in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: July 10, 2023

Podcast #908: Would You Have Been a Patriot or a Loyalist?

When Americans think back to the War of Independence, most are apt to feel that, had they lived back then, they would have been Patriots for sure. In retrospect, the decision to rebel and get out from under the thumb of British rule seems inevitable. Yet only around a third of colonists ever declared themselves as revolutionaries, and even among the country’s Founding Fathers, it wasn’t always obvious if they would stay loyal to Great Britain or become rebels, right up until the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

As H.W. Brands, historian, professor, and author of Our First Civil War explains, the decision to align with the side of the Loyalists or the Patriots was complex, and not only had to do with the kinds of policy issues we often think about in regards to the war, but also personal factors related to respect and ambition. He talks about how George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were actually very unlikely Patriots and what ultimately got them to embrace the revolutionary cause, and why Franklin’s son chose differently and remained a Loyalist. We also discuss why John Adams threw in his lot with the Patriots, and why Benedict Arnold flipped sides.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When Americans think back to the War of Independence, most rap to feel that had they lived back then, they would’ve been Patriots, for sure. In retrospect, the decision to rebel and get out from under the thumb of British rule seems inevitable, yet only around a third of colonists ever declared themselves as revolutionaries. And even among the country’s founding fathers, it wasn’t always obvious if they had stayed loyal to Great Britain or become rebels right up until the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As HW Brands, historian, professor and author of Our First Civil War, explains the decision to align with the side of the Loyalists or the Patriots was complex and not only had to do with the kind of policy issues we often think about in regards to the war, but also personal factors related to respect and ambition. He talked about how George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were actually very unlikely Patriots, and what ultimately got them to embrace the revolutionary cause, and why Franklin’s son chose differently and remained a loyalist. We also discussed why John Adams threw in his lot with the Patriots, and why Benedict Arnold flipped sides. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, HW Brands, welcome back to the show.

HW Brands: Delighted to be with you.

Brett McKay: So we had you on last time to talk about Teddy Roosevelt and how he was the last romantic, brought you back on the podcast to talk about another book, Our First Civil War. And in this book, you try to answer the question of what caused American colonists to forsake their mother country and take up arms against it. Start off like, do we know what percentage of Americans were Patriots versus loyalists?

HW Brands: We don’t. Nobody has taken public opinion polls in those days. And I think for fairly understandable reasons, people, they were reluctant often to raise their hand and say, “Okay, I’m a loyalist. I’m a patriot,” because they didn’t know who was listening. It often depended on whose army was in control of a particular region. Philadelphia, for example, changed hands a couple of times during the course of the Revolutionary War. And when the British were in Philadelphia, not surprisingly, there seemed to be a lot more loyalists around than when the Continental Army controlled Philadelphia. So that’s a way of saying no, we don’t really know. However, John Adams, who probably had as good a sense of this as anybody, estimated at the beginning of the fighting against Britain, probably a third of the American population was Whig. That is Patriot for Independence. A third was Tory, that is loyalist, in favor of continued connection to Britain, and a third was in the middle. And that sounds about right from just observation of the way things transpired over the next six and seven years.

I’ll point out that a principle objective of both sides in the fighting was to carve out that middle third and to claim as much of it as possible for itself. So the fighting in the American Revolutionary War was, yeah, in a very broad sense, Americans against the British, but it was a lot more complicated than that, because it was the Americans were only Americans at the point when they declared independence. Before that, they were all British colonials. And even in their way of thinking, most of them were Massachusetts men or Virginians or North Carolinians. So the whole question is, who constitutes an American? But the point of the book, and the reason I call it Our First Civil War, is that the crucial fighting, the crucial conflict was American against American. If those in favor of independents could win the loyalty, if they could win the hearts and minds, as John Adams put it, hearts and minds of most Americans, then they could defeat the British.

Brett McKay: When most people give an explanation of what caused the American Revolution, what’s the typical answer they give? And how did your research uncover a more nuanced answer to this question?

