The story of the American Revolution is integral to the psychology of today’s United States, though it has, in many respects, become just that, a story, and the foundations on which it has sprouted roots are made up of equal parts fact and, well, let’s say convenient omissions. For one, this was less a “revolution” than it was a civil war – English colonists were of course British citizens, but some 100,000 of those colonists fled the colonies for England when they saw which way the wind was blowing.
Then there is the matter of the lead up to the war, which is often presented in American history as a series of financially exploitative taxes, was a bit convoluted. The colonies were hardly an economic goldmine for Britain, though they were extremely valuable thanks to their agricultural production and their ability to check the expansion of the French and Spanish in North America. On the flip side, the British kept the colonies dependent on them for industrialization – for example, gunpowder. For those more familiar with the American Civil War, this was the version that crossed the Atlantic. And that all seems rather unfair, but the fact remains that all told, Britain didn’t derive much of a profit margin from North America when one considered the bureaucratic infrastructure and defense necessary to protecting the colonies.
Which brings us to another point worth considering – this was a civil war, yes, but it was also a World War in the sense that it wouldn’t have ended the way it did without the participation of the French. And none of this really tells the whole story until you consider the “French and Indian War” that began in 1754 and ran until 1763, just 12 years before violence broke out between the colonists and their overlords. Then, the colonies were struggling to defend themselves against French aggression, which combined with New France and Native American allies was formidable enough that the full might of Mother England was summoned forth.
From Britain’s perspective, they ensured the colonies’ protection in a protracted and costly war that required unpopular taxes back home and further investment in stronger defenses that accounted for the reality of the North American political landscape and the result of widening borders after winning the war. The burdensome taxes of the 1760s, then, were not just to wring more water from a dry cloth, but in fact to demand that the colonies begin playing a more active role in financing their own existence.
They were also in response to, well, colonists breaking the law. In order to fund the colonies, the British had relied on the Navigation Acts, which required that all trade between England and the colonies be carried on British ships, a law aimed primarily at the Dutch and which started its own little war a century earlier. Colonists had been circumventing this rule for years and the British response was limp at best – thus, when a crackdown was tried, outrage stemmed less from “right” than from what had become perverse tradition. The tax levies were a haggard attempt at a course correction in the eyes of the British – a compromise, if you will.
And then there is the matter of political representation which inspired the famous and oft-repeated, “No Taxation Without Representation,” which sounds lovely and very idealistic, but it was not a thing that existed. Not for the colonies, but also not for most of Britain either. That doesn’t change its merits, per se, but it’s worth acknowledging this was not a unique level of draconian authority inflected on territories, so much as the reality of the British Parliamentary system in the 18th century. The legislative process had not caught up with rising industrialization, which meant that while rural areas of England may well have a MP, the burgeoning cities of Manchester and Birmingham did not. Annoying perhaps, but it did not rise to the level of breaking from the crown “back home.”
So, why did it within the colonies? Well, it didn’t in one fell swoop. It took years of tension to reach the boiling point and even then, the idea of actually fighting for independence from Britain was anathema for many of who are now considered the “Founding Fathers.” It was an uphill battle with an uneasy future, if successful. And in Britain, it required an uptick in taxes on any number of everyday goods, garnering it considerable unpopularity from the middle and lower-classes. To many, the colonists were ungrateful, not worth the ROI and good riddance to them.
It was a view definitely not shared by George III, particularly once the French became involved. What 18th century monarch would allow the expanse of his power to be chipped away? What leader does without some sort of fight? The British lost, of course – between the combined forces of the colonists and the French, a growing North American population and the logistical challenge of ferrying orders on a two-month delay (not quite the way to be nimble), Parliament ordered a cessation to offensive operations early in 1782 after the defeat of Yorktown in the autumn of 1781.
King George responded by writing up a writ of abdication:
“His Majesty is convinced that the sudden change of sentiments of one branch of the legislature has totally incapacitated him from either conducting the war with effect or from obtaining any peace but on conditions which would prove destructive to the commerce as well as the essential rights of the British nation.
“His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.”
Dramatic. He didn’t end up sending it.
But consider, too, the bemusement for many across the pond that a country that prided itself on liberty guarded an economy built on the backs of slaves. To be clear, there is no defense of imperialism – the problem is, the colonists were less the victims of it than the beneficiaries. Alas, the moral high ground remains so elusive in history.