1776: A British Perspective

Fascinating. That’s what I thought as I read Niall Ferguson’s Empire. It traces the course of the British Empire from Hernry VIII’s declaring himself King of Ireland in 1541 though the destruction of the British economy in WWII and their eventual loss of the ‘Jewel’ of the Empire, India. A well written book. It’s also beautifully illustrated in the hardbound edition. Ferguson tackles history by subject, so the book is only roughly chronological from chapter to chapter.

What truly amazed me, though, was the British historical perspective on the American Revolution. Here’re a few interesting excerpts.

The war is at the very heart of American’s conception of themselves: the idea of a struggle for liberty against an evil empire is the country’s creation myth. But it is the great paradox of the American Revolution… that the ones who revolted against British rule were the best-off of all Britain’s colonial subjects. There is good reason to think, by the 1770’s, New Englanders were about the wealthiest people in the world. Per capita income was at least equal to that in the United Kingdom and was more evenly distributed. The New Englanders had bigger farms, bigger families and better educations than the Old Englanders back home. And, crucially, they paid far less tax. In 1763 the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes. The equivalent figure for a Massachusetts taxpayer was just one shilling.

How’s that for a revelation? “No taxation without representation!” What taxation? Then there’s this:

Just twenty years before the ‘battle’ of Lexington, the American settlers had proved their loyalty to the British Empire by turning out in tens of thousands to fight against the French and their Indian allies in the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War). Indeed, the first shot in that war had been fired by a young colonist named George Washington.

I’ll be damned. I never knew that! He also talks about the ongoing struggle between France and Britain for control of North America and the crucial part the French played in defeating the British colonial army. I new a little of this (OK, all I knew was that General La Fayette helped out), but I never realized it was the combination of the American rebel army and the French navy that checkmated the Brits. One last excerpt worth noting here:

It is also worth remembering that in economic terms the (North American) continental colonies remained of far less importance than those of the Carribean. They were in fact heavily dependent on trade with Britain and it was not an unreasonable assumption that regardless of political arrangements they would remain so for the foreseeable future. With hindsight we know that to lose the United States was to lose a very large slice of the worlds economic future. But at the time the short term costs of reimposing British authority in the thirteen colonies looked considerably larger than the short term benefits of doing so.

One could make a comparison to the short-term and long-term benefits of staying the course in Iraq. I wouldn’t make that comparison. Of course not. Not me.

19 thoughts on “1776: A British Perspective”

  1. I too read the Ferguson book and thought it was very good, as all his books tend to be.

    Ferguson is being a little bit disingenuous about the run-up to the revolution. I had a comment on this post about the taxation issue:

    the point was not the amount of the taxes. In fact, keeping the amount small was a trick by the British. The point was, who governs the people? Do they govern themselves under their own charter and laws, as they had for over a century, or would the the British King-in-parliament govern them as subjects? The old yankess knew better than to go to war over a few pennies. They also knew that a principle submitted to for a few pennies would soon be a very costly noose around their necks. They choose to fight on the principle, rather than submit, even for a penny.

    Also, many people in Britain feared that the total defeat of French power in North America would do exactly what it did — eliminate any need on the part of the colonists for British protection, which would in turn make them want to be independent.

    If you are interested in the British view of the war, the book to read is Piers Mackesy’s The War for America. It is dense, but it gives you a great feel for what it was like to try to run a global war in the age before radio or motorized transport. The absolute centrality of the French effort to the British defeat in North America is very clear. In fact, from London’s perspective, once France got involved, North America became a secondary front. The main threat was to the extremely valuable West Indian colonies, plus the remote but worrisome danger of a French invasion of Britain itself.

  2. First, thanks for the pointer on Mackesy’s book. I’ll look into it. I’m reading my way through Rudyard Kipling right now though, thanks in part Ferguson’s book. ;)

    The point was, who governs the people? Do they govern themselves under their own charter and laws, as they had for over a century, or would the the British King-in-parliament govern them as subjects?

