The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Punish thy Neighbor?


The classic story of the American Revolution most of us Americans learn in elementary school is a simple tale: oppressed British colonists (soon to be Americans), united in their desire for their self-evident rights and freedom, fight together against the hated redcoats.

The classic view of the Revolution: all of us American ladies and gents united in the cause. Credit:  Currier & Ives print, Library of Congress

The classic view of the Revolution: all of us American ladies and gents united and ready to defend the cause of freedom at a moment’s notice. Credit: Currier & Ives print, Library of Congress

But not all the colonists were in favor of a break from England. Loyalists, as they came to known, amounted to as much as one-fifth of the population. And Patriots and Loyalists didn’t exactly sit down to hash out their disagreements over a cup of tea. In many places, the Revolution became a civil war, pitting neighbor against neighbor in violent conflict.

Nowhere was the brutality more pronounced than in South Carolina, where militiamen on both sides roamed the backcountry looking to settle personal scores in a virtually lawless environment.

In many cases, these men were acting more out of camaraderie with their local leaders than out of any deep ideological commitments to the crown or the cause of liberty. But still, the violence was real. Homesteads were destroyed, women were attacked, and prisoners of war were murdered — all without a redcoat in sight.

And while at the end of the war, British soldiers could head home, defeated Loyalists found themselves living cheek by jowl with the men they had fought against. And their Patriot neighbors, unsurprisingly, were not terribly pleased with them. In South Carolina, around two hundred white Loyalists had their property confiscated and their citizenship revoked – effectively banished from the state. And the state legislatures a punishing tax, requiring them to pay a tax of up to 25% of the value of their estates

What’s surprising is not that the punitive measures were put into place, but how easily many Loyalists – often with the blessing of their Patriot neighbors- were able the get around them. Take that harsh, tax, for example. In reality, very few people actually paid it, because the legislature had purposely built in loopholes and ways for Loyalists to petition for an exemption from the tax.

The structure of the legislation included terms that allowed loyalists to raise objections and petition for an exemption from the tax, says our guest, historian Rebecca Brannon:

“Most of the people named on those lists petitioned, and those petitions are usually successful. The few who don’t manage to get away from this punitive legislation, it’s usually because there’s very specific damaging information about things they did. Like one cooper who deliberately made bad barrels so the meat to defend Charleston from the British would go bad. And then he bragged about it.”

 The spirit of the times: an 1782 cartoon showing three Natives, representing America, murdering six loyalists. Credit: Library of Congress.

The spirit of the times: an 1782 cartoon showing three Natives, representing America, murdering six loyalists. Credit: Library of Congress.

And even in the cases where Loyalists were forced out of the state, it could be a remarkably deliberate process. In 1784, a man named William Dreighton traveled through South Carolina, staying with a local landlord. The man told Dreighton he was preparing to move because his neighbors were mad at him – which was perhaps understandable, since he had killed three of them during the war, and lamented not killing more. Now they were threatening to kill him if he didn’t leave – but not because of his actions in the war, he said, but because he refused to apologize. It still seems harsh, says Brannon, but at the same time:

“You could tell this story one way, and say, oh, God, of course they’re going to threaten him with lynch law. And they threatened, we’re going to kill you if you don’t leave. But the other way to understand this is they gave him until 1784 to apologize for what they thought of as war atrocities.”

In some ways, the swift reconciliation between the two sides is heartening – an example of neighbors turning away from the past that divided them to build a future together.

“At its heart, they decide that a society that’s obsessed with punishing people is a society that’s not what they want.”

But that spirit of reconciliation isn’t perfect. For one thing, says Brannon, black residents who supported the British weren’t afforded the same clemency as their white counterparts, and were forced to leave the state. And the swiftness with which many Loyalists were forgiven caused its own set of problems. Children and grandchildren of South Carolina Loyalists grew up in an environment that stressed a heavily edited account of the war, where any disunion was not publicly discussed. As time went on, the truth of the conflict was forgotten – with disastrous results in the lead up to the Civil War, says Brannon:

“They actually used the American Revolution and the legacy of the American Revolution to talk themselves into the American Civil War. Obviously, there’s other reasons for the American Civil War. But when you read what they wrote, they always see themselves as preserving the true legacy of the American Revolution, that they are all the Patriots now. And it’s hard for me not to find chilling echoes of the way that they’ve managed to forget what happens when you rip the top off Pandora’s box.”

This story comes from our show on the history of reconciliation in America. You can read more about how a California tribe worked to collect one man’s remains for a proper burial, and listen to the whole show here.

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