Crisis does not necessarily purge a system of folly; old habits and attitudes die hard. Conduct of the war by the Government was to be marked by sluggishness, negligence, divided counsel and fatal misjudgments of the opponent. Lax management at home translated into lax generalship in the field. Generals Howe and Burgoyne had been disbelievers to start with; when Howe was in command his indolence became a byword. Other military men doubted the use of land forces to conquer America. The Adjutant-General, General Edward Harvey, had judged the whole project to be “as wild an idea as ever controverted common sense.”
Ministers underestimated the task and the needs. Materials and men were inadequate, ships unseaworthy, too few and short of able seamen; problems of transport and communication were unappreciated in London, where direction of the war was retained at a distance that required of two to three months for letter and reply. Overall, performance was affected by the unpopularity of a war against fellow-subjects. “The ardor of the nation in this cause,” acknowledged Lord North after Lexington and Bunker Hill, “has not arisen to the pitch one could wish.” Meager results in recruiting, with fewer than 200 enlistments in three months, led to the mercenary employment of Hessians from Germany (amounting ultimately to one-third of all British forces in America). While employment of mercenaries was customary in England’s wars at a time when military service was very low in the esteem of the common man, the use of the Hessians did more than anything else to antagonize the colonists, convince them of British tyranny and stiffen their resolve. The American Revolution, given its own errors and failures, cabals and disgruntlements, succeeded by virtue of British mishandling.
It was not until four months after Lexington and Concord, and a month after news of the battle of Bunker Hill, that America was declared in “open and avowed rebellion,” the interim being consumed by ambivalent policies, quarrels over office and customary absences for the grouse and salmon season. The King, during this time, had been pressing for a declaration of rebellion and of determination to prosecute “with vigor every measure that may tend to force those deluded people into submission.” Lord Dartmouth as Secretary for the Colonies was still seeking any opening for a non-violent settlement; moderates outside the Cabinet and the experienced under-secretaries hoped to avert a break; the Bedfords were hot for action; Lord Barrington was insisting that the colonies could be subdued by naval action alone through blockade and interruption of trade; the brothers Howe—General Sir William and Admiral Lord Richard—named Commanders-in-Chief respectively of the land and sea forces in America, believed a negotiated settlement preferable to a fight and were seeking joint appointment as peace commissioners to accomplish this purpose; Lord North, averse to the definitive, was trying to delay anything irreversible.
THE TROJANS TAKE THE WOODEN HORSE WITHIN THEIR WALLS
I. Terracotta relief from a large (4-foot-high) amphora of the 7th century B.C., showing the Wooden Horse with wheels attached to its feet and Greek wariors emerging. Found in Mykonos in 1961.
2. Roman wall painting from Pompeii, c. 1st century B.C., showing the Wooden Horse being dragged into the city of Troy. At upper left, a woman, possibly Cassandra, appears brandishing a torch, while at lower left, she (or another) is seen hurrying forward as if to intercept the Horse. Although badly faded, this picture is unusual at Pompeii for its tragic grandeur and dramatic effect.
3. Bas-relief depicting an Assyrian siege engine of a period about half a century before Homer. The structure consists of a wheeled battering ram and mobile tower, from the reign of Ashurnasipal II, 884–860 B.C.
4. Laocoön, Roman, c. A.D. 50
THE RENAISSANCE POPES PROVOKE THE PROTESTANT SECESSION
1. Sixtus IV, by Melozzo da Forli. The Pope is shown appointing the prefect of the Vatican Library (kneeling figure). The central standing figure in red is Sixtus’s nephew Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, the future Pope Julius II The two figures on the left are the dissolute nephews, Pietro and Girolamo Riario, the latter a prime mover in the Pazzi conspiracy who was assassinated in 14–88.
2. Innocent VIII, tomb monument by Antonio del Poliamolo in St. Peter’s.
3. Alexander VI, by Pinturicchio, in a fresco of the Resurrection of Christ, in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican.
4. Julius II, by Raphael. Detail from The Mass of Bolsena, a fresco in one of the stanze by Raphael in the Vatican. The two figures immediately to the right of the Pope’s robes portray Cardinal Raffaele Riario and the Swiss Cardinal Matthäus Schinner.
5. Leo X, by Raphael.
6. Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo.
7. The Battle of Pavia, 1525, Brussels tapestry.
8. The traffic in indulgences, woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger.
9. Lutheran satire on papal reform, woodcut in Ratschlag von den Kirchen, 1538.
THE BRITISH LOSE AMERICA
1. The House of Commons in the reign of George III, by Karl Anton Hickel, 1793, showing the younger William Pitt addressing the House.
2. “I know I can save this country and that I alone can” William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, by Richard Brompton, 1772.
3. “George, be a King!” George III, from the studio of Allait Ramsay, c. 1767.
4. “He passes for the cleverest fellow in England” Charles Townshend, British School, painter unknown.
5. His mistress took England’s mind off America. Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, by Pompeo Baioni, 1762.
6. “A great empire and little minds go ill together.” Edmund Burke, from the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds.
7. Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, from the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1771.
8. The distractions of great estate—racehorses belonging to Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, exercising under the eye of the Duke and Duchess, by George Stubbs, 1761.
9. “Oh God, it is all over!” Frederick, Lord North, by Nathaniel Dance, C.1770.
10. “Wilful blindness”. Lord George Germain, engraving after George Romney.
11. (RIGHT) The Able Doctor, engraving from the London Magazine, 1 May, 1774. Lord North, with the Boston Port Bill protruding from his pocket, endeavors to pour tea down the throat of America, who ejects it in a stream into his face. America is held down at the ankles by Lord Sandwich, who lewdly peers under her skirts, and by Lord Mansfield in wig and judge’s robes. On the left, figures representing France and Spain watch with interest while Britannia covers her eyes. On the floor lies a torn document inscribed “Boston Petition”.
12. The Wise Men of Gotham and Their Goose, mezzotint, published 16 February 1776. Ministers slaughter the goose that lays the golden egg, overlooked by a picture on the wall of the British lion sound asleep. On either side of the picture are verses explaining the fable, which include the couplet “And more their Folly to compleat/They stampt upon her Wings and Feet” On the ground is a map labeled “North America” on which the dog urinates.
AMERICA BETRAYS HERSELF IN VIETNAM
1. Cartoon by Fitzpatrick, 8 June 1954.
2. Cartoon by Mauldin 25 November 1964.
3. Cartoon by Herblock, 21 July 1966.
4. Cartoon by Oliphant, 7 March 1969.
5. Cartoon by Sanders, 14 March 1972.
6. Cartoon by Auth, 1972.
7. ( LEFT ) Secretary of State John Foster Dulles leaving a session of the Geneva Conference, April 1954.
