The Ones Who Walk Away from America

The Coming of the Loyalists

To be honest, I felt a bit weird listening to and enjoying the Hamilton soundtrack. That’s because I’m descended in part from Loyalists from New York. My people were on the opposite side from Alexander Hamilton: the farmers he refuted, and the people he fought against, both rhetorically and literally.

The Woodhull side of my family—my father’s mother’s side—makes a big deal of our Loyalist background, though (as you will see) not every Woodhull was a Loyalist.1 Before my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Woodhull (1741-1810)2 made a run for the border after the American Revolution, they hailed from Suffolk County on Long Island.3

Josiah Woodhull House. Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin’s father, Josiah Woodhull (1695-1761) built what is now known as Josiah Woodhull House around 1720; his father, Richard Woodhull Jr. (1649-1699), founded Brookhaven. There are rather a lot of Woodhulls on both sides of the border (not all of them made a run for it, you see), and they’re a rather clannish bunch who are very much into their family history: my grandmother often told me that if I ever encountered someone who spelled their last name that way, they were a descendant of Richard Woodhull and therefore a relative.4

Victoria Claftin Woodhull. Wikimedia Commons.

Those relatives include, on the treasonous side of the family, Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826), a son of Benjamin’s first cousin, who as “Samuel Culper Sr.” acted as a leading member of the Culper Ring, spying on the British during their occupation of New York.5 They also include Victoria Claftin Woodhull (1838-1927), a free love advocate who ran for president of the United States in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket, getting arrested on obscenity charges a few days before the vote. (Her nominal running mate was, get this, Frederick Douglass, though he did not campaign or even acknowledge the nomination.) Aunt Vickie was a distant relative of mine by marriage, having married (and divorced) Canning Woodhull (ca. 1828-1872), a grandson of Benjamin’s son Robert (1765-1848),6 who treacherously went back to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Canning was apparently “an alcoholic and a womanizer,” and he married Vickie when she was 15 and he was twice her age,7 so we’d rather talk about her than him.

My mother’s side of the family tree was a bit more opaque, a bit less researched—possibly because they’re a bit less full of themselves than the Woodhulls. They’re from New Brunswick, which was carved out of Nova Scotia in 1784 because of the arrival there of thousands of Loyalist refugees. A Loyalist connection seemed likely there as well, but I wanted to make sure of it before I started spouting off online about my Loyalist roots.

So I did something I never expected myself to do: I committed genealogical research.

I’m a historian by training: my mad skillz are in historical research. But I’ve never applied those skills to genealogy. It was always something I’d given the side-eye to for as long as I’ve been setting foot in historical archives. Partly because I found it a bit too smug, especially when practiced by people of a certain socioeconomic class, which had been my experience of it (see above); partly because I was a hotshot grad student and I was being condescending about it. But it always struck me as odd that I knew tons about the Woodhulls, but next to nothing about any other branches of my family. I assumed I couldn’t fill those gaps, until I suddenly realized that I could, a little. I spent some time last year down a genealogical rabbit hole, poring over online census records and publicly available Ancestry data. It was necessarily incomplete, because the census tracked heads of households: if I didn’t already know a wife’s birth name, I couldn’t use the census to track her parentage. Nonetheless, I learned a few new things.

I learned that my mother’s family had been farming the lands around Elgin, New Brunswick since at least the early nineteenth century. And that one of my great-great-great-grandmothers was Elizabeth Lounsbury (1804-1881), who married my great-great-great-grandfather, John Prosser (1792-1853), an English immigrant who had arrived in the colony in June 1821. She was marked on the census tables as being of “Am. Dct.”—American descent; i.e., she was a Loyalist.8

Over to the Ancestry data, which reveals that the Lounsburys had been mucking around Westchester, New York, since at least the mid-1600s. Elizabeth’s grandfather, William Lounsbury, died there in 1782 at the age of 42; his son and Elizabeth’s father, William Jr. (1780-1852), would have been around two years old at the time.

The reasons for a premature death in the eighteenth century are many, but for a Loyalist from New York—especially a Loyalist from Westchester County, which was apparently an interesting place to be during the Revolution—a death at the age of 42, during that Revolution, with his family subsequently relocating to New Brunswick, is suggestive, if not downright suspicious. There’s a non-zero chance that one of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers was killed fighting in the American Revolution on the Loyalist side.