HW Brands: So, when we learn about the American Revolution in fifth grade or whenever we first encounter it, it’s a matter of… And this is perfectly understandable, you’re talking to children, young students, that the Americans… And again, they’re speaking collectively because they have to sort of make this clear in broad brush strokes. The Americans got fed up with oppressive laws that the British had been passing, and they said, “Enough is enough. We are gonna make laws for ourselves. We’re gonna create our own country.” The British objected and a war broke out, and the American side won, and hence the United States of America is born. So that’s… If you have 15 seconds to describe the American Revolution, that’s a fair approximation. But I wrote a book that takes a lot longer than 15 seconds to read. So I have opportunity to expand on that and to figure out… What I really wanna do is I wanna figure out why certain people chose to become rebels and certain people chose to remain loyalists.

And to do this, I have to ask my readers implicitly to forget that they know how all this turned out. Because if you know how this turned out, if you know that George Washington, for example, is gonna go down in history as the father of his country, the United States of America, the victorious general, then you kind of think, “Well, yeah, it was sort of inevitable. Of course, he’s gonna do that.” But in fact, I don’t think there was any of course about it, because in George Washington’s case, he’s a rather unlikely revolutionary. People who wanna overturn the status quo are usually people for whom the status quo is not working very well. The status quo suited George Washington wonderfully well. He’s one of the wealthiest men in the American colonies. He had pretty much anything that anybody could ask for, but still, he becomes a revolutionary.

Likewise, Benjamin Franklin. The British empire had made possible Benjamin Franklin’s brilliant success. He could not have gone from rags to riches the way he did, from obscurity to world fame and celebrity the way he did in any other political entity at that time, besides the British Empire. Nonetheless, he turns his back on the British empire and tries to overthrow the British empire, the British king, as the king relates to the American colonies. So that’s the thing that needs explaining. And so I look at several people who become revolutionaries, that is Patriots. I look at several people who, I have to be careful when I say this because I say become loyalists. The fact is they don’t become loyalists, they just remain loyalists.

When we have our first rough and ready approximation of the American Revolutionary War, we assume that the default setting for everybody in America is to be in favor of independence. And it’s the loyalists that require explaining. I think it’s the other way around. The loyalists simply kept doing what they had been doing. Or to put it in another way, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and everybody else of their era, they were all born Englishmen. Now, in the case of Washington and Franklin, they decided to become Americans, to give their first loyalty to this new country. People like William Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s son, people who remained loyalists, they just kept doing what they were doing. They didn’t have to make any big change.

So that’s the sort of thing that I look into, and I try to examine, “So why this person and not that person? Why this person at this time and that person at that time? What was going on in their heads?” And you paraphrased what I really begin the book with, and that is this fundamental question of what causes a man to forsake his country and take arms against it. That’s the one I wanna look at. It’s a huge step for anybody to take. When I’ve been talking about the book to my students, to other audiences, I ask them to consider what they might do, what would cause them to take a similar step? What would cause somebody, some American today to say, “You know what? I’m no longer in favor of the United States of America. I’m gonna overthrow this government and set up a new one?” Thankfully, we don’t see that much. We haven’t seen it very often, but it’s something that occurred in the 1770s. And so the question is why?

Brett McKay: And I think you did a great job of really showing that these decisions, they were personal decisions. Oftentimes we think of why you rebel against the country. There’s gonna be ideals, these abstract ideals of liberty and autonomy and whatever. But there’s also this very personal thing going on, and you explore, what happened in the lives of these individual men to make them finally, “I’m gonna flip.” And so let’s talk about some of these guys. You spend a lot of time talking about Benjamin Franklin. And as you said, he was one of the most famous men in all the world, and it was because of the British empire. What was unique about Franklin’s transformation into a Patriot compared to some of these other founding fathers?

HW Brands: Well, in Benjamin Franklin’s case, the reversal was about as extreme as one could imagine, because a lot of people in America, in the British colonies in America before the Revolutionary War, they had rather tepid feelings, if they had feelings at all about the British government. The British government was far away. Its edicts rested fairly lightly on the shoulders of Americans, and they didn’t really think about it one way or the other. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, he thought alot about government. He thought a lot about the British empire. He wasn’t simply a subject of the British empire. He was a fan. He was an enthusiast of the British empire. He recognized what the British Empire had going for it, and what people who lived under the rule of the British empire had going for them. And he knew this in part because of his study in comparative examination of people in the French empire and the Spanish empire. The people in the British empire were way better off.

