Thousands of British American mainland colonists rejected the War for American Independence. Shunning rebel violence as unnecessary, unlawful, and unnatural, they emphasized the natural ties of blood, kinship, language, and religion that united the colonies to Britain. They hoped that British military strength would crush the minority rebellion and free the colonies to renegotiate their return to the empire.
Of course the loyalists were too American to be of one mind. This is a story of how a cross-section of colonists flocked to the British headquarters of New York City to support their ideal of reunion. Despised by the rebels as enemies or as British appendages, New York’s refugees hoped to partner with the British to restore peaceful government in the colonies. The British confounded their expectations by instituting martial law in the city and marginalizing loyalist leaders. Still, the loyal Americans did not surrender their vision but creatively adapted their rhetoric and accommodated military governance to protect their long-standing bond with the mother country. They never imagined that allegiance to Britain would mean a permanent exile from their homes.
Unnatural Rebellion provides a new and inviting Loyalist point of entry into the complexity of the American Revolution. Loyalist politics, Chopra discerns, were rooted in natural law, in custom, and in an initially polarizing but eventually a careful and knowledgeable reading of the social character of the Revolution.
Ruma Chopra's book constitutes a fresh look at an intractable subject—the emergence of loyalist opposition to a revolution made in the name of liberty and virtue. The loyalists, she argues, saw an ‘unnatural rebellion’ when revolutionaries found ‘a glorious cause.’ In a close examination of loyalists in New York City, she shows that the differences between the two groups were sharp even though they shared many of the same values.
Chopra’s book is not an apology for the loyalists. Rather it is a sensitive, yet probing, study of their commitments and circumstances. All in all, it is a book impressive in its rich insights and analytical power.
Ruma Chopra is Assistant Professor in the History Department at San Jose State University.