Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later 18th Century 
by Sarah Pearsall.
Oxford, 294 pp., £61, November 2008, 978 0 19 953299 5
Show More
Show More

‘Crisses Cryssis Crises Crisis’, Grace Galloway scratched at the bottom of the page. She might not have known how to spell it, but she certainly knew what crisis felt like when she wrote about it in wartime Philadelphia in the fall of 1781. Grace’s husband, Joseph, a prominent Pennsylvania politician, had been a delegate to the first Continental Congress, convened in 1774 to find a resolution to the 13 colonies’ grievances against Britain. Hoping to stave off open war, Galloway proposed a plan for closer imperial union and reform. It lost by one vote. When the colonies and Britain went to war in 1775, a disgruntled Galloway chose to remain loyal to Britain – a fateful decision for his family. Philadelphia, the first patriot capital, was seized by British forces in 1777 to great loyalist acclaim, only to be evacuated eight months later. Joseph Galloway was one of many loyalists who followed the departing British, fleeing first to New York City, then on to England as a refugee. The Galloways’ bright teenage daughter Betsey travelled with him while Grace stayed behind in Philadelphia, hoping to protect her substantial family property from patriot reprisals.

She didn’t succeed. Just weeks after the British withdrawal the local Committee of Safety broke into Galloway’s house and evicted her, leaving her nothing but her clothes. In 1779, the patriot legislature confiscated the Galloway estate outright, divided it into lots, and sold it off before her eyes. Alone, in poverty and desperately missing her daughter, Galloway sank into depression and physical illness. ‘War with it’s Iron hands corrupts ye Manners, & invades ye Mind as Much as it distroys the body. & all ranks of people are more or less affected by it,’ she told Betsey – writing, as she often did, in a minute hand on a tiny scrap of paper so that her letters could be smuggled across enemy lines. Betsey, for her part, now a refugee in London, longed to be reunited with her mother ‘whether at Nova Zembla or Otaheite’.

The same October week that Grace scrawled out ‘crisis’, loyalist fortunes took a desperate turn when Cornwallis surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, sealing Britain’s defeat. Within a matter of months, British forces began withdrawing. The Galloways’ predicament was replayed in loyalist households across America. What would happen to them if they remained in the republic? Would they retain their property, would they be punished or persecuted? Against an uncertain future in the United States, Britain offered loyalists an alternative full of other unknowns. They could travel at government expense to other British Atlantic domains, where they would receive free land grants, provisions, tools and other benefits to help them restart their lives. From Savannah to New York, they held meetings to plan settlements in places they had hardly heard of: Abaco in the Bahamas, Port Roseway in Nova Scotia, the mouth of the Saint John River on the Bay of Fundy. Newspapers were crammed with advertisements for last-minute sales and announcements about where loyalists were to board their ships. By the time the last British troops pulled out of New York in November 1783, 60,000 loyalists had left the colonies to take their chances elsewhere in the British Empire.

In leaving the United States, loyalists remained, as they always were, British imperial subjects. That wasn’t such a bad thing. For as most of them discovered, the late 18th-century British Empire presented a world of expanding opportunities. Some of them successfully lobbied for financial compensation; Joseph Galloway helped campaign for the creation of the Loyalist Claims Commission, which rewarded loyalists with British Treasury funds. While half the refugees re-created their lives as farmers, merchants, mechanics and professionals in British North America, others sought out new positions in military service and imperial administration. Several, including the turncoat Benedict Arnold, placed their sons in the East India Company army. Others figured among the many ambitious, hard-up men who accepted positions as doctors, lawyers or secretaries in distant parts. Within a generation, there was little to distinguish these American refugees from other white British imperial subjects trying to get by in a global empire.

But while they retained their affiliations with the British Empire, departing loyalists also left a great deal behind in America: jobs, homes, property and, most of all, people. In this respect, too, their experience resembled that of a much larger slice of British imperial society. For the empire of opportunity was also an empire of separation. Military and administrative careers uprooted families, taking them from one far-flung posting to the next. Sometimes parents sought to leave their children at home while they travelled abroad. Joseph Galloway was reluctant to drag his daughter across the Atlantic with him. ‘It was at first my resolution to leave her. It was also her inclination to stay. But with whom could I leave her?’ he wondered. Patriot Philadelphia was unsafe, and in British-occupied New York she would be ‘in a Strange Place destitute of either father or Mother’. Most poignant, though, were the choices made by parents stationed in tropical locations to send their small children sometimes thousands of miles away, to remove them from the tropics’ real or perceived dangers.

