This week, the Journal of the American Revolution featured three articles I wrote about my quest to find out why so few Boston historic organizations offered Loyalist-related events during the 32nd Annual Harborfest festivities. (Searching for Loyalists Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) My search for Loyalists began as an academic exercise. However, after I wrote my conclusion, “Americans must hear and consider all sides of the Revolution to truly appreciate just how dangerous, dramatic, and revolutionary the Revolution really was,” I realized that it had also been about my personal journey. Personal experience rather than the evidence I collected informed my conclusion. When I turned 18, I joined the Daughters of the American Revolution. My mother helped me fill out my membership application. I had several ancestors to choose from, but we focused our attention on two men because our family Bible made the lineages easiest to prove. In the end, we chose to file my membership with Michael Hess. The other easy-to-prove ancestor turned out to be a Loyalist. Mortified, I have kept the existence of this part of my family tree a secret.
Coming to Terms with My Loyalist Ancestor
When my graduate school advisor suggested that I research Albany, New York for my dissertation, I did not know that I had ancestral roots to Dutch Beverwijck. Nor did I remember that Michael Hess had served New York State as a member of the Albany County militia. However, this happy coincidence has helped me to appreciate the Patriot and Loyalist legacies of my ancestors. Albany began and ended the War for Independence as a Patriot base of military operations. However, not every Albanian wholeheartedly supported the Patriot cause. The historical record indicates that with the exception of a few Patriot firebrands, most Albanians approached the war with caution. (Much to the chagrin of hawkish New Englanders.) The historical record also suggests that the Albanians sided with the Patriots in 1775 because of their bad experiences with the British Army during the French and Indian War. A lack of information makes it impossible to determine the percentage of Patriot, Loyalist, and Disaffected Albanians. However, enough people supported the latter two positions that the Albany Committee of Safety and the Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies felt compelled to enforce policies of imprisonment and banishment to keep would-be dissenters quiet. While researching at the David Library of the American Revolution, I took the time to look up the pension record of my DAR-approved Patriot ancestor Michael Hess. Like many Albany County residents, Hess was a lukewarm Patriot. His pension record indicates that he served in the Albany County militia between 1775 and 1780. Hess did not volunteer. New York State drafted him. The fact that Hess turned out for duty more than ten times tells me that he leaned towards the Patriot cause. Just as the fact that he did not enlist in the Continental Army tells me that his patriotism did not prove strong enough to draw him from home for years on end. Hess spent a total of ten months away from home during the war. He spent most of his time “hunting Robbers & Tories” throughout the countryside of Albany and Dutchess counties. Hess’ regiment left New York only once. In June 1778, they marched 144 captured “Robbers & Tories” from Dutchess County to Exeter, New Hampshire. The historical records for the city and county of Albany have helped me to appreciate the nuances of Patriot, Loyalist, and Disaffected political thought. The Revolution did not occur as the black-and-white event that many histories portray it as. Instead, the period stands as one of the most tumultuous and dangerous times in North America. No one knew which side would win the war and for most, politics came second to survival. In fact, people changed their allegiances as often as the armies marched. The Patriots and Loyalists who did not alter their views stand as the exception, not the rule. Today, I appreciate the circumstances my ancestors faced. Loyalty to family, community, and North America informed their political choices. Michael Hess served in the Albany County militia and cautiously supported the Patriots because he felt that approach offered his family the best protection. This same logic informed my Loyalist ancestor’s decision to remain loyal to Great Britain and my other Patriot ancestors’ commitment to the Continental Army. Scholars will never know how many North Americans counted themselves as Patriots, Loyalists, or Disaffected nor the number of Americans who altered their loyalties with the tide of war. The roots of my family tree span the gamut of revolutionary political opinion. My ancestors left me a truly American legacy. I am proud of this heritage, and when I get the opportunity, I intend to research the histories of both my Loyalist ancestor and my more steadfast Patriot forefathers. I hope my fellow Americans have a similar opportunity to come to terms with the non-Patriot legacies of the American Revolution and War for Independence. No one political point of view should dominate our historical narrative because privileging one dilutes the struggles of the others and diminishes the most revolutionary aspect of the Revolution: The Patriots won the war with a minority of the North American population behind them. This true narrative sounds a lot more amazing than the romanticized version where the Patriots won the war with the support of a majority of the people.
What do you think?
Have you come to terms with the Loyalist & Disaffected legacies of the American Revolution? How do you think Americans can best grapple and come to terms with these legacies? Leave a comment or send me tweet.