The Tragedy of the American Revolution

I’ve been immersed in readings on the crisis years of the 1760s and 70s in England and British America, as background for my second book project. My major field as a doctoral student was the British Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries, yet I’ve learned a lot in this reading phase that I didn’t know or vaguely knew, so it’s reasonable to assume that significant gaps in understanding exist in general. It seemed appropriate to write this post on the Fourth of July, which is a much more somber occasion when one considers the reality of what produced it.

The focal point of this project is the schooner HMS Sultana, built in Boston in 1767 apparently for Sir Thomas Hesketh, 1st Baronet of Rufford in Lancashire. Hesketh offered her for sale to the Royal Navy for use as an interceptor back in British America. She served there as part of a squadron tasked with seriously ramping up on-the-water enforcement of British customs regulations. Those efforts met with stubborn resistance and even violence; several of these ships, including Sultana, were attacked by the crews of merchant ships they intercepted in coastal waters, or by groups of colonists in the port towns they visited. The violence culminated in the boarding and burning of the grounded HMS Gaspee in Rhode Island in 1772. At that point, the government in London appointed a royal commission to investigate the incident, the most serious official response possible, and decided to employ larger, more powerful vessels in this duty. Sultana was recalled to England to be sold out of the service and into historical obscurity.

So much of the period’s open hostility between the imperial government and colonial subjects took place on the water, over maritime trade and labor. Unlike customs collectors and other shore-based officials, naval officers were not a part of local communities. Their loyalties were to the highly-professionalized Navy, their own careers within it, and the promise of a share in any contraband seized or ships condemned to auction for carrying it.

British American merchants and masters, however, were long-accustomed to ignoring or evading those stipulations of the imperial trade laws they found inconvenient–laws that were intended to protect British imperial trade from foreign (French, Dutch, and Spanish) interference. Evading customs duties and ignoring regulations was so long established,and so profitable, that many merchants considered it their right. A prevalent attitude of the 18th-century British Atlantic was the notion that political loyalty and obedience were good and fine as long as they did not interfere with personal interest.

The British government used the means at its disposal to enforce the laws passed by Parliament, for the benefit of the empire as a whole, as they saw it. Those who resisted that enforcement believed they were protecting their own interests against an overweening imperial state determined to rule them absolutely rather than treat them as Englishmen ought to be treated by other Englishmen.

I used the word “absolutely” rather deliberately, as the deepest political fear of any good Englishman was absolutism–the exercise of arbitrary power by a state in the absence of a constraining constitution.

Almost everyone, on both sides of the Atlantic, believed that the imperial relationship between Britain and her American colonies was in need of serious reform, given the dramatic growth in population, land area, wealth, and political maturity of the colonies by the mid-18th century. It was also commonly assumed on both sides of the British Atlantic that the American colonies would one day be independent, as the dominant explanatory metaphor of the relationship–that of parent and child–implied. But the history of the relationship between the end of the Seven Years War in 1763–the war in which Britons from both sides of the Atlantic fought together to force the French and Spanish out of North America–is a history of repeated misunderstandings, miscommunications, shortsighted decisions, and mutual mistrust, as the British Atlantic empire lurched in fits and starts down a path of increasing spite and despair. Once large groups of men were going around carrying guns–whether British regulars or colonial militias–cooler heads hoped against hope that a spark wouldn’t hit the powder keg, but that was overly optimistic. There was no plan for independence when people started killing each other in Massachusetts in April of 1775.


National Archives (U.S.)

This country has had two civil wars. This was the first, and like the second, it was brutal and vicious and long and terrible. This was a double civil war, in that Britons from outside British America were killing Britons from within it, and vice versa, and British Americans who would not forswear their loyalty to the Crown, despite their profound disagreements with current British policy, were fighting a vicious partisan war against their own countrymen–sometimes their own families–who had abandoned any allegiance to the empire. That American war was the more brutal of the two; the British regulars were professional soldiers. The American partisans were motivated by ideology and by burning hatred and resentment toward each other, which fueled and was fueled by atrocities–torture, murder, the burning of homes and farms. The native nations either joined one side or the other, trying to pursue their own interests, or tried to stay neutral. Thousands of enslaved Americans went over to the British in a bid for freedom. Even after British forces quit the war after Yorktown in 1781, the partisan guerrilla fighting went on through 1782 as perhaps 60,000 loyalists waited to find out what the peace settlement would be and what would happen to them. Ultimately, most of them were forced to leave their homeland, branded as traitors by those they considered traitors, but who now had the power in the new United States, and thus could write the laws and the histories.Benjamin Hallowell, who had built Sultana back in ’67, left Massachusetts for good with his family for Canada.

One of the most important services we can provide as historians is to push back against the prevalent fallacy of inevitability–the usually-unspoken assumption that things turned out the way they did because there was no other way they could turn out. Human societies tend to view their own histories in such a way as to take for granted that what happened, happened. We know how it turned out, and that makes it difficult to understand how things looked to people at any given moment before it turned out that way.

The American Revolution was not inevitable. It wasn’t even necessary for British American “freedom” (a word we in the U.S. have abused as long and in as many ways as a word can possibly be abused); Canada is free, Australia and New Zealand are free; the British Commonwealth provides a model of how British societies separated by oceans and proud of their individual stories can co-exist peacefully. Smart people on both sides of the British Atlantic, and on both sides of the patriot/rebel-loyalist/Tory conflict in British America, thought and wrote about ways that could work, in a new constitutional relationship. But too many people weren’t ready for that for too many reasons, and everything fell apart instead, with awful consequences. War is always the most colossal failure of intelligent human beings to rise above and solve their problems. The fireworks on the Fourth of July are the echoes of the gunshots and cannon blasts that shattered lives and hopes and dreams that might have lived and thrived.

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