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.”