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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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Britain's American Revolution: was it a Good Thing?

Gen. Sir Michael Rose, retired from the British army, offers an interesting opinion essay in today’s New York Times. He argues that Britain’s defeat in the Revolutionary War actually helped its empire by forcing reforms from the top. He also states, without fully arguing the case, that a stronger British Empire benefited the world as a whole.

Up through the 1770s, the king of Britain chose his Prime Minister with an eye toward parliamentary power, but wasn’t required to pick the leader of the majority party. That system began to change in March 1782 when Parliament reacted to news of Gen. Cornwallis’s loss at Yorktown with an unprecedented motion of no confidence in the government of Lords North and Germain. George III had little choice but to give power to the Earl of Rockingham and the Whig opposition, who started peace talks with the U.S. of A. After almost two years of revolving-door ministry, William Pitt the younger (shown above) became Prime Minister in December 1783 and held office for seventeen years.

Rose’s essay argues that Pitt was visionary enough to see that Britain should become an industrial empire instead of a trade empire, and that it needed military and administrative reforms. I think that glosses over some of that government’s less democratic moves. The French Revolution caused Pitt’s government to crack down on Britain’s radical reformers, some of whom had also supported the American Revolution. It would take another generation after Pitt before Parliament really started to reform itself.

Rose says the India Bill of 1784 ensured “that the sort of poor administration that had soured relations with the American colonies would not be repeated in Britain’s other territories.” Many people from south Asia would argue that British colonial rule in that region was harsher than it had been in North America. Or perhaps it would be better to analogize Britain’s treatment of Indians to its treatment of North American Indians, not to its treatment of its own colonists. It’s true that India, Britain, America, and Canada are all among the world’s leading democracies today. Is that a result of British imperialism or a reaction to it? That gets into much larger considerations about the spread of democracy and human rights ideology in the world.

In any event, the essay concludes with why Rose is addressing American readers:

Today, of course, the United States finds itself in much the same position as Britain in 1781. Distracted and diminished by an irrelevant, costly and probably unwinnable war in Iraq, America could ultimately find itself challenged by countries like China and India.

Unless it can find a leader with the moral courage of Pitt, there is a strong probability that it will be forced to relinquish its position as the global superpower — possibly to a regime that does not have the same commitment to justice and liberty that the United States and Britain have worked so hard to extend across the world over the past two centuries.
Again, it’s arguable whether America and Britain have always shown a “commitment to justice and liberty” across the world for the last two hundred years. More often than not they did, I think, but we mustn’t forget the extension of those empires by force, slavery within them, two-tiered justice systems, rapacious trade wars, &c. Nonetheless, Rose clearly offers a more nuanced and encouraging understanding of the Revolution’s outcome than George W. Bush’s attempts.

The legacy of Parliament’s 1782 no-confidence vote is also relevant to our situation today. The Bush-Cheney administration has clearly lost the confidence of Congress and the American people, but our system forestalls an immediate change in the executive branch. That means America will not get a new direction for years. The immigration bill defeated by the administration’s own party last month appears to have been its last major legislative initiative. Commuting Lewis Libby’s jail sentence before he had served a day and stonewalling on several important investigations show that the administration’s final year and a half will be taken up mostly with trying to protect itself through any power it still holds.


MRhé said...

I think your reactions are spot-on here. Rose's piece is a bit flawed and makes some fairly broad assumptions.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I don't know if you've read Eliga Gould's article "American Independence and Britain's Counter-Revolution" (Past and Present, Feb. 1997), but he makes the exact opposite point: the British defeat encouraged the emergence of a strongly nationalistic imperial identity, and it suppressed progressive reform movements which had been gaining ground for some time. After all, it took another half-century for the Reform Bill to pass.

J. L. Bell said...

I haven't read that Gould essay (though I did get to hear him at the Massachusetts Historical Society a year or so ago). I'll put it on my list of things to track down.

I sensed in Rose's essay the underlying belief that the British Empire was a Good Thing. Therefore, anything that helped to strengthen that empire, such as Pitt's military and imperial reform, was also a Good Thing.

We could just as easily say that democracy and respect for individual liberties were a Good Thing. The crackdown on political reform efforts within the United Kingdom since the ministry didn't want to do anything that the French Revolutionaries were doing would therefore be a Bad Thing. As would the takeover of India, the trade wars with China, &c.

Of course, Rose had only about 700 words to make his case, like any US op-ed writer. In a different, more expansive forum, he might recognize his assumptions or biases and be able to make a case for them.