Typically, the winning side in political and social revolutions try and execute for treason numerous members of the losing side. The French and Russian Revolutions are two excellent examples of the execution of tens of thousands of people. However, Carlton F. W. Larson, in his new book “The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution,” demonstrates that this was not the case in the American Revolution, with the execution of only a handful of people disloyal to the new American governments.[1]

A law professor, Larson combed through the Pennsylvania legal archives investigating treason trials and their results. Remarkably, despite bitter fighting between Rebels and Loyalists, there were only forty-six treason trials, with grand juries refusing to indict many other suspected traitors. Knowing that conviction was a death sentence, jurors convicted a mere eight defendants. Pennsylvania authorities pardoned three defendants, with the others suffering execution. Two of the five executed individuals had the misfortune to be tried during the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s treason and would have likely not suffered hanging in other times. Even with the heightened disruption of Arnold’s betrayal, the remarkably low conviction and execution rates connoted a general unwillingness to execute individuals for their loyalties. As a result, “Pennsylvania juries proved exceptionally lenient” during a bitterly fought rebellion.[2]

However, Professor Larson cautions that his work focused only on Pennsylvania but offered that “the broad themes were consistent across jurisdictions.”[3] In a recent article in The Journal of the American Revolution, Louis Arthur Norton backs up Larson’s extrapolation of the Pennsylvania experiences to the other colonies. Norton’s article recounts ten executions by the Rebels and six by the British or their allies. The Americans averaged just over one execution per year, and the British less than one over the eight-year war. In addition, of course, there were many undocumented killings, but not on the scale of the French or Russian revolutions.

Reducing the potential for revenge killings, the British did not execute any Americans for rebelling, which was a significant departure from previous rebellions in the British dominions. British commanders realized that executing high-profile prisoners such as Ethan Allan and Charles Lee would result in Rebel retaliating against captured British officers. As a result, the British did not even put the captured Richard Stockton to death, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

More commonly than execution, Professor Larson argues that Rebel authorities banished suspected British Loyalists from the jurisdictions and confiscated their property. However, the banishments were not permanent, even for the most prominent Loyalists. For example, in the 1790s, the leading Loyalist politician Joseph Galloway received authorization to return to Pennsylvania, an offer he did not accept.

Despite intensive wartime fighting between rival American groups – the Loyalists and Rebels during the American Revolution, revenge killings and treason executions were remarkably low. Americans, different from other revolutionary societies, preferred non-lethal punishments seeking to separate the warring parties physically.

For another perspective on Professor Larson’s work, see Ken Daigler’s book review.

[1] Carlton F. W. Larson, The Trials of Allegiance: Treason, Juries, and the American Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Larson, 7.

[3] Larson, 6.