8. Fact-finding mission. General Maxwell D. Taylor and Walt Rostow with General Duong (“Big”) Mirth, commander of South Vietnamese field forces, at officers’ club in Saigon, October 1961.
9. Operation Rolling Thunder. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, watch planes taking off from U.S. aircraft carrier Independence, 18 July 1965, to attack targets in North Vietnam.
10. A certain skepticism. Senators J. William Fulbright, John Sparkman, and Wayne L. Morse listening to the testimony of General Taylor at the Fulbright Hearings, February 1966.
11. Antiwar demonstration on the steps of the Pentagon, 21 October 1967. Military police are reinforced by Army troops to prevent the public from storming the entrance.
12. The Tuesday lunch at the White House, October 1967, with Battle of Saratoga in the background. Those present, clockwise from President Johnson’s left, are Secretary of Defense McNamara, General Wheeler, Press Secretary George Christian, Walt Rostow (at the foot of the table with only a fraction of his head showing behind Christian), Assistant Press Secretary Tom Johnson, CIA Director Richard M. Helms, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
Against the pressure of the Bedford Cabinet and the King, he had to give way. His Majesty’s Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition was issued on 23 August. In announcing the Americans’ “traitorous” levying of war upon the Crown, it clung to the view that the uprising was the work of a conspiracy of “dangerous and ill-designing men,” in spite of the stream of reports from General Gage and governors on the spot that it was inclusive of all kinds and classes. Insistence on a rooted notion regardless of contrary evidence is the source of the self-deception that characterizes folly. By hiding the reality, it underestimates the needed degree of effort.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia moderates of the Continental Congress succeeded in obtaining the Olive Branch Petition, which professed loyalty and allegiance to the Crown, appealed to the King to halt hostilities and repeal the oppressive measures enacted since 1763, and expressed the hope that a reconciliation might be worked out. George III’s refusal to receive the petition when it reached London in August and his Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion, which followed within a few days, effectively terminated the American overture, for what it was worth. In Parliament, a motion by the opposition to consider the Olive Branch a basis for negotiation met with the usual rejection by the majority.
Following the Proclamation, the definitive act was the removal of Dartmouth to the office of Lord Privy Seal and his replacement as Secretary for the Colonies by a vigorous advocate of “bringing the rebels to their knees” by armed force, Lord George Germain. A Sackville of Knole by birth* and younger son of the 7th Earl and 1st Duke of Dorset, he had overcome a strange history of court-martial and ostracism to maneuver himself into favor with the King and, by plying him with the advice he wanted to hear, to gain the critical American post in the Cabinet.
As a Lieutenant-General and commander of the British cavalry at the battle of Minden in 1759, Lord George had inexplicably refused to obey the order of his superior, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, to lead a cavalry charge to finish off a victory over the French. Dismissed from the service, called a coward by society, tried for disobedience to orders, he was declared by verdict of the court-martial “unfit to serve His Majesty in any military capacity whatever,” the sentence being recorded in the order book of every British regiment. “I always told you,” wrote his poor half-mad brother Lord John, “that my brother George was no better than myself.”
Although the tag of cowardice fitted queerly with a strenuous military career of more than twenty years, Lord George never explained his conduct at Minden. Hard and arrogant, he stemmed from one ancestor who “lived in the greatest splendour of any nobleman in England,” from a grandfather who avoided a charge of murder only by the friendly intercession of Charles II, from a father created a Duke when George was four years old, whose house was so crowded with suitors and visitors on a Sunday as to give it the appearance of a royal levee. Not a likable man, Lord George had already made enemies by his criticisms of fellow-officers, yet he was able after some years, with Sackville support and an aggressive will, to rise above disgrace and retrieve the status owed to his rank and family. Made harder if not wiser by his experience, he was now to become the minister in active charge of the war.
Opposed like the rest of the Cabinet and the King’s friends to any effort at conciliation, Lord George resisted rigorously the plan of a peace commission to treat with the colonies. When Lord North carried this point, to which he was previously committed, Germain insisted on drafting the instructions. His terms required the colonies to acknowledge, prior to a parley, the “supreme authority of the legislature to make laws binding on the Colonies in all cases whatsoever.” Since their consistent rejection of this principle for ten years was what had led them to rebellion, it was fairly obvious, as Lord North pointed out, that this formula would condemn the peace commission to failure. Dartmouth said flatly he would resign as Privy Seal if the instructions stood; North hinted that he would go if his stepbrother did.
Interminable discussions of the terms followed: whether the phrase “in all cases whatsoever” should be in or out; whether colonial acceptance of the supremacy principle must precede or be part of negotiations; whether the commissioners should have discretionary powers; whether Admiral Howe should hold both the naval command and membership on the peace commission. Mingled with these disputes were intrigues about who should fill several court and sub-Cabinet posts from which opponents of the war had resigned, while Parliament, upon reconvening in January 1776, spent its time arguing over contested elections and the high prices charged by German princes for the hire of their troops. The peace proposals as finally settled went no further than North’s conciliation plan of the year before, already spurned by the Continental Congress. Neither King nor Cabinet had any thought of considering American terms for a form of autonomy under the Crown; the peace commission was intended mainly for public effect and the still persisting illusion of dividing the colonies. Under Germain’s domineering direction, wrote Franklin’s friend the scientist Dr. Joseph Priestley, “anything like reason and moderation” could not be expected. “Everything breathes rancor and desperation.”
By the time terms and appointments were settled in May 1776, events had made them obsolete. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, calling boldly for independence, had electrified the colonists, convinced thousands of the necessity of rebellion and brought them with their muskets to the recruiting centers. George Washington had been named Commander-in-Chief; Fort Ticonderoga had yielded to Ethan Allen’s company of 83 men; General William Howe, prompted by the Americans’ remarkable hauling of cannon from Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights, had been forced to evacuate Boston; British forces in full combat were gaining in the south and in Canada. In June the Continental Congress heard a resolution offered by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia that the United Colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” On 2 July the formal Declaration of Independence was voted without dissent, with revisions added in a second vote on 4 July.
In September, after Howe’s victory in the battle of Long Island, his brother the Admiral arranged in his alternate capacity as peace commissioner a conference with Franklin and John Adams representing the Continental Congress, but as he had no authority to negotiate unless the colonies resumed allegiance and revoked the Declaration of Independence, the meeting was fruitless. So passed on both sides the attempt to forestall and then reverse the rupture.
Opponents of the war were vocal from the beginning although outnumbered by the war’s supporters. Following Amherst’s example, others in the Army and Navy refused to serve against the Americans. Admiral Augustus Keppel, who had fought throughout the Seven Years’ War, declared himself out of this one. The Earl of Effingham resigned his Army commission, unwilling to bear arms in what “is not so clear a cause.” Chatham’s oldest son, John, serving with a regiment in Canada, resigned and came home, while another officer who remained with the Army in America expressed the opinion that because “This is an unpopular war, men of ability do not choose to risk their reputations by taking an active part in it.” This freedom of action found its justifier in General Conway, who declared in Parliament that although a soldier owed unquestioning obedience in foreign war, in case of domestic conflict he must satisfy himself that the cause is just, and he personally “could never draw his sword” in the present conflict.
