Like most Americans, my knowledge of the Revolutionary War is spotty. The Stamp Act, the Boston Tea Party, one if by land, two if by sea. The minutemen. Lexington and Concord. The “shot heard round the world”. Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, Washington crossing the Delaware. Later we got the Constitution.
I didn’t realize the Revolutionary War lasted eight years. The Civil War only lasted four, but it’s sucked up most of the historical oxygen, along with World War 2. I did know that Washington was going to New Jersey when he crossed the Delaware River and that the Continental Army had terrible winters at Jockey Hollow, south of Morristown, even a winter that was worse than Valley Forge’s.
Reading An Empire on the Edge was helpful, therefore. The book covers events leading up to the war in great detail, sometimes in more detail than I needed. The author begins with the state of the American colonies after the French and Indian War (known elsewhere as the Seven Years War) and concludes with the British government having finally decided it’s necessary to use force to put down the rebellion in Massachusetts in 1775.
What really surprised me was the highly complicated, years-long series of events in both America and Great Britain that preceded the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord in 1775. If there is one event that marked the beginning of the conflict, it was the Stamp Act, parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies by requiring printed materials to be produced on embossed paper made in London. That means there were ten years of escalating tensions, with the Americans resisting parliament’s efforts to make laws for the colonies and the British government convinced that parliament had the authority to do so. There were acts of violence on both sides, but mainly there was a lot of discussion: speeches, newspaper articles, pamphlets, meetings and personal diplomacy. All that talk eventually led parliament to declare Massachusetts in open rebellion and initiate a military response.
The author emphasizes throughout that, even so, the British government paid as little attention as possible to what was happening in the colonies. The government’s representatives in the colonies did a poor job informing London, while London was usually much more interested in events far from America. He sees the basic problem, however, as the inability of British aristocrats to understand the American point of view:
The crisis that led to the revolution in America had many causes, and ranking high among them was the narrowness of vision that afflicted [British prime minister Lord North] and his colleagues. . . . They found the rebels in America unthinkable. Nothing in rural Oxfordshire could prepare Lord North for an encounter, at a distance of three thousand miles, with men like . . . Ethan Allen of Vermont. For radicals like . . . Allen, the tenant was the equal of his landlord or even his moral superior; they would never pay a tithe to please a vicar or doff their hat in the street as he walked by . . .
Perhaps the deepest divide of all was the one that separated Lord North from John Hancock. In the eyes of the king and his ministers, a Bostonian so wealthy had a duty to defend the status quo. . . .At best the man was deeply ungrateful, while at worse he was a traitor. . .
A man with origins like those of Frederick North could never understand an enemy of Hancock’s kind. Nor could he be creative in response to the challenge that the colonies threw down. The very qualities George III liked best about him — his devotion to his church, to his king and to the landed gentry — were precisely those that rendered North incapable of governing America. . . . [368-69].
The war had been long in the making, the product of an empire and a system deeply flawed, the work of ignorance and prejudices and of men well-meaning but the prisoners of ideas that were obsolete and empty. “You cannot force a form of government upon a people”, the Duke of Richmond had said in the House of Lords . . . but although the radical duke would be proved right, it would take long years of fighting before the nation could admit that this was so .
It was never going to be as easy for Great Britain to rule over its American colonies the way it did over a country like India. The Americans believed they should be accorded the same rights as proper Englishmen. However, I came away from An Empire on the Edge feeling some sympathy for the British. I’m an American, but the Americans of the 1770s seem to have been a cantankerous lot, too ready to see looming tyranny.
Not much has changed in 250 years.