Q&A With Thomas B. Allen

  • February 16, 2011

Thomas B. Allen discusses the sweeping, dramatic history of the Americans who chose to side with the British in the Revolution

The American Revolution was not simply a battle between independence-minded colonists and the oppressive British. As Thomas B. Allen reminds us, it was also a savage and often deeply personal civil war, in which conflicting visions of America pitted neighbor against neighbor and Patriot against Tory on the battlefield, the village green, and even in church. In this outstanding and vital history, Allen tells the complete story of these other Americans, tracing their lives and experiences throughout the revolutionary period. New York City and Philadelphia were Tory strongholds through much of the war, and at times in the Carolinas and Georgia there were more trained and armed Tories than Redcoats. The Revolution also produced one of the greatest—and least known—migrations in Western history. More than 80,000 Tories left America, most of them relocating to Canada. John Adams once said that he feared there would never be a good history of the American Revolution because so many documents had left the country with the Tories. Based on documents in archives from Nova Scotia to London, Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War adds a fresh perspective to our knowledge of the Revolution and sheds an important new light on the little-known figures whose lives were forever changed when they remained faithful to their mother country.

Q)  How difficult is it to unearth new information about an old subject?  When you approach a broad subject like “The Tories” is it to illuminate new detail or is it essentially a better arrangement of the facts?

A)  Finding reliable documentation on Tories was very difficult. I worked on the book for five years. My wife and I went to archives in Northern Ireland, England, Canada, and state archives from Maine to Florida. There had not been a book on Tories since the 1970s, and even those books were mostly academic and lacked narrative. John Adams said no history of the revolution could be written because many of the records had disappeared. In fact, many of the records had gone to Canada with the 80,000 to 100,000 Americans who went there, to England, and to British possessions in the Caribbean.

Q) Was there any ethnic diversity in the group of Tories that moved [from Boston] to Halifax with the British Army?

A)  There was no particular ethnic diversity but there was economic diversity. A list of evacuees shows saddlemakers and shoemakers, along with wealthy merchants, lawyers, and fleeing royal officials. Because of immigration laws, there were few Catholics; just about every Anglican was a Tory. At the end of the war, during the mass exodus, more than 3,500 ex-slaves sailed to Canada. They had been freed under a British edict emancipating any slave who went over to the Tories.

Q) Can you tell us a most intriguing Tory fact?

A) The 3,500 ex-slaves who went to Canada were not treated well. One of them went to London and succeeded in getting the British to send Royal Navy ships to take about 1,500 dissidents to Africa. They landed at Sierra Leone and started a new country—another result of the Revolution.

Q)  If the taxes hadn’t been so onerous and steep would there still have been a Revolutionary War?  If not a Revolutionary War, how would the early settlers have removed themselves from their British overlords?  Were their “peaceniks” at the time of the Revolutionary War?

A) The taxes weren’t that onerous.  Revolutionary leaders stressed power more than taxes. The basic issue was:  Get the British out and let Americans run America. The Revolutionary War was not inevitable. Instead of negotiating, the British reacted with a projection of power: four thousand troops—one Redcoat for every four Bostonians. The Continental Congress even sent an “olive branch petition” to the King (who refused to read it). If you want to know what a non-revolutionary ending would be, take a look at Canada, founded by non-revolutionaries: Still in the British Empire, still acknowledging a monarch, but running its own parliament and government.  The most visible “peaceniks” were Quakers, who were looked upon as British toadies. Two of them were hanged in Philadelphia for collaborating with the British.

Q)  What historical account would you recommend every politician read about U.S. history?

A) Tom Paine’s The Crisis. It’s Paine, a British-born immigrant, who calls for independence—a radical idea that had not been proclaimed by Washington, Franklin, or many other Founding Fathers.

Q)  Your writing is myriad and so is the audience, how different is the approach to writing for adults, children; writing about wars, exorcism, slaves and spies?

A) When I wrote for children and young adults for the first time, an editor told me to beware of similes and metaphors because kids take words literally. Since I rarely used similes and metaphors writing for adults, it was just a matter of making sure I explained things and wrote clearly. The most important rule, for kids or adults, is never write down to them.

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