Animating these sentiments was the belief that the Americans were fighting for the liberties of England. Interdependent, both would either be “buried in one grave,” said the opposition speaker, Lord John Cavendish, or endure forever. London’s four members in Parliament and all its sheriffs and aldermen remained steadfast partisans of the colonies. Motions were made in both the Commons and the Lords opposing the hiring of foreign mercenaries without prior approval by Parliament. The Duke of Richmond moved in December 1776 for a settlement based on concessions to America, whose resistance he termed “perfectly justifiable in every political and moral sense.” A public subscription was raised for the widows and orphans and parents of Americans “inhumanly murdered by the King’s troops at or near Lexington and Concord.”
Recognizing the contradiction of self-interest in the American war, a political cartoon of 1776 pictured the British lion asleep while ministers were busily engaged in slaughtering the goose that lays the golden egg. Observers like Walpole saw the contradiction too. Whether America was conquered or lost, Britain could expect “no good issue,” for if governed by an army, the country, instead of inviting settlers and trade, “will be deserted and a burden to us as Peru or Mexico with all their mines have been to Spain.… Oh the folly, the madness, the guilt of having plunged us into this abyss!” Even Boswell in private thought the measures of the Government were “ill-digested and violent” and the ministry “mad in undertaking this desperate war.”
Governing opinion in support of the war was no less forward and more general. Not all would have joined in Dr. Johnson’s intemperate outburst, “I am willing to love all mankind except an American,” or gone to the extreme of absurdity of the Marquess of Carmarthen, one of the King’s friends, who demanded in a debate, “For what purpose were [the colonists] suffered to go to that country, unless the profit of their labor should return to their masters here?” But gradations of such sentiments were widely shared. (A notable factor in the British attitude was a bland ignorance of how and why the colonies had been settled.)
Business sentiment was expressed by Bristol, Burke’s constituency, which he addressed in his Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol with implacable logic and small effect, for the merchants, tradesmen and clergy of the busy port sent a loyal address to the King urging firm coercion. Landed gentry and fashionable society agreed. All motions of the opposition were routinely defeated in Parliament, where the majority sustained the Government faithfully, not merely from purchased loyalty but from the gruff conviction of the country party that supremacy must be made good and the colonies brought to submit.
The impotence of the opposition, which numbered about a hundred, was owed not only to the power of the incumbents but to their own lack of cohesion. Chatham, sunk in another period of debility, was out of combat from the spring of 1775 to the spring of 1777 but, like Hamlet, not so mad that when the wind was in the right quarter, he failed to know a hawk from a handsaw. After the American Declaration of Independence, he predicted to his physician, Dr. Addington, that unless England changed her policy, France would espouse the cause of the Americans. She was only waiting until England was more deeply engaged in this “ruinous war against herself” before taking an overt part.
Yet when active, Chatham always played his own hand, scorning association. His arrogance and his refusal to act as a functioning leader left the opposition subject to separation and to the vagaries of its chief figures. Richmond, who had emerged as the most aggressive and outspoken voice in the Lords, hated Chatham and was not temperamentally either a leader or a follower. Charles James Fox, rising young star of the opposition, glittered in the Commons with wit and invective, as Townshend once had, but he too played a solo role. Others were ambivalent. Though believing in the justice of the American cause, they could not help fearing that a victory for American democracy represented a threat to parliamentary supremacy and a dangerous stimulus to the Reform movement.
To feel dismayed by their own government and always to be outvoted were dispiriting. Richmond confessed it in replying to Rockingham, who was trying to maintain the opposition front and had summoned him to come to vote on a bill prohibiting trade with the thirteen colonies during the rebellion. “I confess I feel very languid about this American business,” he wrote. There was no use going on opposing this bill and that; “the whole system must be opposed.” He did not come down to London and later took himself off to France to deal with legalities regarding a French peerage he possessed. It might be “a happy thing to have,” he wrote to Burke, for the day might not be distant “when England will be reduced to a state of slavery,” and if he were “among the proscribed … and America not be open to us, France is some retreat, and a peerage here is something.” With the French Revolution coming in the next decade, probably no historical prophecy has ever been so upside down. “About English politics,” Richmond concluded, “I must freely confess to you that I am quite sick and wore out with the too melancholy state of them.”
Rockingham, as leader, grew so frustrated that in 1776 he proposed a “secession” by opponents of the war, that is, a deliberate absenting of themselves from Parliament as their most visible protest against ministerial policy. Solidarity on this issue too was unobtainable; only his own followers agreed. Dignified and stately, the Rockingham Whigs retired to their estates, but after a year of ineffectiveness drifted back. They were “amiable people,” wrote Charles Fox to Burke, but “unfit to storm a citadel.” Burke, making an essential point about these men as ministers, replied that their virtues were the result of “plentiful fortunes, assured rank and quiet homes.”
Submission of the rebels was no nearer. For all their disadvantage in shortage of arms and supplies and of trained and disciplined troops and in the short-term enlistments that were their most disabling factor, they had a cause to fight for, a commander of heroic stature and unflinching will and occasional stunning limited victories as at Trenton and Princeton to reinvigorate morale. Britain’s enemies abroad were supplying arms and British resort to deliberate wrecking and pillage of property and to recruitment of Indians for terrorist tactics stimulated American fighting spirit when it faded under hardship. British overestimation of the internal support to be expected from Loyalists and the failure—which owed something still to scorn of colonials even on their own side—to mobilize and organize a Loyalist fighting force left them dependent on the long trans-Atlantic haul of Europeans. Fear that France and Spain would take advantage of their trouble by a naval offensive or even invasion required maintenance of troops for home defense and hard-to-spare ships in home waters. The drain of the whole enterprise alarmed many. “The thinking friends of the Government are by no means sanguine,” wrote Edward Gibbon, who had been elected to Parliament in 1774 as a supporter of North.
In February 1777 General Burgoyne came home to plan with Germain a knockout campaign that by effecting a juncture on the Hudson of British forces coming down from Canada and others coming up from New York would cut off New England from the rest of the colonies and end the war before the next Christmas. Burgoyne returned to lead the northern force in a march pointed at Albany, but the pincer movement suffered from a fatal deficiency in having only one arm. The bulk of the southern arm under the Commander-in-Chief, Sir William Howe, who had designed his own campaign without reference to his colleague, was moving in the other direction, against Philadelphia. Sir Henry Clinton, in command of the remaining forces in New York, could not move up the Hudson without the main Army. Burgoyne had started in June. As the summer progressed, reports were disquieting: Burgoyne’s supplies were dwindling dangerously; a foray to capture stores at Bennington was sharply defeated; an American Army was gathering in strength. Howe was still occupying himself in Pennsylvania; Clinton, though given to fits of paralysis of will, made a lastminute move northward in desperation; no juncture had yet been made. Washington, engaged against Howe outside Philadelphia and discovering from his movements that there was no danger of Howe’s turning north, wrote to General Putnam on learning of the victory at Bennington that he hoped now “the whole force of New England will turn out and … intirely crush General Burgoyne.”