    My oldest daughter and I had this very discussion yesterday! We both agreed the revolution was motivated more by political ideology than economics. We also discussed the effect that British Common Law and economic principles had on the emerging United States. Yeah, she said, but they didn’t have anything like the Bill of Rights, did they? Good Point. Although it seemed like an afterthought, even to Americans. How differently would the United States have evolved without it? It’s a stunning question in its implications.

  3. The American revolutionaries were absolutely motivated by principle. They were wealthy men with a lot to lose, and many lost everything. The idea that any narrow economic calculus led to the Revolution is simply not sustainable on the facts.

    Also, they did, absolutely, already have a Bill of Rights! All Englishmen, on both sides of the Atlantic knew that. The whole reason our first ten Amendments are called a Bill of Rights (not an obvious name, when you think about it) is that the people who insisted on these amendments were intentionally harking back to the Bill of Rights of 1689. This was imposed by Parliament on William of Orange, basically as a quid pro quo for making him King, and he had to swear to uphold it. But note that this Bill of Rights was only a memorialization of rights which had existed from time immemorial, or so the drafters claimed. Some of our own Bill of Rights is taken word for word from the original (right to petition, no excessive bail, etc.) The equivalent of our Second Amendment is fascinating: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.”

  4. Interestingly Adam Smith wrote some articles on the long and short term consequences of resisting the revolution – and argued that is was not in Britains long term interest to fight since the gains from future trade exceeded the potential tax revenues that could be raised in the us colonies.

  5. Well, taxes may have been low, but the prices of things were higher than necessary because of British mercantilist policies. And a native economic industrial base was being stifled under the same system. You had to buy British, that was the macroeconomic motivation for the wealthy revolutionaries.

    In 20/20 hindsight I think the Crown should have granted the colonies some seats in Parliament and permitted local industry to develop. Oh well!

  6. –plus the remote but worrisome danger of a French invasion of Britain itself.–

    Wasn’t so remote, it’s in John Adams’ bio.

    Of course, I’m ignorant on this, but it seems the frogs were late (gee, where have I heard that complaint before) because they were fighting the lobsterbacks in the Caribbean, IIRC.

  7. An invasion was possible, but it was a very high risk play. 18th Century governments avoided high risk plays. They like to win a few notable victories, and pick a few islands or provinces at the peace negotiations. But, I do not downplay how worried the British were about it, nor does Mackesy. There were moments when it looked like the French might try it.

  8. The American colonies had somewhat the same relationship to Britian before the revolution that Canada does to the US, or New Zealand does to Australia today, that is, a free rider to some degree or another in terms of defense spending.

    However the key issues were the question of whether the colonial charters were changable at will by Parliament (the Crown’s position) or constituted entrenched treaties that could only be changed by mutual consent (the colonial position; secondarily, or the mercantilist restrictions on the American economy. Both might have been resolved by negotiation (Franklin tried very hard to do so) but the British system of that era was too inflexible to make it work.

  9. If you’re interested in looking at the Revolutionary War from the British perspective, I’d recommend “Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution as Seen Through British Eyes” by Michael Pearson. Da Capo Press published a decent quality paperback edition in 2000; the original copyright is 1972. I found a copy of the paperback in a used book store for 10 bucks a few years back. 446 pp., including index. It’s a bit dry in places, but quite enlightening in others.

  10. Kevin Phillips wrote a fabulous book called “Cousins Wars,” the main thesis of which is that the English Civil War, The American Revolution, and The American Civil War can all be linked in the evolution of political thought among English speaking people and shows a close relationship in the political evolution both in the U.S. and in Britain. It also provides a fascinating look at how settlement patterns accross the Continental U.S. may have an effect on the political leanings of certain midwestern and western states today. It is also a great read.
    The ideas that Mr. Phillips espouses first lead me to consider the idea of a common “English” culture along the lines of the Anglosphere that Mr. Bennet has so eloquently written of.

