University of Virginia at Oxford University August 9 – 15, 2013
U.Va.’s Lifetime Learning Program offers you the opportunity to spend a week at Oxford University. Enjoy this educational experience with two renowned Revolutionary War scholars, Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Jeremy Black. Learn more about U.Va. at Oxford.
(Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello)
This is a commentary on the following book entry:
“American War of Independence (1775-1783)”
by Stephen Conway
Stephen Conway is a leading British historian of the American Revolution. He is an appropriate successor to his former supervisor I.R. Christie at London University. His major work on the subject is entitled The British Isles and the War of American Independence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) which assesses the impact of the Revolutionary War on Britain. He is also the author of a much to be recommended history of the war, The War of American Independence 1775-1783 (London: Edward Arnold, 1995). In addition, he has written numerous articles which particularly relate to the British army in America. Indeed, he is unusual in his focus upon the war and the military dimension but in the social and political context. John Shy has long lamented the failure of modern scholars to integrate the war into accounts of the American Revolution.
It is possibly because of his broader knowledge of the British background to the Revolutionary War that Professor Conway gives such emphasis to the international aspects of the Revolutionary War. In the article under review, he also stresses the importance of this dimension in the causation of the American Revolution. He acknowledges that the origins of the war were multiple and long term, but he gives particular prominence to the role of the Seven Years’ War in Europe (1756-63) which also encompassed the French and Indian War in America. It increased the national debt in Britain and crucially influenced the decision of Britain to tax America. Conway also reminds us that the Seven Years’ War left Britain isolated in Europe. He makes a rare observation that the war was responsible for a realignment of Dutch sympathies during the Revolutionary War. The consequence was that Britain was more isolated during the Revolutionary War than at virtually any time in its history other than 1940 which is a theme of Brendan Simms’ recent book, Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire 1714-1783 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), which is listed in the further reading suggested by Professor Conway.
It is worth adding that this isolation was a factor in the war even before 1778, when it became a global struggle with France, and later Spain (1779) and the Dutch Republic (1780). Along with the constraints of the budget, it was a factor in the failure of Britain to fully mobilize its military forces in 1775. It wanted to ally French concerns that the war in America was merely a prelude to a British attack on the French West Indies. Before its formal entry into the war in 1778, France made direct loans to the revolutionary cause, it exported military supplies and protected privateers in its ports. France and Spain were able to concentrate on a naval build up in the absence of fighting a British ally in Europe. For virtually the only time in the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy lacked parity with the combined fleets of France and Spain. Even before 1778, the British navy was too small to give logistical support to the army, suppress privateers, provide convoys for all trade routes and blockade America. After 1778, it was forced to make invidious choices between America and the protection of Britain which was threatened with invasion for the first time since the Spanish Armada (1588) every summer between 1778 and 1781.
The chief architect of the war in Britain was Lord George Germain who was the Secretary of the American Department in 1775-1782. He is the most popular target of blame for British defeat. Like Piers Mackesy, Conway argues that Germain should not be underestimated. He succeeded in sending the largest force hitherto sent overseas to America and Canada in 1776. It required virtually the entire shipping availability of the British Isles. He sent more troops than requested by either of his generals, Sir Guy Carleton in Canada or Sir William Howe in America. He recognized the need for a quick victory and a knockout blow to the Continental Army. It is the strategy that arm chair generals have retrospectively suggested might have resulted in a British victory in America. His generals attempted to appease opinion in America which Germain blamed for the failure of the campaigns in 1776. Germain held Carleton rather than Howe chiefly responsible for the setbacks at Trenton and Princeton owing to his not proceeding with the advance from Canada which Germain thought would have deflected and divided the Continental Army.
Conway concedes that Germain exaggerated the strength of American loyalism. This was indeed a fundamental weakness in British strategic assumptions in America. It was based seemingly on good sources including the testimonies of American loyalist exiles like Joseph Galloway. Although much is made of the confusion of orders in 1777, assumptions about loyalist support were basic to the British defeat at Saratoga. Burgoyne expected little opposition between Fort Ticonderoga and Albany. Howe was similarly expecting little opposition in Pennsylvania. Germain thought it possible for both generals to achieve their objects before the proposed junction of their armies. He was more concerned about Howe needing to be reinforced and helped by Burgoyne. After 1778, Germain persisted in the belief that the majority of the population in America supported Britain. His view was challenged by the opposition parties in Britain and the testimonies of numerous officers in Parliament during the hearings that followed Saratoga. By 1781, Germain was placing his hopes in the more realistic idea that the revolution would simply implode owing to bankruptcy and dissent. Along with George III, Germain thought that there was little choice but to persist in the war because the loss of America would leave Britain a secondary power in Europe. It was too economically important to lose.
Conway has elsewhere developed other secondary arguments explaining the British defeat.1 He has that the very presence of the British army alienated potential support in America. He has described how it was increasingly perceived as a foreign force and that both sides began to regard each other as foreign. He has similarly discussed the problems of plunder by the British army in America. The British generals ultimately understood that it was a war of opinion. Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief between 1778 and 1782, actually wrote of the need “to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America.” John Shy regarded the Revolutionary War as Britain’s Vietnam. He argued that enforced militia service formed the political education of many Americans. It was an important means of persuasion.
Britain had an army of conquest rather than an army of occupation. It took every major American city at some stage during the Revolutionary War. It failed when it attempted to take territory when its army was necessarily spread out. They did not have enough troops to overcome the insurgencies led by leaders who are now folk heroes like Marion Fox and Thomas Sumter. The revolution was popular. Even be fore the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Britain had effectively lost political control of the elected assemblies, local government, militia and courts. With the withdrawal from Boston in March 1776, the British army was driven out of the thirteen mainland states of America. It was thereafter a war of reconquest whose chances of success were made less likely by a political system that mitigated against a united war effort, without a clear concept of collective cabinet responsibility, and a primitive administrative system which was overwhelmed by the logistical demands of the war in which most of the supplies for the army had to be sent from Britain because of the failure to gain territory in America.
After the British defeat at Yorktown (1781), George III and Lord George Germain wanted to continue the war which was militarily feasible. The British army still held New York, Charleston, Montreal, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Savannah, St. Augustine, Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados and the Leeward Islands. As Conway suggests, the war ultimately fell victim to the opposition in Parliament. Lord North resigned rather than suffer a major defeat in the House of Commons. As I.R. Christie demonstrated in his book on the end of the government of Lord North, the government had numerous defections among independent members and even office holders when it became clear that Lord North was unable to give an unequivocal commitment to withdrawal from America.
1 To Sudue America: British Army Officers and the Conduct of the Revolutionary War,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 48, no. 3 (July, 1986), pp. 381-408; ibid., “’The Great Mischief Complain’d of” Reflections of the Misconduct of British Soldiers in the Re volutionary
War,” The William and Mary Quarterly 47, no. 3 (July, 1990), pp. 370-391; ibid.,
“From Fellow-Nationals to Foreigners: British Perceptions of the Americans, Circa 1739-1783,”
The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 61, no. 1 (January, 2002), pp. 65-101.