Less concerned with these events than with the threat of France, Lord Chatham rose to his feet on 20 November 1777 to demand an “immediate cessation of hostilities.” Speaking before news was known of the event that was to mark the watershed of the war and justify his argument, he said, “I know that the conquest of English America is an impossibility. You cannot, I venture to say it, you CANNOT conquer America.…” Defense of unalienable rights was not rebellion. The war was “unjust in its principles, impracticable in its means, and ruinous in its consequences.” The employment of “mercenary sons of rapine and plunder” had aroused incurable resentment. “If I were an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I would never lay down my arms, never—never—never!” By insisting on submission, Britain would lose all benefit from the colonies through their trade and their support against the French and gain for herself only renewed war against France and Spain. The only remedy was to terminate hostilities and negotiate a treaty of settlement. Chatham did not call for recognition of American independence as a condition of settlement, for he believed to his dying day in the unalterable relationship of colony and Crown, and, in paraphrase of a successor, would have gladly declared that he had not served as First Minister to acquiesce in the liquidation of the British empire. His proposal of an end to hostilities made no appeal to the Lords, who rejected his motion by four to one.
In the Commons, Charles Fox pursued the same vein in a military analysis that was to be uncannily verified. Conquest of America, he said, was “in the nature of things absolutely impossible” because there was “a fundamental error in the proceedings which would forever prevent our generals from acting with success”—that they were placed too far apart to aid each other. Twelve days later a courier arrived with the awful report that General Burgoyne with all that was left of his battered, starving and outnumbered force had surrendered to the Continental Army at Saratoga near Albany on 17 October. General Clinton, who had advanced no farther than Kingston, fifty miles below Albany, had on the previous day turned back to New York for reinforcements.
The result of Saratoga was a matchless encouragement to American morale that warmed the thin blood of survival through the snows and miseries of that winter at Valley Forge. Saratoga lost the British, through casualties and the terms of surrender, which required Burgoyne’s men to lay down their arms and be shipped back to Britain under pledge not to serve again in the war against America, an entire army of almost 8000. Above all, it realized Britain’s greatest dread, the entry of the French into the war in alliance with America. Within two weeks of the news of the surrender, the French, in fear that the British might now offer acceptable peace terms to their former colonies, hastened to inform the American envoys of their decision to recognize the newborn United States, and three weeks later of their readiness to enter into alliance. The treaty, which for its share in bringing into existence a new nation was one of the most momentous in history, was negotiated in less than a month. Besides recognizing American independence and including the usual articles of amity and commerce, it provided that in the event of war between Britain and France, neither of the treaty partners would make a separate peace.
Chatham’s prediction of French entry was now confirmed, but even before this was known he rose in the House of Lords on 11 December 1777 to declare again his view that England had engaged herself in a “ruinous” war. The nation had been betrayed into it, he said in a devastating summary that could apply to wars and follies of many ages before and since, “by the arts of imposition, by its own credulity, through the means of false hope, false pride and promised advantages of the most romantic and improbable nature.”
In England, the incredible fact of a British Army surrendering to colonials stunned government and public and awoke many who had hardly concerned themselves about the war until then. “You have no idea what effect this news has had on the minds of people in town,” wrote a friend to George Selwyn. “Those who never felt before, feel now. Those who were almost indifferent to American affairs are now awakened out of their lethargy and see to what a dreadful situation we are reduced.” Stocks fell, “universal dejection” ruled the City, people murmured of a “disgraced nation” and talked of a change of government. Gibbon wrote that although the majority held in Parliament, “if it had not been for shame there were not 20 men in the House but were ready to vote for peace,” even “on the humblest conditions.”
The opposition bounded into virulent attack, castigating every minister individually and the Government collectively for mismanagement of the war and the measures that had led to it. Burke accused Germain of having lost America through “wilful blindness”; Fox called for Germain’s dismissal; Wedderburn, who came to Germain’s defense, challenged Burke to a duel; Barré said the plan of campaign was “unworthy of a British minister and rather too absurd for an Indian chief.” Even Germain himself was flustered but survived the onslaught with the King’s and North’s support. They could see that if they let responsibility be brought home to Germain, it would be carried next to his superiors—themselves.
The Government too survived on its carefully carpentered structure of votes. Although uneasy about the war, the country party were uneasier about change, and though burdened with a war that was costing them money instead of bringing in revenue, they sat tight. Only the King, encased in his armor of righteousness, was impervious to the general anxiety. “I know that I am doing my duty and therefore can never wish to retreat,” he had told North at the beginning of the war, and that was all he needed to know. No actualities could dent the armor. The King was convinced of the rectitude and therefore the necessary triumph of his actions. Later, as fortunes faded, he believed that a victory for American independence would mean the dissolution of the empire under his sovereignty and he prayed Heaven “to guide me so to act that posterity may not lay the downfall of this once respectable empire at my door.” The prospect of defeat under “my” command pleases no ruler, and rather than face it, George tried obstinately to prolong the war long after it held any hope of success.
Howe’s resignation, Burgoyne’s return, Clinton’s mistrust and disillusion, recriminations and official inquiries followed in the wake of Saratoga. The generals, who blamed their failures on the ineptitude of the ministry, were treated with forbearance not only because of the general feeling that the fault indeed lay with Germain, but also because they held seats in Parliament and the Government had no wish to drive them into opposition. Germain’s failure to coordinate Howe’s campaign at Philadelphia with Burgoyne’s on the Hudson was clearly the hinge of the disaster and like his strange conduct at Minden seemed to have no explanation—other than a languid attitude.
Afterward, to feed the general dislike of Germain, a story was advanced that during the initial planning, Germain on his way to his country estate had stopped at his office to sign despatches. His Under-Secretary, William Knox, had pointed out to him that no letter had been written to Howe acquainting him with the plan and what was expected of him in consequence. “His Lordship started, and D’Oyley [a second secretary] stared,” and then hurriedly offered to write the despatch for his lordship’s signature. Having “a particular aversion to being put out of his way on any occasion,” Lord George brusquely refused because it would mean that “my poor horses must stand in the street all the time and I shan’t be to my time anywhere.” He instructed D’Oyley to write the letter to Howe enclosing Burgoyne’s instructions, “which would tell him all that he would want to know.” Expected to go by the same ship as the despatches, the letter missed it and did not reach Howe until much later.
It would be tempting to claim that the comfort of carriage horses lost America, but distance, time, uncertain planning and incoherent generalship were the greater faults. Lord George’s nonchalant way with despatches was only a symptom of a larger carelessness. It would be tempting, too, to say that this carelessness might be traced to the overprivileged lives of Georgian ministers, but then, what of another famous failure of communications: when American commanders were not warned of probable attack on Pearl Harbor? Failure of communications appears to be endemic to the human condition.
• • •
The immediate necessity was to relieve Britain of a profitless war in order that she might be free to meet the French challenge, and the only way was settlement with the colonies. With rumors buzzing of a coming Franco-American treaty, North, who had lost hope of victory after Saratoga, was trying to put together another peace commission against the resistance of Germain, Sandwich, Thurlow and other diehards whose minds were set against any parley with the rebels. While North agonized over what terms could be offered—not so mortifying as to be rejected by Parliament yet sufficiently attractive to be accepted by the Americans—word was received through secret intelligence that the alliance of France and America had been signed.
Ten days later North presented to Parliament a set of proposals for the peace commission so extensive in concessions that had they been ceded before the war they could well have averted it altogether. They were virtually the same as Chatham’s bill of settlement that Parliament had rejected the year before. They renounced the right to tax for revenue, agreed to treat with Congress as a constitutional body, to suspend the Coercive Acts, the Tea Act, and other objectionable measures passed since 1763, to discuss seating American representatives in the House of Commons and to appoint peace commissioners with full powers “to act, discuss and conclude upon every point whatever.” They did not yield, as Chatham had not yielded, independence or control of trade; the intention was to reattach the colonies, not to give them up.
A “full melancholy silence” fell upon the House as it heard North’s long explanation, which lasted two hours. He seemed to have abandoned the principles the Government had been maintaining for the past ten years. “Such a bundle of imbecility never disgraced a nation,” commented Dr. Johnson acidly. Friends were confounded, opponents staggered, and Walpole, the Greek chorus, sobered. He called it an “ignominious” day for government and an admission “that the Opposition had been right from beginning to end.” He thought the concessions were such as the Americans could accept, “and yet, my friend,” he wrote to Mann, “such accommodating facility had one defect—it came too late.” The French treaty had already been signed; instead of peace there would be greater war. The House was ready to approve the plan “with a rapidity that will do everything but overtake time past.” He was right; historical mistakes are often irretrievable.
To abandon a policy that is turning sour is more laudable than ignominious, if the change is genuine and carried out purposefully. The peace commission was something less. North, ever amiable but uncertain, was anything but firm. Under the turmoil of debate and the wrath of the diehards in his Cabinet, he wavered, modified terms, withdrew the discretionary powers of the commissioners and promised there would be no discussion of independence; the Americans would have to treat “as subjects or not at all.” He set twelve months from June (it was then March) as the time limit for the mission, which suggested no great anxiety to succeed. Indeed, the fortunes of war were sufficiently changeable and the American situation sufficiently uncertain as to allow the King and the diehards to persuade themselves they might still prevail.
Many suspected, as was said by John Wilkes (seated in Parliament at last), that the peace commission was only meant “to keep the minds of the people quiet here … not to regain the colonies.” A show was needed to keep the Government’s supporters from fading away. Fall of the Bedfords seemed possible and might have been forced if the opposition’s political action had been as vigorous as their words. In debate they were magnificent, in effect, weak because incurably divided over the issue of independence. Chatham, followed by Shelburne and others, remained utterly and unalterably opposed to dismembering the empire he had brought to triumph in the Seven Years’ War. Rockingham and Richmond had come to believe that the colonies were lost forever and that the only course was to acknowledge their independence “instantly and publicly” in order to win them away from France and concentrate all forces against the major opponent.
On 7 April 1778, Richmond moved in a speech of passion and urgency to request the King to dismiss the incumbent ministry, withdraw the troops from the colonies, recognize their independence and negotiate to “recover their friendship at heart if not their allegiance.”
Chatham should have concurred because concentration against France was always his object and because it was obvious that the colonies’ Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation that had followed could not be annulled except by a military defeat, which Chatham himself had declared to be impossible. Yet personal outrage extinguished logic; the break-up of empire was to him intolerable. Informed by Richmond that he was going to move the recognition of independence, Chatham summoned all his flickering strength, invested all the remnants of his once great authority in a sad offensive against his own side and against history.
Supported by his nineteen-year-old son, soon to make the name of William Pitt again the awe of Europe, and by a son-in-law, he limped to his seat, as always in full dress, with his legs wrapped in flannel. Beneath a huge peruke, the piercing glance still gleamed from eyes sunk in an emaciated face. When the Duke of Richmond closed, Chatham rose, but his voice was at first inaudible and when the words became distinct, they were confused. He spoke of “ignominious surrender” of the nation’s “rights and fairest possessions” and of falling “prostrate before the House of Bourbon.” Then he lost track, repeated phrases, mumbled, while around him the embarrassed peers, whether in pity or respect, sat in silence so profound it seemed tangible. Richmond replied courteously. Unyielding, Chatham rose again, opened his mouth soundlessly, flung a hand to his chest, collapsed and fell to the floor. Carried to a nearby residence, he recovered enough to be taken to his country home at Hayes, where in the next three weeks he sank slowly toward death. At the end, he asked his son to read to him from the Iliad about the death of Hector.
Forgetting the great statesman’s decline and failings, the country felt a sense of ominous loss. Parliament voted unanimously for a state funeral and burial in Westminster Abbey. “He is dead,” wrote the unknown author of the Letters of Junius, for once forgoing his usual venom, “and the sense and honor and character and understanding of the nation are dead with him.” Dr. Addington thought his death was the mercy of Providence, “that he might not be a spectator of the total ruin of a country which he was not permitted to save.”
It is striking how often the prospect of losing America inspired predictions of ruin, and how mistaken they were, for Britain was to survive the loss well enough and go on to world domination and the apogee of imperial power in the next century. “We shall no longer be a powerful or respectable people,” declared Shelburne, if American independence were recognized. On that day, “the sun of Great Britain is set.” Richmond foresaw the Franco-American alliance as “a Measure which must be our ruin.” Walpole scattered his letters with gloomy prognoses, predicting, “whatever way this war ends it will be fatal for this country,” or just before the end, foreseeing dire consequences of defeat: “We shall be reduced to a miserable little island, and from a mighty empire sink into as insignificant a country as Denmark or Sardinia!” With her trade and marine gone, Britain would lose the East Indies next, and “then France will dictate to us more imperiously than ever we did to Ireland.”
