Picture the following situation. The greatest power in the world is confronted with an insurgency thousands of miles away, which it expects to put down quickly and easily. It sends a large army to deal with the insurgents, but counts on many loyal supporters to flock to its standard. Recruiting soldiers, however, is difficult, and since the great power cannot enlist enough of its own troops to deal with the situation, it has to hire thousands of mercenaries. It occupies the remote land, sends increasing numbers of soldiers, spends enormous amounts of money, and suffers more and more casualties, all of which arouses a good deal of criticism at home. The hawkish cabinet minister in charge of the war remains confident and vainly tries to micromanage the war an ocean away. But finally the great power is unable to put an end to the insurgency. It carries on for many long years until its political will is sapped, and it is forced to abandon the distant country it invaded.

This could be the United States in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, or it could be what might happen with America’s intervention in Iraq. But it is neither of these. Instead, it is the story of Great Britain’s attempt in the 1770s and 1780s to put down the rebellion of its colonists in North America. Of course, there are enormous differences between Britain’s experience with suppressing rebellion in its empire in the eighteenth century and America’s recent experiences abroad. Nevertheless, the parallels between the British experience in North America over two centuries ago with recent American interventions abroad, especially in Vietnam, are eerie.

In its efforts to suppress the rebellion in North America, Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, could not realistically envisage a simple military victory. Even if it won a military victory, that could be only the first step in the restoration of peaceful relations and stability. Britain’s ultimate goal had to be political, which is why the British shed, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, “iron tears” in their efforts to hold on to their colonies with bullets. Since Britain had to win the allegiance of the colonists in order to bring them back into the empire, the commanders in chief, General William Howe and his brother Admiral Richard, Lord Howe, believed they could not wage a simple war of conquest and terror. They could not bombard the ports and ravage the countryside as Marlborough had ravaged Bavaria earlier in the century. Believing they had to fight a peculiarly delicate kind of war, the Howe brothers saw themselves at the outset as conciliators as much as conquerors. This probably blunted their ability to suppress the rebellion at the outset when the opportunity was greatest. At any rate their hard-line superior in London eventually accused them of a “sentimental manner of making war.”

While the British objective was thus blurred, the rebels’ objective, like that of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong or the Iraqi insurgents today, was clear-cut—defeat the British army and undermine the British will to continue the struggle. With the contest being a test of wills, the American rebels had the advantage: they had much more to lose than did the British. For them, as for the Vietcong, defeat would mean the end of their hopes of being a nation or, as in the case of the Iraqi insurgents, it will mean the end of their cause, anarchic and destructive as that cause may be.

But for Britain, like the United States in Vietnam or in Iraq, the situation was different. Britain did not have the same fear of defeat as the colonists had. Losing the struggle would not mean the end of the British nation, or the occupation of the realm; nor would it decisively affect the ordinary lives of Englishmen. “Oh! My dear sir,” the notorious English gossip Horace Walpole remarked sarcastically to a friend in Italy in 1777, “do you think a capital as enormous as London has its nerves affected by what happens across the Atlantic?” Since defeat could not produce the same kind of fear in London as defeat did for the Americans, the British willingness to continue the fight inevitably turned out to be weaker than that of the insurgents.

All these sorts of parallels between remote and recent American history are implied in the colorful and entertaining account by the American historian Stanley Weintraub of Britain’s eight-year-long struggle to put down the rebellion of its North American colonists. The British officials, as Weintraub makes only too clear, had little or no understanding of the kind of conflict they were getting into. They scarcely glimpsed the problems of suppressing a revolutionary struggle involving an armed insurgent population, especially one three thousand miles away. All many of them saw was that Britain was the greatest power in the world, having just defeated its only rival, France, in a war for world dominance. If it couldn’t suppress rabble in its own colonies, then what did being the strongest nation in the world mean? How could near-savage amateurs stand up to His Majesty’s crack troops, the best in the world? The contempt that some royal officials had for the colonists knew no bounds. Benjamin Franklin recalled hearing one British officer say at the outset “that with a Thousand British Grenadiers he would undertake to march from one end of America to the other and geld all the Males partly by force and partly by a little Coaxing.”