How did imperial families manage to preserve their emotional ties across great distances? How could parents instil values in their children when they were divided by oceans? And how did other kinds of relationships – business partnerships, for example – function in this context? Such challenges would be an enduring concern for the empire’s employees well into the 20th century. Yet surprisingly few scholars have explored the emotional costs of imperialism, and what books there are – notably Elizabeth Buettner’s Empire Families – have tended to focus on British family life in colonial India. But in the 18th-century British Empire, the dialectic of imperial opportunity and separation pulled most insistently across the Atlantic – ‘a world in motion’, as Bernard Bailyn put it, defined by migration and circulation. Sarah Pearsall’s Atlantic Families investigates what she describes as the ‘Shiva-like quality of the Atlantic world, its ability to destroy as well as to build’ human relationships across space. For the subjects of Pearsall’s book – many of them uprooted loyalists like the Galloways – the best way to compensate for transatlantic separation usually lay in a folded sheet of paper and a shiny blob of sealing wax.

In something of the way that late 20th-century globalisation was mirrored and facilitated by the explosion of email, the remarkable expansion of the late 18th-century British Empire corresponded with a boom in letter-writing. Other historians have looked at the mechanics of this (the rise of literacy rates, regularisation of postal services and so on): Pearsall is primarily concerned with what the letters said. It was by writing letters, she argues, that dislocated individuals were able to collapse spatial gulfs and surmount upheavals. ‘Letters,’ she argues, ‘made Atlantic family life possible and even desirable for many.’

Stained, blotted, smudged, creased and stamped: inked sheets of paper crossed the world’s oceans and bumped along its muddy roads, from snowbound New England townships to sun-baked plantations in the Antilles, leaving in one season and arriving in the next, or the next. Eighteenth-century letter-writers were often acutely aware of the serendipity involved – especially in wartime, which for Georgian Britons was most of the time. Grace Galloway was not alone in taking precautions to make sure her letters travelled safely. Other correspondents numbered their letters to keep track of them (a standard practice for official dispatches); or sent multiple copies separately, to circumvent possible miscarriage. Correspondents would seize any chance to have their letters hand-delivered by friends, servants or slaves.

The arrival of a letter from afar was often an event, sometimes an achievement. You could tell much about a letter even before you’d opened it. Graphology didn’t come into its own until the late 19th century, but to a Georgian eye, the quality of handwriting on a letter’s face told a story even so: whether the text had been written with care or in haste; or even whether the writer was in good health, since trembling lines – or the substitute penmanship of a secretary or copyist – might suggest otherwise. Seals and markings told you something about who sent the letter and by what route, while the use of black sealing wax, or a black border around the paper’s edge, portended bad news.

Once you opened the letter, what you read inside was heavily governed by stylistic conventions. By the late 18th century, a corpus of letter-writing manuals had emerged to equip an increasingly literate Anglo-American public with templates to help them express themselves with grace and feeling. These guides, read on both sides of the Atlantic, also helped bind together Britain and America in a ‘shared culture of letter-writing’. Popular models included Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, a touchstone for how to offer parental guidance, however critical, while still conveying affection. Arguably, though, the most influential letters of the period were fictional, found in wildly successful epistolary novels such as Pamela.

What all these published letters stressed, Pearsall writes, was the central importance of ‘sensibility’ in Georgian correspondence – loosely a synonym for feeling, but heavily freighted with expectations about gender roles and social rank. Expressions of sensibility became a crucial way for far-flung family members to maintain emotional bonds. ‘Our parting scene at New York will never be effaced from my memory,’ a loyalist refugee in Surrey wrote to her brother in Nova Scotia. ‘It is needless to tell you the pain it gave me, if you will judge of me by your own feelings I am convinced you will do me justice.’ For years to come these separated siblings exchanged fond, newsy letters – but they would never meet again.

