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A nation divided in ‘Our First Civil War’

Looking anew at the American Revolution

Ellen Weinstein for The Boston Globe

Wars are complicated, revolutions even more so. To our one-dimensional view of the American Revolution — the valiant struggle of the brave patriots against tyrannical British rule — there is yet another element, often dismissed as an after-thought or historical asterisk. The American story of 1775-83 actually involves two struggles, the one we celebrate on Patriots Day and the one we forget on Independence Day.

In “Our First Civil War,” the prolific historian H.W. Brands places the battle between Patriots and the often-ignored Loyalists at the center of the story. The result is a view of the Revolution as a fight of “one American against another” almost as much as one, as Ralph Waldo Emerson memorialized for all time, where “embattled farmers stood,/ And fired the shot heard round the world.”


Brand’s thesis: “In every colony, and then every state, were thousands of men and women who wanted nothing to do with independence. They valued the freedom and security they had enjoyed under British rule, and they resented the rebel Patriots for bringing on the war.”

This account turns upside down the view of the struggle that ended when, according to a story both beloved and perhaps apocryphal, the band of the defeated British forces played the march “The World Turned Upside Down” after the decisive Battle of Yorktown. For as Brand points out, the Loyalists were regarded as traitors for not having betrayed their country or, more precisely, their mother country.

There were, of course, divisions in America even before the great divide over whether the colonies should resist British rule or, eventually, break from Britain itself. Brands characterizes both George Washington of Virginia and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania as moderates in comparison with the radicals of Massachusetts. He describes Boston as “the hotbed of resistance to British authority.”


But by 1770, tensions in the Bay Colony reached the boiling point, with unruly mobs roaming through Boston, threatening those regarded as sympathetic to British officials. In March came the Boston Massacre, followed three years later by the Boston Tea Party. “Respect for order and the rule of law all but vanished in Boston,” Brands writes.

The mere fact the measure that the Lord North government titled the Coercive Acts was dubbed the Intolerable Acts in America speaks to the widening gap between colony and mother country. Soon American moderates became American rebels and even Washington would say that the colonies would not “ever submit to the loss of those valuable rights and privileges which are essential to the happiness of every free state, and without which life, liberty and property are rendered totally insecure.” That is more than telling language, a version of which would appear a year later in America’s founding document. Those are fighting words.

Fight the rebels did. But not all Americans joined the battle. When Washington entered Boston at the end of the 11-month siege of the city, he was suspicious of the Loyalists who remained. “By all accounts,” he wrote, “there never existed a more miserable set of beings than these wretched creatures now are.”

Lines hardened, splitting families, including Benjamin Franklin’s. “The outbreak of fighting at Lexington had converted the political debate between radicals and conservatives into a moral struggle between Patriots and Loyalists,” Brands writes. One moral struggle is sometimes forgotten today: the offer of freedom the British made to America’s enslaved people if they would take up arms against the Patriots.


In these pages are several challenges to the standard American Revolution narrative. We see Washington super-sensitive about his reputation and military acumen. We discover that Britain was willing to reach an early negotiated peace to the conflict. We find that the threat of mutiny, especially among Pennsylvanians, was more serious than sometimes rendered. And while the facile telling of the Tory story has northerners fleeing to Canada, Brands sets forth the depth of the Southern resistance to the rebels, particularly in the Carolinas. Indeed, the British sought to build on the Loyalist base in the South in the hopes that the region might break with the North and fight on the British side.

“Every day convinces me that the enemy are determined to bend their force against the southern states,” Washington said, “and that we must support them powerfully … or they will be lost.”

For their part, the Loyalists’ difficulties mounted after the surrender at Yorktown. The British soldiers were protected by law and military convention from punishment by the victors of the struggle, but the Loyalists were not. Washington had rejected a British effort to win protection for them, the British did not press the case, and as a result the Loyalists were vulnerable to retribution.

Weary of all things American, the British offered their New World supporters little more than safe passage to England, the West Indies or Canada. Somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 took them up on it. Today there remains a substantial Black community in Nova Scotia. It consists of the descendants of the enslaved who won their freedom by fighting for the British. A site commemorating their flight and their settlement is now a National Historic Monument of Canada.


OUR FIRST CIVIL WAR: Patriots and Loyalists in the American Revolution

By H.W. Brands

Doubleday, 496 pp., $32.50

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.