These dark expectations derived from two assumptions of the age: that the trade with colonies was essential to the prosperity of Britain, and that the Bourbon monarchies of France and Spain were a dangerous threat. Though only eleven years ahead, the French Revolution was as yet unimaginable; rather, Englishmen felt themselves to be in a stage of decline. Complaining of public apathy in a letter to Rockingham, Burke wrote that without a great change in national character and leadership, the nation could slide down “from the highest point of grandeur and prosperity to the lowest state of imbecility and meanness.… I am certain that if great and immediate pains are not taken to prevent it, such must be the fate of this country.” Since no conscious effort can arrest a national slide if it is indeed taking place, Burke in this instance was talking nonsense as, given his enormous outpouring of words, he frequently did.
Chatham’s death in May opened an opportunity for Rockingham to assert leadership, unite factions, win over adherents of the Government who were growing doubtful of the war and its expenses. The King had been advised that some changes were necessary, and this was Rockingham’s chance to press for office on a policy of ending hostilities and recognizing the inevitable independence of the colonies. Fox tried to persuade the hesitant Marquess of this course, suggesting that he propose a partial replacement of ministers to the King so as not to upset him and to retain his support. To refuse office if offered “in a manner consistent with his private honor,” Fox said, “was irreconcilable with the duty of a public man.” Burke too tried to argue the theme of consistent responsibility, but in both Rockingham and Richmond, although they saw the issues clearly and perceived the remedies, the sense of public duty tended to fade when the outlook was depressing or the political necessities distasteful. Rockingham’s followers were unready, and his own principles and conditions for accepting office precluded his obtaining it. The opposition “have been too inert,” wrote Walpole. The opportunity passed and the King’s ministers, “though despised everywhere and by everybody,” according to Fox, “will still continue ministers.”
A peace commission was duly appointed headed by Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle, a young man of wealth and fashion, owner of the splendid Castle Howard and otherwise qualified only as the son-in-law of Lord Gower. He was to be assisted by two more experienced and hardheaded men: former Governor Johnstone, who sided with the opposition, and William Eden, an accomplished politician and under-secretary, manager of secret intelligence in the war, former secretary of the Board of Trade, an old school companion of Carlisle and a friend of Wedderburn, Germain and North. The combined procedures of this group and of the Government that sent them confirm the impression that a pervasive and peculiar folly was controlling events.
When, on reaching Philadelphia, the Commissioners requested a conference with representatives of the Continental Congress, they were told that the only terms to be discussed were withdrawal of British forces and recognition of American independence. Governor Johnstone thereafter attempted to bribe two leading figures of the Congress, Joseph Reed and Robert Morris, to persuade Congress to accept British conditions of negotiation. This insult, on being exposed, deepened American distaste for the British Government and created a scandal that caused Johnstone to resign from the Commission. In the meantime, without informing the Commissioners, Germain had issued secret orders to Sir Henry Clinton, Howe’s successor, to send 8000 troops to strengthen the West Indies against France, thereby reducing his forces in Philadelphia from 14,000 to 6000, rendering the city no longer defensible, and requiring him in consequence to evacuate it.
Forced to move to New York, Carlisle was infuriated by the embarrassment and at not having been informed of Germain’s intention in advance. The only instrument that could make the Americans come to a settlement was the prospect of forceful military action if they refused, and this sanction being now withdrawn, he was a toothless tiger. His little daughter Caroline, he wrote privately, could have told the Government that under such conditions the Peace Commission was a farce. “Our offers of peace,” he wrote later, “were too much the appearance of supplications for mercy from a vanquished and exhausted state.” It was not the last case of the peculiar foolishness of withdrawing forces while trying to make an enemy come to terms. In one of history’s malicious ironies, the United States that was born of this folly repeated it against an enemy two hundred years later with the same result.
Carlisle and his colleagues put as good a face on their mission as possible, pointing out that the causes of the war were now canceled—the tea duty and other punitive acts repealed, “exemption from any tax by the Parliament of Great Britain” declared, representation in Parliament open for discussion and Congress itself recognized as a legitimate body. Short of recognition of independence, however, the Congress maintained its refusal to treat or even confer. In last resort, the Commissioners appealed to the colonies over the head of Congress to deal separately, in the belief that most Americans really wanted to return to their former allegiance. They issued a public proclamation on 3 October 1778, which, after reiterating the removal of the original grievances and promising pardon for all treasons committed before that date, tried to revive the threat of punitive action: for, when a country “mortgages herself and her resources to our enemies … Britain may by every means in her power destroy or render useless a connexion contrived for her ruin.”
The real intention behind this threat was expressed in Carlisle’s first draft of the proclamation, proposing that as a result of America’s “malice and perfidy” in contracting with France and obstinacy in persevering in rebellion, Britain had no choice but to employ the “extremity of distress … by a scheme of universal devastation” and to apply “this dreadful system” to the greatest extent to which her armies and fleet could carry it. This argument, he believed, “will have effect,” but he was evidently advised to moderate the language. So that the proclamation should be widely known, copies were sent to all members of the Continental Congress, to George Washington and all generals, to all provincial governors and assemblies, to ministers of the gospel and to commanders of the British forces and prison camps.
Since every colony had already suffered the deliberate pillage and destruction of homes and properties by British and Hessians, the burning of villages and the laying waste of farms, fields and timberlands, the threat from a weakened force carried no great terror. Rather, Congress recommended to state authorities that the British text should be published in local gazettes “more fully to convince the good people of these states of the insidious designs of the Commissioners.” Having reached fiasco in six months, whether by design or blunder, the Peace Commission returned home in November.
Possibly the mission really was intended to fail. Yet Eden wrote to his brother that if “my wishes and cares” could accomplish it, “this noble country … would soon belong once more to Great Britain.” He regretted “most heartily that our Rulers instead of making the Tour of Europe did not finish their education round the Coast and Rivers of the Western Side of the Atlantic.” Privately he wrote to Wedderburn the astonishing confession that “It is impossible to see what I can see of this Magnificent Country and not go nearly mad at the long Train of Misconducts and Mistakes by which we have lost it.”
It is a significant letter. Here is a member of inner government circles not only recognizing that the colonies were already lost, but that his government’s mistakes had lost them. Eden’s admission reveals the tragic side of folly: that its perpetrators sometimes realize that they are engaged in it and cannot break the pattern. The unavailing war was to continue at a cost of more lives, devastation and deepening hatred for four more years. During these years, George III simply could not conceive that he might preside over defeat. While Parliament and public grew increasingly sour on the war, the King persisted in its continuance partly because he believed the loss of empire would bring shame and ruin, and more because he could not live with the thought that it would be his reign that would forever bear the stigma of the loss.
