James Henry Stark was a historian and defender of the Loyalists in an age of high reverence for the American Revolution. Stark’s unhappiness at the public presentation and textbook renderings of the Revolution seethed for years, until finally in 1910 he published “Loyalists of Massachusetts” to settle the debate.
In March 1910, the wealthy Boston businessman and author James Henry Stark cruised the West Indies, far away from the controversy he ignited two months previous. Before leaving, he declared that friends would defend his good name and, in a parting shot, “I don’t go around shouting my patriotism to the housetops one moment and in the next rob my neighbors.” The storm breaking over Stark’s name originated in a book he published two months previous, The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution, within which he questioned the validity of American claims of British tyranny and traduced the Founders as deeply flawed men. As criticism of liberalism and new scholarship on Loyalism emerges in our own day, Stark’s experiences are a reminder that unflattering questions over the legitimacy of the American founding have a long genealogy.
Although forgotten today, Stark was a Boston fixture between the 1880s and 1910s. Born outside London in 1847, he spent his early years with his grandfather in England, as his parents had already located to Boston. At age nine, he joined them in New England, attended local schools (including the prestigious Boston Latin, the oldest public school in the US), and entered into the electrotype printing business. In 1877, he collaborated with the controversial photographer William H. Mumler (better known for his “spirit photography,” showing subjects sharing photos with the specters of dead relatives, like Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her assassinated husband) to found the prosperous Photo-Electric Company of Boston. Stark’s business fortune allowed him to feed his passion for yachting. Beginning in the 1870s, he founded several yacht clubs in Massachusetts and sailed extensively over the Western Hemisphere, turning many of his voyages into well-received travel books. These guides were often printed by his own company: Bermuda Guide (1890), Stark’s Guide-Book and History of British Guiana (1892), Stark’s Guide-Book and History of Trinidad (1897), and Stark’s Jamaica Guide (1898), among others. With business success came community leadership, and Stark soon became a prominent spokesman for British-American causes in America. He helped lead the British Charitable Society, assisting New England Britons in need, the British-American Association, and was a member of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada. Stark also commented on public policy from a British perspective, giving local lectures on Irish Home Rule and the Boer War.
Stark’s other passion was history and he published a number of books on Boston’s past, like Illustrated History of Boston Harbor (1880) and Stark’s Antique Views of Ye Towne of Boston (1907). When it came to the Revolution, however, he was adamant. As a British expatriate, Stark bristled at criticisms of Britain and aired his unhappiness in public lectures years before publication of his Loyalist book. In a July 1893 article for the Boston Evening Transcript, he rose to the defense of the Loyalists, partially spurred to his task by post-Civil War historiographical fights on the meaning of the conflict. Familiar words took on new meanings after 1865. “Rebel” went from a synonym for “patriot” to a pejorative akin to “traitor.” “Loyalist” did the same, shifting from unpatriotic to supportive of the Union and immemorial American institutions. Poking his Bostonian friends, he suggested, “If a civil war were to break out in this community, every government official and the wealthy and educated classes would remain loyal to the government.” School textbooks, however, did not demonstrate any etymological change in these new circumstances and its coverage of the Revolution continued to have “a malignant influence on the child and the uneducated reader.”
In making his case for American Loyalists, Stark clearly had one eye on current events. The deadly Homestead Strike the year before culminated in a battle between strikers and Pinkertons, and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick was nearly assassinated in its wake. When the economy crashed in April 1893, there was every expectation labor and agrarian unrest would erupt. Thus, in condemning violence committed against American Loyalists, “which every fair-minded man must condemn,” Stark drew explicit comparisons between the Revolution and the 1890s: “The warfare waged against persons at their own homes and about their lawful vocations is not to be justified, and the mobs of the revolution are to be as severely and unconditionally condemned as the mobs of the present day.” The Patriots drove out the Loyalists, the best and brightest part of the community, not just the wealthy, but the talented, virtuous, and literate. In addition, his scholarship intended to cement America and Britain in a trans-Atlantic alliance, this in a time of British uneasiness at the rise of Imperial Germany. An alliance could be more easily forged if a historical reckoning healed the post-revolutionary breach between nations.
He also drew comparisons with the Civil War, noting that the North wisely decided not to repeat the Loyalist tragedy and offered a more magnanimous peace to the South. Yet anti-British feeling still lingered in Americans as late as the 1890s—driving many potential emigrants to Australia rather than America, he claimed—unlike Britons, who had accepted the Revolution and heaped praise on George Washington. “One may be permitted to doubt whether, if the confederates had won, greater honors would have been paid by the north to the memory of Davis or Lee.”
Stark’s unhappiness at the public presentation and textbook renderings of the Revolution seethed for years, until finally in 1910 he published Loyalists of Massachusetts to settle the debate. At five hundred pages, his tome covered events and personages from Boston settlement to the nineteenth century, but reserved the balance of pages to individual biographies of important Loyalists, defending their honor and recording their humiliation. Still, what Stark wrote of New England history pulled no punches.
