The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution

The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution

The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution

The Persistence of Empire: British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution

Synopsis

The American Revolution was the longest colonial war in modern British history and Britain's most humiliating defeat as an imperial power. In this lively, concise book, Eliga Gould examines an important yet surprisingly understudied aspect of the conflict: the British public's predominantly loyal response to its government's actions in North America.

Gould attributes British support for George III's American policies to a combination of factors, including growing isolationism in regard to the European continent and a burgeoning sense of the colonies as integral parts of a greater British nation. Most important, he argues, the British public accepted such ill-conceived projects as the Stamp Act because theirs was a sedentary, "armchair" patriotism based on paying others to fight their battles for them. This system of military finance made Parliament's attempt to tax the American colonists look unexceptional to most Britons and left the metropolitan public free to embrace imperial projects of all sorts--including those that ultimately drove the colonists to rebel.

Drawing on nearly one thousand political pamphlets as well as on broadsides, private memoirs, and popular cartoons, Gould offers revealing insights into eighteenth-century British political culture and a refreshing account of what the Revolution meant to people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Excerpt

To the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War, the United States’ disastrous intervention in Southeast Asia offered a model for understanding Britain’s otherwise inexplicable response to the American Revolution. According to this interpretation, an arrogant government, emboldened by past triumphs and convinced of its own moral superiority, embraced reckless policies that enjoyed little domestic support. It was, of course, a timely argument, but it was also one with deep roots in the scholarship of the twentieth century. During the interwar period, historians mindful of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States often depicted Parliament’s attempts at colonial taxation as a series of unintended blunders, none of which reflected the wishes of ordinary Britons. Such ideas gained added force at the end of the Second World War, as the Labour Party’s electoral victory and the coming of decolonization encouraged scholars to emphasize popular hostility and indifference to Britain’s overseas empire. In each instance, the result was an interpretation of the American Revolution based on a perceived dichotomy between an aristocratic, unrepresentative, and self-absorbed government, and a wider public for whom Parliament’s actions were blatantly unjust.

In recent years, however, historians have been reminded of what we probably should have recognized from the start, namely that no government could project the kind of sustained external power that Britain did during the American Revolution without a measure of popular acquiescence at home. Inspired in part by the jingoism of the Falkland’s War, scholars working in the history of eighteenth-century Britain have begun rethinking a number of cherished assumptions. This book is one product of that reassessment. Without discounting those men and women who identified with the colonists’ plight, I am primarily concerned with the arguments that made the actions of George III and his ministers seem acceptable to the metropolitan public. This rationale was not chiefly that of an ancien régime or a hidebound, aristocratic establishment—though it certainly had elements of both—but of a political culture where the government had to maintain at least the appearance of popular approval. Despite the colonists’ radically different view of the . . .

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