Interview: Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

Andrew O’Shaughnessy is the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, and a Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His recent book, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, won this year’s George Washington Book Prize and several other awards. Tom Cutterham spoke to him for The Junto.

Can you briefly summarize the argument of the book?

What I think is the essence of this war, why Britain lost, was the balance of sympathies in the civilian population. Probably the greatest error the British made was to think that loyalists were in the majority. It wasn’t incompetence; there were good reasons why they continued to believe that. Their sources of information, like Joseph Galloway in Philadelphia, who after all was a leading political figure in America in the first Continental Congress—he was saying right up to Yorktown that four out of five Americans support Britain.

The British essentially had an army of conquest but not an army of occupation. They conquered every American city, and they won the majority of the battles, but they were never really able to occupy American territory. When they tried—in New Jersey over the winter of 1776-77, for example, or in the south later on—they imploded. This is where a lot of the romance of the revolution, the mythology of America, arises—the idea of the sharp shooter, the citizen soldier, the rebel bands. I don’t romanticize the citizen soldier, but what I stress are the sympathies.

My other point was to show that the commanders of the war on the British side were people of real substance, the best and the brightest. The generals who were sent out were some of the most junior in terms of seniority, but they were looking for a Wolfe. Sir William Howe, for example, was an expert in light infantry, and he’d been at the siege of Quebec. He also understood, as did all the senior political leaders, that the views of the Americans were important. He made the very legitimate point, what would it mean just to crush the opposition? Then you’d have another Ireland, and if a third of the British army were needed to police Ireland, how many more would be needed in North America?

You vindicate the British leaders on two grounds: one is what you’ve just explained about the sympathies of the civilian population; the other is the global nature of the war, and the imperial overstretch Britain experienced, which your previous book also discussed.

That is key and it plays into the lack of civilian support. One of the things I wanted to convey is that the global war was there from the start. France was sending funds and armaments to America, and it really influenced Britain’s decisions and its capacity. For one thing Britain does not fully mobilize its forces. The legitimate fear was that if they fully mobilized the army and navy in America the French would be so worried they’d have a quick victory and then shift all their forces to the Caribbean that it would force French mobilization. So you had British fear of an arms race and this limited their choices.

The fact that America gets privateers out and they get safe havens in French, Dutch, and Spanish ports; the privateers are neglected but they are really like the militia at sea (and there’s much more incentive to serve because you can feel patriotic and make money at the same time!). That forces the British to convoy all their trade as early as 1776, and overextends the British navy. Germain had always intended that the navy completely blockade the coast of north America and strangle the revolution, but that idea was never tested because there were just never enough ships. Certainly after 1778, it seems almost impossible for the British to have won the war, because at that point they were completely over-extended across the world.

Military history sometimes gets short shrift in the historical academy. What do military historians have to do to engage their colleagues and why should non-military historians pay attention to them?

The great error of military history—and amazingly this was said by Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of the British army in the second half of the American Revolution—is that it’s often far too concerned with battle, and tactics, and specificity. Clinton said, to do good military history you must introduce geography, politics, economics. What I was particularly keen on is the relationship of the military to the political. The military were not operating in a vacuum, they were under political duress to win quickly, and some of their decisions were affected. It’s also important that the British army itself was highly politicized: all the senior generals sat in Parliament, as did the admirals, and some of them were great critics of the war.

You wouldn’t get an account of the Declaration of Independence or constitutional changes in the average military history, but for me those are vital, because they were a way of mobilising the people. Where I think I intersect with historians like Michael McDonnell is that clearly the elites had to make their cause popular, to reach out; and since I think that popular support is the central issue, the way the people were politically mobilized is key. That’s my next book. It’s going to be on persuasion in the American Revolution. I may actually use as the title the quote from Sir Henry Clinton, who said, “we need to win the hearts and subdue the minds of America.”

3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Typically, Americans think about the Revolutionary War from our prospective. We have celebrated George Washington and practically deified the Founding Fathers. We focus on how we defeated the most powerful country in the world, but rarely explain why Britain was hampered in their war effort in the colonies. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy tries to correct that problem with his new book entitled The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of Empire. Tom Cutterham from The Junto has an interview with O’Shaughnessy about his new book. O’Shaughnessy explains why Britain, despite talented young military leadership, were doomed in their efforts as early as 1778.

  2. As yet I have not read Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book; accordingly I am only responding to his interview comments regarding the global war wherein he touches on the use of French, Dutch and Spanish ports by American privateers. True enough but he makes no mention of the Spanish defeat of the British in the Mississippi River Valley, and the Gulf Coast by General Bernardo Galvez. But for active Spanish military intervention here the British would have effectively been able to control these regions and opened up a second front on America’s eastern and southern borders.

    Additionally, it should not be forgotten that although she Spanish lost the Great Siege of Gibraltar it lasted seven years and that as well as their successful takeover of Minorca kept British forces that could have been sent to America, tied down in Mediterranean and European waters.

    Overall Spain’s contributions to the success of the American Revolution have been over looked by American historians and when mentioned in the histories Spain plays second fiddle to France principally because the former did not formally ally itself to the nascent U.S. That said, Spain’s assistance to the US predates that of France and all things considered was far greater than that of France. Unfortunately, American historians have not taken as full advantage of the Spanish archives as they have of French sources.

    My final comment concerns “the balance of sympathies in the [American] civilian population” which I take is the central thesis of the book. Ok, but I think the sympathies of the British population was as important as that of the Americans in ending the war.

    It’s clear that the American “Bloggers’ of the day like Thomas Paine, Paul Revere and others played well in Britain and that that the conflict between the home country and the colonies was initially treated as an internal British problem. Furthermore, the North American colonies in which British emigrants had settled were seen as being more a part of Britain than other colonies. Additionally, political ideas and problems similar to those discussed by the Americans also shaped the debates in Parliament. For example, the opposition in London had already demanded in the 1760s reforms of parliament and the electoral system that would break with the principle of virtual representation. Perhaps the most important attitude that led to the American victory was that of the British planter class in Caribbean. They and the sugar stock holders back home were extremely worried about the potential loss of the West Indian islands to the French and Spanish. This protective attitude prevailed and led to the British decision to abandon the fight on the American continent in favor of protecting the “Sugar Islands” ones.


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