Opinions

The perils of empire

America’s rise and the British Empire’s decline are of a piece. What does that say for America’s future?

(Chris Buzelli for The Washington Post)
By

Empires are hard to build and even harder to keep intact. No sooner does an empire congeal than centrifugal forces — overreach, complacency, strategic miscalculation and enemies, foreign and domestic — threaten to tug it apart.

As we celebrate our 243rd Independence Day, and the resultant American empire that would come to dominate the modern world, it’s worth considering the 18th-century British Empire against which we rebelled in a bleak and bloody eight-year war. We have become more like that Anglo imperium than perhaps we suspect, and we face some of the same head winds that caused so much grief for King George III and his nation.

Several dynastic coalition wars against European adversaries had ended indecisively before Britain’s wildly successful triumph in 1763 over France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War, called the French and Indian War in America. Britain massed firepower in her blue-water fleet and organized enough maritime mobility to transport assault troops vast distances, capturing strongholds from Quebec and Havana to Manila in what London also called the Great War for the Empire. “Our bells are worn threadbare with ringing for victory,” one happy Briton reported.

Spoils under the Treaty of Paris were among the greatest ever won by force of arms, including Canada, a half-billion fertile acres west of the Appalachians, various sugar islands in the West Indies, Florida and parts of India. Britain emerged from the war with the most powerful navy in history and the world’s largest mercantile fleet, some 8,000 vessels. She cowed her rivals and so dominated Europe’s trade with Asia, Africa and North America that by 1773, the writer George Macartney could celebrate “this vast empire on which the sun never sets.”

Britain was ascendant, with its own mighty revolutions — agrarian and industrial — underway. A majority of all European growth in the first half of the 18th century had occurred in England, a proportion that would increase with the arrival of the steam engine, patented in 1769, and the spinning jenny a year later. Canals were cut, roads built, highwaymen hanged, coal mined, iron forged. Sheep would double in weight during the century; calf weights tripled. “I felt a completion of happiness,” the Scottish diarist James Boswell wrote. “I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind.”


A map of the British Empire in North America in 1762, by John Gibson. The shaded areas are territories formerly claimed by France or Spain. (Library of Congress)

Hubris, the disease of victory, also set in. Britain viewed the new empire as an affirmation of her virtues — tenacity and martial prowess among them — as well as the fountainhead of national wealth and power. Colonies existed to provide raw materials for the mother country and to buy her finished products, not to find their own way in the world or to extend prosperity to the masses.

But Britain had emerged from the Great War for the Empire deeply in debt. Interest payments devoured half of the government’s yearly tax revenue. Britons were among Europe’s most heavily taxed citizens, paying excise fees on items from soap and salt to male servants and racehorses that might exceed 25 percent of an item’s value.

It seemed only fair that colonists should help shoulder the burden: a typical American, by Treasury Board calculations, paid no more than sixpence a year in Crown taxes, one-fiftieth of the average Englishman’s payment, even as Americans benefited from eradication of the French and Spanish threats and the Royal Navy’s protection of North American trade.

Yet the Americans, famously, bridled at every attempt to tax them without their consent, whether through the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Acts a couple of years later or the small, residual tax on tea that caused costumed insurrectionists in Boston, said to be “dressed in the Indian manner,” to dump 45 tons of Bohea, Congou, Singlo, Souchong and Hyson tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773. At that point, the spiraling descent toward war accelerated until the rebellion burst into flame at Lexington and Concord in April 1775.

Although King George decreed that “blows must decide,” some British intellectuals doubted the wisdom of waging war across 3,000 miles of ocean in the age of sail. Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher whose sweeping study of political economy, titled “The Wealth of Nations,” would be published in 1776, argued that Britain would be better off jettisoning her colonies. The New World was “not an empire, but the project of an empire,” Smith wrote, “not a gold mine, but the project of a gold mine . . . mere loss instead of profit.”

Likewise, William Pitt, who had engineered Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War, denounced the government’s folly in America. “All attempts to impose servitude upon such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation must be in vain,” he warned. Edmund Burke, the Irish-born political philosopher, told the House of Commons that “the horrors of a civil war . . . may terminate in the dismemberment of our empire, or in a barren and ruinous conquest.”