The language of sensibility did more than close geographic gaps between family members. It also helped people feel in new ways, and for new kinds of things. The letters of the former slave Ignatius Sancho, published as exemplars in letter-writing manuals and in a free-standing collection in 1782, demonstrated that a black man could express himself as finely as any white British gentleman. Their literary quality also made a political statement: if black men were men of feeling too, then by what right could white men – their equals in feeling if nothing else – enslave them? Sancho’s letters persuaded their many British readers to see the slave trade as morally problematic. As Lynn Hunt has argued, it was no coincidence that the rise of the novel and the rise of what would later be called ‘human rights’ occurred in tandem: learning to feel for people on the page was analogous to learning to feel for people in situations one might never experience oneself.

As well as cementing family bonds and inflecting political discourse, feeling underwrote a further vital function of Atlantic correspondence: the establishment of credit. Atlantic history, as a field of scholarly inquiry, pivots on the concept of circulation, of ideas, populations and especially commodities: fur, cod, tobacco, wine, sugar in its many forms, and of course slaves. The circulation of goods, however, depended entirely on networks of people. How could you be sure, when you sent a consignment of tobacco from Virginia to Glasgow, that it would be received, processed and sold to good advantage? When you were contracted to ship barrels of fish from Halifax to Nassau, how could you be sure of their quality? And when you bought and sold anything at a distance, how was payment to be managed?

The answers in every case depended on trust, between merchants, brokers, agents, captains and more, and as Pearsall stresses, ‘the longer the distances, the slower the communications networks … the more problematic … became the already all-too-perishable system of credit.’ So it is hardly surprising that maintaining one’s credit – personal and financial – was a central preoccupation of so many of Pearsall’s correspondents, and emerged as a regular theme in letters, particularly between fathers and sons. If one could not conduct one’s transatlantic business through a family member, confirming credit by blood, the next best way was to have people vouch for it in writing. ‘To become a man of credit, as well as a man of business, meant first becoming a man of letters.’ Letters of introduction became the main way for newcomers to establish themselves in business and society. (Perhaps we can blame the Atlantic empire, at least in part, for the overwhelming importance of reference letters in Anglo-American employment culture today.) As Pearsall notes, personal correspondence itself often deployed a language of credit, as people spoke of ‘owing’ letters, or being ‘in debt’ for the ones they had received.

Pearsall reads between the lines of her letters to discern family sentiments, political sentiments and economic sentiments of a kind. Atlantic Families is a contribution to the best new kind of transnational history, connective rather than comparative, using personal histories to illuminate larger social phenomena. The risk is that the book remains rather too suggestive: its undisciplined structure and sometimes knotted prose place a burden on the reader to untangle its themes. The problem is most pronounced in Pearsall’s treatment of the American Revolution, which dominates these pages. In case after case, her correspondents are loyalists, separated from their homelands and sometimes their family by war. Yet Pearsall never fully engages with the Revolution’s effects on family life. The most sustained discussion is in a chapter devoted to the Parker family of Virginia, whose patriarch, James, emigrated to England as a loyalist refugee and stayed there after the war, while his son Patrick returned to the United States against James’s wishes. Probing the rift that opened between the Parkers as a result of Patrick’s move, Pearsall moves quickly past the role of loyalism in determining James’s disapproval of his son’s action, and on to an involved discussion of patriarchy, debt and Patrick’s imprudent marriage, before deciding that this family relationship was really about ‘two flawed, frustrated men trying their best to avoid ruin, distress and dependence, in a world and an economy that made those fears all too pressing’.

Yet what drove them to such distress was the American Revolution – and what was the American Revolution if not a family separation writ large? Britons and Americans alike understood the conflict as a civil war, which divided not only British subjects on either side of the Atlantic, but each population against itself, into patriot and loyalist Americans, and Britons for and against the war. There was a reason tales of prodigal sons were common, along with stories of men going off to war and leaving dejected women behind. As Pearsall writes, contemporaries both ‘translated the political language of the American Revolution into domestic concerns’ and put ‘domestic images … in service of political arguments’.

Historians of the 19th and 20th-century British Empire rarely place settler colonies (notably British North America) in the same frame as other imperial domains (such as Jamaica and India). Pearsall’s book suggests an important way in which they can and should be drawn together. What all such imperial families shared, well into the 20th century, was the practice of writing letters. She ends with a nice evocation of how these inky scraps have ended up in the archives. But if the last decade or so is any gauge, our own letters will end up coded into obsolescence, embedded in a hard drive platter and tossed onto a toxic digital wasteheap in China. The ease with which you can destroy messages these days makes those inky scraps more magical still.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences