The American Revolution within the British Imagination

british-american-flag-pattern-backgroundFour months ago, I reviewed Andrew D. M. Beaumont’s Colonial America and the Earl of Halifax. A biography of an often overlooked figure, Beaumont makes a strong case for including Halifax in standard interpretations of the coming of the American Revolution. As Beaumont showed, to enrich our understanding of colonial British America, including the 1760s and early 1770s, we must appreciate the importance of high-ranking British officials. We also need to isolate and account for the behavior of the people underpinning and changing the constitutional relationship between Britain and its colonies in North America.

Studying prominent individuals within the British imperial framework is important. It will tell us more about how the center engaged with the periphery. It will also tell us who was responsible for altering any type of interaction. Consequently, perhaps more than is appreciated, understanding the relationship between Britain and its colonies is central to understanding why thirteen North American colonies broke away from the Empire. As correspondence flowed out of the colonies, some were predicting American independence some thirty years earlier. In New York, for instance, Governor George Clinton was worried about colonial independence during the late 1740s and early 1750s. As Beaumont’s book illustrates, going back to the 1740s, or even the 1730s, to look at high-ranking British officials is a good thing, and it should be done more often.

Thus, below I have included a short list of figures within the British imperial framework who, I think, are in need of further study. I have also included a brief note about each of them as well as some source references. This list is not comprehensive. Nor does not it contain an exhaustive list of available sources. Some materials will, no doubt, be hidden in archives, not yet catalogued. They might even be lying in an attic somewhere. This list does not include figures within the French or Spanish imperial frameworks, either, and it overlooks some important figures within the British Empire. (I welcome additions in the comments section below.) But what this list shows us is that there is a lot of work still to be completed before we can fully appreciate the intricacies of the eighteenth-century British Empire in North America.

George Clinton

Governor of New York between 1741 and 1754, George Clinton (1686–1761) had an uncomfortable time on the East Coast. He led New York through King George’s War (1744–1748), while experiencing a turbulent relationship with the colony’s chief justice, James DeLancey, Sr. There is no biography of his life, but there are more than enough primary sources available to write one:

  • British Library: Correspondence with Duke of Newcastle, Add. MSS 32691–33055, passim
  • Essex Record Office, County Hall: Audley End Papers
  • National Maritime Museum: Letter-book
  • New-York Historical Society: Papers
  • Newberry Library: Ayer collection
  • New Jersey Historical Society: Robert Hunter Morris papers
  • The National Archives, Kew: Treasury 1 and Admiralty 1 series
  • William L. Clements Library: Papers

Henry Clinton

Son of George, Henry Clinton was commander-in-chief of the British forces during the Revolutionary War between 1778 and 1782. He features regularly in articles and books on the Revolution, but a definitive, large-scale study of his career is needed. Clinton’s papers are voluminous. Among them are:

  • Alnwick Castle: Percy MSS
  • British Library: Letters to Lord Auckland, Add. MS 34416–34460
  • British Library: Correspondence with Frederick Haldimand, Add. MS 21807–21808
  • John Rylands Library, University of Manchester: MSS
  • The National Archives, Kew: CO 5/95–104; WO 34; PRO 30/55; PRO 30/11; PRO 30/20
  • William L. Clements Library: Papers (304 volumes!); Germain, Knox MS; Correspondence with John Graves Simcoe

Frederick Haldimand

Arguably the most overlooked military figure in eighteenth-century British military history, Haldimand (1718–1791) served in the British Army for much of his life. After serving in the Prussian army and the Swiss guards, by the 1750s he was a lieutenant-colonial in the British army. Two decades later, he was acting commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. During the Revolutionary War, he received the sinecure appointment of inspector-general of West Indian forces. By June 1778, he was appointed governor of Quebec, a position he held until 1786. Yet, despite his historical significance and his important place within Canadian history, a definitive biography is not available.

