The One Third Myth

by Dan Shippey &

Michael Burns

   Anyone who has spent time studying, learning or just hearing about American Revolutionary War history has probably heard the following statement:

    The Patriots made up only one third of the American population during the War for Independence.  One third were Loyalists that supported the King, and one third remained neutral.

I heard it said in a TV documentary just the other day. You might have heard it from a teacher, a friend, a tour guide, or even an historian. Some people say it in support of their cause, i.e. “We don’t need a majority; we just need a determined minority like the Founders had.” Some people state it as a fact to demonstrate just how much the Patriots were underdogs in the struggle for Liberty. No matter who says it, however, or why, it just isn’t true.

   Myths can be useful when they illustrate a virtue or help us remember a cultural value, but a widely accepted historical myth is dangerous. It is dangerous because it can create a foundation for misunderstanding our history and distort the nature of the people and events we study. In the end that can mean we get a distorted view of ourselves and our place within the story of history. The “one-third” myth would lead us to believe that our founders forced their minority beliefs on a majority of the population, causing eight years of violent conflict--an idea that would have horrified the Founders.

   Back in 1975, historical scholar William F. Marina tried to sound the alarm that the one-third myth was becoming widely accepted as a historical fact. Marina dug in to trace the origins of the myth and showed where errors had been made and how they had been repeated again and again. His work led him back to the first printing of the myth in George Sydney Fisher’s, The True History of the American Revolution from 1902. Fisher wrote the following, even quoting a letter from John Adams (Yes, that John Adams).

“Adams compiled to the best of his ability, and did not think it necessary to count the neutrals and hesitating class, or to exaggerate at all the numbers of the extreme loyalist. Many years after the Revolution, in 1813, he said that the loyalist had been about a third, and he was then evidently counting the first and second classes.  In 1815 he said substantially the same, and gives an interesting estimate which is very like that of General Robertson.

If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. Burke did those of the people of England, I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution. These, retaining that overweening fondness, in which they had been educated, for the English, could not cordially like the French; indeed, they most heartily detested them. An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English, and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France. The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France; and sometimes stragglers from them, and sometimes the whole body, united with the first or the last third, according to circumstances.”




   One could almost believe that you have the whole story there quod erat demonstradum, except for a few nagging problems. The first is that Adams was not writing about the American Revolution.  Adams wrote that letter to a friend describing the American attitude toward the French Revolution and the following war between England and France, which took place during his term as President. Second, and of more importance, is that the Founders consistently sought to have a government that represented the will of the people. Adams himself said of the era:

“The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people, a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.”

Can any of us really imagine Adams would have claimed that those who remained “lukewarm” toward the American Revolution were the “Soundest part of the nation”? It seems a bit silly when you look at these details, but the 1/3rd myth is firmly entrenched in many minds. Our bold and inquisitive scholar Mr. Marina wrote of his belief that those guilty of the myth’s propagation are those in Academia who already believe that a minority knows what is best and should make ruling decisions.

    So what were the actual numbers of those who supported and those who opposed the goals of the Revolution? Unfortunately we don’t have a public opinion poll for the era, but we do know that the numbers of people protesting the British Government’s activities were great enough to force them to change policies, undertake clearly illegal actions and send an Army to enforce their rule.

The best and most extensive research done into the numbers comes in 2000 from historian Robert Calhoon. Calhoon finds about 20% of white American males could be considered Loyalists, while 45% sided with the Patriots. These numbers exclude Americans of African decent, many of whom supported and fought with Loyalist and Patriots in differing amounts throughout the war, and it excludes women and children. It is clear that, within the country, different areas had different political leanings. For example, New York had a higher number of Tories (Loyalist) per capita than did Massachusetts. After the war an estimated 46,000 Loyalists emigrated to Canada, crediting the war with creating the foundation of that country almost as much as our own.

     So were we still underdogs in this conflict? Perhaps not numerically, but historically and militarily to be sure. No colony in that era had ever broken off successfully from their parent country. Britain was the superpower of its day and continued to be long after the War for Independence. We began the conflict with almost nothing of what was needed to fight a war, but true to the American tradition we experimented, challenged, innovated and cobbled together solutions to overcome. This could only happen because, as Adams had put it, “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.” We were already Independent, self-ruling, industrious and even somewhat rebellious.  The war was just the realization of those traits that the majority, and not a one-third minority, held. 

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