But beyond that, in the British empire, somebody like Benjamin Franklin was allowed to flourish in a way that he could not have flourished anywhere else. Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston to a family of very middling means. He was one of a very large group of children, and so he didn’t get much in the way of paternal resources to get him started. He only had a couple of years of formal education. Parents had to pay for their kids’ education in those days. And for the rest, he did it on his own. But he did it as someone who was constantly questioning things. Constantly questioning, for example, the theocratic rule of Puritan Boston.

He ran away from Boston, in part because an apprenticeship that he had been assigned to and his brother, it was weighing upon him, but also because he rejected the rule of the Puritan clergy that ran Boston in those days. And he just had to get out of there. And he wound up, finally, in Philadelphia, which happened to be about the most tolerant, open-minded city you could find in the world in those days. And it suited him perfectly. And he flourished, he thrived, he made a successful business. So successful, for example, that he was able to retire in his early 40s and then indulge his interest in science and in literature and various other things, eventually in politics.

And then beyond that, he went from Philadelphia and he lived for almost two decades in London. He was formally the agent that is the lobbyist for the Pennsylvania assembly and then the assemblies of other colonies, to give their opinions to British parliament. The British government got the views of the governors appointed by the king, but the assemblies wanted to have their voice heard. And Franklin lived in London, and he thought, “Oh my gosh, this is the best place. This is even better than Philadelphia.” He moved in the most intellectual circles, the most enlightened circles. He made friends. He had all sorts of new fans of his. They embraced him. They tried to persuade him to move to London permanently. And now when we think about how things turned out, I think, “Oh my gosh, what a big deal that would’ve been.” But in fact, people did that all the time. People were moving from America to London, from London to America, and it was just like, I mean, today, if, you know, move… I’m in Texas. My children live in the East coast to move from the colonies to England. No big deal. It’s all part of the same thing.

And Franklin would’ve made the move permanently had his wife been willing to go along with it. But she was a Philadelphia girl and she didn’t wanna leave. She knew she wouldn’t fit in in London. So he was just a long time visitor. But it is interesting to imagine if she had agreed, if Debbie Franklin had agreed to move to London, then it’s not inconceivable the outcome of the American Revolution would’ve been different. Franklin was one of the two indispensable people to make the revolution work. George Washington was the other one. But if Debbie had agreed to move to London in the 1750s when Franklin originally went, 20 years before all these troubles began, then when the revolution broke out, he would’ve been on the other side.

So it’s those sorts of things. I conceive this in terms of history moving on two tracks. There’s a track of big history. These are the public policy questions. These are the matters of war and peace. These are the stuff that make the headlines in the papers of the day, and the chapter headings in the history books written thereafter. That’s big history. Then there’s little history. Little history is the history of individual lives, of what happened to this particular person on that particular day, and why he or she thought the way they did. And so what I try to do in the book is to see where these two streams of history, the big history and the little history, intersect. And in Franklin, it’s a very personal thing. It finally comes down to the fact that the British government refused to grant him the respect that he thought he deserved.

And respect. This can be a powerful motivator, more precisely, a sense of lack of respect can be a very powerful motivator in politics. We see it again and again in history, where people say they’ve been disrespected, and therefore we can’t put up with this. And Franklin, there was a moment in his life where… I mean, it’s almost the moment where you see the switch flip, where he goes from being a Britain to being an America… Going from being an Englishman to go into being an American. It’s when he’s hauled before the British Privy Council. This is in the very beginning of 1774. And he’s made to answer for the sins of the colonists, especially the ones in Boston. The Boston Tea Party has just occurred. And he’s brought in and he’s told that he’s responsible for this and he has abetted at all this. And he just… You can almost see the steam coming out of his ears where he realizes, “I’m much more competent. I’m much more loyal to the idea of the British empire than these people are. But if they’re not gonna let me be a full member of the British empire, then to hell with the British empire, I’m gonna become an American.”

Brett McKay: So yeah, we’d say respect. I imagine Franklin and those guys back then would say honor, like, their sense of honor was probably insulted.

