British-born Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, and 2014 recipient of the New-York Historical American History Book Prize Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy fearlessly tackles centuries-old stereotypes surrounding the American Revolution in his upcoming talk at the New-York Historical Society on February 21.
In your most recent book, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, you tackle the British perspective in the American Revolution. How did this alternative point of view first grab your attention?
It’s something I’ve long been aware of. My father taught at Columbia, so I visited New York from a young age. Sightseeing in the city as a child first stimulated my interest in U.S. history. But it was really when I began studying the Caribbean during the American Revolution—both as an undergraduate and for my doctorate—that I was tuned into the little-known international dimensions of the war.
Yale University Press
In your comprehensive study of the American Revolution, what has surprised you the most about the war?
I originally intended to argue that the major factor in the British defeat had been that they were engaged in this global war that over-stretched their resources. Even before the French formally entered the war, the British were stretched throughout the world in expectation of war. But I think the importance of public opinion became more and more apparent. In fact, there was a British general who even used the phrase, ‘hearts and minds.’ He said the British needed to ‘win the hearts and subdue the minds of America.’ The British had an army of conquest, not an army of occupation. They occupied every American city at some point during the war but were never able to conquer territories. Probably the greatest example is in the South, where the British largely defeated the Continental Army. In 1780, they took Charleston, which was the largest city in the South. Two weeks later, General Cornwallis defeated the victor of Saratoga, Horatio Gates at the Battle of Camden. The British had really captured or killed most of the Continental Army. Yet, they then faced—what we would call today—insurgences fought by people who have become modern-day folk heroes like Frances Marion, the ‘Swamp Fox,’ and Thomas Sumter, the ‘Gamecock.’ There were so many more of these people, many whose names are no longer so familiar. Partisan bands were very effective in disrupting British supply lines. In the end, my argument focuses on public opinion and the failure of the British to win American support. Part of their dilemma was that the very presence of their army in America alienated Americans because the two sides increasingly thought of each other as foreign.
How do the British and American accounts of the American Revolution differ?
They surprisingly differ very little. The reason for this is the government which waged the war, and the war itself was discredited in England. The opponents of the government eventually came to power and they became the heroes of the story. Whig history, or the history of progress, became the dominant pedagogy in the 19th century and so anyone opposed to this movement toward democracy, including King George III and his administration, were demonized. To some extent, we’ll never dispense of this mode of thinking. I realized when I wrote the book that the values of the British leaders are not ones we would identify with by any means, but there’s very little difference between the versions on either side of the Atlantic.
How does your text combat popular misconceptions surrounding the American Revolution?
I argue that these misconceptions are deeply woven into the American popular psyche. I often use movie clips to illustrate how we have caricatured the British leadership as aristocratic buffoons. You get it both in popular history and across academia. Even in scholarly texts, you’ll find words like ‘hidebound’ and ‘incompetent’ to describe the British politicians and generals. However, nobody is losing sleep in Britain about how these men are caricatured—nor am I. I only use them to argue that this phenomenon is a distraction. I wrote this book to emphasize the real lessons of this war and illuminate the British leadership’s policymaking and the central role of popular opinion. I use the multi-biographical approach to dramatize these themes. By looking at the ten key decision-makers—both political and military—it’s possible to make clear the difficulties they were up against and the extent to which the conditions almost guaranteed their failure.
Do you think there was a moment when historians began attributing Britain’s defeat to its leaders’ arrogance? Was this a conscious effort?
This started very early. It was as strong among the British as it was among the Americans. Part of the problem was that commanders and politicians blamed one another. It is very popular when things go wrong to hold individuals responsible. And they were caricatured brilliantly at the time in cartoons, poetry, and the newspapers. They had some of the most brilliant opposition speakers against them like Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox. Obviously, there are a lot of decisions that, with the value of hindsight, the British would have reversed. But I argue that their decisions were often based on the limited information they had available at the time. They were defensible decisions. Not always the best decisions, but defensible.
It is also true that for national histories there’s always going to be a certain, narrow perspective, looking from the view of the nation. There’s also the difficulty of the revolution itself. It is so much part of the American identity that it’s very difficult to overcome the myths, which are an important bond in the country, and to look at the revolution from an analytical perspective.
What do you hope the public takes away from your upcoming talk?
It will help people make sense of the American Revolution and give them a real insight into why the British lost. Including more detail and exploring the British leadership will contribute to a much better understanding of the war. We have a lot of studies of the Confederates during the Civil War. So it’s surprising that there’s not more literature on the British side of the American Revolution. After all, it was their policies that provoked the war and their strategic initiatives that decided where it was fought. So it’s very important to understand the British perspective in order of fully comprehend the American Revolution.