Review: The Men Who Lost America, by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 466 pp. $37.50 (hardcover).


“If America should grow into a separate empire,” British Prime Minister Frederick Lord North warned in late 1778, “it must of course cause . . . a revolution in the political system of the world” (p. 15). In his latest book, The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy examines the lives of the ten British political leaders, generals, and admirals most responsible for attempting to prevent that revolution from succeeding. O’Shaughnessy sympathetically discerns how and why they failed—and why America succeeded.

O’Shaughnessy, professor of history at the University of Virginia, also examines the revolution from an outsider’s perspective in his masterful An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean (2000).1 Whereas his previous work sought to answer the question of why the other British colonies in the Americas—Canada and the sugar islands in the Caribbean—did not join with the American revolutionaries, The Men Who Lost America sets forth to save the British leadership from the historical ignominy of being remembered as “incompetent and mediocre” or “hidebound” (p. 5) and “novices” (p. 8). With a much more intimate biographical knowledge of these principal actors—including George III; generals Cornwallis and Clinton; Lord North; and the secretary of state for America, Lord George Germain—O’Shaughnessy seeks to reconstruct the perspective of the British war effort, which is, he contends, “essential for making the war intelligible” (p. 9).

Among the strengths of the book, O’Shaughnessy artfully weaves the entire breadth and sweep of the wars of the American Revolution through nine biographical chapters (with one chapter devoted to the brothers General Sir William Howe and Admiral Lord Richard Howe). O’Shaughnessy also destroys certain deeply entrenched myths about the American Revolution and inculcates greater appreciation for the victory gained by the revolutionaries over a collection of determined, intelligent—and in many cases quite sympathetic—adversaries.

The main recurring theme of the book, apparent in the experience of every figure examined, is the fundamental misunderstanding among British policy makers of the nature of the revolution and the depth of support for it among the colonists. “It was indeed an axiom of British policy,” writes O’Shaughnessy, “that the majority of Americans were loyal, and that the revolution was nothing more than a coup achieved by ‘the intrigues of a few bold and criminal leaders’” (p. 98). Many modern American admirers of the American Revolution also unwittingly hold on to this view, often encapsulated in the convenient notion that the Americans were divided roughly into thirds: revolutionaries, loyalists, and the indifferent. As the British learned only very slowly, too slowly to alter their strategy, the loyalists were not anything close to a majority or even a consistent minority large enough to count on. Where their numbers were large enough to make a difference, loyalists were easily alienated by the tactics of the British—particularly on the frontiers where British Indian allies raided communities; in the South, where the British haltingly offered freedom to slaves willing to fight for the king; or at St. Eustatius, where Admiral George Rodney looted British loyalists as eagerly as he did the rest of the inhabitants. Even with explicit evidence to the contrary—for instance, after the debacle at Saratoga when General John Burgoyne surrendered a British army to American General Horatio Gates and “returned army officers and generals gave devastating testimonies that the war was unwinnable because the majority of Americans were determined to oppose Britain” (p. 165)—the men running the war (George III, Lord North, George Germain, and others) continued to count on widespread loyalist support, which, in fact, didn’t exist.

O’Shaughnessy correctly blames this continued myopia on wishful thinking, a studied failure to absorb and evaluate contrary evidence, and “an intellectual failure among politicians and commanders in general to appreciate how the revolutionary cause broadened its appeal by embracing an increasingly radical ideology committed to liberty, consent, and equality” (p. 192). Perhaps unsurprisingly, O’Shaughnessy correctly points out that at no point did Germain—the man whose job it was to win the war—or the rest of the cabinet take an interest in the ideological or political dimensions and innovations of the revolution. Failing to understand what was actually going on in America made the British attempt to coerce the colonies back into the empire doomed almost from inception.

This mistake was not the result of everyone in charge being a dullard or an incompetent placeholder. One of the main objectives of The Men Who Lost America is to make crystal clear that these ten men were largely self-created aristocrats (an odd status, but not an unusual one in the British Empire, where primogeniture left a great many titled sons without means or incomes), firmly of and in the late Enlightenment, and at the top of their professional careers. Some, such as Cornwallis, were even deeply sympathetic to the colonial grievances that led to the revolution. “If we take seriously the capabilities of the British leadership,” O’Shaughnessy argues, “the achievements of the American commanders appear much greater” (p. 7). Washington quite expected that future generations would not believe the victory of the revolutionaries over such an enemy was even possible, that they would scoff at such a tale with “the epithet and marks of fiction” (p. 287).

O’Shaughnessy argues throughout the book that Washington’s prophecy was essentially correct, that it became much easier for later British and skeptical American legatees alike to write off the king as mad; Cornwallis as lazy; Burgoyne as a glib aristocrat; and all of the commanders as inexperienced, unused to la petite guerre, or simply reactionary mediocrities. How else could this unexpected and improbable thing—American victory and independence—have occurred?

As O’Shaughnessy makes plain, the British made as large an effort to win the war in America as they could with the best available resources, both in men and materiel—opening the first concerted campaign in 1776 with the largest amphibious invasion force ever sent across the Atlantic Ocean, that involved more men than inhabited America’s largest city at the time, Philadelphia. All of the British commanders in America tried to rally loyalist support, tried to goad the Fabian General Washington into a decisive battle, tried to conquer as much territory and as many major cities as possible—this latter with much success over the course of the war. Yet all of them met with frustration, dashed expectations, and failure.

With a widening war against France, then Spain, then Holland, the government of Lord North never gave up the cause of keeping the American colonies in the empire—George III even threatened abdication rather than recognize American independence. But reality, the continued miscalculations of the entire British leadership, and the diminished importance of the American colonies in British mercantilist calculus once the sugar islands of the Caribbean and spice markets of the Orient came under threat, all made British victory in America increasingly unlikely after 1778. The demands on British army, naval, and financial resources were gargantuan and literally spanned the entire globe. That they emerged from the war in relatively decent shape, unlike the French, is a testament to just how skilled Lord North’s government actually was.

As The Men Who Lost America compellingly argues, the war was bitterly and closely contested to the very end. The cause of the revolution and war effort was largely held together by the patience, skill, and virtue of General Washington, who outlasted all of his adversaries and was “the only person to receive universal acclaim from the British press” (p. 359). O’Shaughnessy makes no half compliments at the end. After describing how formidable Washington’s opponents actually were, he concludes “that conditions did not favor the British but they might yet have prevailed against less capable opponents, above all Washington, who was critical to the success of the American Revolution” (p. 359).

It is altogether fitting that the man most intently resolved on fighting and winning the war even when the will of the British people finally turned toward peace, George III, responded to the report that Washington intended to retire from public life at the end of the war with this disbelieving quip: “if He did He would be the greatest man in the world” (p. 359). The Men Who Lost America gives us a fresh vantage point on why the “Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant” (as the Declaration says of King George) may have been right on that last point.

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