J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Nick Bunker’s Sharp Edges of Empire

After so much reading about the approach of the Revolution in New England, I’m always pleased to find books that give me a new perspective on the major events of those years. Sometimes that perspective comes from a tight focus on an individual or a lesser-known aspect of the conflict.

Nick Bunker’s An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America manages that even while examining the well-known Gaspée incident, Boston Tea Party, and response to the Coercive Acts.

Bunker, an Englishman, describes those events as seen from London, where the American mainland colonies were a source of mystery and bother if the government’s overworked ministers had any time for them at all. His book has chapters on major events in New England from 1772 to 1774, but Bunker emphasizes sources that tell the British side of each story.

A great deal of archival work went into An Empire on the Edge, and its notes brim with unfamiliar sources that can set a researcher’s mouth to salivating: the War Office’s accounting of British army dead from 1774 to 1780; private verses that the Earl of Suffolk, junior secretary of state, wrote about the nascent rebellion; a painting of Boston in 1764 by Byron’s great-uncle; Lt.-Col. Alexander Leslie’s bitter letter from Castle William ten days before the Tea Party; a 1774 intelligence report about gunpowder shipments from Holland.

Bunker was a financial journalist before he turned to writing history, and that seems to surface in his analyses of economic pressures: abundant credit led to overproduction of tea in China, harvests failed in India and later in Europe at just the wrong times, a London banker tried to short East India Company stock a little too early and set off a cascade of banking failures. The book profiles John Hancock as a businessman more prominently than Samuel Adams as a politician, and devotes relatively little space to political philosophy, religion, and other forces.

Bunker’s background is especially valuable as he lays out how the East India Company finally ran aground in 1773 and the British government—despite George III and Lord North being no fans of the company—deemed it too big to fail. Competing business and political interests ultimately produced two redundant rescue schemes: one that allowed the Crown to take over the company’s territory in India, the other that rewrote the rules for sending surplus tea to North American ports. The first gave Britain the basis of its nineteenth-century empire while the second ultimately cost it much of the empire it had built in the previous two hundred years.

One player in shaping the latter policy, An Empire on the Edge argues, was Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, through his letters to British tea magnate William Palmer. Hutchinson’s interests were all mixed up: his sons were in the tea business, and his salary as governor (and those of his in-laws, the Oliver brothers) came from the tea tax. Thus, while Hutchinson sincerely sought the best for the British Empire and for Massachusetts, he looked corrupt—and just when the leak of some private letters made him look devious.

While many American authors emphasize the strength of the British Empire after the Seven Years’ War, especially its military, Bunker paints it as fragile and overextended. Stretched tight between North America and India, much of it was “only a make-believe empire.” The book starts symbolically with a description of that dominion’s western edge at Fort Charters in modern Illinois, a structure won from the French in 1763 and then allowed to slip gradually into the Mississippi. The figure of Edward Gibbon, Member of Parliament, floats through the book, not because of any astute observations on the political situation from him but perhaps because he wrote about another empire’s decline and fall.

An Empire on the Edge is thus a “sympathetic study of failure,” Bunker writes. He offers portraits of the top government ministers in London—especially Lord North and the Earl of Dartmouth—that bring out their good qualities instead of making them distant antagonists. (I recall how Bernard Donoughue’s British Politics and the American Revolution from 1964 struck me with a story of Lord North being robbed by a highwayman even as he won a government majority; this book does the same with the picture of the prime minister laying out a playing field for his sons.)

But none of those men’s personal strengths, Bunker says, were right for avoiding the “tragedy” of “a war the British should never have allowed themselves to fight.” Neither North nor Dartmouth had the broader vision that the situation demanded. At no point in the book, however, do I see a turning-point that would have allowed the British government to satisfy all the needs of its 1770s empire. I have a sense of what would have satisfied the Massachusetts Whigs, but I doubt that approach would have satisfied Bunker.

TOMORROW: An Empire on the Edge on Massachusetts.

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