From the beginning of the troubles with our mother country, there was a considerable portion of the people in these colonies – in some of them even a majority – who were opposed to the popular measures of resistance against the acts of the British Parliament. These were commonly called Tories, a term of reproach long used in England to designate the upholders of the arbitrary acts of the king and his ministers. It is said that the name was first derived from the wild Irish troops whom James II. enlisted into his army for the purpose of recovering his English crown; and hence it came to be employed to denote all those who approved and defended the odious enactments of the royal government. For themselves, in like manner, the patriot colonists claimed the name of Whigs, originally another term of ridicule given by the court party to the Scotch Covenanters, whose favorite drink was said to have been whigg, or sour whey, and afterward, like many another name of reproach, it was adopted as a term of honor by the opposers of arbitrary government.
In the days of which we write, both these terms had come to be freighted with the intensest signification. The Tories were hated and denounced; they were regarded as the vilest of men, ready for any treacherous crime that would bring ruin upon their country. They were often subjected to personal violence and abuse. One of the most common methods of doing this was by tarring and feathering – a process which Trumbull, in his satirical poem of McFingal, thus describes: –
Forthwith the crowd proceed to deck With haltered noose McFingal's neck, While he, in peril of his soul, Stood tied half dangling to the pole, Then, lifting high the ponderous jar, Poured o'er his head the smoking tar. With less profusion once was spread Oil on the Jewish monarch's head, That down his beard and vestments ran, And covered all his outward man. So from the high-raised urn the torrents Spread down his sides their various currents. His flowing wig, as next the brim, First met and drank the sable stream; Adown his visage, stern and grave, Rolled and adhered the viscid wave. With arms depending as he stood, Each cuff capacious holds the flood. From nose and chin's remotest end The tarry icicles depend, Till all o'erspread with colors gay, He glittered to the western ray Like sleet-bound trees in wintry skies, Or Lapland idol carved in ice. And now, the feather-bag displayed Is waved in triumph o'er his head, And clouds him o'er with feathers missive, And down upon the tar adhesive. Not Maia's son, with wings for ears, Such plumage round his visage wears, Nor Milton's six-winged angel gathers Such superfluity of feathers. Now all complete appears our squire, Like Gorgon or Chimera dire, Nor more could boast, on Plato's plan, To rank among the race of man, Or prove his claim to human nature, As a 'two-legged, unfeathered creature'.
As the war went on, and the feelings of both parties became more and more bitter, severe laws were enacted against the tories. Persons suspected of being such might be arrested under a magistrate's warrant, and tried for their sentiments, and if convicted might be banished and sent away to the enemy, under the penalty of death if they should return. They who absented themselves from their homes in the country, or withdrew to British protection, were liable to the confiscation of their estates. In Connecticut, the offense of supplying provisions to the enemy, or giving them information, or aiding in the enlistment of troops, or harboring and countenancing those who were engaged in such treasonable practices, was punished by fines, confiscation, and imprisonment. Even to speak or write, or act in any way against the doings of Congress, or the General Assembly, was to incur disarming, disqualification for office, fines, and imprisonment, according to the aggravation of the offense. Even death itself was added to the other penalties prescribed, and in some cases was actually inflicted. A man named Dunbar, belonging to Northbury, now Plymouth, Conn., who joined the British, and received a captain's commission from the king, was convicted of treason, and hanged in Hartford, in 1777, and the gallows, in a public place, was kept standing for a long time, as a warning to others.
In many instances, doubtless, the tories suffered great injustice. Mistaken as they were, and criminal as they often became in their acts of hostility to the country, there can be no question that not a few were upright, and even patriotic, men. It may be interesting to glance for a moment at some of the causes which led them to sympathize with the British side.
Some of them thought that rebellion against a lawful government was a sin. They could not believe there was any deliberate design on the part of the British ministry to infringe upon the chartered rights of the colonists, or to destroy their liberties as Englishmen. But if there were, they held that it was wrong to resist their encroachments by force. To them the king was the anointed minister of Heaven, ruling by the grace of God, and his subjects were under command by the highest of all authority to honor the king, as well as to fear God. Armed resistance to his government was treason and rebellion, crimes justly punishable by all laws, human and divine. Men of this class there have always been. In the time of the Stuarts they were believers in the divine right of the king to do wrong, and denounced Cromwell and the Puritans of 1640 as traitors and regicides. In our own day they upheld the Mexican war and the fugitive slave law, because they were constitutional, and pronounced the doctrine of the higher law fanaticism. We will not condemn these men. Many of them were honest and conscientious, and in private life above reproach. Nay, they have a valuable part to play in society. Conservatism is the ballast which often keeps the ship of state steady on her course, and enables her to bear the propulsion of bolder principles and more energetic purposes in safety.
Another class, no less honest in their views, were
those who were impressed with the hopelessness of resistance.
To such it seemed little short of madness in
these feeble colonies to think of contending against
the entire force of that empire, upon which, it has
been so proudly said,
Have you not roused his force to try on, That grim old beast, the British Lion? And know you not, that at a sup He's large enough to eat you up? Have you surveyed his jaws beneath, Drawn inventories of his teeth? Or have you weighed in even balance His strength and magnitude of talons?
To rebel, therefore, against the mother country, and that, too, on mere sentimental grounds, taxation without representation, or a miserable three-pence a pound on tea, seemed to them suicidal folly. And indeed, it must be confessed, that, looking back upon the situation from our day, this was by far the most rational view to take. The success with which Providence was pleased to crown our cause was due quite as much to the blunders of the British Cabinet and Parliament, as to the military skill and prowess of the colonies.
It must be remembered, too, that at the outset
nobody dreamed of separation from Great Britain.
The leading patriots of the time, Adams, Otis, Franklin,
Henry, Washington, and others, are often spoken
of as having deliberately planned the steps leading to
that separation, as if by some prophetic instinct they
foresaw the future greatness of this country as an
empire of powerful states. But nothing can be further
from the truth. They resisted to get rid of
wrongs then pressing upon them, and only advanced
to rebellion as they were pushed to it. England was,
in their regard, still the dear homeland, loved as such
and bound to them by all the associations of a common
faith and a glorious history. The highest boast of our
fathers was, that they were Englishmen, and their
constant plea, that they were only maintaining their
inalienable English liberties. What they wanted,
then, was not independence, but the equal enjoyment
of those liberties with their British brethren. Dr.
Franklin, just before the fight at Lexington, told the
Parliament committee that he had
While such, then, had been the common sentiments
of all classes of the people, it is not to be wondered at
that so many still adhered to them, even after the war
broke out. The loyalists claimed that they simply
stood on the ground they had always occupied.