The British Empire’s Failings in the American Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History Of The United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Gulezo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

There is a way in which the British government made most of their troubles for themselves. The incidents at Lexington and Concord could have remained only that, an incident, if it wasn’t for the British Empire’s failings in handling the American Revolution.

 A view of the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, in 1799
Philadelphia hosted the First Continental Congress, highlighting the failings of the British Empire and signaling the advent of the American Revolution. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Having Lexington and Concord remain only an incident would have required two things. It would have required that the British government take the initiative partly by appealing to the residual loyalty of Americans to the empire, and partly by making some gestures of appreciation for that loyalty.

Subsequently, they needed to let the divided opinions of Americans about what to do next work its own steady way underneath the bravado of the Sons of Liberty, the Committees of Correspondence, and the Continental Congress.

Learn more about the rejection of the Empire.

First Continental Congress and its Misgivings

The British government never seemed to have seriously considered playing the empire card. They never seemed even to have noticed that opinion in the colonies about what should be done next, and how it should be done was indeed seriously divided. For one thing, when the First Continental Congress convened in September of 1774, remember that only 12 of Britain’s North American colonies sent delegations.

Georgia and the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Quebec sent no representatives, nor did the six West Indian colonies of Jamaica, Barbados, the Lourdes Islands, Grenada and Tobago, Saint Vincent, and Dominica. Despite the fact that all of them resented the imposition of direct taxation and imperial interference as much as the colonies that were represented in Philadelphia. They had all heard voices from their own people in favor of joining the protest, but they didn’t.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Challenges Faced by the First Continental Congress Delegates

1774 Address to the King
A 1774 address to King from the First Continental Congress, laying bare the failings of the British Empire in the American Revolution. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

Maybe even more telling, between the adjournment of the First Continental Congress in October of 1774 and its scheduled reassembly in May of 1775, was a number of Congress delegates wondering if they hadn’t been stampeded into a confrontation with the mother country that they had not intended.

The delegates who assembled at Philadelphia City Tavern and proceeded from there to Carpenter’s Hall in the fall of 1774 for the First Continental Congress, were the cream of America’s merchant and professional elite. They wore British fashions, read British books, sometimes affected British accents, and they resented the tax schemes of Grenville and Townsend as much for the suggestion that America consisted only of plantations as for the price that it exacted from their pocketbooks.

They had not come to Philadelphia to make a revolution. They thought they had come to Philadelphia to prevent Parliament from making a revolution, or at least a revolution that would upset all their hopes to be considered equal partners in the business of the British Empire.

The members of the Continental Congress were unused to working with each other. Most of them, in fact, were unknown to each other, and they were more likely to see the Congress as a place to defend their particular colonies’ interests in this crisis than to serve some larger political purpose. The problem was that larger political purposes were already starting to take shape whether they liked it or not.

Learn more about the Great War for Empire.

The Internal Struggle among the First Continental Congress Delegates

When Paul Revere clattered into Philadelphia on September 16, 1774, with a copy of the Suffolk Resolves in hand, a fault line cracked open within the Congress between those who wanted to do more and those who wanted to do less, regardless of what colony they represented.

There is no good vocabulary to describe these two sides. They’re often called conservative and radical, or Whig and Tory, or loyalist and patriot, but two sides there were. And the adoption of the Suffolk Resolves by the Congress put the initiative, however slight, in the hands of the radicals.

An image of Carpenter Hall, the site of First Continental Congress.
Carpenter’s Hall hosted the first Continental Congress, which was an indication of the failings of the British Empire in the American revolution. (Image: Natalia Bratslavsky/Shutterstock)

Thus, at first blush, it was possible to be amused by Sons of Liberty disguising themselves as Mohawks and pitching tea in the Boston harbor or calling out the militia at Lexington and Concord.

It was less amusing when the delegates of the Congress looked around at home and found the Sons of Liberty parading through the streets of Boston and Philadelphia. Talking loudly about having the power of lessening property when it became excessive in individuals. Or that an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights of people and destructive to the common happiness of mankind.

The artisans, the farmers, and the militiamen who stopped the British regulars at Concord Bridge did not want their lives regulated by a Parliament far away in Great Britain. For them, however, Boston was also far away, and they disliked the notion of interference from imitation Englishmen on Beacon Hill, like Thomas Hutchinson, as much as they did from the real articles in London.

No suspicion preyed on the minds of loyalists more than the fear that radicals like those in Congress and in the streets wanted, not a settlement with Britain, but outright independence from Britain so that they could erect their own kinds of rural independence from Boston or from Philadelphia, and create a kind of anarchist’s paradise in America.

“We think our parent state wrong with respect to some acts of Parliament”, explained Thomas Horton, a prominent Philadelphia merchant, “yet we have reason to believe she will ever redress our grievances when properly stated, but what redress is to be expected, what civil or religious liberty enjoyed, should others gain the ascendancy?”

Loyalists like Horton were seeing ghosts for bed sheets, because in 1775 there really was no organized commitment to independence. And there still seemed plenty of room for negotiation with the British government.

Alas for Thomas Horton, the British government sabotaged everything he hoped for.

Common Questions about the British Empire’s Failings in the American Revolution

Q: How did the British view the American Revolution?

The British view on the American Revolution was that the colonies owed the empire for everything it had provided, such as protection, economy, and supplies. This view led to the failings of the British Empire in the American Revolution.

Q: How did the British lose the American Revolution?

The relations between Britain and the colonies deteriorated badly by 1775, and a war broke out between them. Persuaded by Paine, many American colonists believed that they owed nothing to the British.

Q: Who played an important role in the American Revolution?

John Adams played a central role in convincing the continental congress to vote for independence. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Richard Henry Lee played important roles in the American Revolution.

Q: Could the British have won the Revolutionary War?

Yes, the British could have won the Revolutionary War although later the British argued otherwise. Britain missed some golden opportunities to win the war before France allied with the Americans.

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