The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of an Empire
© Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy
The Men Who Lost America is a rare history of the American Revolution, one which follows not the revolutionaries, but their opponents: the British leadership of the late 18th century. Although largely till a military history, it offers a greater survey of the war than most, covering the European battles for power in the Caribbean and South America.
I requested this volume primarily to learn about British politics at the time of the revolution, since for all the rage fixed on George III, Great Britain was already more ruled by Parliament than executive command. The sovereign, like the prime minister, emerge from the volume not as villains, but as politicians doing their job. While George disapproved of many of the measures being applied against the colonies, once they had revolted he favored a strong response. Parliament, too, was of mixed opinion; many felt a strong response was warranted, others demurred, and a slight minority even favored American independence. Complicating matters for the politicians and the generals was the fact that investing too strongly in one theater meant leaving others ill-defended. Why wage war in America if it put the more profitable island colonies in the Caribbean at risk? The American Revolution, once it brought in France and then her ally Spain, forced Britain to cover a lot of ground with relatively few troops, and the war in America was altogether different from European struggles. Even as men like Clinton and Cornwallis were being tasked with ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the colonists, they were also expected to support the defense of the Caribbean. While American histories of the war depict a pitiful few colonists pitched against the Imperial Might of the British Empire, that empire was sorely overtaxed. The result reminds one of modern American adventurism.
The Men Who Lost America was definitely worth the wait for me, despite not delving into British politics as much as I had expected. In focusing on the lives and trials of Cornwallis, Clinton, the Howes, Burgoyne, and others, they become much more interesting characters. Cornwallis, for instance, opposed the various taxes levied against the colonies, as well as the war, but once he was asked to pitch in, he took it as his duty to do his best. Military campaigns considered questionable in hindsight make more sense when we realize that the British generals were also testing the waters of the American people, invading loyalist-held areas to see how many proper subjects would actually come to the defense of the Crown. In short this is a very commendable history of the American Revolution, one which demonstrates how understandable the cause of both sides could be, and offers plenty of room to respect the British leadership — who, for all their troubles and their ultimate inability to woo back the colonists or conquer them — kept the Empire afloat in other domains.