Sunday, May 08, 2011

Book Review: "Liberty's Exiles"

I'll just say right at the outset that Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 2011) is going to be in my list of 2011's best books. As I read it, I couldn't help but make the comparison to Pauline Maier's Ratification: like Maier, Jasanoff has accomplished something remarkable, writing a concise and readable narrative account of a complex process that had been written about in small pieces before but never pulled together in a comprehensive way.

Jasanoff's subject is the loyalist diaspora, the emigration of some 60,000 free people (and another 15,000 slaves "exported" by their masters) from the rebellious American colonies during and after the American Revolution. By focusing on the entire spectrum of loyalist destinations, and by using specific individuals and families as case studies to frame the narrative, Jasanoff is able to tell the loyalists' stories in a way that no prior work has done, and no future work is likely to do nearly as well.

One of the most salient points from Liberty's Exiles is the heterogeneity of the loyalists' views: as Jasanoff writes, "They agreed on one thing: they upheld the authority of the king--at least as long as the king did his part by them in turn. ... [M]onarchism would be about the only principle binding together a disparate population of American refugees" (p. 199). Or, put another way, "A commitment to 'British rights' could be held with equal sincerity by people with otherwise divergent views of what those rights actually were" (p. 199). When certain loyalists came to feel that their rights as British citizens were being violated, they responded, often in ways that bear a striking resemblance to their patriot counterparts in the years leading up to the Revolution.

Peopling her tale with a cast of characters from across the loyalist spectrum, Jasanoff is able to put a human face on the diaspora. There are some familiar names, like Anglican minister Jacob Bailey of Maine, a Harvard classmate of John Adams' whose parishioners forced him from the pulpit and into exile in Nova Scotia, and Elizabeth Lichstenstein Johnston, whose peregrinations back and forth across the Atlantic in search of a happy and safe harbor for herself and her family make for heartbreaking reading. Then there's the large Robinson family of New York, members of which end up at all corners of the empire, as well as free black George Liele and escaped slave David George, whose travels lead them in very different directions.

Jasanoff examines loyalist migrations not just to Britain and Canada, but also to East Florida (from which residents were forced to leave again after the Treaty of Paris), the Bahamas (where, I was fascinated to learn, Lord Dunmore served as governor), Jamaica, and Sierra Leone. By including in her story the whole range of loyalists: white, black (free and slave), even Indian, the account becomes much richer and more interesting than most previous treatments.

In her conclusions, Jasanoff takes a wide-angle view of the diaspora, noting that while a shared folklore or language of lamentation about the departure from America never caught on among the loyalists (as there was with the exile of the Acadians, for example), and that by 1815 or so most had been absorbed into the empire in some way (or had returned to what was the United States), many had experienced severe hardship, oppressive authority, and recurring displacements. Just as there was no uniform brand of loyalism, there was no uniform experience among loyalist emigrants; some landed on their feet, while others struggled for years.

Liberty's Exiles is enhanced by Jasanoff's deep research, drawing on a wide variety of archival sources (including detailed records of slaves exported from the colonies and the later records of the Sierra Leone settlements, the claims filed by loyalists in London for compensation, and tax-exemption documents required for loyalists in Jamaica). An appendix gives new and useful quantitative information on the numbers of loyalist departures, while the notes and bibliography take up more than sixty pages; I've already found some great sources there for use with a few of my own projects.

While I think that in very few cases Jasanoff takes the loyalists' protestations of ill-treatment in the years leading up to the Revolution without the necessary grain of salt, overall this is as good a book on the loyalists and their lives as we're ever likely to see.


Ben Breen said...

Great review - this book has been on my list for awhile and I'm glad of the reminder to pick it up.

Have you read Jasanoff's earlier book, 'Edge of Empire'? I was really impressed by it.


JBD said...

I haven't yet, but definitely intend to!
- Jeremy