HW Brands: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Brett McKay: So it was a personal thing, right? Again, you talked about this big deal…

HW Brands: Well, it’s a part… The thing is, it’s a combination of a personal thing and then the policy stuff. Because Franklin thought that British policy had taken a wrong turn. At the end of the French and Indian, a seven years war, the British government decided that it was gonna try to balance its budget. It just had war debts to pay, and it was gonna try to pay those on the backs of the American colonists, among other people. Now, the colonists were not heavily taxed in the context of British imperial history, but they were gonna be taxed more than they had been taxed before. Franklin thought this was a really bad idea. He thought that the British were being very shortsighted. In fact, he thought the British were being very badly-led, that the politicians in Britain, the ones in charge of the government then, were making these very shortsighted actions. He tried again and again to get the British government to realize that the British empire could be the greatest thing in the world for a long time to come if only people living in Britain, the British government in particular, would recognize the growing strength of the American wing of their empire.

The population of the American colonies was growing much faster than the population of the British Home Isles. And Franklin imagined these two pillars holding up the future British Empire. One is the old pillar of Old England, and the other one is the new pillar of New England and the rest of the American colonies. And he said, “If you guys can just give us room to grow, then this British empire will go on and on and on.” But they wouldn’t listen. There were merchants in Britain who wanted to have a monopoly of the American market. There were politicians in Britain who didn’t wanna share power. The idea that these colonials would have the effrontery, the gall to think that they should be equal. No, no, no. They’re not gonna do it. So it wasn’t that Franklin had a problem so much with the idea of the British empire, it was the execution of British policy by these very shortsighted politicians.

And so he didn’t have this policy decision where he said… He didn’t wake up one day and say, “I gotta be independent.” It was, “These are bad laws, bad laws. I keep telling them to change them. They’re not gonna change them. Maybe they won’t ever change them. Maybe we really have to kick them in the head to make something happen.”

Brett McKay: So, Benjamin Franklin, he had a son named William. This was an illegitimate son.

HW Brands: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And William, unlike his father, remained a loyalist.

HW Brands: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So why did William remain a loyalist while his famous father became a patriot?

HW Brands: Well, so this is where we have to get to the little history as it relates to the big history. Now, there was something in Franklin genes, or at least the genes of males in the Franklin family that made them do the opposite of what their parents thought they ought to do. So Benjamin Franklin revolted against the apprenticeship that his father had imposed on him, which made him an apprentice to his elder brother. And Franklin thought, “No this isn’t right. I’m as good a printer as James is. I ought to be able to allow to do more stuff.” But mostly it was a matter of I’m going to be my own person. I’m not gonna simply inherit, imbibe and pursue what my parents do. Now, this is not uncommon among younger generations. It’s not ubiquitous. Doesn’t always happen. But it seemed to run in the Franklin family because for Franklin to reject his father meant running away from home, breaking his indenture, setting himself up in a different part of the country.

And in fact, from the time he left Boston until his mother and father died, he rarely saw his parents. So Benjamin Franklin’s revolt as a young man was against his parents. So he goes on and eventually then he revolts against the King George. Now one doesn’t wanna be true Freudian in here and draw in like a connection saying in revolting against King George he’s all, again, revolting against his parents. No, I think it’s gone beyond that. Franklin by that time was 70 years old, so he’s not working that stuff out. But this is where there’s this irony. And in parents and children, especially when the children become adults, they see this again and again, where Benjamin Franklin, as a young man, thought he had to revolt against his parents. But as a grown man, in fact, as an old man, he assumed that his son would follow his own lead.

But William Franklin in not embracing the revolution, was revolting against his own father. So that was part of the story. It’s not, and I don’t mean to say by any means, that this personal stuff overwrites everything else. In human lives, multiple influences affect decisions. And in William Franklin’s case, part of the issue was that he had a good job in the British Empire. And one could say that he realized if he revolted against the King, he’d lose the job. Yeah, that’s it. But one of the reasons he had the job was he believed in the British Empire, and there wasn’t really that much difference between Benjamin Franklin and William Franklin upto the moment of decision, Benjamin Franklin thought that British laws were misguided. William Franklin thought those British laws were misguided too. But William Franklin was more willing to grant that British policy, British politics could be reformed. Benjamin Franklin thought for 10 years it could be reformed, but finally said, “No, no, it can’t be reformed. It can’t be reformed soon enough.”