The House of Commons from "The Microcosm of London." (British Library)

Many British merchants — potters and shoemakers in Staffordshire, the makers of fishing nets and lines in Bridport — also worried that the loss of American markets would cripple their businesses because colonists bought up to 20 percent of British manufactured goods, and a much higher proportion of certain commodities such as glassware, English cordage, worsted socks and beaver hats.

But hefty majorities in both houses of Parliament insisted that the Colonies obey imperial commands. The essayist and lexicographer Samuel Johnson denounced the Americans as “a race of convicts [who] ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” His companion James Boswell recorded how Johnson “breathed out threatenings and slaughter, calling them rascals, robbers, pirates, and exclaiming that he’d ‘burn and destroy them.’ ”

The king and his ministers embraced several strategic misconceptions in, for example, overestimating the depth of loyalist support across the Colonies and in underestimating rebel resolve in confronting British firepower. Moreover, London believed that allowing the American Colonies to detach themselves from the empire would encourage insurrections in Canada, Ireland, India and those West Indies sugar islands. Dominoes would topple, causing Britain to “revert to her primitive insignificancy in the map of the world,” as a member of the House of Commons warned. A cabinet secretary, Lord Dartmouth, added ominously that “destruction must follow disunion.” With the empire dismembered, an impoverished Great Britain, no longer great, would invite “the scorn of Europe” and exploitation by Continental enemies — France and Spain foremost — aching for revenge since the humiliation of 1763.

Among those particularly well-suited to assess the hazards of expeditionary war against a dogged insurgency was an elfin man with a double chin and a squat nose who, in his study on Bentinck Street in London, was writing a great saga, the first volume of which would be published in 1776 as “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” As a member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon remained steadfast for the Crown, warning a friend, “We have both the right and the power on our side. We are now arrived at the decisive moment of preserving, or of losing forever, both our trade and empire.” But he was too good a student of history to be entirely cocksure, writing, “With firmness, all may go well. Yet I sometimes doubt.”


In this engraving, British regiments march into Concord on April 19, 1775. Lt. Col. Francis Smith and Maj. John Pitcairn, foreground, scan the countryside for American forces massing outside town.

A British politician and army officer who had seen military service in America during the Seven Years’ War assured Parliament that 5,000 redcoats could march through the Colonies unhindered because Americans, “of a pusillanimous disposition, and utterly incapable of any sort of order or discipline,” would “never dare to face an English army.”

Yet Britain soon overextended that army and navy in a struggle that would last for eight years, waged in more than 1,300 battlefield actions, mostly small and gory, with a few large and gory, plus 241 naval engagements. As the essayist and firebrand Thomas Paine advised Admiral Lord Richard Howe, commander of Royal Navy forces in North America, “In all the wars which you have formerly been concerned in, you have had only armies to contend with. In this case, you have both an army and a country to combat.”

Indeed, some British commanders realized that the “human terrain” in America — to borrow a phrase often invoked in modern counterinsurgency doctrine — was extraordinarily complex. Recent scholarship has estimated that roughly 20 percent of the 2 million white Americans in the Colonies during the Revolution remained loyal to the Crown (although loyalty was a slippery concept, contingent on shifting moods and conditions). Trying to broaden that minority left Maj. Gen. Henry Clinton, who would serve longer during the Revolution than any senior British commander, pondering how “to gain the hearts and subdue the minds of America,” a phrase little altered when invoked in Vietnam almost two centuries later.

Further complicating that human terrain were a half-million black slaves, pointedly excluded from the Declaration of Independence maxim that “all men are created equal.” Britain, which had long dominated the global slave trade but was gradually moving toward abolition, offered more than once to free rebel-owned slaves who escaped their American masters and shouldered arms on the king’s behalf or otherwise helped the Crown. Such initiatives enraged American slaveholders, strengthening their rebellious resolve, while failing to boost British battlefield fortunes or to liberate more than a tiny fraction of those held in bondage.

