Review: Loyalist Rebellion in New Brunswick

David G. Bell, Loyalist Rebellion in New Brunswick: A Defining Conflict for Canada’s Political Culture (Halifax: Formac, 2013).

In March 1786, the New Brunswick House of Assembly passed the Act against Tumults and Disorders, upon pretence of preparing or presenting Public Petitions. The legislation was intended to curtail public petitioning based on “pretended grievances”; particularly those petitions “being made use of to serve the ends of factious and seditious persons to the violation of the public peace” (127-8). Who were these “factious and seditious persons”? Ironically, they—and the legislators—were Loyalists.

BellcoverWithin a week of the Act’s passage, and in spite of its harsh penalties, four men presented a petition, the opening words of which avowed themselves, “His Majesty’s dutiful and affectionate Subjects.” During the American Revolution, the petitioners had “suffered every Evil, which could be inflicted upon loyal Subjects, by the cruel Hand of Usurpation.” Rather than finding Saint John a Loyalist refuge, they were again suffering under “a most oppressive Tyranny.” The government that should have relieved them from “Bondage” was instead responsible for “the most daring, violent and alarming Invasion of our Liberties striking at the Vitals of our most excellent Constitution.” The petitioners warned that such affronts threatened to dissolve the settlement or even ignite another “Revolution” (129-30).

This episode reflects a divided Loyalist community and a tumultuous contest over the meaning of loyalty, the story told by David Bell in Loyalist Rebellion in New Brunswick. Bell argues that the charge of disloyalty was used by Loyalists against Loyalists to stifle dissent, to secure power, and to construct an “orderly” society.

The book focuses on the contested Loyalist experience in Saint John from their arrival in 1783 to the legal proceedings of 1786, from the roots of Loyalist dissent in the city to its suppression. Bell draws especially on British military records, Nova Scotia and (after 1784) New Brunswick government papers, the lively newspapers of early Saint John, and the accounts of numerous individual Loyalists. This volume is a revision, for a general readership, of Bell’s Early Loyalist Saint John: The Origin of New Brunswick Politics, 1783-1786 (Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1983).

Bell describes the strong sense of betrayal that mingled with the exiles’ loyalty. Forced to a “dreadful crisis of allegiance” by the exigencies of war, betrayed by their military in a mismanaged war, and betrayed again by their government’s failure to secure their protection at the peace negotiations—all this disposed the Loyalists arriving in Saint John “to see every shortcoming, every bias, every suspicion of favouritism as a fresh betrayal.” In the words of one refugee, they were “deserted by the Government they have sacrific’d their all for” (19, 153).

The distribution of land in the settlement—plagued by delay and smacking of favouritism—only fed that sense of betrayal, and became an enduring source of dissent within the Loyalist community. That dissent was mobilized in response to a petition made to British officials by fifty-five Loyalists—self-styled as being “of the most respectable character”—requesting large grants of 5000 acres, estates that would help them regain their social standing after the Revolution’s upheavals. Loyalists of lesser social rank, however, energetically protested such blatant inequality. They worried about being relegated to poor or remote land, and forced into tenancy, bereft of their political rights as freeholders. In a word, they feared becoming “enslaved.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 1.37.54 AMThe tension between the elite Loyalists’ desire for an orderly society and the dissentingLoyalists’ commitment to constitutional liberties animated the political culture of early Saint John. This division in the Loyalist community is illustrated by Bell’s lively account of the election of 1785, which proved to be the story of first the triumph and then the suppression of political dissent.

Loyalists opposed to the ruling elite won the election, but it was a short-lived victory. Governor Carleton and the Council called out the garrison to put down a riot, and briefly considered having the soldiers cast votes (both unprecedented military interventions in civilian affairs). A scrutiny disallowed hundreds of votes, denying several opposition members their seats. Letters to the dissenting Saint John Gazette led to the prosecution of its editors for seditious libel. And the Tumultuous Petitions Act mentioned above forestalled the mobilization of the public. Elite Loyalists, that is, charged dissenting Loyalists with disloyalty as a means of undermining opposition. This “Loyalty Cry” became a recurring theme in Canadian political life throughout the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.

The loyalism that emerges from this book is a debate, rather than a neat definition. Bell’s narrative prevents us from making an easy equivalence between loyalism and conservatism. The Saint John experience reminds us that loyalism was also compatible with dissent, though the language of “loyal subjects” was fiercely contested. And, while Loyalists may have been united by their allegiance to the Crown, sectional rivalries and economic interests also divided them. What this means, then, is not simply that there was more than one way to be a Loyalist, but that the language of loyalism disguised other social, political, and economic cleavages. Loyalist Rebellion reveals the diversity of experiences and range of ideologies behind the term “Loyalist.”

[Note: This review first appeared at the blog for Acadiensis: The Journal of Atlantic Canada on September 8, 2015.]

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