Knowing how it all turned out, Weintraub can’t help mocking those smug British officials, like the hawkish Lord George Germain, the secretary for America responsible for the war effort, for their ignorance and naiveté in thinking the Americans would be pushovers. Since Germain labored under the decade-and-a-half-old disgrace of a court-martial conviction for cowardice, he had a vested interest in taking a hard line and in using “the war to remake his reputation.” With the largest military force ever seen in North America on its way to New York in the spring of 1776, Lord George, who was not a peer but had a courtesy title, was confident that this huge armada could secure the “unconditional submission” of the colonists.

Weintraub’s book is not a conventional military history of the war. He does not assess military strategy or describe many of the battles in any detail; indeed, to appreciate his book it helps if one already knows what happened militarily. Instead of a military narrative, he gives us an explicitly chronological account (usually six months per chapter) filled with interesting vignettes and anecdotes and with the contemporaries’ lively and often comic impressions of the war, drawn, especially on the British side, from a multitude of sources, including newspapers, diaries, and letters, some of them little known.

This approach nicely recaptures the day-to-day confusion and bewilderment of the par-ticipants, especially the British three thousand miles away from the war, as they struggled to deal with the ever-changing reality in America. Because of the slowness of transatlantic communication (it took six weeks or more for news to cross the ocean), British officials in Whitehall were responding to months-old events by making decisions and giving orders that were already undermined by subsequent events they would not learn of until weeks or months later. “Unfortunately for him,” writes Weintraub, Secretary of State Germain “was in the position of an astronomer who sees in his own moment of vision occurrences on distant objects that happened eons before.”

Weintraub’s approach creates a strong effect of dramatic irony. Although the author and readers know how everything would turn out, the participants did not, especially the British on both sides of the Atlantic, who are the participants on whom Weintraub concentrates—apparently they are the ones who most made fools of themselves. Thus we can shake our heads at the Brits’ arrogance and smugness, their stumbling and bumbling, their crisscrossing letters, their contradictory orders, their fanciful newspaper reports, their wishful thinking, their false rumors of this and that, and their many predictions of victory right around the corner.

Through most of 1776 most British officials thought, with good reason, that victory would come easy. The British army under General William Howe had humiliated George Washington’s army in New York in the late summer and fall and had driven him in pell-mell retreat across the Delaware into Pennsylvania. With loyalists assuring the British that the rebels were largely defeated and all that was left was a mere matter of mopping up, Howe had “the most sanguine hopes” of crushing the rebellion. It certainly looked that way. As thousands of patriots flocked to the British lines in response to an offer of a pardon and to swear allegiance to George III, these were “times,” as Thomas Paine said, “that try men’s souls.” By mid-December 1776, with his army disintegrating and enlistments about to expire, Washington thought “the game is pretty near up.”

Hence the psychological importance of Washington’s defeat of two of Howe’s exposed garrisons at Trenton and Princeton at the end of December 1776 and early January 1777. These small tactical victories dampened British expectations of an imminent end to the rebellion and certainly gave a boost to the Americans’ morale. They also emboldened the opposition to the war in Britain.

Almost as if he is thinking of Vietnam or Iraq, Weintraub makes much of the growing opposition to the war in England itself. Indeed, because he tends to quote freely from the British press, which was much more radical than the Parliament or the nation generally, he gives a somewhat misleading impression of the extent of opposition that in fact existed, at least at the outset of the war. Nearly all the acts of Parliament that mobilized the nation against the North American rebels and sustained the war were carried by two-to-one majorities. Although it’s true that representation in the House of Commons was hopelessly corrupt by modern or even by contemporary American standards, still most of the British political class supported the effort to suppress the rebellion at the beginning.


King George III, of course, was the greatest hawk of all, and in a monarchy, even in a mixed constitutional monarchy like that of Great Britain, that was crucial. Not only was the empire the King’s empire, but in the English constitution he alone had the authority to declare and wage war. (That is why the American people in the Constitution of 1787 made so much of giving their Congress, not the president, the exclusive authority to declare war, a constitutional provision that has been flatly ignored during this past half-century.)