So up to the moment when Benjamin Franklin signs the Declaration of Independence, he and his son William Franklin, are not that far apart. But once Benjamin Franklin takes that step, then all of a sudden the gap widens and he tries to persuade William to take the step. But William won’t take the step. He won’t take the step for two reasons. One is, he’s gonna show his independence of his father, just the way his father had showed independence from his father, but also because he believed that on balance, the British Empire was still this thing worth supporting. And this is the way the story unfolds. Because until we get to this moment of decision, basically the Declaration of Independence, do you support it or do you not? The loyalists, the patriots, the ones that are gonna become called loyalists and patriots, they’re often very close together. They’re almost indistinguishable. But once the decision is made, then you have to choose. You have to choose one road or the other. And then once the fighting follows Declaration of Independence, then emotions take hold in a way they hadn’t before. So if the guys on your side start shooting at the guys on my side and start killing people that I know, then there’s a whole additional emotional element that kicks in.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So you mentioned another founding father that we take for granted that’s a founding father it’s George Washington. But you point out, if you look at his history, there’s nothing that would indicate that he would become the commanding officer, the commanding general of the Revolutionary Army, one of the richest men in the colonies. He had a very successful career in the British military. What was the moment like? What caused Washington to realize, you know what, this British empire thing’s not gonna work out for me anymore. I need to do something else and rebel.

HW Brands: Well this is kind of a reminder that as much as someone can have, it’s always tempting to want more. So 99.9% of the people living in the American colonies in Virginia and the other colonies in the early 1770s would look at George Washington, say, “George, what more could you want?” And Washington said, “Well,” it ultimately came down to the same sort of thing that Benjamin Franklin said, and that is respect, respect as an equal within the British Empire. That’s what Franklin wanted, and that’s what George Washington wanted in a specific area. George Washington, well, actually I’ll draw the parallel. So Benjamin Franklin was a brilliant scientist, intellectual thinker, writer. And despite all that, he simply was not accepted as a political equal within the British Empire. For George Washington, it was a military question. George Washington discovered as a young man that he was good at soldiering. He was a wonderful horse rider, which was a big deal.

He was a big strong man, which was also a big deal in military affairs in those days. He had a sense of himself and a sense of command. People listened to him when he spoke, and I mean, one of the reasons they did is he didn’t waste his time on small talk. He didn’t speak often. So when he did speak, people listened. But he was also, he had a head for military strategy and tactics. He had a way of appealing to the Marshall virtues in people. So George Washington as a young man when he was fighting on behalf of the Virginia Militia and then fighting alongside British regulars in the French and Indian War, especially at a crucial battle, the Battle of the Monongahela, the one at which the British commanding General Edward Braddock was killed. Washington observed himself in battle and measured himself against British officers in battle, and realized that he was braver, he was more competent, he was a better leader than they were. Now part of this was due to the fact that British officers in those days typically purchased their commissions. So they didn’t rise through the ranks because of their ability. It was their political connections and their wealth. Whereas a colonial like Washington, he rose. I mean, he was wealthy, but he advanced because he was really good at what he did.

And so, in Washington’s case, it was a matter that Washington realized, “I’m the best soldier in North America, but the British will not acknowledge it. They will not give me a commission in the British Army. They will not allow me to advance in the British Army. Why? Because I am a mirror colonial.” And despite all the other stuff that Washington had, that was the thing that finally stuck in his craw, the thing that he couldn’t get over. And in Washington’s case, so that’s sort of Washington’s little history. Now, there’s a big history that becomes shaded by Washington’s little history. When the British start passing laws that Washington doesn’t like the Stamp Act, for example, this was protested in all across the colonies.

There’s a new tax on paper and licenses and stuff like that that had received this royal stamp. And then various import taxes, duties, the towns and duties where it puts import taxes on all sorts of things. Washington talked about if we allow these laws to stand, because these were novelties in America. If we allow these laws to stand, then we will become no better than slaves. Now for somebody in the 21st century reading Washington’s letters, writing this, it’s really tempting to say, boy, George, that’s pretty rich. He’s saying it’d be like slaves. What do you know about slaves? Oh, you own 200 of them. So, George, you think you’re gonna become enslaved in that way? And so it’s tempting to say, boy, what a hypocrite. He complains about this slavery.