In persisting, he could take heart from the fact that the Americans were often beset by trouble. Without central funds, Congress could not keep the armies in pay or supplies, which meant deserting soldiers and another winter of deprivation worse than Valley Forge, with rations at one-eighth normal and mutinies on more than one occasion. Washington was harassed by political cabals, betrayed by Benedict Arnold, disobeyed by General Charles Lee, subjected to scattered but savage warfare by Loyalist and Indian groups, disappointed by the failure of the attempt in combination with the French fleet to regain Newport and by British success in the Carolinas including the capture of Charleston. On the other hand, he had the immense accretion of French naval and land forces, which altered the balance of the war, and he had been joined by Baron von Steuben and other European professionals who drilled the ragged Americans into disciplined formations. In 1779 Congress appointed John Adams to negotiate peace on a basis of independence and total British withdrawal, but to the King and the hard-line ministers this was still unthinkable.
The English, under a First Minister who hated his position and longed only to be released and have nothing more to do with the war, and with a War Minister, Germain, whom he disliked and distrusted and who was still under a cloud of investigation, were not well equipped to win. They were incapable of forming an overall strategy for the war and could think only in terms of saving some colonies for the Crown, perhaps in the south, and of continuing a war of harassment and disruption of trade until the colonists were made to yield. Commanders and ministers alike, everyone but the King, knew this was illusion; that to subdue the country was beyond their power. Meanwhile, the French had appeared in the Channel. Though Lord Sandwich had boasted that he had 35 ships ready and manned and fit for war, Admiral Keppel was to find no more than six “fit to meet a seaman’s eye” and dockyards empty of stores when the French entered the war. The battle off Ushant in June 1778 ended in a draw although the British took some encouragement in claiming it as a victory.
Worse than the war were political developments in England. Fueled by the American revolt, the movement for political reform spread through the country with demands for annual Parliaments, manhood suffrage, elimination of rotten boroughs, abolition of sinecures and contracts awarded to members of Parliament. The election of 1779 created bitter feeling between parties. Government majorities shrank. Protest reached a climax in the Yorkshire Petition of February 1780, which demanded a halt in appropriations and pensions until reforms were enacted. Petitions like Yorkshire’s flooded Westminster from 28 other counties and many cities. Permanent reform associations were formed. The King was seen, as he had been since the days of Bute, as the promoter of absolutism. Dunning’s bold resolution on the power of the Crown, that it “has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished,” was actually carried by a narrow majority with many country members among the ayes. In June, in response to the repeal of certain penal laws against the Catholics and the mad agitation of Lord George Gordon, the mobs gathered and burst in frightening riot. To cries of “No Popery!” and demands for repeal of the Quebec Act, they attacked ministers, tore their wigs, raided and robbed their houses, burned Catholic chapels, rushed the Bank of England and for three days held the city in terror until the troops gained control.
The unpopularity of the Government and the war grew with these events while other troubles mounted. Spain declared war on Britain, Holland was helping the rebels, Russia was disputing the British blockade of the colonies and the war in America itself was dragging along vainly.
In May 1781, Lord Cornwallis, commander in the south, set out to consolidate his front by abandoning South Carolina for Virginia, where he established a base at Yorktown on the coast at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. From here he could maintain contact by sea with Clinton’s forces in New York. Reinforced by other British troops in the area, his strength was 7500. Washington, stationed on the Hudson at this time, was joined by the Comte de Rochambeau with French troops from Rhode Island for a planned attack on New York. At this moment a communication from Admiral de Grasse in the West Indies informed them that he was sailing with 3000 French troops for Chesapeake Bay and could reach there by the end of August. Washington and Rochambeau turned and marched for Virginia, which they reached early in September, hemming in Cornwallis by land.
In the meantime, a British fleet met de Grasse in action off Chesapeake Bay and after some mutual damage returned to New York for repairs, leaving the French in command of the waters off Yorktown. Cornwallis was now blocked by land and sea. A desperate effort to break out in rowboats across the York River was frustrated by a storm. His only hope was return of the British fleet with help from New York. The fleet did not come. The allied army of some 9000 Americans and nearly 8000 French moved forward against the York-town redcoats. Waiting for rescue, Cornwallis progressively drew in his lines while the besiegers advanced theirs. After three weeks the British situation was hopeless. On 17 October 1781, four years to the day after Saratoga, Cornwallis opened parley for surrender and two days later, in a historic ceremony, his army laid down its arms while the band played, as everybody knows, a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.” The fleet bringing Clinton’s forces from New York arrived five days later, when it was too late.
“Oh God, it is all over!” cried Lord North when the news was brought to him on 25 November. Doubtless it was a cry of relief. That it was all over was not realized everywhere at once, but weariness of a losing struggle and the demand to make an end of it began to lap at the King. A barrage of motions by the opposition to terminate hostilities slowly gained votes as the country gentlemen, fearing more and more taxes, deserted the Government. In December a motion against the war gained 178 votes. In February 1782 the issue was brought to finality by the independent-minded Generàl Conway. As he had been the first at the time of the Stamp Act to foresee “fatal consequences” lying in wait for the Government along the path it was taking, so he was now to sound their knell. He moved “That the war on the continent of North America might no longer be pursued for the impracticable purpose of reducing the inhabitants of that country to obedience.” In a supporting speech as eloquent and effective as any heard in the House within living memory, he roused members to a fervor that swept them to within one vote of the majority: the tally was 194 to 193. The opposition, uniting at last behind the powerful scent of office, threw itself against the Government’s fingerhold. Votes of censure followed one upon another, but after the peak reached by Conway’s motion, the Government recovered just enough to hold on.
When Lord North, still held in office by the King, asked Parliament for a further large war loan, the House finally balked, the Government’s majority broke and the King in his misery drafted, though he did not deliver, a message of abdication. In it he said that the change in sentiment in the Commons incapacitated him from conducting the war effectively and from making a peace that was not destructive “to the commerce as well as the essential rights of the British nation.” At the same time he expressed his fidelity to the constitution, overlooking the fact that unless he abdicated, the constitution required him to obey the opinion of Parliament.
In March, the Government’s fingerhold was pried loose. A bill authorizing the Crown to make peace passed on 4 March without a division. On 8 March the Government survived a vote of censure by only ten votes. On 15 March, on a motion expressing no confidence in ministers who had spent £100,000,000 to lose thirteen colonies, the margin was reduced to nine. Notice was given of two more motions of no confidence to follow. Earlier, Lord North had at last informed the King resolutely and definitively that he must go, and on 20 March, forestalling another test of confidence, his resignation and that of his Cabinet took effect. On 27 March a new government, headed by Rockingham, took office, with Shelburne and Fox as Secretaries of State, Camden, Richmond, Grafton, Dunning and Admiral Keppel in other posts, General Conway as Commander-in-Chief, and Burke and Barré as Paymasters of the Army and Navy, respectively.
Even with such partisans of America—as they had been when in opposition—now in office, Britain’s acknowledgment of the nationhood of her former colonies was ungracious in the extreme. No minister, peer or even M.P. or Under-Secretary was named to conduct the peace negotiations. The single envoy sent to open preliminary talks with Franklin in Paris was a successful merchant and contractor for the British Army named Richard Oswald. A friend of Adam Smith, who had recommended him to Shelburne, he was to remain, unsupported by any formal delegation, the lone negotiator throughout.