The King was not upset by the defeats at Trenton and Princeton. The losses in men were mostly among the Hessian mercenaries, he said, and he was eager to soldier on. In 1777 British strategy was to have General John Burgoyne move down the Hudson Valley from Canada with eight thousand men and cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and thereby break the back of the rebellion. Back in London Germain expected General Howe to move north and meet up with Burgoyne. But Howe had something else in mind before coming to Burgoyne’s aid. Both he and Germain continued to believe that there was widespread but latent loyalist support in the middle states that needed only British victories to be awakened. Howe thought that taking Philadelphia, the rebels’ capital, would arouse the loyalists and destroy the rebels’ morale once and for all. In order to avoid crossing the Delaware River under enemy fire (a haz-ard Weintraub doesn’t acknowledge), Howe went by sea, leaving everyone, friends as well as enemies, wondering where he was or where he was headed. “He was,” as Weintraub points out, “running his own war.” After six weeks Howe landed at the head of Chesapeake Bay, as far away from Philadelphia as when he started. He eventually took so long in capturing Philadelphia that he was unable to move north in aid of Burgoyne. That “linkage with Burgoyne,” Weintraub says, “might have made the rebellion unwinnable by the Continentals.”

Although Weintraub mocks Howe’s dithering and dissipation and his bewildering Laurel-and-Hardy exchanges with Germain, he doesn’t have as much fun with Burgoyne’s expedition as he might have, perhaps because Burgoyne and Germain did not write as many letters to each other. According to Horace Walpole’s waspish account, the swaggering Burgoyne had practically promised “to cross America in a hop, step and a jump.” Instead, the playboy general had to cut his way through the forests in order to make his way down the Hudson Valley, all the time being harassed by patriot militia. Burgoyne’s entourage was over three miles long, and his personal baggage took up over thirty carts. By felling trees, destroying bridges, and diverting streams, the patriot insurgents did all they could to make the wild terrain even more impassable than it already was. Burgoyne had to build over forty new bridges as well as repair old ones. At one point he was covering less than a mile a day. Nonetheless, when the news that Burgoyne had taken Fort Ticonderoga reached London, the King was ecstatic. “I have beaten them! I have beaten them!” he shouted, as if the rebellion were over. Burgoyne himself celebrated the victory with a fine dinner and bottles of claret and port together “with his current mistress, the wife of one of his officers accordingly expecting promotion.”

But the rebellion was far from over. While Burgoyne’s slow advance gave the American insurgents in the Hudson Valley time to organize, the British army was diminishing. Burgoyne had counted on replenishing his forces with loyalists, but he told Germain that he found only four hundred loyalist recruits in all of upper New York. By the time he reached Saratoga his much-reduced army confronted a growing American force of over ten thousand men under General Horatio Gates. Two bloody battles convinced Burgoyne of the hopelessness of his situation, and in October 1777 he surrendered his entire army to the Americans.

The defeat at Saratoga changed everything. The opposition in Par-liament was bolstered, and it voted down the government’s attempts to raise more money for the war. Lord North, the prime minister, wanted to bring some members of the opposition into the government, but the King wouldn’t agree. North offered to resign, but the King wouldn’t let him. Although the government wanted more troops sent to America, Parliament resisted, and thereafter the army in America received little more than replacements. The opposition and the English press ridiculed the government in a manner that went beyond anything we would tolerate today: scatological humor was the norm. “No press was more free than in Britain,” says Weintraub. Even the King was not immune from insult.

The newspapers and the doves in Parliament especially vilified the hawkish Lord George Germain, the micromanaging minister in charge of the war. But, writes Weintraub, Lord George, despite calls for his resignation, still “seemed the best war partisan available—managerial and disciplined despite criticism of his sharp temper and shrinking options.” Pressure on Lord North to replace Germain with someone less hard-line steadily increased, “but,” Weintraub writes—thinking perhaps of the American situation today—“the king saw his American Secretary as the only Minister whose tough views on the colonies paralleled his own.”

Germain replaced General Howe with a new commander in America, Sir Henry Clinton, and ordered the evacuation of Philadelphia, where Howe and his entourage had enjoyed months of wine and women, and indeed, so much carousing left everyone wondering, as Weintraub puts it, “how Philadelphia had received its repu-tation as the dour Quaker City.” Before evacuating Philadelphia, General Howe told the frightened loyalists in the city to “make your Peace with the States, who would not treat you harshly.” Some loyalists desperately tried to hitch rides with the departing troops. One royal official thought that this inability to protect the loyalists essentially marked the end of the contest. “No man,” he said, “can be expected to declare for us when he cannot be assured a Fortnight’s Protection.” Although this prediction in 1778 was premature, it expressed the British dilemma in restoring the loyalty of the Americans.