The rich guy like him might have to suffer under British, well, he’ll have to pay a few more taxes when he enslaves all these other people. But in fact, Washington took this very seriously. And what he meant was he sort of zeroed in on what he considered to be the essence of slavery. The essence of slavery is you are not free to command your own destiny. And that was it. And so Washington was a proud man. There’s no question about it. He looked around and he said, well, first of all, I’m rich and all that, but I’m also talented. He knew he had a talent for leadership. And he had hit this glass ceiling in the British Army. And Franklin basically hit the glass ceiling in British politics. And so as good as the lives of these two men were, and I identify them as the two most unlikely revolutionaries, they had wonderful lives.

They weren’t oppressed in any kind of obvious way, not oppressed in a way anybody else would have noticed, but it graded on them. And so Washington says, yep, okay, I’m for independence. Now, some of it in Washington’s case, I think is a knowledge that he still has a few chapters in his leadership life ahead. For Franklin, it’s different. Franklin is 70 by the time he signs the Declaration of Independence. So he’s not expecting a further career. But with Washington, I’m a great man in Virginia, but I’m never gonna be a great man in the British empire. But I might be a great man who knows in a United States of America or something like that. So to command an army, not just a regiment of Virginia Militia, that was appealing, although Washington for the rest of his life would complain about the burdens of office and how he didn’t really seek this. And all he wanted to do was go back and be a farmer at Mount Vernon, that’s after a while, you don’t really take that part very seriously. So there was ambition involved. There were policy issues. So it’s a combination of all of these things.

Brett McKay: Well, another founding father that you explore why he turned patriot and ambition was involved with him was John Adams. And you talk about when you introduce him and his decision to turn patriot, you highlight journal entries and letters where he just talks about, I really wanna be famous. Like I wanna be, I wanna have a reputation. How did Adams drive for reputation or fame compelling him to become a patriot?

HW Brands: You’ve hit on the reason that Adams has been such a favorite for historians. Because he just bares his soul, including aspects of his soul that don’t reflect particularly well on him in his letters and his diaries. So yeah, as a young man, he says, “I want the world to know about me.” And he’s this pretty undistinguished guy growing up in Boston. He gets into politics. He gets into law first and then he gets into politics. But he’s always thinking, “What can I do to make the world know that John Adams lives?” And if he had lived in New York, if he had lived in Philadelphia, his career, the trajectory of his arc in history might have been actually very different. But Boston happened to be the place that was the hotbed of what we can call revolutionary activity of opposition to the British.

And so for John Adams to distinguish himself on all of this, it’s, will the world know that I’m here? The context that he operates in keeps sort of pushing him further, we’ll say to the left in a more revolutionary direction. Because Boston was at the left wing of all the stuff going on in the politics between the American college and the British home government. And so Adams is gonna stand out there. So he’s thinking about what he can do. He wants to get involved in this. But he also, I say butter and, he also has a very rigid sense of morality. There are a lot of… Nearly everybody figures out a way to make their morality match their objective circumstances and their interests. And Adams did too.

But he could be kind of counterproductively honest at times. And so following the so-called Boston Massacre, the killing of civilians in Boston by some British soldiers, he volunteers to defend the British soldiers who were charged with murder in this. Because he thought this isn’t right. And they shouldn’t have to suffer for the politics. He knew the circumstances. These guys feared for their lives. The crowd was really getting ugly. And they were tossing rocks and big chunks of ice at them. And so, and he defends them. And he gets them off. I mean, they aren’t paying for murder or anything. There’s manslaughter for a couple of them.

And so he has this sense of righteousness that carries him forward. The people who knew him sometimes thought, well, okay, he’s an honest guy, but he can get these strange notions in his head. Benjamin Franklin got to know John Adams very well and he thought he’s as honest as the day is long, but he’s sometimes just quite crazy. With Adams to the end of his life, he believed that history would not appreciate him. In fact, he wrote a letter to a friend, Benjamin Rush, who was somebody who knew everybody else at the time. And Adams says that when the history of our life of the revolutionary and the events that came after is written, it’s gonna be a pack of lies from beginning to end.

