Guest Blog: An American Loyalist in General Schuyler's House
April 30, 2018
I had the real pleasure of meeting Ian in August 2016 as I was racing to research and write PEGGY within 10 months. I showed up unannounced at the Schuyler Mansion with my daughter, Megan, who was flash-reading as much Schuyler/Hamilton material as I was to get me ready to write. We took Ian's wonderfully in-depth and anecdotal tour. I dogged him with questions afterward. I went back that afternoon for another tour, jam-packed with doe-eyed Hamilton fans. And again the next day, asking more questions, which yet again Ian graciously answered. When I explained I was working on a biographical novel on Peggy, he and Danielle Funiciello, made it possible by sharing their knowledge, hard-to-access Schuyler family documents I hadn't been able to get my hands on otherwise, and their advice on how to responsibly interpret 18th century fact in a dramatized story. (Danielle was kind enough to write a guest blog earlier this year as well: /lauras-blog/guest-blog-historical-galentines/)
HAMILTON AND PEGGY! A REVOLUTIONARY FRIENDSHIP would not exist, and certainly not as a multi-layered narrative, without Ian and Danielle's help. We've connected on many levels as history lovers. I have great respect for Ian's quest to share the varied experiences of Americans during the Revolution, including Loyalists. I'd done the same in an earlier novel, GIVE ME LIBERTY, about a young boy who becomes a fifer with the 2nd VA Regiment but whose best friend, an enslaved servant, must run away to fight for the British to gain his freedom. My fifer also works for a Loyalist carriage maker, based on the factual Williamsburg artisan Elkanah Deane, whose life was totally undone by the Revolution. (see https://lmelliott.com/book_landing_page_historical/give-me-liberty )
When speaking about that novel to students, I always like to pick 3 sitting side-by-side, and explain that one would be a patriot, one would be a loyalist (big frown when I point to that kid), and one would be neutral/indifferent, desperately praying for the war to end so the two sides would stop commandeering his livestock and crops. The Revolution was really such a civil war among Americans, messy, violent, heartbreaking. It is an important perspective for us to remember (including the experiences of enslaved servants and American Indians). Doing so illuminates the courage it took to be a patriot, but also the very human cost to civilians who remained loyal to England simply because it was their homeland or the majority of their family still lived there.
Ian's essay below--as conversation with him always is!--is fascinating. And, again typical of his largesse and excitement about the topic, he's added a primary document and article for those of you interested in learning even more!
“Now I have to warn you, I’m the token Loyalist here. You’re going to be getting the other side of events for parts of this tour.” This line has been part of the introduction to my tours at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site for the past four years. It usually gets a few laughs, helping break the ice, but just as often, it is met with questions. After all, who expects to find Loyalist history at the home of Major General Philip Schuyler, one of George Washington’s right-hand men, father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, and one of the most important figures of the American Revolution? This site sits at the heart of American Revolutionary history!
This is exactly the point though. We don’t expect Loyalists in our American History. But why not?
First, some background. My name is Ian Mumpton, and I’m a historical interpreter at Schuyler Mansion, a New York State Historic Site in Albany, NY, and once the home to the Schuyler family of Hamiliton: an American Musical fame. That means that I have one of the coolest jobs in the world for someone who loves history. I get to spend my time researching and learning as much as I can, and then finding ways to share what I’ve learned with people in order to educate and, even more importantly, inspire them to want to learn more. Often, this means taking a new perspective on a topic that seems settled. Loyalists, those who sided with the British Crown in the American Revolution, are a perfect example. The history you are about to read will probably sound a bit different than what you find in most history textbooks.
Who were the Loyalists? The most common depictions are of wealthy aristocrats, more concerned with making money than the plight of the poor, working-class families living under tyranny. But what if I told you that in Albany, New York, the home of Philip Schuyler, it was almost the exact opposite situation? Here most Loyalists were poor families called “tenant farmers”. They farmed land for wealthy families like the Schuylers and their relatives, keeping a portion of what they grew for themselves and giving a portion to their landlords, along with money for rent. They also had to perform other labor for their landlords, like the backbreaking work of clearing new fields, caring for livestock, and transporting goods to be sold. Sometimes the arrangement was a relatively fair one, but other times these tenants felt that the Schuylers and the other landlords used their power and money to squeeze too much from their tenants.
