Impact of American Revolution and American Colonies on British Empire: Analytical Essay
In his controversial pamphlet, The True Interest of America, Irish clergyman Charles Inglis forewarned death and despair if the American colonies separated from Great Britain—no matter the victor. If Mother England squashed the colonists, Inglis feared to “receive terms from her in the haughty tone of a conqueror.” If she lost to the ragtag rebels, Inglis could not imagine “what extremities her sense of resentment and self-preservation will drive Great Britain to?” Regardless of the outcome, Britain would “risk everything [sic]” to keep its thirteen colonies. They were simply too important to lose. Almost as if he was replicating the script for a dystopian movie teaser, Inglis predicts that American independence “would, in the end, deprive [Britain] of the West Indies, shake her empire to the foundation, and reduce her to a state of the most mortifying insignificance.” Quite reasonably, most twenty-first-century armchair historians would agree with Inglis. By losing the United Colonies, the Empire lost control of approximately 2.5 million people, 290,000 square miles of New World land, and $635 million in exports (adjusted for inflation). American independence, it seems, was a British disaster. But not quite. Great Britain surely lost the war but it expertly managed—and won—the peace. This paper argues that all things considered, the American Revolution was the best thing that could have happened to the British Empire because it hastily addressed and ended an inevitable conflict while gaining invaluable lessons on ruling and administering an empire. Such revolutionary lessons allowed the British to reach the zenith of their power during the century-long Pax Britannica and delay observations of its “mortifying insignificance” for a century-and-a-half.
By refusing to comply with demands from American colonists, Britain expedited and resolved an inevitable conflict that bore a lenient peace and salvaged most of Britain’s New World assets. Military historians from both sides of the Atlantic have long argued that the War of American Independence could have been won by the British if London had supplied its armed forces with more manpower and resources and the field commanders had done more to starve, outmaneuver, and vanquish the colonists. In that case, as Niall Ferguson aptly writes, “there might never have been the United States.” In actuality, the British had lost the war from the start. No matter, when, where, or how the British responded to the American uprising, the conflict between Mother England and its colonial children was inevitable. As Ferguson explains, “For more than a century there had been a tacit tug of war between centre and periphery—between royal authority in London, as represented by the centrally-appointed colonial governors, and the power of the colonists’ elected assemblies.” While Britain had spent the late-seventeenth century trying to establish “European-style hereditary aristocracies” in the form of a “crown colony,” by the mid-eighteenth century the British proclivity for independence prevailed in the colonies. One royal official noted that British American colonies were “effectively ‘Independent Common Wealths,’ with legislatures that were effectively ‘absolute within their respective Dominions’ and barely ‘accountable for the Laws or Actions’ to the crown.” Heavily detached from London both geographically and politically, American colonists largely handled their own affairs since “British authority…rested on ties of loyalty, affection, and tradition.” Imagine the colonists’ surprise when Britain began using force to levy taxes and impose rules on them. Conflict ensued, primarily because a regime will encounter far more resistance by providing its subjects with political autonomy for decades and then stripping it all away, instead of just forcefully ruling over them from the start. Thus, no matter how many times the British “asserted its sovereignty and was compelled by American resistance to back down,” the two sides would disagree. The Parliament declared it had the “‘full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonists and people of America,’” and the colonists demanded “the same liberty enjoyed by their fellow subjects on the other side of the Atlantic.” Instead of spending another decade “running three or four thousand miles with a tale or a petition” and waiting for a reply as the dispute boiled over, the British refusal to grant representative authority to the American colonies made war inescapable—it also made defeat necessary. As British statesman Edmund Burke proclaimed, ‘“The use of force alone…may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again; and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered.’” Not only would the conflict persist, London “lacked the stomach to impose British rule on white colonists who were determined to resist it.” The British quickly went to war, and quickly realized that they could never fully subdue the thirteen colonies. After five years of fighting, Britain sued for peace and signed the merciful Treaty of Versailles with the US in 1783. Despite losing the war, the British Empire largely benefitted, on balance, from the peace. Not only did Britain stop incurring the “costs of reimposing” its authority on the rebels and protecting the colonies, it gained control over new subjects, land, and exports. Besides keeping its “northwest frontier forts of Oswego, Niagara, [and] Detroit” until 1798, many American Loyalists fled north and helped colonize and populate Canada. More importantly, as Britain prioritized its commercial prowess, the US became a valuable trading partner. From 1780-1790, Britain exported “over £25 million of goods” to the US, which secured the empire’s “economic prosperity.” A seventeenth-century cost-benefit analysis would likely highlight the direct merits of defeat for the British.
