The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 may have officially signaled the end of America’s fight for freedom with Britain, but in the Colonies, there were still battles being fought. Those that had backed the cause of freedom took a very dim view of the Tories (or Loyalists), whose allegiances remained more strongly with Britain. And now that the war was concluded, there was throughout America a wave of anti-British, anti-Tory sentiment – a sort of pent-up backlash against those that supported the losing side.
This was especially true in New York City. The Big Apple – which, while a sizable city in the 1780s, was still a very Small Apple by today’s standards – had probably been the most “Tory-ized” city in the Colonies. The city’s citizens were, in general, strongly loyal to the British when fighting broke out, and it was very quickly captured by the British. As we know, a good portion of the city was burned at that time, though no one knows with certainty which side was responsible for striking the match.
Colonists that stood for independence from Britain felt compelled to flee the city, leaving behind homes, property, and possessions, which were subsequently confiscated by the British military. New York City remained a British / Loyalist stronghold throughout the war. It was also something of a prison camp, as ships moored in the East River served as jails for captured American soldiers. Conditions in these prison boats were appalling. Disease, malnutrition, and general mistreatment aboard these ships led to the deaths of more than eleven thousand Patriots.
When hostilities ended with Britain, they began anew when New York Patriots returned to their city. Many found their homes badly damaged or destroyed and their possessions plundered. Bones of dead Patriots littered the shores of the East River (and would continue to do so for years). And since the British military was gone, most of the fallout landed on those Loyalist citizens remaining.
Persecution broke out against the Loyalists as their opponents vented their rage in a search for vengeance. Some were killed, more were tarred and feathered, and all were affected by various laws that were passed against them.
There were some who argued for moderation. Much could be said about how a victorious people treated its vanquished enemy. Many countries around the world had very good relations with British subjects, and might take a dim view on their mistreatment, which could affect future diplomacy and trade.
But for now, anger won out. The New York legislature passed laws allowing the seizure of Tory estates. There were laws that allowed returning homeowners to sue their Tory occupiers for any damages. Legislation robbed Tories of the ability to work, stuck them with heavy taxes, and took away many of their basic rights. While some of these laws may have made some sense, many were passed simply as acts of retribution…or worse, authored by those who found a way to gain financially at Tory expense.
And on May 12, 1784, the legislature passed a law that rescinded the voting rights of all Tories for two years. Many returning New Yorkers rejoiced at the measure, but others (besides the Loyalists) were horrified. They pointed to the Treaty of Paris itself, which called for both sides to “forget all past misunderstandings and differences.” But even more specific, one of the main points of the Treaty was as follows: ”The Congress of the Confederation will “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures to recognize the rightful owners of all confiscated lands “provide for the restitution of all estates, rights, and properties, which have been confiscated belonging to real British subjects [Loyalists].” Voting restrictions were a direct violation of the Treaty.
But still the legislation had passed. The war may have been over, but the fighting certainly was not.