And the gist of the story is that Dr. Franklin, Benjamin Franklin, smote the earth with his lightning rod and out jumped, General Washington. And between the two of them, they conducted all the affairs of war and peace and the rest of us had nothing to do with it. So this was Adams, even after he’d been President and everything else thinking, I’m just never gonna be appreciated. But Adams was one who wanted to make his name. And in revolutionary times the way he was gonna make his name was to jump to the forefront of the revolutionaries.

Brett McKay: So for him there were policy things he cared about, but personal ambition played a role as well.

HW Brands: Yeah. And in fact, so to expand on that just a little bit, it was, and I alluded to this when I was talking about Benjamin and William Franklin, it was a fairly close call between independence and loyalty. Up until the moment of the Declaration of Independence, nearly everybody in America, and a lot of people in Britain too, and I should point this out, they thought that these laws that Parliament had passed were stupid laws. They were counterproductive. They were making the Americans mad to no good purpose back in England. But it served some politicians purpose to do this. And so it was, okay, so do we keep pressing for reform? And what happened is that several of the people who remained loyalists, they said, let’s give reform one more try. Whereas people like John Adams said, we’ve tried enough. Finally we have to say we’re outta here.

And so at that moment, so with John Adams on one side, Benjamin Franklin on the safe side, Joseph Galloway, the loyalist that I write about, he’s just barely on the other side. He said, and one more try at reform. But once the decision is made, that’s when the gap suddenly yawns widely opened. Because those people who announced for independence, they have become in effect and in law, traitors to the British Empire. And so if the war ends badly, they might very well be hanged as traitors. And what they do immediately is to turn around and say, no, no, we are not the traitors. The traitors are the ones who remain loyal. So William Franklin. I mentioned that the loyalists, they just kept doing what they were doing. He kept going to the office. He was the Royal Governor of New Jersey. So he would go to the office of Governor of New Jersey and keep doing his stuff.

He wakes up one morning after independence has just been declared, and now this new self-declared New Jersey assembly says, you are the traitor now. So you must break your ties to the British crown, or we’re gonna treat you as a traitor. And he’s thinking, traitor, I’ve just been doing this same thing I’ve been doing all along. But this was the strange world of the American Revolution, where things that had been signs of loyalty just recently, all of a sudden get you marked as a traitor. And in fact, William Franklin was imprisoned. He almost died in prison. He was suffered exposure and illness in prison and for doing what? For simply remaining loyal to his oath of office. So it was a time that really was confusing for people who like to think that history moves on predictable paths.

Brett McKay: Another interesting character during the American Revolution is Benedict Arnold, who famously he was a loyalist at the start, turned patriot and then went back to loyalist. So what was driving his allegiances?

HW Brands: Ah, with Benedict Arnold. Well, Benedict Arnold had the advantage, but also the grave disadvantage of being a natural soldier. He was the best lieutenant, that is the best second in command, that George Washington had. He was, he could inspire his men in battle. He had a sense of logistics and strategy. And Washington really was pleased at Benedict Arnold’s performance. And Washington gave Benedict Arnold some of the most difficult, dangerous assignments. And for the most part, Benedict Arnold came through. George Washington, who had no natural born children, started looking on Benedict Arnold as something of a surrogate son.

But then Benedict Arnold, well he was, he had some of the same traits as John Adams, Benedict Arnold wanted to be recognized and he did not like being disrespected or as, to use your term, I think, which is quite appropriate, dishonored. And he ran a foul to some degree of the politics of the American Revolution. Politics in the context of the American Congress, the Continental Congress, which would become the Confederation Congress, but the Congress of this new United States, which was very jealous of its own authority and of handing any authority off to the military or within the military to people of one state rather than another state.

And so Arnold should have received a number of promotions for his exploits, for his accomplishments on the battlefield. But Congress wouldn’t approve the promotions because somebody else had been promised for political reasons, this promotion rather than that. And Arnold felt badly used, even to the point where he was court-martialed and Congress could do this sort of thing. And so he felt this is a terrible thing. He had been given the default task of presiding over Philadelphia after Philadelphia is recaptured from British control. But in Benedict Arnold’s case, and this boy, this is the oldest story, going back to Homer and previous storytellers before that, where love got in the way. Benedict Arnold fell in love with a woman who had loyalist connections. And so she introduced him to members of the British military, including the people who sort of basically ran the counter-revolutionary, the counter-insurrectionary activities.

