Currently reading: Liberty’s Exiles by Maya Jasanoff

Liberty's Exiles by May Jasanoff
Currently reading: Liberty’s Exiles

I finished reading The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Overall, I enjoyed it very much and plan to write a post about it later this week.

Currently I’m reading Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World by Maya Jasanoff. This is another title from my Big Book Summer stack. As I wrote in my sign up post for that challenge, this book came to my attention in 2017 when it won a Windham Campbell Prize for nonfiction. I didn’t see the author speak at the Festival, but I saw the book on display and it kind of blew my mind. It had never occurred to me to think about what loyalists experienced during or after the Revolutionary War.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

This groundbreaking book offers the first global history of the loyalist exodus to Canada, the Caribbean, Sierra Leone, India, and beyond.

At the end of the American Revolution, sixty thousand Americans loyal to the British cause fled the United States and became refugees throughout the British Empire. Liberty’s Exiles tells their story. This surprising new account of the founding of the United States and the shaping of the post-revolutionary world traces extraordinary journeys like the one of Elizabeth Johnston, a young mother from Georgia, who led her growing family to Britain, Jamaica, and Canada, questing for a home; black loyalists such as David George, who escaped from slavery in Virginia and went on to found Baptist congregations in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone; and Mohawk Indian leader Joseph Brant, who tried to find autonomy for his people in Ontario. Ambitious, original, and personality-filled, this book is at once an intimate narrative history and a provocative analysis that changes how we see the revolution’s “losers” and their legacies.


Jasanoff is a good storyteller and her prose is smooth. In Chapter 1 she makes the case that what we understand as the Revolutionary War was, for those living through it, actually a civil war. There was neighbor-on-neighbor violence against those who were conflicted or who outright refused to join the revolutionary cause. One man’s experience of being tarred and then set on fire is described. He survived the ordeal and became a militant loyalist, recruiting others to fight for the Crown.

I just started the book last night and I’m only on page 36, but it is making me rethink so much of what I thought I knew about this time period. One of the assumptions I now realize I’ve always had is that the British were soldiers. I didn’t think of them as everyday folks who may have been born in the colonies and knew it as their only home. It sounds ridiculous to admit this, but it helps explain why the idea of the book was so striking to me.

Today I attended the annual conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations. It was my first in person history conference and I had a great time. My mind is still whirling from the interesting panels I attended. I mention this because the conference was held in Wethersfield, CT, a town rich in colonial history.

One of the hosts was the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum. As I was walking down Main Street, which is lined with colonial era homes, I got goose bumps when I saw this sign and recalled what I’d read in Jasanoff’s book.

The sign reads, “Webb House: Here Washington and Rochambeau Planned The Campaign Ending at Yorktown, 1781.”

It reminded me that some 240 years ago, this now tranquil street was not only teeming with war-time activity, there were also perhaps loyalists who were caught in excruciating circumstances. (Although by 1781, they may have left for the safety of New York, which remained under British control.)

The Joseph Webb House was built in 1752.

I look forward digging into Jasanoff’s book this week and to going back to Wethersfield to tour Webb House and other historic homes in town.


  1. Liberty’s Exiles looks like a great read. The Manchester Public library is on my list of errands for this morning, so I am going to pick up their copy. My husband and I have toured most of the wonderfully restored buildings in Wethersfield. What a gem for the people of Connecticut!

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