Thursday, November 21, 2013

What We're Reading: New History

"For if America should grow into a separate empire it must of course cause....a revolution in the political system of the world." 
                                                                          --speech of Lord North, November 20, 1778
The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, The American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

This is my favorite history book published this year, a heroically researched work of scholarship on the American Revolution as it was experienced from the British side of the conflict, told through a series of incisive portraits of the major British officials and military leaders who struggled to retain the American colonies for the British Empire. The history of a conflict tends to be written by the victors, and the story of the American Revolution has become an important part of the mythology of the nation’s founding. Most of what has been written about the American Revolution has been written by Americans and has focused almost exclusively on events in the colonies. On the other hand, a national defeat is never a popular subject with native historians, and indeed the American Revolution has not been a frequent focus of British historical scholarship. So the territory Andrew O’Shaughnessy explores here is something uncommon, fresh, and highly engaging.

Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy
It would rather miss the point to think of The Men Who Lost America as revisionist history. It is true that O’Shaughnessy wishes to correct some popular notions about the conflict: that there was something geopolitically fated or historically inevitable about American independence; or that the loss of the colonies was the result of bungling and incompetence by British political leaders and military officers. His true objective, however, seems to be to broaden and round out our view, to make us aware of the political, tactical and strategic complexities of the Revolution, rather than to dismiss out of hand some of our favored assumptions. The idea that the outcome of the Revolution was fated was a popular argument of American propaganda and political rhetoric during the Revolution. In an address to the people of England, Thomas Paine wrote, “Your failure is, I am persuaded, as certain as fate. America is above your reach...her independence neither rests upon your consent, nor can it be prevented by your arms. In short, you spend your substance in vain, and impoverish yourself without hope.”

There were good reasons, not the least being the gallows, for Revolutionary leaders to convince their fellow citizens that there was no going back. It was a conviction rooted in fate that was intended to inspire patriots and dispirit loyalists. As an historical explanation, however, it is a perspective that (as O’Shaughnessy argues) tends to diminish the achievement of those who waged the struggle for independence. So does the idea that British miscalculation and bungling was primarily responsible for the outcome, a verdict offered as an explanation for the apparent anomaly of a great economic and military power losing a conflict against a weaker force that it greatly outmatched. The Men Who Lost America gives us a more complex and sympathetic understanding of the challenges that Britain faced in keeping its colonies in America, one that challenges these traditional views. In the process we learn something about what can go wrong in the nature of decision-making in a great political power and, more importantly, something about the limits of military power in achieving political ends.

George III. Portrait by Johann Zoffany, 1771.
This book comprises a series of adept portraits of the major British statesmen and generals who were responsible for the prosecution of the war to retain the British colonies in America, individuals whom, if we know of them at all, exist in our collective memory largely as caricatures from our school days: King George III, Lord North, The Howe Brothers (General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe). General John Burgoyne, Lord George Germain, General Sir Henry Clinton, Charles the Earl Cornwallis, Admiral Sir George Rodney, and John Montagu (the fourth Earl of Sandwich and first Lord of the Admiralty). But The Men Who Lost America is not a miscellany. Unlike many books that approach a story through biographical sketches, this is not a compilation of individual studies done over the course of a scholar’s career. O’Shaughnessy has made a deliberate choice to tell the story of British leadership during the American Revolution in this manner.

The form he has chosen supports one of his major themes: British policy in America was conducted by a small number of individuals who wielded enormous independent authority and presided over discrete administrative domains or largely independent commands. The British cabinet as an executive tool, in contrast to its later development as a cohesive governing body, was at the time of the American Revolution an often confused and divided political amalgamation in which those holding ministerial positions worked autonomously and often at cross purposes to each other. In military matters, the lines between politics and command were often confusing. For example, both General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard Howe were members of Parliament. Their portfolio upon being sent to repress the rebellion in America included both diplomatic responsibilities and military command. The charge to both negotiate reconciliation and also conduct a war resulted in vacillation and hesitation that contributed to General Howe missing (in the New York campaign) what was probably the best opportunity the British were to have of defeating Washington’s army. And rival British commanders in America often pursued their own agenda: Howe and Burgoyne failed to support each other, which resulted in the disastrous defeat of Burgoyne at Saratoga; Cornwallis took risks of which his ostensible British commander, Henry Clinton, was wary; and Admiral Rodney failed to confront the French navy in the Chesapeake off Yorktown. O’Shaugnessy’s impressive achievement here is to look at the problems each individual faced, to understand the implications of personal character on their decisions, to explore the extent and limits of their resources and sometimes conflicting agendas, and then to integrate these into a picture of interaction among the principals that gives us a sense of the daunting range of challenges the British faced in trying to subdue the rebellion.

John Burgoyne. Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1766.
In addition to the fundamental structural defects of command and the weakness of the nation’s executive functions, the British were plagued by the monumental logistical problems of transporting and maintaining a sizeable army an ocean away, to say nothing of the long communication lag of months between those fighting the war in the Colonies and those prosecuting the war in London. The troops who were committed were never enough to hold and occupy the vast expanse of the Colonies (and supplementing the army with foreign troops and native Americans cost the British dearly in the propaganda war). But perhaps more critically, this was never the task their political or military leaders thought they were going to confront. There was a widespread belief in England that the American Revolution was being fomented by a minority of the colonial population and that the rebellion was confined to particular geographical hotbeds of insurrection. The large loyalist following that was imagined to exist never materialized, to a large degree because the Revolution was in fact widely popular among the colonists, but also because British troop strength was never large enough to leave behind supporting troops after a successful action. Local loyalists were subject to reprisals for support of the Crown once the main body of the British army moved on to its next objective.

John Montagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich.
Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783.
The most interesting portraits in The Men Who Lost America are perhaps those of Admiral Rodney and Lord Sandwich (first Lord of the Admiralty) because after the American Revolution became a global conflict, with France and Spain joining the fray, the role of the British navy became determinate. In the chapter on Lord Sandwich, O’Shaugnessy’s analysis of the state of the British navy is simply remarkable for its detail. He has facts about the number and condition of ships in the fleet and about the practical and financial challenges to ship replacement that present information one would have thought either never existed or would have been lost to history. There were powerful members of Parliament who had a financial stake in Britain defending its lucrative possessions in the West Indies from the French and Spanish, and both army and naval resources were syphoned off from the fight on the American mainland in order to do this. As the author writes, “The overextension of the fleet was the undoing of the British war in America. It led directly to the defeat of the Chesapeake Capes and the entrapment of Cornwallis at Yorktown.” It is doubtful that the British army could have won in the end what became a war of attrition on the American Continent, but such a victory became nearly impossible after it found itself in a wider war with the major European powers. Even if they never fully understood how or when they had lost the hearts and minds of their American colonists, Great Britain came to understand the strategic importance of developing British naval superiority, and the experience set the nation on a course in which it would dominate the seas for the next century and a half in order to defend its island and maintain its far-flung empire.

The Men Who Lost America is a title in the Lewis Walpole series in Eighteenth Century Culture and History published by Yale University Press and, like all the books published by Yale, this is a beautifully produced book that honors the scholarship. It is replete with full color reproductions of portraits that depict the principal characters, glorious paintings from the great age of British portraiture (some featured here).

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis. Painting by John Trumbull, 1797.

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