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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

"Loyalist" Voices

The stirrings of men’s hearts, the expression of their hopes, desires, and motives, inspired many songs and ballads during one of the most emotional periods in American history, the years of the Revolutionary War. The quality of such works is clearly uneven, sometimes because the verses were produced in haste, sometimes because they were conceived by men and women who never before had channeled their feelings into poetic form. A number of songs and ballads, however, were written by well-known literary or political figures, including Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Paine, Jonathan Odell, Joseph Stansbury, David Humphreys, Philip Freneau, and Joel Barlow.

Such expressions, especially the most popular ones, remain invaluable for us today because their repetition and survival suggest that they successfully captured—and thus reflect for us—the hearts and the minds of the people. As the poet Joel Barlow commented, upon entering the Army, “I do not know, whether I shall do more for the cause in the capacity of chaplain, than I could in that of poet; I have great faith in the influence of songs; and shall continue, while fulfilling the duties of my appointment, to write one now and then, and to encourage the taste for them which I find in the camp. One good song is worth a dozen addresses or proclamations.”

Although contemporary estimates suggest that political allegiances of the American public during the Revolutionary War were fairly evenly divided—one-third in favor of rebellion, one-third opposed, and one-third indifferent—there appear to be considerably more extant patriot (pro-American) songs and ballads than loyalist (pro-English). Several factors could account for this difference: the efforts of loyalist writers began later than that of the patriots; the loyalist response was less appealing and exciting, because it was largely defensive and based in traditional values and structures; and the defeat of the loyalists and the extensive destruction of loyalist property may have affected the amount of loyalist material preserved.

Generally, both the patriot and loyalist poets and versifiers seized upon opportunities to persuade the American public that their side was winning while their opponents’ victories were spurious, that their military leaders were brilliant while their opponents’ military leaders were fools, that they were fighting fairly and courageously while their opponents were savage and cruel. The loyalists also emphasized the illegality of the Revolution; the loss of English honor, truth, and loyalty; the strength of the British forces; the advantages of union with England; the dangers of an alliance with France; and the generally disreputable nature of Congress and of the Continental army and its leaders. The patriots emphasized specific recent grievances against England (e.g., the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, seen as unfair tax measures); the tyranny and corruption of the English Parliament and King; the need to preserve the accomplishments of America’s forefathers; the obligation to protect wives and children; pride in the accomplishments of Congress and in the alliance with France; the willingness to die bravely for a good cause; and the urgency of obtaining liberty and independence. Songs and ballads were also written in honor of heroes and traitors, such as George Washington, Nathan Hale, John André, John Champe, and Benedict Arnold.

These songs and ballads became known through broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, or word-of-mouth among citizens and soldiers and were usually written to familiar tunes. They compose a rich and lasting contribution to the diverse poetic heritage of the revolutionary period.

Rosalie Murphy Baum
University of South Florida

Wendy Martin
Claremont Graduate University

In the Heath Anthology
When Good Queen Elizabeth Governed the Realm (1774-1775)  [n.b., Song by Joseph Stansbury 1742-1809.]
Burrowing Yankees (1776)
Song, for a Fishing Party near Burlington, on the Delaware, in 1776 (1776)  [n.b., Song by Dr. Jonathan Odell.]
A Birthday Song, for the King's Birthday, June 4, 1777 (1777)  [n.b., Song by Dr. Jonathan Odell.]
A Song (1779)
An Appeal (1780)

Other Works

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Loyalist Songs of the American Revolution
A collection of songs including "The Rebels," "The Tradesmen's Song," "The Pausing American Loyalist," and "God Save the King."
Loyalist, British Songs and Poetry of the American Revolution
An archive of several (some very rare) loyalist songs.
Timeline of the Revolution
PBS site offering a concise history of the American Revolutionary War.

Secondary Sources