After Saratoga, Britain’s inveterate enemy, France, thought the new American republic might survive after all, and it became much more interested in an alliance that would avenge its defeat in the Seven Years’ War. Just the prospect of an American alliance with France prompted Lord North to offer the rebels everything they had asked for—including no taxation by Parliament—except for independence. In 1778 he created a peace commission to be sent to America to offer the rebels these belated terms. If they had been offered them in 1774, there would have been no Declaration of Independence in 1776; but by 1778 it was too late. The King now called for a day of fasting and prayer, and hawks blamed the disunity at home for the failures in America. When news of the Franco-American treaties reached London, many feared a French invasion of Britain might follow.

With Britain now fighting a world war, it was determined to put down the American rebellion as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. No more conciliation; instead, the British would bombard the American coastal cities, terrorize the countryside everywhere, and attempt to buy off the principal American leaders, with Benedict Arnold’s treason being the most conspicuous result. At the same time Britain adopted a new strategy. It would concentrate its forces in the West Indies and then seek to seize ports in the deep South, restore civil government with loyalist support, and methodically move the army northward as a screen behind which local loyalists would gradually pacify the rebel territories. This new strategy of pacification was based on the assumption that the South, with its scattered, presumably more loyal population, living in fear of Indian raids and slave uprisings, was especially vulnerable to the reassertion of British authority. British officers were eager to hope for the best, and “loyalist informants, often rewarded, offered what they thought their sponsors wanted to hear.”

Parliament investigated Britain’s failures, and generals testified that the number of troops was inadequate to put down the rebellion. The parliamentary opposition accused contractors who supplied the war effort of prolonging the war and the government of suppressing traditional English liberties. The military leadership was particularly vulnerable to criticism. In fact, the British generals seemed so mediocre that the British press began praising General Washington by contrast. Practically everyone close to power was looking for scapegoats—the Hessians, Howe, Burgoyne, Germain, the opposition, the press. Costs of the war were rising and taxes were already high. In 1780 Edmund Burke, the spokesman for the opposition Rockingham Whigs in the House of Commons, proposed a bill abolishing the Board of Trade and the American Department, the organizations principally responsible for running the North American empire. It was defeated by only seven votes, 208 to 201.

North repeatedly offered to resign, but the King would not hear of it. George III was determined to carry on. When North told the King that the war was no longer worth its cost, the King rebuked him by accusing him of weighing events in the scale of a tradesman behind his counter. Instead of North’s cost–benefit analysis, George III responded with a domino theory. If America succeeded in leaving the empire, the King warned, the West Indies would soon follow; next would come Ireland, and “then this island would be reduced to itself, and soon would be a poor island indeed.” In 1779 Spain declared war on Britain, and in 1780 Russia formed a League of Armed Neutrality which nearly all the European states joined. For the first time in the eighteenth century Britain found itself with no allies and diplomatically isolated.

Although the government and members of the aristocracy were used to periodic demonstrations in the streets, no one anticipated anything like the London mobs instigated by the eccentric Lord George Gordon in 1780. In the late 1770s Parliament had passed a bill for civil relief for Catholics designed to foster national unity and lessen dissension in Ireland. Gordon played on Protestant prejudices and organized protests to have the legislation repealed. Gordon even accused the King of being a closet papist. Somehow anti-papist feelings became linked to the American cause, “suggesting,” Weintraub writes, “that to be pro-Catholic was to be anti-American.” In June 1780 Gordon called on 20,000 militant Protestant supporters to accompany him in presenting a petition to Parliament for repeal of the Catholic relief legislation. Tens of thousands more joined the Protestant throng with all sorts of protests and goals on their minds besides anti-Catholicism, eventually creating an unruly London mob four miles long.

After the wild and rowdy crowds sent the members of Parliament scurrying to safety, “the rabble, following self-appointed leaders,” writes Weintraub of an event worthy of his colorful sardonic prose, “went roving for officials to harass, Catholics to abuse, and opportunities for plunder and profligacy.” Rioting went on for days, and homes, shops, prisons, and breweries were broken into or destroyed. With the shocked populace looking to authority for order, the Gordon riots reversed the momentum for popular reform, including efforts to reach a peaceful end to the rebellion in North America.

