April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
An Englishman re-examines certain stereotyped attitudes on the American Revolution
In one way an Englishman’s view of the Revolutionary War does not greatly differ from an American’s. Our historians, in the main, agree with yours that the American colonies were lost through the mistakes and obstinacy of George III and Lord North and that the whole episode, whether regarded politically or militarily, is one of the most depressing in British history.
It is at this point that the historians, and even more the ordinary readers, tend to part company. The Englishman, if he overcomes his reluctance to study the period at all, looks at it soberly and objectively and observes how hardly the imperial lesson was learned. Americans, on the other hand, very naturally regard the Revolution with the greatest enthusiasm as the starting point in a series of developments that led to the foundation of a federal republic unique in constitutional history, and to the remarkable political and economic expansion of the nineteenth century. The extraordinary later success of the United States, both in the economic and political sense, has to some extent led Americans to read their history backward and find in the Revolutionary War more signs and portents of a splendid future than were at that time apparent. This provides admirable material for July Fourth oratory, but stretches at places the fabric of history. After all, history is more than an ornamental garden, laid out with hindsight by teachers and historians; it is rather a jungle where living forces were once at work, and the reconstruction of this jungle is our real business if we wish to understand the past.
The first point that I want to suggest is that the conventional picture of the American colonists as a band of gallant pioneers oppressed by a tyrannous government in London is a true one only if looked at through the eyes of a nineteenth or twentieth century democrat. The eighteenth century could have no inkling that the course of history would dictate that colonies in general should become self-administering and finally independent; indeed it was the shock of the American Revolutionary War that first began to teach that lesson. The eighteenth century regarded colonies as existing for the benefit of the mother country, with which, of course, the well-being of the colonies themselves was identified. Adam Smith, no enemy of the colonists, was the classic proponent of this theory. It is sometimes overlooked that the mother country accepted restraints on her own trade or agriculture in the interests of the colony, even if these restraints were of a less onerous character. For example, tobacco growing, although possible, was forbidden in Britain. Foreign produce, which was shipped via Britain, was cheap in the colonies, as duty had been paid by the British taxpayer. Adam Smith commented: “Parliament, in attempting to exercise its supposed right of taxing the Colonies, has never hitherto demanded of them anything which even approached to a just proportion to what was paid by their fellow subjects at home.” To this very day, the British subject in the United Kingdom pays taxes at a much higher rate than any resident of the modern British colonies pays to his local administration.
Take next the question of defense. I quote again from Adam Smith: “Jf any of the provinces of the British Empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole Empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expense of defending those provinces in time of war …” The peace of 1763 had freed the colonists from the fear of attack by the French or Indians, and they naturally felt a greater degree of independence from the mother country. Jn Britain, however, the legacy of victory was a burden of debt and a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with the meager contribution, in men and money, that the colonists had made to their own defense. There was angry talk of contraband trade with the French in time of war. A particular grievance was that most colonies were reluctant even to provide adequate quarters for the British troops. This grievance had emerged even before the suspicion that the troops were more likely to be used against the colonists themselves.
When all this has been said, the fact remains that the British government acted with extraordinary stupidity. There was no settled policy of trying either to conciliate the colonists or to exert sufficient force to coerce them while it was still possible. The point I have tried to establish, however, is that the British acted within the framework of the accepted political and economic theory of the day and not out of some feeling of special animosity or desire to oppress the colonists. It is true that “no taxation without representation” was a political principle that many Britons had given their lives to affirm; but here again we are in danger of using hindsight in our interpretation of the word “representation.”
England in the eighteenth century was not a democracy; it was an oligarchy, in which no practical politician, however liberal, seriously considered that all men had an equal right to elect the government that ostensibly represented them. A say in the government of the country was the privilege of those whose ownership of property and contribution to its greatness justified their claim. From this point of view a rotten borough in the hand of a great landowner was a way of ensuring that his contribution to the political and economic life of the nation received its due weight.
In the age of the Whig oligarchy and the rotten borough, there was little to convince Englishmen that the American colonists were being unjustly treated by not being represented at Westminster. It is clear to us today; it was a very debatable point in the eighteenth century. As a matter of fart, the colonists themselves, except the Pennsylvanians, did not take a very liberal view of the franchise for a good many years after the Revolutionary War. The British have never been strong on political theory; they could hardly be expected to reali/e that across the Atlantic the doctrine of John Locke and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was believed more literally. Even less could they gaze into the future and divine that the course of the history of the next two centuries would vindicate the judgment of the American colonists. What they saw was a contumacious colony which paid less in taxes than they did, but would neither stand in arms to defend itself, nor pay for the mother country to do so.
