uprising these farmers were hesitant to join with the rebels. After spending years etching out their place in this new nation, they were extremely reluctant to put all of it on the line in protest of policies they felt didn’t affect them. The risk of losing their farms, and subsequently their means of providing for their families, that would follow if the insurrection was put down by the British was too much for them. Another aspect that played a role, was the British armies need for provisions and the lucrative opportunity that afforded farmers that would do business with them. Some farmers were hesitant even to have interactions with the revolutionaries. They were concerned that they would be strong-armed into pledging their loyalty to the new nation in writing and that they then would run the risk of being branded as disloyal to the Crown.

A large amount of the population who remained loyal to the British would find that their neighbors had not forgotten, nor would they be quick to forgive. The post war Americas were not a welcoming place for former loyalists. The frustrations and resentments that had built during the conflict would find release at the detriment of loyalists. Many would immigrate to Canada after the war. Abandoning the lives that they had built for themselves, forced to start all over again.

Before and during the revolution, many people would have to decide who to pledge their allegiance to. If you happened to be in a position that was well established, the idea of chancing that stability for a uncertain future would be daunting. If you felt that you had more to lose than you stood to gain, remaining loyal to England was a simple and pragmatic decision. The British Empire with its strength and abundance of resources certainly looked, at the onset of the war, to be the side that would be victorious. When you take the time to dig into the reasons that people had, it’s easy to understand the choices that they made.




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