On November 25, 1783, the last British troops pulled out of New York City, bringing the American Revolution to an end. Patriots celebrated their departure and the confirmation of U.S. independence. But for tens of thousands of American loyalists, the British evacuation spelled worry, not jubilation. What would happen to them in the new United States? Would they and their families be safe? Facing grave doubts about their futures, some sixty thousand loyalists—one in forty members of the American population—decided to leave their homes and become refugees elsewhere in the British Empire. They sailed for Britain, for Canada, for Jamaica, and for the Bahamas; some ventured as far as Sierra Leone and India. Wherever they went, the voyage out of America was a fresh beginning, and it carried them into a dynamic if uncertain new world.
A groundbreaking history of the revolutionary era, Liberty’s Exiles tells the story of this remarkable global diaspora. Through painstaking archival research and vivid storytelling, award-winning historian Maya Jasanoff re-creates the journeys of ordinary individuals whose lives were overturned by extraordinary events. She tells of refugees like Elizabeth Johnston, a young mother from Georgia, who spent nearly thirty years as a migrant, searching for a home in Britain, Jamaica, and Canada. And of David George, a black preacher born into slavery, who found freedom and faith in the British Empire, and eventually led his followers to seek a new Jerusalem in Sierra Leone. Mohawk leader Joseph Brant resettled his people under British protection in Ontario, while the adventurer William Augustus Bowles tried to shape a loyalist Creek state in Florida. For all these people and more, it was the British Empire—not the United States—that held the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet as they dispersed across the empire, the loyalists also carried things from their former homes, revealing an enduring American influence on the wider British world.
Ambitious, original, and personality-filled, Liberty’s Exiles is at once an intimate narrative history and a provocative new analysis—a book that explores an unknown dimension of America’s founding to illuminate the meanings of liberty itself.
The plight of American Loyalists during and after the Revolutionary War has been largely forgotten. Harvard historian Jasanoff (Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750 1850) corrects that omission with a masterful account of the struggles, heartbreak, and determination that characterized specific Loyalist families and individuals. Rich and poor, black, white, and Native American, the Loyalists paid for their devotion to king and country with their blood, their property, and their prospects. The terrorist tendencies of the Sons of Liberty and the deliberate cruelty of Patriot leaders, including Washington and Franklin, are painfully described. Most tragic, however, was the postwar neglect of Loyalist refugees by the British government, which minimized the human consequences of defeat. Some Loyalists, among them John Cruden and William Augustus Bowles, responded with continuing efforts to establish armed encampments on the southeast frontier of the new United States. Others, by far the majority, settled in Canada, with smaller enclaves in the Caribbean. This superb study of a little-known episode in American and British history is remiss only in largely ignoring the Loyalist community in Spanish West Florida and the War of 1812 as a continuation of the earlier conflict. 8 pages of illus.; 10 maps.