And so they realized that, the British government learned that Arnold was unhappy with the situation, with his treatment at the hands of the Continental Congress. So they began talking, “Well, we could probably do better for you. We would recognize your talents, we would reward your skills and accomplishments.” In all of this, I should add that everybody who made a decision one way or the other, and I point out that pretty much everybody in the colonies had to make this decision at some level and with some degree of autonomy, you have to choose, are you gonna be on the loyalist side or the Patriots side? Well, one of the things that contributes to this question is, which side do you think is going to win? And you might think, “Okay, American independence would be a nice idea, but we’re never gonna win.”

So, all right, you kind of hold your tongue and maintain your loyalist position. On the other hand, if you think the Americans are going to win, then maybe independence looks more appealing. So Benedict Arnold has the tugs of romance of love for this woman who’s gonna become his wife. And he also hears these flattering remarks from the British and he starts to think, the Americans are never gonna win this war and I should add, I should add. That until the Battle of Yorktown, until this climatic… What we now know is the climactic battle of the war, it was a fairly safe bet that the Americans wouldn’t win. In fact, Washington really didn’t win the commander of the Continental Army. He really didn’t win any major battlefield victories until the last one.

As late as 1780, early 1781. It quite possible to think, okay, the Americans are gonna lose. And so how’s this gonna turn out? Well, thinks Arnold, “If I help the British government, then maybe I’ll get a better sort of landing place when the American side loses.” So it’s really important, I think I mentioned at this very beginning to understand how this stuff plays out. Readers, students of history have to do something that sounds sort of counterintuitive and that is, they have to forget they know how it turns out because Washington didn’t know how it was gonna turn out when he accepted command of the Continental Army. Benedict Arnold didn’t know how it was gonna turn out when he switched sides, Benjamin Franklin, William Franklin, none of them knew how it was gonna turn out.

And so they are kind of making this bet. In the case of Benedict Arnold, he made a bad bet. And the bad bet was he leaped from the side of the Americans when he thought the Americans were losing. But he got to the British side just in time for the British to lose with the result that, well, if he’d been more insightful than he was, he might have realized he was never really gonna be appreciated by the British, because they would recognize that somebody who fights on one side and then switches sides isn’t someone for whom loyalty is a big issue.

So if he gets a better offer from the Americans, again, he might jump right back. So he was never embraced really by the British. And of course he was loathed by the Americans. And so Arnold, he had a good thing going on the American side, but he just, he wasn’t good enough. And again, this is kind of a theme, what I mentioned with Washington and Franklin, no matter what you have, if you want more, then you can be, and speaking from an American perspective, think that Washington and Franklin were led a right by their dissatisfaction. In Arnold’s case, he was led awry by his dissatisfaction.

Brett McKay: So the big takeaway I got from your book was that when these individuals were deciding to become Patriot or remain a Loyalist, there were, like you said, there’s two tracks involved. There’s that big history track which is politics and policy, but for all these men, they had, there was a personal track as well. There was small history going on, decisions that they had to make about their own personal futures and fortunes that dealt with ambition and sense of respect and things like that. And so I think whenever I read history books now, I’m always gonna ask myself, “Well, this is the big history stuff. What’s the little history going on in this as well?” And I think, you know, also apply to our own personal decisions that we make as citizens or in politics. There’s the big history stuff, big stuff going on. But underneath that there’s also personal things like how is our personal desires helping us make these decisions? Well actually, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book in your work?

HW Brands: Well, they can go to my Substack account and it’s called A User’s Guide to History. So just Substack, Users Guide to History. They can also go to my Twitter account at HW Brands.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, HW Brands, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

HW Brands: Good to talk to you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was HW Brands. He’s the author of the book, Our First Civil War. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his Substack, Also check at our show notes at where you can find links to resources we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Make sure to check out our website where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of, any of you haven’t done so already. I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give review, not a Podcast or Spotify helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member if you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, it’s Brett McKay reminding you trying to listen to the AOM Podcast would put what you’ve heard into.

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