Rockingham died suddenly in July 1782, to be succeeded as First Minister by Shelburne, who shrank from irrevocably and explicitly recognizing independence. He thought now of federation, but it was too late for statesmanship that Britain might earlier have used. The Americans insisted that their independent status was the sine qua non to be recognized in the preamble, and so it had to be. With some stalling, formal negotiations with Franklin, Adams, Laurens and John Jay began in September and the Treaty of Paris was concluded in November, to take effect in January 1783. The King’s final comment gained nothing in graciousness. He felt less unhappy, he wrote to Lord Shelburne, about the “dismemberment of America from this Empire,” in the knowledge “that knavery seems to be so much the striking feature of its inhabitants that it may not be in the end an evil that they become aliens to this Kingdom.”
In summary, Britain’s follies were not so perverse as the Popes’. Ministers were not deaf to rising discontent, because they had no chance to be; expressed by their equals, it rang in their ears in every debate and rudely impinged on them in the action of riots and mobs. They remained unresponsive by virtue of their majority in Parliament, but they worried about losing it, worked hard and spent heavily to hold it and could not enjoy the popes’ illusion of invulnerability. Nor was private avarice their besetting sin although they were as subject as most men to the stings of ambition. Being accustomed to wealth, property and privilege and most of them born to it, they were not so driven by desire for gain as to make it a primary obsession.
Given the intention to retain sovereignty, insistence on the right to tax was justifiable per se; but it was insistence on a right “you know you cannot exert,” and in the face of evidence that the attempt would be fatal to the voluntary allegiance of the colonies, that was folly. Furthermore, method rather than motivation was at fault. Implementation of policy grew progressively more inept, ineffective and profoundly provocative. Finally, it came down to attitude.
The attitude was a sense of superiority so dense as to be impenetrable. A feeling of this kind leads to ignorance of the world and of others because it suppresses curiosity. The Grenville, Rockingham, Chatham-Grafton and North ministries went through a full decade of mounting conflict with the colonies without any of them sending a representative, much less a minister, across the Atlantic to make acquaintance, to discuss, to find out what was spoiling, even endangering, the relationship and how it might be better managed. They were not interested in the Americans because they considered them rabble or at best children whom it was inconceivable to treat—or even fight—as equals. In all their communications, the British could not bring themselves to refer to the opposite Commander-in-Chief as General Washington but only as Mister. In his wistful regret that “our rulers” had not toured America instead of Europe to finish their education, William Eden was supposing that a view of the magnificence of the country would have made them more anxious to retain it, but nothing suggests that it would have improved their dealings with the people.
Americans were the settlers and colonizers of a territory deemed so essential that its loss would spell ruin, but the British wall of superiority precluded knowledge and promoted fatal underestimation. Meeting it during the peace negotiations, John Adams wrote, “The pride and vanity of that nation is a disease; it is a delirium; it has been flattered and inflamed so long by themselves and others that it perverts everything.”
Unsuitability for government, while an unwilled folly, was a folly of the system, which was peculiarly vulnerable to the lack of an effective head. At his dynamic best, Pitt had engineered England’s triumph in the Seven Years’ War, and his son was to hold the controls effectively against Napoleon. In between, a hapless government shuffled and blundered. Dukes and noble lords in the reign of George III did not take well to official responsibility. Grafton, in his reluctance and sense of unfitness and once-a-week attendance, Townshend in his recklessness, Hillsborough in his arrogant obtuseness, Sandwich, Northington, Weymouth and others in their gambling and drinking, Germain in his haughty incapacity, Richmond and Rockingham in their moods of aloofness and devotion to their country pursuits, poor Lord North in his intense dislike of his job, made a mess of a situation that would have been difficult even for the wisest. One cannot escape the impression that the level of British intelligence and competence in both civil and military positions in the period 1763–83 was, on the whole, though not in every case, low. Whether that was bad luck or was owing to the almost exclusive hold of the ultraprivileged on decisionmaking positions is not clear beyond question. The underprivileged and the middle class often do no better. What is clear is that when incapacity is joined by complacency, the result is the worst possible combination.
Finally there is the “terrible encumbrance” of dignity and honor; of putting false value on these and mistaking them for self-interest; of sacrificing the possible to principle, when the principle represents “a right you know you cannot exert.” If Lord Chesterfield could remark this in 1765 and Burke and others repeatedly plead for expediency rather than token display of authority, the government’s refusal to see it for themselves must be designated folly. They persisted in first pursuing, then fighting for an aim whose result would be harmful whether they won or lost. Self-interest lay in retaining the colonies in goodwill, and if this was considered the hinge of British prosperity and yet incompatible with legislative supremacy, then supremacy should have remained, as so many advised, unexercised. Conciliation, Rockingham once said, could be brought about by “tacit compact” and much remaining “unascertained.”
Although the war and the humiliation poisoned Anglo-American relations for a long time, Britain learned from the experience. Fifty years later, after a period of troubled relations with Canada, Commonwealth status began to emerge from the Durham Report, which resulted from England’s recognition that any other course would lead to a repetition of the American rebellion. The haunting question that remains is whether, if the ministers of George III had been other than they were, some such status or form of union between Britain and America might have been attainable and in that case might have created a preponderance of trans-Atlantic power that would have deterred challengers and perhaps spared the world the Great War of 1914–18 and its unending sequels.
It has been said that if the protagonists of Hamlet and Othello were reversed, there would have been no tragedy: Hamlet would have seen through Iago in no time and Othello would not have hesitated to kill King Claudius. If the British actors before and after 1775 had been other than they were, there might have been statesmanship instead of folly, with a train of altered consequences reaching to the present. The hypothetical has charm, but the actuality of government makes history.
* It has been suggested that the merchants’ objections were muted because at that stage the leading colonial agent, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, kept in mind that his position as Deputy Postmaster General in America and his son’s as Governor of New Jersey were held at the pleasure of the Crown.
* Much has been written on whether this was or was not an early manifestation of the King’s later insanity. Since no other attack occurred until the definite onset of his mental illness in 1788, more than twenty years later, the King may be taken as sane throughout the period of the American conflict.
* This is an unhistorical term not then in use, but because it carries an exact connotation to the modern reader that no other word equals, I have decided with an uneasy conscience to use it.
* The discrepancy between this figure and the three million of Chatham’s speech of January 1766 may reflect inexact knowledge of the facts or inexact parliamentary reporting, both of which were features of the time. The actual population is estimated to have been approximately 2.5 million.
* St. Stephen’s represents the Houses of Parliament.
* The surname Germain was adopted in 1770 upon an inheritance from a family- friend by that name.