Academic journal article Parameters

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

Academic journal article Parameters

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

Article excerpt

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

By Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013

466 pages



This work provides a welcome reappraisal of the British loss of their American colonies, i.e., the American Revolution during 1775-83, in the context of British global strategic decisionmaking. The subject is not new. Author Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy credits Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783 (1964, reprinted 1992), on the first page of the Acknowledgment, highlighting Mackesy's belief that the war was winnable but was lost to poor generalship, among other things. O'Shaughnessy states clearly that American victory was not inevitable. It is a somewhat harder task to challenge the conventional wisdom that the British loss was due to "incompetence and mediocre leadership," both political and military. The author packages the monograph in nine biographical chapters, examining ten British leaders at policy, strategic, and theater strategic/operational levels, in sequence: King George III; Lord North as prime minister; the Howe brothers, Admiral Lord Richard and Lieutenant General Sir William; Major General John Burgoyne; Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the Colonies, a third Secretary of State created in 1768; Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton; Major General Charles, 1st Marquis Cornwallis; Admiral Sir George Rodney; and John Montague, Earl of Sandwich, as First Lord of the Admiralty.

The work features senior leaders wrestling with an unprecedented set of problems, in the author's words "obstacles of such magnitude." He explains their decisionmaking in the overall context of the eighteenth century; the nature of the English state, extant political institutions, and their processes; global strategy; and ultimately the nature of the military element of power, land and naval. For example, despite the previously showcased ministry of Sir Robert Walpole in British history, O'Shaughnessy underlines the as-yet evolutionary nature of English government at the time, especially the gradual development of true cabinet government with collective ministerial responsibility. His interpretation is not without controversy, at least insofar as extant practice to ensure political survival resulted in conduct for collective shielding.

He believes the "most fundamental miscalculation" of these senior leaders was the belief that Loyalists constituted a majority of the population in America. Moreover, these same leaders did not understand the changes that took place in the war's nature. Its length, seeming without end, increased popular antipathy toward British military presence. Significantly, O'Shaughnessy cites the Declaration of Independence as a seminal document for genuine, revolutionary change: a radical republican creed which beckoned a better future.

Furthermore, in current terms, he sees a serious imbalance in ends, ways, and means. He highlights the major aspects of the post-war drawdown after 1748, following the end of the War of Austrian Succession. He concludes that both the Royal Navy and British Army were too small for the task at hand. The latter simply lacked the strength to conquer and occupy the American colonies, especially given the alacrity with which Patriot forces had taken control of established institutions, further underlining Loyalist weaknesses.

Multiple demands upon military power exacerbated this imbalance. O'Shaughnessy repeatedly reminds readers to comprehend Britain's global responsibilities. War against the thirteen American colonies occurred with simultaneous concerns for Canada, the Caribbean, India, and Europe itself. These other theaters became ones of pressing urgency with French and others' active intervention in the war from 1778. …

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