The National Park Service manages more than 50 sites connected with the American Revolution or Colonial America, and they offer valuable glimpses into the birth of our nation.
Whether you're a serious history buff or one whose memory on the subject is a bit rusty, odds are you've never read much on that subject from the British point of view. You can bridge that gap via an entertaining and enlightening book, The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760 – 1785.
Author Don Cook spent over 40 years as the European correspondent for two major U. S. newspapers, and a ten-year stint in London "stirred reflections on what political life would have been like in England under King George III at the time of the American Revolution."
He asks, "How was it that Great Britain at the height of its eighteenth-century power, victorious around the globe after the Seven Years' War with France, politically mature with a stable government in a free-speaking democracy, made such a remorseless succession of blunders than ended in an unnecessary and unwinnable war and lost King George the greatest of his empire's possessions?"
The American Revolution from the English Viewpoint
The answer to that question offers an intriguing look at what Cook describes as "the other side of the story of the American Revolution, which American histories generally only summarize in passing."
Using his newsman's nose for a good story, Cook discovered that "London in those days was alive with a strong cast of figures, not only those in Parliament, but also writers, scientists, preachers and artists. They left a record of ringing oratory and a wealth of written documentation attesting to their follies and frustrations. The story of England and the American Revolution was there, told by the participants in their own words."
Some of those words were written personally by King George III, who acceded to the throne in 1760 at the age of 22. According to Cook, the new ruler "dominated his government, determined not merely to reign but to rule, an autocrat who scorned anyone who dared speak in opposition to his will."
King George's Paper Trail
George III was a prolific writer whose "ceaseless flow of instructions, letters and comments" recorded "in vivid detail the king's direct involvement in American affairs at virtually every turn of the way, from the Stamp Act in 1765 to the Battle of Yorktown in 1781."
"It was the king," notes Cook, "who prodded governments into acts that led to war and the king who kept the war going, refusing all thoughts of conciliation or compromise with the colonies."
If King George III was instrumental in eventually losing the colonies, he had plenty of help from Parliament and his own political appointees, many of whom Cook describes as "inexperienced, inward-looking and narrow-minded men."
Turmoil in the English Government
The first decade of George III's reign was marked by power struggles and enormous turmoil within the British Government, including a succession of five different prime ministers, each seemingly more intent than his predecessor on tightening English control over the colonies.
Cook suggests that before the war, "Americans were prepared to solve their problems with England and remain within the British Empire as a self-governing entity," but England's leaders would have none of it. "England lost the American colonies as much through political mistakes in London as by military defeats at Saratoga and Yorktown."
A Very Readable Approach to History
Much of the success of the book is due to the author's ability to successfully distill the treasure-trove of original source material into a narrative that reads more like a novel than a history, and he weaves quotes and key facts into vignettes that keep the story moving, chapter after chapter.
One example illustrates British confidence early in the war that the conflict would be short-lived.
"On Christmas Day 1776 a bet was recorded in the wagers book at Brooks Club, one of London's fashionable gambling clubs: 'General Burgoyne wagers Charles Fox one pony that he will be home victorious from America by Christmas Day, 1777.'" [A "pony" equaled 55 pounds, about a year's wages for a common laborer of the time.]
Ironically, even as that wager was being made, Washington and his troops had made a bold crossing of the Delaware and would complete a stunning defeat of British forces at Trenton. It was a badly-needed victory than revitalized the American cause.
"Prepare to Hear the Worst"
A second example is drawn from the fall of 1781, when Cornwallis' British forces were dug in at Yorktown, Virginia, in desperate need of reinforcements. On September 23, 1781, General Clinton in New York received a dispatch from Cornwallis, warning Clinton to be "prepared to hear the worst" if a relief force did not reach the Chesapeake promptly.
Cook writes, "In New York, Clinton had been mesmerized by the expectation that a battle would be fought there" and by the assumption of British sea superiority. The British fleet, however, was laid up for repairs in New York harbor—and work apparently lacked much sense of urgency. Cook offers a quote from a diary kept by Major Frederick Mackenzie, an English staff officer stationed in New York:
"If the Navy are not a little more active they will not get a sight of the Capes of Virginia before the end of this month, and then it will be a little too late. They do not seem to be hearty in this business, or to think that the saving of that army is an object to much material consequence. One of the Captains exposed himself as much to say, that the loss of two line-of-battle ships in effecting the relief of the army is of much more consequence than the loss of the army."
A bit of English inter-service rivalry, 18th-century style?
Too Little, Too Late
Cook notes that that the British navy finally set sail for Yorktown on October 19 and arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake five days later.
"Here they sighted a small sailing dinghy bobbing in the water. Aboard were a white man and two black men. The three reported that they had come from Yorktown. The fighting was finished; the war was over. Cornwallis had surrendered his entire army to Washington on October 18, 1781. General Clinton and Admiral Graves turned back to New York without sighting the enemy or firing a shot."
Here in the former colonies, we widely accept the British defeat at Yorktown as the effective end of the Revolution, but Cook points out that the attitude of King George was—not so fast!
Word of Cornwallis' surrender didn't reach London for more than a month, on November 25, 1781. Cook says the news "stunned everyone—some with dismay, some with resignation, some with relief that the war might at last end. But it would take more than Yorktown to change King George's thinking. That resolute, stubborn monarch would fight on."
How resolute was King George? Parliament returned from recess on November 27, two days after the news of Yorktown reached London, and a war-weary nation waited to hear what the monarch would have to say about the loss at Yorktown.
The king's answer was ....nothing. His address to Parliament, written before the news of Yorktown or Cornwallis' surrender, made no statement of plans for either war or peace.
The Long Road to Peace
In the final chapter Cook describes the political turmoil in England that surrounded efforts to bring the war to an official conclusion, and offers insights into why the final treaty of peace wasn't signed until nearly two years after the decisive battle at Yorktown.
Much of the delay resulted from the reluctance of King George to admit the war, and the colonies, had been lost. During the lengthy negotiations for a treaty—and for language acceptable to the monarch—the King refused to accept any responsibility for the defeat, and even considered abdicating the throne.
Might history have recorded an different outcome than a long and costly war which resulted in complete political separation of the colonies and England? Cook offers a concluding opinion:
"Could England have won her war for America? With a more far-sighted policy by London, one based on conciliation and compromise, England might well have reached an accommodation that would have kept the American colonies in the British Empire. But she could not win a war based on a policy of full submission, as the king demanded. To that extent, the colonies were lost in London."
The Long Fuse was completed shortly before the author's death in 1995, and is still readily available in the marketplace. It offers an intriguing and insightful addition to our understanding of how we came to be the United States of America.