The British Empire also indirectly gained when its defeat ignited “a whole new phase of British colonial expansion” and instituted a whole new rulebook for improving their colonial administration over white settlers and indigenous populations. With the loss of America, the British government sought new places for its citizens (criminals or otherwise) to emigrate while countering any strategic land grabs from their European rivals. While some historians argue that “gaining Canada in the Seven Years War” forced the British to lose America, the loss of America also “secur[ed] Canada for the Empire, thanks to the flood of English-speaking Loyalist immigrants” from America who overwhelmed the French population. But since the “American experiment” had proven sustainable, how would the British Empire prevent “other white colonies” from “break[ing] away as republics the way the US had?” The lessons of the American Revolution prevented any “fresh colonial revolt.” Three British officials, Durham, Buller, and Wakefield spent six months in Canada before returning to London to prepare their report of the new colony. This Durham Report, according to Ferguson, “had a good claim to be the book that saved the Empire.” It acknowledged that the American colonists were correct. Their demands that those governing the colonies should be “accountable to representative assemblies of the colonists” was justified. Durham’s recommendation to create a system of “responsible government” in Canada that “would give the people a real control over its own destinies” likely precluded a War of Canadian Independence. This judicious approach was replicated in Australia and New Zealand, which only strengthened British rule in the Pacific vis-à-vis imperial Dutch, French, and Spanish maneuvering. More importantly, it demonstrated that the lessons of authority from the American Revolution helped Britain command far more territory, people, and resources while improving their method of control.
Losing the American Revolution also made Great Britain stronger because it forced a re-evaluation of its strategic interests and regional methods of authority. In the Western Hemisphere, the American colonies had always been far less commercially important than the Caribbean islands. The former had been “heavily dependent on trade with Britain” and “regardless of political arrangements they would remain so for the foreseeable future.” On the flip side, the Caribbean’s economic importance was demonstrated durin the war when the island’s exported goods “provided the funding to continue the war and King George III was willing to risk French invasion of the British homeland to protect these vital territories.” Capitalizing on its desire to become the global economic hegemon, Britain refocused its naval power on the Caribbean area, where Admiral George Rodney “thoroughly defeated the French Caribbean fleet” and the “balance of power” and profits went to the British. Along this similar economically-motivated vein, the British “protected and expanded trade in India and Asia” while gaining “valuable trade rights in the Dutch East Indies.” And as the American Revolution encouraged the British Empire to grant autonomy and representation to settler colonies, this same Revolution encouraged the Empire to re-focus on commercially-profitable ventures while maintaining a strict degree of control from the very beginning—never letting thousands of miles or different cultures stand in the way of making money.
In October 1781, a member of the British House of Lords declared General Cornwallis’ defeat in Yorktown a “calamity” and “disaster.” The nation had not only lost the war but the “crown jewel” of the seventeenth-century British Empire. Some Britons predicted internal rebellion and dissolution. Quite the contrary. Great Britain surely suffered in the short term by losing the American colonies, but it ultimately became a far more extensive and resilient empire because of this loss. Not only did it preempt the inevitable—a war against colonial rebels—it was able to get rid of America, a “Burden,” “a Millstone hanging around the Neck” of Britain while retaining many postwar assets—loyalists, forts, trade, and Canada. Better yet, Thomas Paine’s incredulity that “a continent” was “perpetually governed by an island” seemed far less “absurd” when British colonial administrators and legislators learned to appease, not fight, white settlement colonists and prioritize its economic strength via harsh, exploitative colonialism in India, Asia, and the Caribbean islands. Such lessons engendered the “Second British Empire”—far more powerful than the first.
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