  11. Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples gives a similar holistic view of Anglo-American relations through the 17th-19th centuries. It’s a good overview that’s quite a pleasure to read, plus its chock-full of those delicious Churchillisms that we all love so well. Anyone who hasn’t read it should do so.

    There’s older 4-volume editions floating around used bookstores, and a single volume truncated version released recently by his grandson.

    There are a fascinating number of cultural threads that flow from the age Cromwell all the way to the US civil war, affecting vast amounts of our legal, political, and cultural life here in America. It’s a topic that could fill many, many books.

  12. I have been hesitant to read Phillips book because I find him a shameless partisan attack dog who through coincidences I don’t quite understand has gotten the word “Republican strategist” permanently added to the front of his name to give him some kind of false partisan immunity to assault conservatives at will without being viewed as a Democratic shill. He may have been a Republican at one time in the distant future, but my impression of him when I have seen his writing and his appearances on TV is that he is a pure northeastern bed wetting liberal. In the reviews I have seen the US Civil War is not mentioned much, which means he probably has presented the non-controversial official story of slaveowners vs. abolitists with the politically correct assignations of who the “good-guys” were and who the “bad guys” were (or there would have been a huge stink over the book). The book looks tantalizingly as a good first attempt at correcting this unfortunate over-simplification of history, but I have no interest in reading another simplistic pure good (North) vs. pure evil (South) account. I can find 100,000 of those books anywhere.

    Correct me if I’m wrong on any of this, and I’ll read his book.

  13. A fascinating contemporary take on the American Revolution is Edmund Burke’s March 1775 speech on conciliation with the colonies. Among others, Burke makes two essential points. (1) The Americans are the most zealous defenders of individual liberties in the world, thanks largely to the traditions of English law and (2) the value of British control North America is not the power to collect taxes but the economic advantage of what is, in effect, a free trade zone consisting of colony and mother country.

  14. DSpears, the Philips book is terrific, too disorganized too be called a masterpiece, but brilliant and full of facts and insights you get nowhere else. It is a valuable companion to Albion’s Seed, except it covers both sides of the Atlantic and a longer time period, but does not delve as deeply into cultural practices.

    Anyway, why go off on a big rant about what he probably said about the civil war or whatever when you don’t know anything about the book? Dude, chill. Trust me on this one. The book is good. You’ll learn things. Go get it.

  15. DSpears, after I had read his book I’ve heard Phillips many times on the radio and yes, he is pretty partisan, but that is not in his book. Lex is right in that it is partially disorganized (it’s all facinating, but some of the material belongs in a different tome). Read the book.

    Mike, any suggestions on where to find that Burke speach?

  16. Not ranting. I’m just trying skip to the last page and see what the ending is. From reviews I’ve read it seems to confirm a lot of things I already know, but since there seemed to be so little controversy invoked by the book I suspect I might be disappointed. 600 pages is a lot to read to be disappointed.

  17. An excellent book about the lead-up to the American Revolution is Fred Anderson’s “Crucible of War”, mainly on the French and Indian War. One of the key insights you get from the book is that the main underlying conflicts was that the colonists considered themselves Englishmen, and entitled to the rights of Englishmen, as developed over centuries and formalized in the Bill of Rights of 1689. They were upset that the king and Parliament were basically treating them like Frenchman. It was only after this argument failed repeatedly that they started with the “universal” arguments.

    The other striking thing was that for the Americans, it really was about the principles, and not the money. And the British could never understand this (Pitt was virtually the only exception). Both in the case of raising men for the war, and then the taxes to pay for it afterwards, the issue for the Americans was in having a say, not in the manpower numbers or the amount of tax.

    Finally, the story of how “prisoner abuse” (actually murder and mutilation) under George Washington’s command started a world war is very striking, especially considering recent events.

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