In the 1766, before the Revolutionary War, many of these tenants rose up against their landlords in what is known as Prendergast’s Rebellion, after one of its main leaders, William Prendergast. It is hard today to understand just how important control of land was in the 18th century. People lived and died by the land. If you controlled the land, you controlled the money, the livelihoods of others, the local government, everything. The tenant farmers felt that their concerns weren’t being listened to in the local government, which was also made up of their landlords, and so, in line with the Revolutionary spirit around them, they took up arms to defend their rights. They refused taxation without adequate representation, and demanded that abuses of power by those who both controlled the land and the government be stopped. The land-holding families quickly organized their own supporters to confront them, capturing Prendergast and putting him on trial. William Prendergast was sentenced to death by a jury that included members of the Sons of Liberty. It didn’t matter that he had stood up for his rights- he had stood up against the wrong people. Before he could be executed though, the British Crown interceded on his behalf. Rather than risk an all-out rebellion by the tenant farmers, the Crown pardoned Prendergast. This helped to calm the tenant farmers, but it enraged the landholders. Years later, Thomas Jefferson would accuse the King of “[exciting] domestic insurrections amongst us…”. Us. The landlords.
These landlords had been expressing more and more discontent with the Royal British government since the end of the French and Indian War. British regulation of commerce cut into their business. They wanted a large say in the government. The Proclamation Line meant that they couldn’t claim Native American lands to the west in order to increase their holdings. In short, they felt that the Crown controlled the land, the money, and the government. Sound familiar? Of course, their complaints were legitimate, while the concerns of the tenant farmers were to be put down with force.
By the time that the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, the landlords considered the British Crown to be their biggest threat to liberty. To many tenant farming families, the Crown represented a check against the power of the Landlords. The Revolutionaries, led by the land-holding aristocracy, needed to keep tight control over those tenant farmers who sided with the Crown. Many of them were arrested for refusing to join the Revolution. Some were executed, others imprisoned. Eventually the prison was so crowded with Loyalists that the Albany Committee to Detect and Defeat Conspiracies decided to use the old fort as a prison camp for anyone who dared to speak out against them. A sense of hysteria swept over Albany, similar to the “Red Scare” that gripped America in the 1950’s. Even people without any Loyalist connections could be arrested. Almost every day people were told that they had to pay £100 to be released, even after being found innocent. This could be as much as two years of income for some families. It became very dangerous to be known as a Loyalist in Albany.
So why does this history matter? And why do I talk about it at the Schuyler’s home? After all, the Schuylers were Revolutionaries, not Loyalists. There are two answers to this question. The first, and simplest, is that to understand who Philip Schuyler was and why he joined the Revolution, we should have a clear understanding of who the “other side” really was, beyond the myths about Loyalists as wealthy merchants appalled at the idea of Democracy.
The second answer is a bit more complicated, but it bring us back to where we started, where can we find Loyalist history in the United States? Our monuments, our books, our folklore and movies and pop-culture focus exclusively on the glorious history of our Patriots. How can we accurately and ethically study the past when our entire collective memory as a nation learns about that past as a battle between the heroic Patriots and the tyrannical British? To tell a complete story, we have to make room in our history for the Americans who are too often forgotten or misremembered. Whether this includes putting a spotlight on the lives of people enslaved by the Schuylers, Native Americans as friends and enemies of the family, or the too-easily vilified Loyalists, we may not like the image of our heroes that emerges, but it creates a more complete and, I think, more interesting picture of the past.
Ian Mumpton is a historical interpreter with Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, NY. His primary areas of research there include New York Loyalists in the American Revolution, Philip Schuyler’s relationship with the Haudenosaunee and other Native Peoples, and the histories of people enslaved by the Schuyler family.
To learn more:
Agrarian Revolt in New York.pdf