Initial British successes in the American South were transitory and the promise of recruiting hordes of loyalists illusory, for support for the British extended only as far as their arms. Nonetheless, Germain continued to see in every rebel setback, including the surrender of Charleston, South Carolina, and mutinies in the Americans’ ranks, evidence that “cannot fail to lessen the confidence of the people in the assurances of the Congress and…show them the vanity of their hopes of establishing independence.” Germain was desperate for loyalism to show itself and he listened to every loyalist fantasy about what needed to be done to win the people over. Having been bought himself, the traitor Benedict Arnold suggested to the American secretary in London that upping the reward for deserters might create more loyalists.

As the war dragged on, royal officers and officials turned on one another, and morale everywhere was low. The war was costing millions of pounds and since 1775 had doubled the British national debt. “It was government strategy,” writes Weintraub, perhaps suggesting another parallel with our own time, “to put off asking for more money for the war until the need was so great as to be beyond debate.” No one seemed to have any confidence of victory except for Germain and the King, who was especially insistent on continuing the struggle. “The giving up the game would be total ruin,” he said; “a small state may certainly subsist, but a great one mouldering cannot get into an inferior station, but must be annihilated.”

By sticking so strictly to chronology, Weintraub intensifies the sense of contingency and increases the dramatic irony of his narrative as we watch the British generals and Secretary Germain plan for developments that don’t materialize and squabble over details that we know don’t matter. The end came with Cornwallis’s defeat at Yorktown in October 1781, but the events leading up to that climactic battle in Virginia seemed as confused and chancy as anything in the war. It was never entirely clear to General Clinton in New York why General Cornwallis wanted to have a force in Virginia, but Germain back in London soon agreed with his plan to make the Chesapeake the central theater of the war. For his part Washington originally wanted to go to Virginia merely to capture the traitor Arnold, who was there raiding the countryside. But when Arnold withdrew from Virginia to terrorize the Connecticut coast, Washington turned his attention to attacking New York. In August 1781, news of the French fleet’s arrival in Chesapeake Bay changed his plans, and he and the French army moved into Virginia and forced the surrender of Cornwallis’s isolated army.

Even before news of Cornwallis’s surrender to the combined American and French forces at Yorktown arrived in London, the mood there was pessimistic. It was rumored in London that Germain would be dismissed and given a peerage as a consolation, if only someone could be found to accept his unpromising position as head of the American Department. When North learned of the surrender, he threw up his arms and exclaimed wildly, “O God! It is all over!” The King, however, refused to concede and called for a redoubled effort to prosecute the war. As the government’s majorities in the House of Commons dwindled, more and more people called for the cabinet’s resignation; but the war ministry, encouraged by the King, was unwilling to negotiate and endorsed Germain’s plan for continuing a limited war. Such a war led only to small retaliatory raids by both sides that did nothing but waste lives.

Finally in February 1782 Germain gave up his office as American secretary and received his seat in the House of Lords as Lord Sackville. Within weeks majorities in favor of peace overwhelmed the government, and North conceded to the House that his ministry was over. The King thought about abdicating and going to Hanover, but changed his mind when he realized that the giddy Prince of Wales would become king. Perhaps, he rationalized, it was just as well that Britain had gotten rid of America, as “knavery seems to be so much the striking feature of its inhabitants that it may not be in the end an evil that they become aliens to this Kingdom.”

All the obvious parallels between Great Britain’s eighteenth-century war in North America and the United States’ recent experiences in Vietnam and Iraq may suggest that the history of Britain’s quagmire has something to teach us today, but that would probably be wrong. History has no lessons for the future except one: that nothing ever works out as the participants quite intended or expected. In other words, if history teaches anything, it teaches humility. Sometimes, of course, some of the participants can foresee some unanticipated benefit coming out of a disaster. At the end of the peace negotiations in Paris that confirmed American independence, for example, one of the French officials tried to rub the results in the face of the British by predicting that “the Thirteen United States would form the greatest empire in the world.” “Yes, sir,” replied a British official, “and they will all speak English, every one of ’em.” Perhaps that could have been predicted, but no one in 1783 foresaw that the breakup of the first British Empire would be followed by Britain’s creating in the nineteenth century a grander and even more powerful second British Empire.

This Issue

April 28, 2005