It is the Cause of Truth against Falsehood of Loyalty against Rebellion of legal Government against Usurpation of Constitutional Freedom against Tyranny–in short–it is the Cause of human happiness, the happiness of Millions against Outrage and Oppression. ~ Rev. Charles Inglis, September, 1777

After recently discovering a number of well-written histories of American Loyalism, especially Wallace Brown’s The Good Americans, I came to appreciate the Loyalists on their own terms in a way that my standard lessons in American history did not allow. The Rev. Inglis’s quote is perhaps an example of political enthusiasm overtaking even the most level-headed and moderate of causes, but I wonder if Rev. Inglis was not right after all. It surely should give everyone pause that Loyalists could legitimately use the language of liberty as easily as their opponents. Such a realisation might bring us to see the War for Independence in an entirely new light.

Four important lessons emerge from a study of American Loyalism. The first is that the Loyalists had the better arguments in the dispute over independence and republicanism, but arguments that, because they were more dispassionate and reasonable, failed to sway the masses in demagogic fashion. Taken together with an acquaintance with the history of European conservative democracy, this reinforces my conviction that conservatism and mass democracy cannot coexist and that the latter will inevitably swallow the former.

The second lesson is that Loyalists were almost uniformly “Whig” in their political philosophy, as I had initially guessed but did not know for certain, but that like conservative-minded Whigs they doubted the viability of republics. The experience of the rebellion hardened the attitudes of these already conservative people and led them to embrace the monarchical and oligarchical system even more. The fascinating thing to see is that in their pamphlets and writings the Loyalists cited the same authorities, such as Montesqieu and Locke, and worked from many of the same assumptions to reach conclusions that rejected any hint of egalitarianism or classical liberalism. The third lesson is that the rebels had no meaningful grievances worth provoking a war, and the Loyalists were not only being sensibly conservative in opposing rebellion but were, in fact, taking the moral position in resisting this upheaval.

The fourth lesson is that Loyalists and the Confederates share far more in their political and philosophical attitudes than one might have initially suspected, even if Southerners would later use the label Tory as pejoratively as their Yankee cousins. This problem occurred to me as I enthused about the Loyalists to a friend of mine. He then observed that I was also very much a sympathiser with the late Confederacy and its political philosophy, which did not seem to fit very well with a sympathy for Loyalism. At first, I tried to weasel my out of it, but then later came upon the reason why Loyalists and Confederates are in a certain way kindred spirits in spite of the apparent opposition between the party of government and the party of secession.

Loyalists believed themselves to be defenders of the moderate, mixed constitutional order of Britain against anarchic upheaval which, they believed, could only end in a tyranny as the French Revolution later would. They were, if you will, the Edmund Burkes of the American Revolution and shared many of the same attitudes about society and politics as Burke. If Burke really was the source of later Anglo-American conservatism and counter-revolutionary thought, this similarity might lead us to look at the heirs to the Loyalist tradition in nineteenth-century Canada to discern a more solidly Burkean Anglo-American conservatism. But, as I will argue below, the Southern tradition possesses many similarities with what is best in Loyalism.

The rebels of 1776 relied on the all together mythical contract between the people and its government, which they deemed the King and Parliament to have broken and thus made their rule illegitimate. The ahistorical and illusory nature of this contract was apparent to the Loyalists, just as the entire notion of the social contract is viewed as unreal by our contemporary (paleo)conservative thinkers. The Southerners, while relying on the example of these rebels (and the rebels of 1642 and 1688), were claiming their legal rights under a compact among the states and claimed the right of secession from a compact into which their then-recognised states had entered into voluntarily.

The rebels of 1776 needed to rely on the theory that governments receive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed as a general rule, while the Southerners could rely on legal rights within the constitutional system. In this dedication to maintaining the principles of the constitutional system as they knew it, the Southerners proved to be like the Loyalists struggling against those who were actually usurping authority in the name of what must have seemed to be (and were) abstractions and theories. It is this affinity for upholding and preserving the constitutional system, the rule of law and an inherited, good order that binds Loyalists and Southerners together in spirit, if not precisely in all their views.

In a weird way, I suppose, this might link the Founders with Lincoln in a spirit of usurpation, which is a kind of disgusting impiety that I would want to reject. I would insist on maintaining the correct understanding that, as light and trivial were the causes of the rebellion and as excessive as the colonial response may have been, the Founders were acting with the goal of preserving English constitutional liberties just as the Loyalists were. The chief difference between them resided in the question of whether those liberties would best be preserved in a confederation of independent states or under the British monarchy. The Loyalists believed, not without reason, that these liberties could not long survive outside of the institutional arrangements and without the monarchy under which they had arisen.

In the end, however, the Loyalists seem to have placed as much importance, if not more importance, on questions of social order, good government and stability as on the question of liberties themselves. This leads me to the conclusion that they were the real conservatives, both philosophically and in terms of the status quo, and that it is to them that American conservatives might more profitably look for inspiration. One further conclusion that might be taken is that to be a constitutionalist is to give the sentiment of loyalty (to one’s country, ancestors, home, etc.) very nearly the highest priority in one’s life. This sentiment of loyalty is probably better able to sustain a dedication to constitutionalism and preserve a vigilance against usurpation than all the prattling about “rights” in the world.