Stark had little patience for the original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay. They founded their faith in a crude and violent intolerance for others, particularly Quakers and Catholics, and what liberty Americans enjoyed emerged from British precedents rather than Boston. “The Puritans were far from being the fathers of American Liberty,” Stark wrote. “They neither understood nor practiced the first principles of civil and religious liberty nor the rights of British subjects as then understood and practiced in the land they had left ‘for conscience sake.’” Only when Puritan power broke after 1688 did American liberties, themselves traditional British liberties, blossom in North America.
Yet by the 1760s, these liberties and the rule of law protecting them came under attack not from London, but from the self-described American Patriots. What the Patriots described as violations of their traditional liberties masked their true intent: greed and hunger for power. The issues of taxation and representation were contrived to cover their ingratitude of British defense of her colonies in the late French and Indian War:
The right of taxation was established by a long series of legal authorities, and there was no real distinction between internal and external taxation. It now suited colonists to describe themselves as apostles of liberty and to denounce England as an oppressor. It was the simple truth that England governed her colonies more liberally than any other country in the world. They were the only existing colonies which enjoyed real political liberty. Their commercial system was more liberal than that of any other colony. They had attained under British rule to a degree of prosperity which was surpassed in no quarter of the globe . . . The true motive of the resistance was a desire to pay as little as possible and to throw as much as possible upon the mother country. Nor was the mode of resistance more honorable – the plunder of private houses, and custom-houses, and mob violence, connived at and unpunished.
The long train of clashes with London that followed testified to the Patriots’ bad faith—the barely masked anti-Catholic bigotry against the Quebec Act, protests and continued smuggling contravening parliamentary revenue legislation, and attacks on British ships and soldiers. Stark insisted this was mob justice, not a just cause.
He aimed particularly sharp barbs at the “Boston Massacre” and “Boston Tea Party.” The Massacre, of course, was no such thing, Stark claimed. A group of dockside rowdies hurled rocks and insults at British soldiers, who when faced with attack fired to defend their comrades. John Adams exposed the reality of the event in his brave and successful court defense of the soldiers, yet city authorities perpetuated the “massacre of innocents” myth by erecting a monument (better known today as the Crispus Attucks monument) on Boston Common commemorating the event. Stark wanted it torn down. As to the Tea Party, he wrote, how was it that his Republican friends (Stark himself was a staunch Republican) could cheer the Patriots’ destruction of property, yet condemn strikes and violence against property today? “Had the Revolution failed, the disgrace of the men who threw the tea overboard would never have been removed, and the best that history could say of them would be that, like the Attucks mob, they were enthusiasts without reason.” For Stark, there was no difference between the Tea Party and the Homestead Strike, or others like it.
Stark reserved his greatest vitriol for individual American founders. John Adams fared best in his estimation. Though a determined social climber, he was a reluctant revolutionary whose defense of the Boston Massacre soldiers was “sufficient alone to prove that John Adams was a fit successor to President Washington.” His cousin Samuel Adams, however, “a reckless demagogue [and] a mere mob-leader,” failed as a businessman, failed as a tax collector (and was accused, rightly, of defaulting on collected taxes), and attacked British government not out of principle, but out of vengeance that earlier parliamentary currency reforms forced his father’s bank to close. The colonial lawyer James Otis was mentally unstable, a fact admitted and feared by other Patriots. Paul Revere’s patriotism took second place to his love of money (“In his financial dealings with the government he hardly ever failed to send in bills for work done”). The revered John Hancock got rich from smuggling and evading the revenue laws, and was discovered short on his accounts while serving as Treasurer of Harvard College. The College threatened to have him arrested and the scandal was only settled after his death when his estate quietly sent money to Cambridge. Stark made a point to fold Virginia into his criticisms. Patrick Henry, the leader of Virginia “crackers” and “one of the most unreliable men living” was a bankrupt shopkeeper and farmer, and an unrepentant slaveholder. “He bequeathed slaves and cattle in his will, and one of his eulogists brags that he would buy or sell a horse or a negro as well as anybody.” Henry seemed a poor example of American patriotism for Fourth of July Republican orators, whose party was founded in opposition to slavery.
Faced with this collection of rebels, Loyalists lost their political and social position, and finally their property. They faced violence from neighbors, imprisonment in hellish prisons like Newgate in Connecticut, and seizure of their possessions. The older cultured and prosperous elite gave way to a new elite, ambitious, grasping, and unrelenting in their drive for power.
The aristocracy of culture, of dignified professions and callings, of official rank and hereditary wealth, was, in a large measure, found in the Loyalist party. Such worthy and talented men of high social positions were the leaders of the opposition to the rebellion. Supporting them was the natural conservatism of all prosperous men. The men who had abilities which could not be recognized under the existing regime, and those that form the lower strata of every society and are ever ready to overthrow the exiting order of things, these were the ones who were striving to bring about a change – a revolution.
