The English nation at large had never realized the nature of the struggle; when it did, it refused to carry it on.
Continuing How the American Revolutionary War Ended,
our selection from War of American Independence by John M. Ludlow published in 1876. The selection is presented in 6 easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in How the American Revolutionary War Ended.
Political incapacity was of course charged upon ministers as another cause of disaster; and no doubt their miscalculation of the severity of the struggle was almost childish. When Parliament met in the autumn of 1776 — i.e., after the Declaration of Independence had gone forth to the world — it was held out in the King’s speech that another campaign would be sufficient to end the war, while in spite of all the warnings of the Opposition, they persisted in blinding themselves to the force of the temptations which must inevitably bring down France, if not Spain, into the lists against them, until the treaties of these powers with America were actually concluded. The forces sent out were miserably inadequate for a war on so large a scale — “too many to make peace, too few to make war,” as Lord Chatham told the Ministry. When for once a really considerable force was sent out under Burgoyne, it failed for want of timely cooperation by Howe, and this failure is stated, by Lord Shelburne, to have arisen from Lord George Germain’s not having had patience to wait after signing the dispatch to Burgoyne, till that to Howe had been fair-copied; so that instead of going out together, the second, owing to further mischances, did not leave till some time later. The English generals complained almost as bitterly as the American of the want of adequate reinforcements, and the best of them, Sir Henry Clinton, is found writing (1779) in a strain which might be mistaken for Washington’s of his spirits being “worn out” by the difficulties of his position.
But no mistakes in the management of the war by British statesmen can account for their ultimate failure. However great British mismanagement may have been, it was far surpassed by American. Until Robert Morris took the finances in hand, the administration of them was beneath not only contempt but conception. There was nothing on the British side equal to that caricature of a recruiting system, in which different bounties were offered by Congress, by the States, by the separate towns, as to make it the interest of the intending soldier to delay enlistment as long as possible in order to sell himself to the highest bidder; to that caricature of a war establishment the main bulk of which broke up every twelvemonth in front of the enemy, which was only paid, if at all, in worthless paper, and left almost habitually without supplies.
To mention one fact only, commissions in British regiments on American soil continued to be sold for large sums, while Washington’s officers were daily throwing up theirs, many from sheer starvation. On the whole, no better idea can be had of the nature of the struggle on the American side, after the first heat of it had cooled down, than from the words of Count de Rochambeau, writing to Count de Vergennes, July 10, 1780: “They have neither money nor credit; their means of resistance are only momentary, and called forth when they are attacked in their own homes. They then assemble for the moment of immediate danger and defend themselves.”
A far more important cause in determining the ultimate failure of the British was the aid afforded by France to America, followed by that of Spain and Holland. It was impossible for England to reconquer a continent, and carry on war at the same time with the three most powerful states of Europe. The instincts of race have tended on both the English and the American sides to depreciate the value of the aid given by France to the colonists. It may be true that Rochambeau’s troops which disembarked in Rhode Island in July, 1780, did not march till July, 1781, — that they were blockaded soon after their arrival, threatened with attack from New York, and only disengaged by a feint of Washington’s on that city. But more than two years before their arrival, Washington wrote to a member of Congress, “France, by her supplies, has saved us from the yoke thus far.” The treaty with France alone was considered to afford a “certain prospect of success” — to “secure” American independence.
The arrival of D’Estaing’s fleet, although no troops joined the American army, and nothing eventually was done, determined the evacuation of Philadelphia. The discipline of the French troops when they landed in 1780 set an example to the Americans; chickens and pigs walked between the lines without being disturbed. The recruits of 1780 could not have been armed without fifty tons of ammunition supplied by the French. In September of that year, Washington, writing to the French envoy, speaks of the “inability” of the Americans to expel the British from the South “unassisted, or perhaps even to stop their career,” and he writes in similar terms to Congress a few days later. To depend “upon the resources of the country, unassisted by foreign loans,” he writes to a member of Congress two months later, “will, I am confident, be to lean upon a broken reed.”
In January, 1781, writing to Colonel Laurens, the American envoy in Paris, he presses for “an immediate, ample, and efficacious succor in money” from France, for the maintenance of the American coasts of “a constant naval superiority,” and for “an additional succor in troops.” And since the assistance so requested was in fact granted in every shape, and the surrender of Yorktown was obtained by the cooperation both of the French army and fleet, we must hold that Washington’s words were justified by the event.
The real cause, however, why England yielded in 1782-1783 to her revolted colonies was probably this: The English nation at large had never realized the nature of the struggle; when it did, it refused to carry it on. Enormous ignorance no doubt prevailed at the beginning of the struggle as to the North American colonies. They had been till then entirely overshadowed by the West Indies, which were perhaps at that time the greatest source of English commercial wealth; and the time was not far past when, it is said, they were supposed, like the latter, to be chiefly inhabited by negroes. The prominence of the slave colonies seems to have associated the idea of colonies with that of absolute government. Englishmen did not generally realize the existence in North America of vast countries inhabited by communities of their own race, which enjoyed in general a larger measure of self-government than the mother-country herself. That a colony should resist the mother-country seemed in a manner preposterous. It appears certain, therefore, that when the war at first broke out it was popular, and that the King and Lord North, as has been already stated, were themselves amazed at the loyal addresses which it called forth.
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