Naturally the Americans objected to being taxed; we all do. They fought against the duties levied under the Sugar Act of 1764; the “non-importation” movement boycotted many English goods. The colonists objected even more strongly to an internal (that is, direct) tax, the Stamp Act of 1765, and justification for their position was found on constitutional grounds. The Townshend Acts then, in 1767, imposed a strong external (or indirect) tax, and this was resisted with equal, indeed memorable, vigor. What are we to say of the tea that was hurled into Boston Harbor? The tea had been exempted from the one shilling duty previously payable on transshipment in England and was taxed only threepence in the colonies. The same tea that cost an Englishman six shillings a pound cost the American only three. Yet John Adams wrote of the Boston Tea Party (1773): “Many persons wish that as many dead carcases were floating in the harbour as there are chests of tea.” This is not the language of an oppressed people; it is the language of aggressive independence.
The plain fact is that the colonists believed (and events proved them right) that they were fully capable of managing their own alfairs; they did not want any control, financial or otherwise. They were equally opposed to any restriction on the way in which they coloni/ed the American continent. They had been made deeply apprehensive by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which emphasized trade with the Indians and sought to protect them from the territorial encroachment of the whites. Eut the colonists themselves wished to coloni/e. Nobody had yet coined the phrase “manifest destiny,” but the idea was there. If Britain was opposed, then freedom from Britain must be achieved.
This determination of the colonists to be Jree was scarcely understood in Britain; indeed their rapidly growing capacity to determine their own fate was lamentably underestimated in London. This explains the failure of the British government either to prepare lor Avar or to make a settlement acceptable to the Americans. For it is probable that up to a very late hour a loose federation with George HI as titular sovereign would have been acceptable to the Americans, provided that it carried with it full self-government.
Meanwhile the British made no serious preparation. In 1774, at a time when General Thomas Gage in Boston was asking Tor twenty thousand men, there were actually reductions both in the Army and Navy. In 1775, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Lord Howe were given the incompatible functions of Commissioners of Conciliation as well as commanders in chief. Inevitably the attack was not vigorously pressed for fear of prejudicing the conciliation: this at a time when George Washington was complaining of the spirit of the men under his command and the totally insufficient arrangements for supplying them. In 1776, Sir Guy Carleton with superior numbers trapped the American forces that had invaded Canada, but deliberately allowed them to escape, believing that a display of magnanimity might show them, as he put it, that “the way to mercy is not yet shut.” Though the British were already making use of the Loyalists and the restless frontier Indians, who had long regarded the colonists as their principal enemy, the fighting continued to have some of the characteristics of a civil war; but this first phase was fast coming to an end. By July, 1776, German mercenaries were reaching New York in substantial numbers, and Teffcrson, busy with his draft of the Declaration ol independence, referred with horror to their coming.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Silas Dcanc—and Benjamin Franklin not long after—was negotiating with the old enemy, the Catholic King of France. Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, had a shrewd idea of what was going on, but could not intervene openly. A steady stream of French, German, and Swiss volunteers was crossing in French vessels to the support of the American forces, while French loans and shipments of arms kept the new republic going during the desperate winters of 1776—77 and 1777-78, the winter of Valley Forge. That winter, even after the American forces that had taken part in the defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga had joined Washington, the General estimated (in December, 1777) that he had only 8,200 fit men under his command. General Howe was unaccustomed, like all who learnt war in the European theater, to campaigning during the winter. He failed to realize that this was the decisive moment—before the French were Anally committed to open intervention. Nothing was done and, in effect, the war was lost. It was lost because the limited, colonial war had become a renewal of the worldwide war with France that had merely been suspended in 1763. The French had used the interval to build up their fleet, and they were now able to concentrate it in Atlantic waters. Fven before Spain with lier Navy joined the Franco-American alliance in 1779, the British had virtually lost command of the sea, and this was bound to prove fatal.
