Photo by Sonya Kate Wilson
Artillery Row

The good sense of King George

Why we should listen to the Tories who opposed 1776

It used to be said of British politics that a person’s allegiance could be determined by asking on which side they would have fought in the Battle of Naseby: King or Parliament, Cavalier or Roundhead, Charles or Cromwell, Tory or Labour, Conservative or Socialist, were projected onto the battle of lines at Naseby. Recent times have, however, rendered that question a much less accurate indicator of contemporary political identity. Roundheads and Cromwellians now appear with disconcerting regularity on the Right of British politics. As Critic contributor Marcus Walker recently commented:

We are pretty rapidly heading towards the point where we are going to need a new name for those trading under the label “conservative” but for whom the Crown, the Established Church, and all the other pillars of the nation are entirely expendable in their culture war.

If Naseby no longer works as an indicator of political allegiance for British conservatism, we might consider another historic conflict between constitutional order and revolutionary zeal. The new divide on the British Right is between those who would have worn redcoats and those who would have been found in blue in North America during the Revolutionary War of 1775-1783; between Loyalists and Tories, on one side, and Whigs and Rebels, on the other; between those who would have been loyal to George III (the monarch whose reputation Andrew Roberts’ recent book brilliantly restores and vindicates) and those who would have signed the Declaration of Independence. 

Tories historically valued the unelected parts of the British constitution

For those who remained loyal to the Crown in 1776 — around one third of the colonists — the voices now raised on the Right against the monarchy, the settled Constitution and the Church of England would sound disturbingly familiar. It was the rebels who rejected the monarchy, spoke of a republic and assailed the established Church. By contrast, Daniel Leonard, a Massachusetts Loyalist, referring to Crown and Parliament, stated, “An American Tory is a supporter of our excellent constitution”. Similarly, Samuel Seabury, a Loyalist Church of England parson in New York, declared that the aim of a Loyalist and Tory was “to transmit our present free and happy constitution untainted and uncorrupted to his posterity”. 

The idea that the British Constitution — with its historic ability over centuries to evolve, provide stability, underpin security and prosperity, and secure liberty against both tyrant and mob — should be overturned in a fit of pique because of bishops criticising an immigration policy or the heir to the throne voicing (entirely sensible) environmental concerns would strike the Loyalists of 1776 as an absurd embrace of the rebel cause.

Charles Inglis, another Loyalist cleric, rejoiced that the “distinguishing glory” of the British constitution was that “it is a happy mixture” of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and thus “so tempered and balanced, that each is kept within its proper bounds, and the good of the whole thereby promoted”. In 1776, the Loyalists were particularly aware that liberties were better protected by the checks and balances of a mixed constitution than by invoking the abstraction that is “the People”. It is precisely the unelected parts of the British constitution — monarchy, bishops in the House of Lords, judiciary — that Tories have historically valued as wise and necessary means of checking a popular fervour which can all too easily threaten rights and liberties. Or, as Inglis put it, “no real friend of British liberty” would “destroy the balance” of our ancient constitution.

The Loyalists and Tories of 1776 were also aware of the significance of the Church of England’s role in promoting communal peace and protecting the gift of constitutional order. The quiet conformity of Anglicanism, promoting an ethic of “love and charity with your neighbours”, contrasted with what one Loyalist writer described as “the black regiment”, the Dissenting clergy (identified by their black preaching gowns, hence the term) “who took so active a part in the Rebellion”. The failure of Anglican parsons to promote the political agenda of the rebels, particularly in refusing to abandon the Prayer Book’s prayers for the monarch, often resulted in mobs driving them from church and home. The Prayer Book’s petition to be “quietly governed” was not what the rebels desired. Their preference was for clergy who, as another Loyalist stated, “acted like votaries of Mars”, the god of war.

The rebels encouraged an apocalyptic vision of purifying conflict

As the Loyalists defended the settled constitutional order and the communal peace it secured, the rebels were urging “Liberty or Death!” and “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”. While the rebels encouraged an apocalyptic vision of purifying conflict between the forces of liberty and imagined tyranny, Loyalists such as Seabury were warning against “the horrid carnage of a civil war”. Leonard likewise lamented that “whenever the sword of civil war is unsheathed, devastation will pass through our land like a whirlwind”. For the Loyalists and Tories of 1776, constitutional order and communal peace were precious goods to be protected, too easily sacrificed in the pursuit of ideological abstractions. 

It is clear that for some on the Right of British politics, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has a much greater attraction than “peace, order and good government” under the Crown, defended by the Loyalists and Tories in the Revolutionary War (and, indeed, by their descendants in the War of 1812). However, the brittle mixture of populism and libertarianism which shaped the American Republic represents a very different understanding than that to which a traditional Toryism should be committed. 

The Tory vision of ordered liberty, under the Crown, governed by Parliament, underpinned by shared communal duties and obligations stands in stark contrast to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. It is less prone to ugly populism, more humane and civilised in its moderation of libertarian demands. Closely related to this, because it has encouraged a much more modest and cautious conservative politics, it is a polity less vulnerable to what American historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style” which has routinely inflamed emotions and banished reason from American politics.

Heeding the wisdom of the Loyalists of 1776 would be a means of encouraging both a traditional Tory vision of the British constitution and a renewal of the moderation and caution which has traditionally defined British conservatism. It would be a rejection of US-style culture wars, with their apocalyptic tones zealously promoted by enthusiasts on both Left or Right, and a grateful reaffirmation of the strengths of the British constitutional order. It would, in other words, recognise that the Loyalists were right: that the “peace, order, and good government” secured under the Crown, through Parliament, and underpinned by our shared duties and communal obligations, offers an ordered liberty more meaningful than the claims of 1776. 

Samuel Seabury, one of the Loyalists quoted here, has achieved some fame through his appearance in the popular musical Hamilton. The words sung by the character of Seabury in the musical serve as a good reminder of why British conservatives should, rather than following the rebels of 1776, listen to the Loyalists: “Heed not the rabble who scream revolution, They have not your interests at heart…Chaos and bloodshed are not a solution, Don’t let them lead you astray”.

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