In recent months there has been a growing debate about New Brunswick’s loyalist past, and especially how it fits in to the present with the renaming of the University of New Brunswick’s law school building, Ludlow Hall. This is a debate worth having, even if it involves uncomfortable truths about our history.
To many, the loyalists of the American Revolution are understood as the founding mothers and fathers of this province. Through the 19th century, this thinking evolved into a kind of myth that later Canadian historians used to imagine the foundation of modern-day Canada.
But in doing so, the 19th-century “tory myth” skewed our view of the loyalists as contrary-minded Americans that rejected revolution. In other words, the loyalists were remembered historically as a deferential group of refugees who wholehearted accepted the authority of Britain.
To argue this point, past historians would often chronicle the life and political exploits of certain loyalist refugees. Famous loyalists such as Ward Chipman, Jonathan Odell and George Duncan Ludlow represented an elite minority, and their extensive written records have been easily taken as a blueprint of a larger loyalist ideology. Their involvement in the establishment of New Brunswick was easily traceable, and in the post-Confederation era, served Canadian historians as iconographic counterpoints to American figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
It would be impossible to drive along the Interstate 95 from Maine to Florida and not encounter countless Washington and Jefferson eponyms. Likewise, walking the streets of any New Brunswick town reveals similar Chipmans, Odells and Ludlows immortalized on the landscape as town names, city parks and one law school – now a subject of controversy.
However, the loyalists’ legacy is a far more complicated and these icons of loyalism were, in fact, only a small minority of a larger refugee population. In many instances, they were not even the policymakers of New Brunswick. The story, at this point, is only about 10 per cent told.
Let’s remember that before the establishment of New Brunswick, loyalists poured into cities like New York to escape the violence of civil war. To maintain order, the British kept New York under a state of martial law: closing assemblies and refusing to reopen any form of municipal governance. Middling loyalists believed that the restoration of civil government in the city could be the catalyst to a larger restoration of peace in the colonies.
The British, meanwhile, thought colonists enjoyed too many liberties, having sparked revolution in the first place. What is important is that middling loyalists challenged the unilateral power of the British, and sought a constitutional solution to armed conflict. When peace no longer looked possible, a small group of elite loyalists capitalized on the anxieties of the British, seeking to carve out positions of power in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
A group of 55 petitioners lobbied the British for tracts of land to the tune of 5,000 acres each, so in New Brunswick they might create “the most Gentleman-like Government on Earth.”
When news of the scheme reached refugees that had arrived in Saint John and Halifax, more than 600 loyalist refugees petitioned the crown to denounce “Persons ungenerous enough to attempt ingrossing [sic] to themselves so disproportionate a Share of what Government had allotted for their common benefit.” In short, it was not well-received by other loyalists refugees who weren’t part of this elite.
That’s because middling refugees, especially those that landed in New Brunswick, had a keen sense of what was in the common interest, and that it was the duty of government to serve the many over the interests of the few.
This mentality materialized countless times through the 1790s, and well into the early 19th century. Legislators such as Elias Hardy, Amos Botsford, and James Glenie – all of whom challenged the elite minority of New Brunswick – pushed for greater representative control in the colony and for a progressive legal establishment. They received comparatively little scholarly attention, and have in turn figured less prominently in public commemorations of the loyalists, such as the naming of buildings.
In a recent article published in by Brunswick News, reporter John Chilibeck wrote that among the American refugees, Ludlow is “acknowledged by historians as one of the most prominent loyalists who came to New Brunswick in its infancy, whose influence helped shape the province in its first 25 years.”
And this is true. Past historians have focused overwhelmingly on Ludlow and others like him – in short, on the few and not the many. Today, that past focus is used as a flimsy shield.
Today’s controversy surrounding Ludlow is certainly justifiable. He was more than likely the owner of enslaved black people, and more evidence supports than disputes this accusation. Ludlow was also one of the last judges in the British Empire to uphold, legally, the institution of owning human beings.
By the standards of even his own time, Ludlow was an inert conservative who did not represent the larger population of loyalist New Brunswick. And like his peers who signed the Petition of 55, Ludlow’s entire career was about his own prestige, not the common interest of New Brunswickers.
For that reason, we must not take the work of past historians as the defence of a man who was antiquated even in his own time. Instead, we must look to those New Brunswickers that sought to build a progressive place. When we replace Ludlow – and should it be with another loyalist – let it be a Hardy, Botsford or Glenie.
But if the goal is to commemorate a New Brunswicker, let us look more broadly, and remember the important contributions of the Acadians and Indigenous/Peoples of Colour that make up the fabric of this province. After all, history is always being rewritten.
Richard Yeomans is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick.