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4. Patriots & Loyalists



The war was over. The Patriots had won, the British were leaving, and the Loyalists were . . . still there. How to deal with the British supporters was a vexing issue that tested the nation's professed stand for liberty and justice. Let them live among us, or expel them? Remove their citizenship, or urge their return to the body politic? Troubling and divisive questions for Patriots, especially in New York City—British headquarters during the war and a Loyalist refuge. Shunned and despised, the Loyalists were condemned as traitors meriting only vengeance and ostracism. Harsh new laws restricted their civil rights and property claims. Into this toxic atmosphere came an unexpected advocate of moderation—Alexander Hamilton, who as a college student had engaged in his first pamphlet war and who had served as Washington's trusted aide-de-camp during the war. Fearing harm to the fragile new nation from the extremism of impassioned victors, Hamilton entered the fray.

Alexander Hamilton & Isaac Ledyard, pamphlet war PDF file

A lawyer, Hamilton defended over forty New York Loyalists in lawsuits filed by Patriots whose property had been taken by Loyalists during the war. He argued that legalized retribution violated the peace treaty with Britain and opened the door for homegrown tyranny and mass violation of citizens' rights. On broader grounds, Hamilton foresaw the damage to America's reputation in Europe, jeopardizing its standing as a nation founded on Enlightenment values. To radical Patriots, however, Hamilton was a turncoat, yet Commander in Chief Washington himself had warned that aggravating the Patriot-Loyalist divide would destabilize the new nation. Early in 1784, Hamilton published his first "Letter from Phocion" to defend moderation as the only legal and wise policy toward the Loyalists (his pseudonym from an Athenian soldier renowned for urging reconciliation with defeated enemies). After an onslaught of rebuke including a fiery response from politician Isaac Ledyard (writing as "Mentor"), Hamilton countered his attackers in a second letter. His efforts did not stem anti-Loyalist venom in the state, however, as sanctioned retribution continued for years. These excerpts from the pamphlet war do not follow the opponents' lengthy argumentation on English law, treaty obligations, and trade issues. Instead, they highlight Hamilton's warnings about extremism and Ledyard's warnings about moderation in dealing with the Loyalists. Change the issues involved, and their pamphlet war would resemble similar debates today. (9 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe the core disagreement between Hamilton and Ledyard on the postwar treatment of the Loyalists. What short-term and long-term considerations did they consider?
  2. How did Hamilton and Ledyard disagree on these specific issues?
  3. How did their opposing political outlooks presage the Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions later in the decade?
  4. How did Hamilton characterize the Loyalists who remained in the United States? Why did he see them as less dangerous than does Ledyard?
  5. How did he propose to win the allegiance of the Revolution's former enemies?
  6. How did he argue that a moderate policy toward Loyalists was the only legal option? the only wise option?
  7. How did he use the historical examples of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus and the British monarch Elizabeth I of England? How did their moderation strengthen their authority, according to Hamilton?
  8. Of what did Hamilton accuse the "rash and unprincipled men" who advocated harsh treatment of the Loyalists after the war? Of what did he accuse some "dispassionate and upright men"?
  9. What did he fear from the "furious and dark passions of the human mind"?
  10. How did Isaac Ledyard reply to Hamilton? How did he dismiss Hamilton as a voice worthy of consideration?
  11. According to Ledyard, what danger did the Loyalists pose to the new republic?
  12. Why must a government have the authority to predict potential harm to a society and take action to prevent it, according to Ledyard?
  13. When should government suppress "depravity" in political opinions, according to Ledyard?
  14. How would "corruption" in public opinion present different dangers to monarchies and to republics?
  15. Debate Ledyard's assertion that allowing Loyalists to remain active citizens in the nation "would be to bring the principles of the government to suit them, not them to suit it."
  16. How did Ledyard use the metaphor of cockle? Suggest an effective metaphor that Hamilton could have used in his Phocion letters. Why is metaphor effective in political discourse?
  17. From other documents in this primary source collection on the Loyalist-Patriot divide, compile a chronological series of excerpts from primary sources to provide an overview of this aspect of the American Revolution. See the compilations in Theme I: CRISIS 3, 4, 6, 7, 8; all of Theme II: REBELLION; and Theme III: WAR 2, 7, 8.

Framing Questions

  • How did Americans envision independence and nationhood in the first years after the Revolutionary War?
  • How did they begin to construct a national identity separate from their colonial identity as British subjects?
  • In what ways was the new nation like "a child just learning to walk"? What postwar challenges most reflected this "state of infancy"?


Hamilton & Ledyard, pamphlet war
 9 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America (New-York Historical Society)

Alexander Hamilton (American Experience, PBS/WGBH)

Hamilton, Letters from Phocion I & II, 1784, full text (Online Library of Liberty)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

– Detail from cartouche of Carte du port et havre de Boston . . . [Map of the port and town of Boston . . . ], Paris, 1776. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division, Call No: Illus. in G3764.B6S3 1776 .B4 Vault.
– Oil portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792 (slightly cropped). National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1952.1.1; permission request submitted.

Banner image: Final design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782, by Secretary of State Charles Thomson (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

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