In the first place, it was proving more and more difficult to protect trade and transport men and supplies to the American theater of war. Before the official French intervention took place in 1778, the depredation of American privateers, operating mainly from French ports, had already cost Britain ^Go ships and losses equivalent to more than ^1,800,000 at rates then current. Jn 1777, stores that had left England in March did not reach Howe till the end of May, and the summer campaign did not begin till August. Secondly, for their mobility the British forces in America relied to a very great extent on transport by water. Only on rare occasions were they able to operate effectively more than fifteen miles from navigable water. Now all their movements were endangered. In 1778, when Glinton was evacuating Philadelphia, his entire army was almost intercepted at sea by a superior French fleet under D’Estaing. The sealing of Cornwallis’ escape routes by the French fleet under De Grasse in 1781 was only the culmination. The capitulation of Yorktown that followed had been written on the wall three years before, lor everyone but George III to see.
The retirement of General Howe in 1778 introduced a new handicap. While he was collaborating with his brother, Admiral Howe, relations between Army and Navy had been reasonably good. Afterward, however, old rivalries reasserted themselves. The British Navy was more interested in Rodney’s operations in the Caribbean than in transport duty off the American coast. Howe’s successor, General Clinton, quarreled with Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, who had taken up command of the Xorth American station in August, i'/yS. A British army ofScer bitterly observed of his brother naval officers: “They do not seem to think that saving the Army is an object of such material consequence.” Cornwallis showed an incapacity for combined operations. Significantly enough, he later proved himself a capable general duiirg the land struggle in India.
It is, of course, a truism that generals fight only as well as their opponents permit them to, and we must make every allowance for the genius of Washington, who not only kept his army together in the face of every difficulty but excelled in fighting the defensive war that circumstances imposed on him. He was one of the great leaders of irregular forces. Yet even so, the British generals were strangely inept. A contemporary commented: “This is an unpopular war and men of ability do not choose to risk their reputation.” A shrewd contemporary observer regarded Benedict Arnold, in command of British forces, as superior to the British generals. The latter had been trained in the European school of set maneuver and siege warfare. Even their rigid discipline put them at the mercy of an irregular force, in which every man was his own company commander, if not his own colonel. The heavy equipment of the regulars immobilixed them in the face of lightly equipped forces living off the land —their own land. The American terrain, thickly wooded and crisscrossed with streams and bogs, was unfamiliar to the British, and they failed notably to adapt themselves to it. Washington turned all these failings to good account.
What of the results of this internecine struggle? Jn the first place, of course, it welded the colonies into a union and equipped them with executive and legislative machinery and the means of defending themselves. This could have been accomplished so rapidly only under the pressure of war. The United States were now free not only to expand their commerce with any part of the world, but to populate the rich lands beyond the AHeghenies. In spite of a generous peace (i^8g), which astonished the French, relations with Britain did not fulfill the hopes of those in Britain who had always opposed exacerbation of the conflict. The War of 1812 reopened old wounds, and, as the nineteenth century continued, the scars still showed—more clearly perhaps in the United States than in the United Kingdom. I myself believe that some overemotional and unhistorical presentations of the struggle constituted a real hindrance to harmonious Anglo-American relations. It is for consideration whether, even today, a fresh look should not be taken at some of the history textbooks of our two countries.
However that may be, any British view of the Revolutionary War must take into account what future generations of British statesmen learnt from it. Admittedly a generous offer of self-government in iy?R, or even early in 1777, might conceivably have brought the war to an end while it could still be regarded as primarily a civil war; but the British did not formulate such an offer until too late. In February, iy/8, Lord North was prepared to renounce the right to tax the colonists and to give them virtual autonomy in their own affairs; but by then the Continental Congress was unanimous for independence, and in May, 1778, the treaty with France was ratified. George III had clung too long to the contemporary idea of empire and his own concept of where his royal duty lay. Even a loose commonwealth connection might not have survived the strains and stresses of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain’s blockade of Europe.
Leaving the field of speculation, we can l)e grateful that the American revolutionaries endowed with victory their great federal, republican experiment, without which the world would have . been immeasurably poorer. We can rejoice, too, that Britain’s failure in her first colonizing venture led thinking men to review the imperial relationship. (.Ann anyone doubt that anything less than defeat could have caused the abandonment of Adam Smith’s mercantile system, as applied to colonial territories? And but for this change of heart, the gradual transformation of a colonial empire into a commonwealth of self-governing, independent states could never have been accomplished.