Book Review: Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles

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January 24, 2014 by magpiemenina

Maya Jasanoff. Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. New York: Vintage, 2011.

Summary:

After a brief introduction on the experiences of loyalists before and during the American Revolution, Jasanoff traces the evacuation and subsequent travels and fortunes of various groups of loyalists. She ably intersperses the experiences of loyalist individuals and families representing various groups with historical explication and analysis. She covers the period until roughly the end of the War of 1812 and Waterloo.

Key Concepts:

  • Loyalists were united by one concern: loyalty to the king. Otherwise, they were often as revolutionary as their counterparts, and took many of those revolutionary ideas with them to their new homes (as well as concepts of racism).
  • Nova Scotia and Jamaica were two of the primary points of settlement.
  • Many loyalists made more than one move, finding it difficult to start over.
  • The Revolution can be understood as a civil war, with the War of 1812 firmly crystallizing concepts of America and of Canada.
  • Many white loyalists sent their sons into the military as a means of upward mobility.
  • The Revolution marks a turning point from the first, trans-Atlantic-centered British empire to the second, eastward-facing one. The turn was marked by the “Spirit of 1783,”in which Britain consciously focused on cultivating imperial loyalty, inclusion of all subjects regardless of race or ethnicity, and provided those subjects with certain humanitarian liberties (10-11).
  • Ability to get reimbursement for losses during the Revolution was largely dependent on personal connections and influences, thus hampering almost everyone but wealthy white men with a good deal of paperwork. Despite this, reimbursement seldom equalled losses.

Evaluation:

Jasanoff’s project was not an easy one. The loyalist diaspora, as she terms it, took individuals and families across the span of the British empire, oftentimes multiple times. She is largely sympathetic to the loyalist plight. Their troubles at reimbursement, the seeming betrayal of loyalist interests at the Treaty of Versailles, and the struggles to make a go in land already populated while having fewer personal resources before the Revolution are covered from various angles. She applauds the efforts of the British to keep promises, particularly to formerly enslaved Africans, while carefully explaining the thought behind manumitting some enslaved individuals and evacuating others as the personal property of white loyalists. Simultaneously, she observes the struggles of those left without reimbursement through a lack of access to imperial bureaucracy or influence. Her brief portrayals of individuals provide human connection without becoming sentimental.

The amount of information she fits into such a short book is astounding. It is certainly the catch-all history of loyalists, especially considering her careful consideration of different groups. These range from New Englanders to plantation southerners to free blacks to enslaved blacks to Creeks to Mohawks and so on. Her topics range from a brief background of the Acadian deportation and the settlement of Nova Scotia to the founding of Freetown. Jasanoff capably demonstrates the complexities of the British empire and just how traversable it was. This is an excellent work; it is to be highly recommended.

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