Thursday, November 06, 2014

What We're Reading: New History

An Empire on the Edge:
How Britain Came to Fight America,
by Nick Bunker

In the writing of American history, the American Revolution--the nation’s founding myth--has been the subject most resistant to revisionist interpretation. The story is our most sacrosanct one, and while historical scholarship has produced endless retellings and elaborations, our righteous disdain of George III and the British imperial power has remained, after all these years, much the same in historical memory (and rhetoric) as those of our most eloquent rebels. This is perhaps not surprising. An Empire on the Edge, along with The Men Who Lost America (reviewed in this blog last year) while not necessarily revisionist history (they are notably fair-minded and non-partisan) give us a view of the conflict from the British perspective. We get a broader look at the political decision-making, economic influences, and military complexity of the conflict than we ever got as school children. These books complement each other perfectly. Bunker’s book looks at the crucial three years before Lexington and Concord that led up to the outbreak of hostilities. The Men Who Lost America focuses on the conduct of the war itself and the British politicians and commanders involved both on the North American continent and in London. 

An etching by Irish artist John Dixon printed in 1774,
in which the image of a horse having thrown off his rider
on the road between Boston and Salem is used to
symbolize the growing American rebellion.
Bunker’s most original contribution in this book is the picture he gives us of the economic foundations of the British Empire during this period. He tells us about the rampant financial speculation in 18th-century Britain and how this contributed to the American crisis, particularly the British government’s intervention to rescue the East India Company. Britain viewed its economic relationship with its American colonies as one in which the colonies were to serve as a market for British manufactured goods. This necessarily limited the economic prosperity of the colonies, since the development of nascent American manufacturing was constrained by the terms of trade Britain imposed. The agricultural resources of the colonies were exported and exchanged at Britain’s advantage for imports of British goods to the colonies. Britain also tried to limit the geographical expansion of the colonies into the Ohio territory, a matter that curtailed agricultural opportunities for colonists who found productive land in established colonies priced at a premium. Ostensibly, this policy was to prevent conflicts with Indian tribes in the west, conflicts that Britain might have to deploy troops to resolve. But Britain also felt that it could better maintain political and economic control of the colonies by limiting colonization to the Atlantic seaboard.

Portrait of the Earl of Dartmouth by Nathanial Hone, 1777.
Dartmouth was an interesting leader who was inclined to 
temporize with the colonists, but after Parliament voted for
sanctions against Boston, he supported the rest of the cabinet
and was the one who sent the directives for implementing the
harsh sanctions to Massachusetts governor General Thomas Gage.
Portrait of Lord North by Nathanial Dance, 1774.
North was an adept coalition builder and skillful in managing
his majority and getting his approval for his initiatives
in Parliament. He also had a good relationship with the king.
Historians have faulted him, however, for not understanding
the larger strategic situation or fully comprehending the
larger and long-term ramifications of his policy choices.

In addition to the fundamental and ongoing aggravation of this economic relationship, the crisis in America resulted from a profound disagreement between the colonies and Britain about their political relationship to the “mother” country. This came into sharper focus as Britain made more concerted efforts to tax the colonies in an effort to defray its costs of administration and military defense of the colonies. Britain never expected taxation would raise more than a fraction of that cost, but insisted nevertheless on the responsibility of the colonies to bear a portion of the British government’s expenses. The colonies denied the right of Britain to make laws for them, arguing that their original charters (and indeed the history and political traditions of practice in the colonies) made it clear that laws and tax duties were to be promulgated by local legislative bodies in the colonies. The Crown and Parliament on the other hand, insisted absolutely on the right to make laws and impose duties on the colonies even though they were not represented in Parliament. There seemed to be no understanding in Britain of the democratic political traditions or the particular concept of “liberty” that had been allowed to develop and flourish in the colonies. As Bunker observes, “An English country parish in the 1770s bore not the slightest resemblance to a township in the colonies.”


A color engraving of the Boston Tea Party published in London in 1789
in W.D. Cooper’s History of North America
These economic and political issues fused and came to a head famously in what has come to be viewed, with good reason, as the watershed event leading up to the American armed rebellion: the Boston Tea Party. The East India Company, through wild speculation, miscalculation, and oversupply, found itself unable to pay its enormous debts. It was, the British government decided, too big to fail. Lord North and his government came up with the idea of selling the surplus tea to the colonies as a means of bailing out the East India Company. But the sale would also have a political dimension: It would be used as a weapon to reassert Britain’s right to tax the colonies. The tea would be sold directly to the colonies at a very low price, which would have the additional advantage of destroying the market in “illegal” tea for America smugglers (which was a huge business) but it would carry with it a duty payable to the Crown. In addition to this, the revenues from the duty would be used to pay the salaries of judges in the colonies, an attempt to reassert the political control that had been lost by judges being beholden to colonial legislatures for payment of their salaries. The nature of this challenge was not lost on the colonists in Boston. North and his government, riding their victories in Parliament over the sanctions that were to be imposed on Boston, and seeing the opportunity to exploit their strong majorities in Parliament, took further measures, however, that many historians consider serious miscalculations. They passed in Parliament the Quebec Act, which had provisions limiting colonial westward expansion, and also took administrative steps that would in effect revoke the Massachusetts Charter in an effort to reestablish administrative control of the colony. Both of these actions alarmed the other colonies and served to unite them in opposition to the Crown.

Portrait of King George III by Johann Zoffany, 1771.
George III often displayed a remarkable command of details concerning events
in the colonies, but seemed to miss the larger picture. He never believed that
war would come and he didn’t realize that by the time the Revolution broke out
he had already lost the hearts and minds of so many of his American subjects.
Bunker is good at giving us a broad context for the unfolding of the crisis by explaining significant turning points both in America and in Britain that contributed to the growing rift and crisis. For most of the three years leading up to the outbreak of hostilities, events in the colonies were simply not on the radar of British politicians as they tried to deal with financial and economic crisis in Britain and with important foreign threats. Bunker demonstrates as well how the distance of Britain from the colonies also compounded problems: the slow communication back and forth that took months as messages and directives crossed the Atlantic, but also the paucity of objective information about the real state of political and public opinion in the colonies. Information was filtered through governors and representatives of the Crown in the colonies who alternately minimized or exaggerated the dangers, depending on how it served their own reputations to do so. Consequently, the British government had little idea of the real extent of alienation from Britain that had developed in the colonies. Perhaps most importantly, as Bunker observes, “The British Empire in America had no plan, and it had no center of command. It had no guiding vision, and it had no high ideals. From a British point of view, the American colonies existed to serve one purpose alone, which was crudely economic. For that very reason, the old regime could not endure.”

One of the most enjoyable features of An Empire on the Edge are the wonderful character studies Bunker gives us of some of the principal political figures involved in the crisis, particularly those of members of the British cabinet, the British Parliament, and that of George III himself. Of those serving in America, the analysis of Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson’s flaws, and those of his successor, General Thomas Gage are trenchant. We get especially interesting portraits of William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, who was secretary for the colonies during this period, and also of Lord North, who led the cabinet. Readers will find that the portrait of George III challenges the American caricature of the King. Bunker’s fine character studies delivered in the course of his narrative demonstrate the integral relationship between political challenges and individual character, and they give us a memorable illustration of how, together, they work to shape the fated and fabled course of history.


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