But, like Henry Clinton, Haldimand left behind a voluminous record, especially those fabulous green volumes at the British Library:

  • British Library: Correspondence and papers, Add. MSS 21661–21892
  • The National Archives, Kew: WO 34; PRO 30/55; CO 42/1–82
  • Thomas Gilcrease Museum of American History and Art: See NUC MS 67–126
  • William L. Clements Library: Thomas Gage papers (NRA 10567)

Wills Hill

Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough and later first marquess of Downshire, is a well-known figure to most early American historians. His position as Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1768 and 1772 embroiled him in the Townshend Duties crisis and the various nonimportation debates of the period. Yet, as Peter Marshall notes in Hillborough’s  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, “Despite being involved in politics for almost half a century, Hillsborough attracted only fitful attention. He has no biographer and is barely mentioned in many scholarly studies.”

Potential sources include:

  • British Library: Various, including Add. MS 34417–34418; Add. MS 57812; Add. MS 41198; Add. MS 12440
  • Public Record Office of Northern Ireland: Correspondence and Papers
  • National Record Office of Scotland: Letters to Lady Mary Coke
  • The National Archives, Kew: Various, mostly in CO 5
  • William L. Clements Library: Various

Sir Henry Moore

Colonial governor of Jamaica and then New York, Moore ended a slave revolt and governed New York City back to tranquility after the infamous Stamp Act riots of November 1765. For this, surely, his political ideas and overall character merit further examination. It might be difficult, though—he did not leave behind a lengthy paper trail:

  • British Library: Correspondence and papers, Add. MS 12440, 22679; Letters to Lord Holdernesse, Egerton MS 3490
  • New-York Historical Society: Cadwallader Colden papers; Livingston papers
  • The National Archives, Kew: CO 5/1098–1100

However, alongside newspapers, additional materials appear in:

  • Edmund B. O’Callaghan, ed., Documentary History of the State of New-York (4 vols., 1849–1851) and Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York, vols. 7–8 (1856–1857)

I also expect that there will be materials relating to Moore in the New York State Archives, the New York State Library, The Jamaica Archives and Records Department, and the National Library of Jamaica.

John Pownall

Pownall (1724–1796) was secretary of the Board of Trade for much of the Earl of Halifax’s tenure as president (1748–1768). According to Andrew Beaumont, Pownall was “Bright, meticulous, and ambitious.” Yet, he doesn’t even have an entry on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online or American National Biography Online.

Thinking about writing about Pownall? Well, available sources might include:

  • British Library: Add. MS 38200–32308; MSS Eur E 334 (NRA 27499)
  • Houghton Library, Harvard University: MS Sparks MS 4, 10, 43[1]

I am also confident that more sources will be available, most likely in The National Archives, Kew, and the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Other individuals who are in need of attention might include:

  • Guy Carleton
  • John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun
  • Thomas Gage
  • Peter Warren
  • George Townshend, 1st Marquess Townshend
  • John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford
  • William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth
  • William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne
  • Erye Coote
  • John Carnac

At the upcoming annual conference of the British Group of Early American Historians, held at the University of Sheffield in early September 2015, Trevor Burnard is chairing a ninety-minute book club on Colonial America and the Earl of Halifax. I expect it will be a lively discussion, one which might include some thoughts about other individuals who merit further study. The Junto is a unique forum through which we can kickstart that discussion. Who do you think should be the focus of more attention?


[1] See also Colin Nicolson, ed., The Papers of Francis Bernard, Governor of Colonial Massachusetts, 1760–1769, 3 vols. to date (Boston, MA.: Colonial Society of Massachusetts and distributed by the University of Virginia Press, 2007– ).

8 responses

  1. Pingback: This Week’s New York History Web Highlights | The New York History Blog

  2. Great post. Another opportunity: Henry Bouquet. The 18-volume printed collection of his papers is available on Hathi Trust and printed in various libraries, and there’s a good dissertation by Erik Towne, “‘British in thought and deed’: Henry Bouquet and the making of Britain’s American empire,” but not a large-scale biography.

  3. Just a quick note on Henry Moore. He was lieutenant-governor of Jamaica (which meant less pay) and the brother-in-law to Edward Long. Moore’s period was full of confrontation, coming after the Spanish Town Controversy. His actions are related in the Journals of the Jamaica Assembly (vol. 5) and in the book George Metcalf, Royal government and political conflict in Jamaica (1729-1783) published in 1965.

  4. Pingback: Early America Comic Con: Drawing the American Revolution « The Junto


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