When they left, they took their experience and expertise to Canada and Britain, an eighteenth century “brain drain” that handicapped American government in its first decades of independence.
Stark’s book caused a national furor. The New York Times cried “Heroes Lose Halos,” the Evening Wisconsin and Daily News of Milwaukee trashed Stark as a “historical garbage collector,” and the Chicago Tribune accused him of committing a second Boston Massacre. Dignitaries came out firing too, blasting the scurrilous charges against their ancestors. Julia Green Scott, President-General of the Daughters of the American Revolution, called Stark a Tory. “Stark is a pigmy and his book should never be noticed . . . The author of such a book doesn’t understand what those persons stood for; what they suffered to make of a barren wilderness the great nation we see to-day.” Another D.A.R. member, Mary Dolliver, wife of U.S. Senator Jonathan Dolliver of Iowa, waved aside accusations against the Founders and wondered what peccadillos hid in Stark’s past: “Why, where is the man in whose career no flaws can be found? It might be in order to wonder if a historian, were that his specific purpose in writing the story of Mr. Stark’s life, could not find a few faults with that eminent gentleman!” This race to discredit Stark began quickly and critics charged him with not being a naturalized citizen (not true) and plagiarism, the latter not entirely unmerited—he clearly borrowed and rephrased earlier work by William E.H. Lecky, among others. The British press was understandably more amused by America’s discomfort and suggested that Boston, “the home of culture and the cradle of patriotism,” had reverted to its ancestors’ barbarism in attacking the truth-telling Stark.
Others were more reserved. Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell admitted Hancock’s indiscretions with a shrug and smile, while Boston ministers like Dr. Paul Revere Frothingham smartly urged Stark’s readers to understand the complexity of history. The Founders were human and susceptible to all the weaknesses of mankind:
The revolutionary patriots were lauded and praised as demigods, now we are seeing the other extreme. They were painted in too brilliant colors before, and now in too somber hues. I fancy the truth may be found somewhere between the two conceptions. Nobody supposes that they were saints, but the fact exists that it does not take a saint to do good works as they did, and Mr. Stark’s book will not detract any from that reputation.
Despite the pressure, Stark refused to budge and just as the outcry began to fade, he jumped back into the fray. On Patriots’ Day, April 15, 1910, the one hundred and thirty-fifth anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, he suggested there was no heroism to celebrate, as the Americans were the perpetrators of violence, not the British—witness the gory acts of the Patriot Ammi White, who scalped a wounded British redcoat in the wake of battle. He also resumed undercutting Revere, claiming Americans learned too much of their history from romantic poetry like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”: “The people at large have taken Longfellow’s work altogether too literally . . . The man was paid for his ride, which destroys the patriotic idea.”
Stark’s work and its challengers illustrate the perennial dilemma of American conservatives toward the American Revolution, sliding along a scale between Russell Kirk’s “a revolution not made, but prevented” (quoting Edmund Burke on the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”) and Stark’s “natural conservatism” of property rights, gentility, and the rule of law found in Loyalism. Stark’s attacks on proper Boston’s conservative credentials—Brahmin disconnect between contempt for Gilded Age labor, agrarian, and anarchist violence, and their glorification of ancestral revolutionary mobs attacking property and person—revealed that dissonance. This disquiet remains, as witnessed by the swell of anti-liberal scholarship and interrogation of the liberal philosophical underpinnings of the Revolution. It is also seen in the recent flurry of Loyalist scholarship, like Eric Nelson’s Royalist Revolution and Gregg L. Frazer’s God Against the Revolution, books that challenge the received understanding of the Revolution’s justifications. Reaction to Stark’s book revealed as much about Americans as it did about the Founders: enduring conservative uneasiness about the revolutionary foundations of the nation.
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 New York Tribune, February 17, 1910.
 Daily Picayune quoting Boston Evening Transcript, July 9, 1893.
 James Henry Stark, The Loyalists of Massachusetts and the Other Side of the American Revolution (Boston, 1910) 10.
 Ibid, 28-29.
 Ibid, 49.
 Ibid, 36-37, 45-46, 49-50, 479.
 Ibid, 54.
 New York Times, February 20, 1910; Washington Times quoting Evening Wisconsin and Daily News, March 12, 1910; Newburyport Daily News quoting Chicago Tribune, February 19, 1910; Wilmington Evening Journal, February 16, 1910; Washington Times, February 15, 1910; Daily Telegraph, February 16, 1910.
 Wilmington Evening Journal, February 16, 1910; Bridgeport Evening Farmer, April 19, 1910.
 See Eric Nelson. The Royalist Revolution: Monarchy and the American Founding (Cambridge, 2017) and Gregg L. Frazer, God Against the Revolution: The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution (Lawrence, KN, 2018).
Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Coming of the Loyalists” by Henry Sandham (1842-1910), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.