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.