“Their particular fortune to be called to the trial”: American loyalists make an appeal to the King

On this date in 1788, a year before French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in a bid for their constitutional rights, American loyalists from the War for Independence published an address to George III that perfectly articulated their own view of those rights–rights for which they, too, had pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honour.”  They had presented it to the King on July 2, including their thanks to him for recommending their claims to Parliament.  It’s a poignant reminder that the loyalists in the American Revolution, whom Bernard Bailyn once derided as “the losers,” were hardly the oversimplified “tory” menace created by patriot propagandists–and enshrined by generations of subsequent Whig historians. Those historians, and the patriots who preceded them, needed to create a narrative with antagonists who stood clearly against what only the American patriots could have been fighting for–the whiggish principles of individual rights and representative government.  Without them, the orthodox story of the American Revolution celebrated in 19th-century history books, modern school textbooks, and the tomes that continue to appear in the popular press, which provide a powerful impetus to the development and maintenance of American identity, just doesn’t work; the narrative collapses and the American Revolution becomes much more complex, and in need of a closer look, if the enemy was actually, as Edmund Randolph–the son of just such an oversimplified and maligned (in his time and ours) “tory”–put it: “spotless as to treason even in thought.”

As the loyalist writers–one of whom was Edmund’s brother-in-law, John Randolph Grymes–argued in their address of 1788, they had “devoted their fortunes, and hazarded their lives in defence of the just rights of the Crown, and the fundamental principles of the British Constitution,” which was “no more than their duty demanded of them.”  However, history had put their constitutional faith to the test in the War for Independence because the great Whig schism of 1776 made it “their particular fortune to be called to the trial.” But there was little question for them about the path to take, regardless of the hazards, as they believed that the British constitution held out “out to mankind the glorious principles of justice, equity, and benevolence, as the firmest basis of Empire.” They did not presume to claim more loyalty than other British subjects but, distinguished by their suffering, “they deem themselves entitled to the foremost rank among the most zealous supporters of the Constitution.” The loyalists stressed, despite their want, that at all times and on all occasions, they were equally ready, as they had been, “to devote their lives and properties to your Majesty’s service, and the preservation of the British Constitution.”

[Sources: Edmund Randolph’s History of Virginia, p. 219; 14 July 1788, Morning Chronicle or London Advertiser]

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The Death of the Divine Right of Kings

NPG 167; John Hervey, Baron Hervey of Ickworth studio of Jean Baptiste van Loo
John Hervey, Baron Hervey of Ickworth.

While working in the bowels of the John Carter Library at Brown, I came across a fascinating reflection by Lord John Hervey (1696-1743) on the state of politics in England. This brief selection is his remembrance of the depths to which any notion of the divine right of kings had fallen in the British world.  And it should at least give pause to historians of British America who might think that it played any meaningful role in the debates over monarchy and constitutionalism in the revolutionary era.

By 1727, “…the notion of hereditary right at home had been so long ridiculed and exploded, that there were few people whose loyalty was so strong, or whose understanding was so weak, as to retain and act upon it. The conscientious attachment to the natural right of this or that king, and the religious reverence to God’s anointed, was so far eradicated by the propagation of revolutionary principles, that mankind was become much more clear-sighted on that score than formerly, and so far comprehended and gave into the doctrine of a king being made for the people and not the people for the king, that in all their steps it was the interest of the nation or the interest of particular actors that was considered, and never the separate interest of one or the other king. And though one might be surprised (if any absurdity arising from the credulity and ignorance of mankind could surprise one) how the influence of power could ever have found means to establish the doctrine of Divine right of kings, yet no one can wonder that the opinion lost ground so fast when it became the interest even of the princes on the throne for three successive reigns to expel it. The clergy, who had been paid for preaching it up, were now paid for preaching it down; the Legislature had declared it of no force in the form of our government, and contrary to the fundamental laws and nature of our Constitution; and what was more prevailing than all the rest. it was no longer the interest of the majority of the kingdom either to propagate or act on this principle, and consequently those who were before wise enough from policy to teach it, were wise enough now from the same policy to explode it; and those who were weak enough to take it up only because they were told it, were easily brought to lay it down by the same influence.”

SOURCE: John, Lord Hervey, Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second, from his Accession to the Death of Queen Catherine, vol. 1 (London, 1855), 6-7.