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Difference Between Patriots and Loyalists

The United States of America as we know them are a result of an independence war fought between 1765 and 1783, when the thirteen colonies obtained independence from Great Britain. Before the military clashes began, hostile sentiments built up for years. Americans were not happy with the way in which Britain was administering its colonies and felt that they were being treated unfairly. Within the thirteen colonies, different ways of thinking began to spread, and two opposing sides soon emerged: patriots and loyalists. The first were at the forefront of the fight for independence from Britain while the latter believed that the British rule was fair, just and necessary. The opposition between the two factions built up for years, but patriots were much more numerous than loyalists were and, with the support of France and other parties, eventually succeeded in gaining independence.

Difference Between Patriots and Loyalists

Who is a Patriot?

In general terms, a patriot is someone who strongly supports his country and believes in his country’s superiority over all other nations. Today, the term “patriot” can even assume negative connotations if it implies racist or violent nationalist feelings. However, in the context of the American independence war, patriots were those who believed that the thirteen colonies needed to obtain their independence from Great Britain. Patriots’ ideals and goals stood on few basic principles:

  • Great Britain was not treating its colonies in a fair and just way;
  • “No taxation without representation:” patriots disputed the fact that they had to pay taxes to Britain without being represented in the British parliament;
  • Anti-monarchic ideals; and
  • Emphasis on civic virtues and rights.

Among those crying for liberty and independence there are various famous names – in particular those belonging to the “Founding Fathers.” Famous patriot include Thomas Jefferson – who wrote the Declaration of Independence and later became president – John Adams, George Washington (the first President of the United States), Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, Ethan Allen, and Samuel Adams.

Who is a Loyalist?

Not everyone was unhappy with the British rule and wanted to achieve independence. However, the loyalist support to the British monarchy was not quite as strong as the motherland believed. Even while cries for independence and liberty were spreading across the thirteen colonies, loyalists continued to show their support to the British Empire – although they had to be more cautious once royal representatives were expelled from the country. Loyalists wanted to maintain the ties with the old continent for several reasons:

  • They believed that the colonies were benefiting from economic engagement with Great Britain;
  • They thought that taxation was fair since Britain had fought the Indian and French wars to protect the colonies;
  • In their view, a unified British Empire was strong and good;
  • They believed that parliamentary representation of the colonies was physically impossible given the huge distance that separated Britain from America; and
  • They insisted that all Americans were British citizens and were to be subject to British law, with no exceptions.

Loyalists – also known as Royalists (supporters of the monarchy) and Tories (conservatives) – had small strongholds in all thirteen colonies, but fled to Canada and other British colonies once their cause was defeated. Famous loyalists include Benedict Arnold, Thomas Hutchinson – governor of the colony of Massachusetts -, John Butler – who headed loyalist troops Butler’s rangers -, Joseph Galloway, and David Mathews – New York City mayor.

Similarities between Patriots and Loyalist

Patriots and loyalists represent the two main opposing factions that fought each other during the American independence war. However, while their ideas and views on the relation between Britain and the thirteen colonies were completely different, we can still identify few similarities between the two:

  • They both lived under the domination of the British Empire;
  • In most cases, both patriots and loyalists were heirs of English settlers;
  • They were both members of the thirteen colonies and were subjected to English law and rules; and
  • They were both willing to fight to promote and put forward their ideals

In other words, patriots and loyalists were the same people with different opinions – just like in today’s America there are Democrats and Republicans. The difference between the different parties in the 18th century and the current dichotomy in the United States lies in the extent to which patriots and loyalists were willing to go to promote their ideas. Indeed, such comparison is not entirely accurate given the very different circumstances (including political, economic and social balance), but shows how patriots and loyalists were, indeed, part of the same people.

What is the Difference between Patriots and Loyalists?

The key difference between patriots and loyalists is the fact that the first were striving for liberty and independence from British domination while the latter were happy with British rule and believed that a unified empire was a strong empire. However, there are various underlying reasons and points of view that clarify the opposing perspectives adopted by patriots and loyalists.

  • All British colonies were required to pay taxes to London, in order to contribute to military (and other) expenses. Patriots believed that taxation was unjust and unfair since colonies had no representation in the British Parliament – hence the request “no taxation without representation.” Conversely, loyalist believed that paying taxes was a fair (and needed) way to support the central government, which had invested in the Indian and French wars – fought to protect the colonies;
  • Civic rights: patriots were strong supporters of civic rights and of the idea of civic representation. In their view, the long-distance British domination over colonies deprived them of their basic and unalienable right to freedom. Conversely, loyalists believed all colonies owed respect and compliance to British rules and law. Furthermore, in their perspective, colonies could not realistically have representation in the British Parliament because of the physical distance between London and America; and
  • Fate: the American independence war was won by the patriots, and the colonies obtained their independence. As such, most loyalists were forced to flee America once their cause was defeated – seeking refuge in neighboring colonies (i.e. Canada) or moving to Great Britain. In some instances, the British government paid them for their loyalty, but the compensation money was never greater than what loyalists had lost during the war.

Patriots vs Loyalists

Patriots and Loyalists were the key players of the American independence war and the true figures that shaped the fate of the British Empire. The American independence changed the world that was known before and was a major hit for Britain’s hegemonic ambitions. Building on the differences analyzed in the previous section, we can identify few other factors that differentiate patriots from loyalists.

  Patriots Loyalists
Numbers By the time the American independence war began, almost 50 percent of the population identified themselves as patriots or supported the patriots’ cause. The numbers grew by the time the war ended. Prior the beginning of the independence war, only 15/20 percent of the population identified themselves with loyalists and/or supported the loyalist cause. Yet, Great Britain believed those numbers to be much higher.
Location Patriots were spread across all thirteen colonies – which is not surprising given that they accounted for 45-50% of the entire population. Loyalists had their stronghold in New York City. In fact, the city supported Great Britain with 15,000 troops during the war.
Social background Patriots had various social and economic backgrounds. Some of them were former members of the Sons of Liberty (an organization that had been created to protect the rights of colonists from the British), whereas others were regular citizens that believed in independence, lower taxes and civic rights. In most cases, loyalists benefited from the ties with Great Britain. They either had privileged status or were engaging in trade activities with the old continent. Yet, not all loyalists were part of the elite, but they also included immigrants, farmers and workers, African American slaves and indigenous people.


The terms “patriots” and “loyalists” identify two factions that opposed (and fought) each other during the American independence war. Patriots strived for independence and liberty, and their claims were based on the idea of civic rights and representation. Patriots were against the taxation system imposed on all colonies by Britain and claimed their representation within the British parliament. Conversely, loyalists believed in the strength of a unified empire and insisted that independence from Britain would have led to great economic losses and military insecurity.

Prior to and during the American independence war, patriots accounted for about half of the colonies’ population, whereas loyalists – who were only 15/20% of the total – were mainly located in New York City. In the aftermath of the war, the defeated loyalists fled to other countries (mainly Canada, Nova Scotia or England). Few remained in America, but became very cautions and silent about their ideas and views of the relations between the colonies and Great Britain.

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References :

[0]Calhoon, Robert McCluer. The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1760-1781. Harcourt, 1973.

[1]Johnson, Paul. A history of the American people. HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

[2]Van Buskirk, Judith L. Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

[3]"Image Credit: https://summithistory.wikispaces.com/Benchmark+2+Review"

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