As the war plodded on, persisting for more than 3,000 days, Britain’s shortcomings became more evident and more enervating. With few exceptions, British generals proved mediocre, often misjudging the American temperament, both in the seething resentments that fueled the insurrection and in the broad, visionary commitment to a republican future. If George III was not the reactionary nitwit who still dominates the American stereotype, he was nonetheless stubborn and inflexible. The king’s men — his ministers and parliamentary allies — were poorly endowed with agility, vision and statesmanship. Reluctant to lose face or credibility, London preferred self-delusion to hard reckoning. Lord George Germain, who supervised much of the war as the American secretary, told his field commanders in 1777, “I trust that the unexpected success of the rebels will not so far elate them as to prevent them from seeing the real horrors of their situation.”

The combat theater soon expanded from North America to the wider Western Hemisphere and beyond, as Britain’s adversaries, including France, Spain and the Netherlands, joined the war against her. A deadly squabble on the far rim of civilization became a global war; the Crown sought to be strong everywhere, with predictable results. Having alienated her neighbors with overbearing commercial and military policies, Britain was alone, bereft of allies. “Our stake is deep,” the British writer and historian Horace Walpole wrote. “It is that kind of war in which even victory may ruin us.”

There would be no victory, of course. Britain ultimately lacked not only sufficient combat troops and shipping but also a coherent strategy and political will. For all their shortcomings, the Americans demonstrated endurance and just enough battlefield moxie — stiffened with vital French support — to prevail. Even a resounding British military triumph would have been unlikely to yield an enduring political solution, given the animosity aroused by years of killing and the stupendous expansion of the American Colonies, which were doubling in population nearly every 25 years, an explosive growth unseen in recorded European history and fourfold England’s rate.


The unmatched power of the 8,000-ship Royal Navy, seen above during a four-day review at Portsmouth in June 1773, contributed to the British sense of overconfidence. (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)

Under the treaty that ended the war in 1783, Britain’s empire would shrink by about a third. The conflict had also cost £128 million and thousands of British lives, plus many lives among the 30,000 German mercenaries hired to reinforce the king’s legions. The loss of dominions in America proved to be as divisive within the British body politic as any misfortune to befall the nation in the 18th century.

Yet the moving hand of history swiftly moved on. What was lost by force of arms could be regained. Rebound sometimes follows decline. A second British Empire would flourish in the next century after defeating Napoleon and dismantling his empire, before once again dominating the world with a mastery that caused Charles Darwin, in 1836, “to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman.”

Britain has long punched above its weight — the country is smaller than Oregon — and for nearly as long has feared the loss of status as a player on the world stage. “I have not become the king’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” Winston Churchill declared in 1942. But, in fact, he had: Another empire would dissolve in the anti-colonial tumult that followed World War II. Anxiety over the consequences of Brexit is the latest iteration of British alarm at reverting to “primitive insignificancy.”

Comparisons of the British and American empires are easily overdrawn, particularly when assessing an 18th-century imperium with one that flourished in the 20th century. But echoes can be heard. Both were built and sustained with a large, permanent military force, including navies without peer in their respective epochs. Both reflected a devotion to market capitalism that relentlessly sought foreign markets and resources. Both derived from reasonably robust democracies, committed to political liberalism and personal freedoms within cultures that often bent toward conservatism.

Both also displayed a penchant for foreign adventures, including expansionist and punitive expeditions sometimes infused with evangelical zeal that could be taken for arrogance. Both could be bullies, demonstrating a knack for alternately alienating and wooing allies. Diplomacy as practiced by America in 2019, which often consists of giving a thumb in the eye to our closest partners, threatens to leave us as friendless as Britain was 243 years ago.

We have come far since 1776 in power, diversity, tolerance and sheer scale. We are not them, but the apple hasn’t fallen all that far from the tree.

Rick Atkinson, a former reporter and editor at The Post, has won Pulitzer Prizes for history and journalism. This essay is adapted from his latest book, “The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777,” the first volume in a trilogy on the American Revolution.

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Credits: Rick Atkinson

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