Criminals, Catholics, and Conservatives: A Brief History of Toryism

By Natalie Scholl ’13

Many people associate the term ‘Tory’ with one of three things:  a royalist political party that arose in late 17th century England; supporters of the British crown during the American Revolution, if they prefer to take the American bent; or, most recently, as a description of modern conservatives, primarily in England or Canada.  However, even before its arrival in England around 1680, this expression was bandied about in the nearby island of Ireland.  The expression ‘Tory’ originated in the 1650s, was derived from the Irish word for outlaw, and referred to a group of Irish brigands.  During the 1640s-50s the Irish Confederate Wars broke out in Ireland between English and Scottish Protestant colonists and the Irish Catholics they displaced.  This conflict was both religious and ethnic, as it would determine not only who would possess most of the land, but also the primary religion of the region.   As a result, the dispossessed native Irish began to plunder and slaughter the English soldiers and settlers.

The Irish Confederates, a group of rebel Irish Catholics, were unable to defend themselves against the English Parliamentarian forces in the late 1640s, even though they had struck a temporary deal with the Royalists.  The Royalists were Englishmen who favored King Charles I in his struggle against Parliament in 1642 during the English Civil War.  It was therefore reasonable that the Confederates and the Royalists would join against a common enemy.  However, by about 1650, Cromwell’s men, acting on behalf of the Parliament, had taken over Ireland, and the Irish Confederates were quelled.  Small bands of Irish guerillas continued to attack Parliamentarian factions, though, and these former Confederate soldiers became known as Tories.

Only a few decades later, the term ‘Tory’ took on an English identity. The Whig party in England began using it as a derogatory name, due to its Papist and criminal association from the Irish rebels, for its opposing party the Royalists, also known as the Cavaliers.  During this time the Exclusion Bill was introduced, which sought to exclude the heir of King Charles II, his brother James the Duke of York, from succession due to his Roman Catholic beliefs and what his adversaries saw as his absolute monarchical rule.  It could be roughly summarized that those supporting Parliament’s supremacy and Protestantism were termed by their rivals the Whigs, which also had a negative connotation because it was derived from the word “whiggamor,” or cattle driver.  Those who believed in James’ monarchic legitimacy and favored, or at least tolerated, Catholicism, on the other hand, were in the Tory party.  King James II was, unfortunately for the Tories, overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Tories viewed the Whigs as radical reformers, while the Tories’ position could be summed up as “God, King, and Country.”

This maxim underwent an American twist less than a century later across the Atlantic at the battlegrounds of the American Revolution.  The definition of a Tory as a monarchic loyalist did not change, but the Tories’ new opposing constituents, in place of the Whigs, were the Patriots.  American Tories held that the British monarchy was still a legitimate authority, and they conservatively resisted making an abrupt break of independence from this older form of governance.  However, they were in the minority, at about twenty percent of the population, according to historian Robert Calhoon.  The Tories were often more passive than their Patriot counterparts, usually moving to action when there were British troops in the area to support them.  As we know full well, the Tories did not emerge on the victorious end of the Revolution, and while many stayed in the United States, many fled to British controlled regions, including modern-day Canada.

Over in Britain, the Tories had become a political power over the ensuing decades since the Glorious Revolution. They demonstrated respect for the Church of England and the monarchy, and reluctance to reform.  When Robert Peele, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the mid 1800s, came into power, he played a large role in shaping the future of the Tory party.  The term ‘Tory’ became associated with, and eventually superseded by, ‘Conservative’ under Peele’s influence.  This was in part due to a work he released called the Tamworth Manifesto, which laid down the basic principles of reserved reformation of what became the Conservative party.

Since that time, the word Tory continues to be colloquially used to refer to traditionalists and conservatives in the political sphere, particularly in England and Canada.  It no longer connects solely to a monarchic persuasion, but can be more broadly applied to proponents of established beliefs or institutions and cautious change.

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