Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to live during the American Revolution? To be caught between loyalty to your neighbors and loyalty to the British crown? Loyalists and Patriots alike faced this divisive question head on during the American Revolution.
The complex issue ultimately tore apart families and communities and helped to define the outcome of the Revolutionary War. Even the most populous cities in 1775 faced major divisions among its citizens over the potential for revolution.
Historians and educators have a tendency to downplay the issue, suggesting that the colonists were far more united in support of the revolution than in actuality.
The complex and bitter divide between loyalists and patriots also dampens the significant presence of those that did not have a strong opinion. The actions of the neutrals, or “fence sitters,” would ultimately help turn the tide of the American Revolution.
Loyalists vs Patriots: Support for the American Revolution
At the onset of the American Revolution the loyalists remained supportive of the British monarchy and comprised 15-20% of the population. Patriots supported independence from Britain and far outnumbered the loyalists comprising 40-45% of the population. The “Fence-sitters,” or those without a strong opinion, totaled 35-45% of the population.1
In the buildup to the revolution, the British empire angered the colonies by levying taxes upon them. The taxes were justified, per the British, in order to pay for the defense of the colonies and the costly war (Seven Years War) against France the British fought on the colonies behalf.
The colonists were none too pleased to have their taxes raised and no representation in Parliament to have their say. After years of unrest, fighting broke out in 1775. A year later, the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Propaganda in support of independence split the colonists into two groups: patriots and loyalists. Patriots were active supporters of independence, and willing to fight for it. Loyalists were sympathetic to the British cause and willing to either fight against their fellow neighbors and colonists, or maintain ties with Britain via trade or military support.
Future President John Adams famously estimated that about two-thirds of the American colonists supported the revolution while one-third opposed it.2
In actuality, there was a third group that very nearly made up the majority of the populous. Nearly 40% of the colonists were neither Patriot nor Loyalist, but neutral. These people were the type that were either pacifists, recent immigrants, or simply apolitical. They simply had no interest in the matter or committing to either cause. Another term for this group was “fence-sitters”.
At the very most the patriots held a slim majority in the colonies in their support for the American Revolution. Despite this, the patriots were much more successful at persuading these Neutralists towards their cause. As the war raged on and the continental army showed signs it could hold its own, more and more flocked toward the cause of American independence, turning the tide of the war.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Greene Jack P and J. R Pole. A Companion to the American Revolution. Blackwell 2004.
2) Hulsebosch, Daniel J. “Exile, Choice, and Loyalism: Taking and Restoring Dignity in the American Revolution.” Law & Social Inquiry, vol. 41, no. 4, 2016, pp. 841–65. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26630890.