In which case, fuck you, Alexander Hamilton.

There was a point to my making this trip down the genealogical rabbit hole. It wasn’t to add genealogy to my list of hobbies, nor to immerse myself in Loyalist studies (which, having had a peek at it, really isn’t my thing: it’s pure hagiographic chest-thumping, the DAR but for Canadians), nor to share some interesting stories about old dead white colonists who had a bit of DNA in common with me. It was to link the past with the present.

From the point of view of colonists loyal to the British crown, their Patriot neighbours must have appeared to have lost their goddamn minds. Tens of thousands of them lit out for the northern border, where they formed the initial core of anglophone settlers. Many more remained, and of those that left, many of their descendants (like Benjamin’s son Robert) returned, but the point remains. America decided to go batshit, and a portion of the population who opposed it (or at least those who could) went north to get away from it.

Americans pulling up stakes and heading north to get away from the latest round of American lunacy soon became a pattern. Two waves of Loyalists. The Underground Railroad. McCarthyism. The Vietnam War. Each brought a surge of tens of thousands of about-to-be-former Americans to our country.

It should therefore come as no surprise that while Canada professes to be America’s best friend (“whether we like it or not,” as one Canadian politician famously quipped), a substantial portion of Canada’s national mythmaking has been in opposition to the American experiment, or at least expresses some skepticism of it.

So many of us, after all, are here because we, or our ancestors, rejected it.

Canada’s identity—or at least white, English-speaking, Anglo-Saxon Canada’s identity—is to a great extent predicated on Not Being American—and, to be frank, about being better. (Or to quote the Arrogant Worms, who have done several songs in this vein, “We won’t say that we’re better; it’s just that we’re less worse.”) It speaks to a certain national myopia: so long as we’re just a little better than the U.S., we feel fine—never mind how we compare to other developed countries. It’s made us a bit complacent. And full of ourselves.

But on the U.S. side, each time a bunch of Americans get fed up and light out for Canada, the political culture they leave behind gets just a little crazier with their absence. In other words, the crazy becomes more concentrated. In a 2007 essay called “The Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs,” Eliezer Yudkowsky compares the phenomenon to, of all things, a Bose-Einstein condensate:

In Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s classic When Prophecy Fails, one of the cult members walked out the door immediately after the flying saucer failed to land. Who gets fed up and leaves first? An average cult member? Or a relatively skeptical member, who previously might have been acting as a voice of moderation, a brake on the more fanatic members?

After the members with the highest kinetic energy escape, the remaining discussions will be between the extreme fanatics on one end and the slightly less extreme fanatics on the other end, with the group consensus somewhere in the “middle.”

And what would be the analogy to collapsing to form a Bose-Einstein condensate? Well, there’s no real need to stretch the analogy that far. But you may recall that I used a fission chain reaction analogy for the affective death spiral; when a group ejects all its voices of moderation, then all the people encouraging each other, and suppressing dissents, may internally increase in average fanaticism.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, “The Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs”

So if you find the Overton window lurching far to the right and wonder why it’s happening? A tiny bit of that might just be on us. Since 1783 we’ve been giving the ones who walk away from America somewhere to walk away to. And in the process, they’ve been leaving behind a slightly higher concentration of wingnuts—and they’re not going anywhere.

Sorry about that.

Featured image: Detail from Henry Sandham, “The Coming of the Loyalists,” 1925. Oil on canvas. Library and Archives Canada.


  1. My father’s father’s side immigrated directly from Britain in the early 20th century.
  2. The first of three Benjamin Woodhulls in a row: himself, his son Benjamin (1777-1850) and his grandson Benjamin (1813-1878). I believe there were other Benjamins in the first Benjamin’s line of descent. It’s all about the Benjamins in my family.
  3. Suffolk County takes up the eastern half of Long Island, and includes the Hamptons. The place has clearly gone to shit since we left.
  4. Richard Jr.’s father and his English forebears apparently spelled it “Wodhull.”
  5. His story is told in Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam, 2006). That book was made into a TV series, Turn: Washington’s Spies, which ran for four seasons on AMC and starred Jamie Bell as Abraham; it’s on Netflix.
  6. See his lineage here.
  7. So saith Vickie’s Wikipedia entry, so we know it’s true.
  8. See this digitized page of the 1851 New Brunswick census.