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November 01, 2005

Iron Tears: Rebellion in America - Stanley Weintraub

Posted by Brendan Simms

Iron Tears: Rebellion in America
by Stanley Weintraub
Pp. xiv + 375, London: Simon and Schuster, 2005
Hardback, 18.99

Most people now refer to the conflict which led to the creation of the United States as the "American Revolution" or the "American War of Independence". Yet it was also, as Stanley Weintraub argues in Iron Tears, the "first [American] civil war", which pitted loyalists and Indians against colonists as much as it did redcoats against Yankees. The rebels did not for the most part begin their struggle with independence in mind, but sought rather the vindication of their rights as Englishmen. Their cause found a corresponding echo across the Atlantic, where it became the perfect stick with which Whig critics and radical agitators could beat the Tory government and the monarchy. It is with this story that Weintraub is primarily concerned.

From the outbreak of war in 1775 to its conclusion in 1783, controversy over America racked British popular and parliamentary politics. British defeats were received with ill-concealed Schadenfreude by the opposition, toasts were drunk to the rebel commander, George Washington, insults were exchanged in and outside of parliament on a regular basis, and challenges to duels were carried back and forth. The Secretary of State for America, Lord George Germain, was hounded at every turn by an opposition determined to resurrect his alleged cowardice at the battle of Minden during the Seven Years' War, some twenty years earlier; this incident was the eighteenth-century British Chappaquidick. The resulting pamphlet and caricature taunts to which Germain was subjected, some of them quite inventive, are described in vivid detail by Weintraub.

The British hung on in America for many reasons, not least the obduracy of King George III, who regarded the claims of the colonists as a personal affront. But British forces were not simply in America because they were there, but because the strategic contest with Versailles and Madrid required it. The confrontation with the colonists had begun in response to British attempts to tax them for imperial defence against a Franco-Spanish revanche. George III, in particular, believed that Britain great power status depended on the retention of the colonies.

In fact, Britain's position in America reflected her once astute management of the European balance of power. Here Weintraub perhaps does not do justice to the extent to which the loss of America was due to the failure of British diplomacy in Europe after the triumphs of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763). For the first time ever, Britain stood alone, without a major ally on the continent: all attempts to secure Prussia, Austria or Russia in the decade leading up to the showdown in America had failed.

The Americans, by contrast, understood the importance of Europe far better. One of their generals bemoaned the loss of Fort Ticonderoga not so much in military but diplomatic terms:

What vexes me most is the disgrace which the evacuation of such a strong post will fix upon our arms in Europe.
Indeed, when the Americans prevailed shortly after at the battle of Saratoga, this brought the French into the war; the Spanish and Dutch followed soon after. In the end, it was a combination of Franco-American collaboration on land, and French naval blockade that led to the British surrender at Yorktown (1781), which can be compared to the Fall of Singapore in 1942.

The loss of America was Britain's most serious reverse in the eighteenth century. Many contemporaries saw it as a sign of God's wrath; others blamed governmental corruption or popery. The truth was more prosaic: British interests could only be secured in cooperation with (most of) Europe, not in splendid isolation from the continent. Neither the most extensive military and naval mobilisation Britain had ever seen, nor unprecedented levels of popular patriotism sufficed to stave off disaster. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

American independence was also Britain's most momentous defeat, which paved the way for the emergence of the United States as a world power. Horace Walpole looked further ahead than he could have imagined when he responded to the Declaration of Independence in 1776 with the prediction that this:

This little island will be ridiculously proud some ages hence of its former brave days, and swear its capital was once as big as Paris, or what is to be the name of the city that will then give laws to Europe perhaps New York or Philadelphia.
France, of course, rejoiced at the humbling of Britain. All the same as one of Weintraub's charming anecdotes suggests the last laugh was on them. When one Frenchman predicted that the thirteen states would become "the greatest empire in the world", one member of the American delegation in Paris shot back:
Yes Sir, and they will all speak English, every one of 'em.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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Instead of viewing the American War of Independence as America's first civil war, it might be better to view it as America's first war of secession. The Colonies wanted to secede from the British Empire, similar to the Confederate States later wanting to secede from the Union.

Posted by: Shawn Ritenour at November 2, 2005 02:43 AM
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