Here is another Comment of the Day emerging from the discussion of Harvard’s suspension of a student religious organization.
The topic is a bit tangential, but interesting nonetheless. One of EA’s readers from across the Atlantic—you can tell he’s British because he spell “theater” wrong— clarifies some history regarding England’s unpleasantness with the Colonies, and as you all know, correcting historical misconceptions is always welcome here.
This is P.M. Lawrence’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Ethics Quiz: Harvard And Evangelicals”:
“When we look at the Second Amendment, it was written at time when a rag-tag group of colonies resisted the greatest empire the world had seen to date.”
Though I mostly just lurk these days, I have seen that misconception so much that I want to rebut it here, as this is one of the few places where the search for truth might let it be taken seriously. Feel free to check what follows for yourselves.
Britain had only just acquired Canada and Bengal, along with hegemony over some (not all) of the rest of India. At that point, all of its gains were yet to be consolidated, and represented drains rather than sources of strength; the same applies to Gibraltar and Minorca too, of which more below. In military, geographical, and economic terms, Britain was weaker than the Chinese, Russian and Ottoman Empires – though all those fell back in one or more of those respects very soon afterwards, when Britain was surging ahead, which may give people the wrong idea from looking anachronistically at what came later. More to the point, Britain was then behind both France and Spain too in most of those respects, and those countries were allied with the revolting colonists.
Britain had just two advantages over France and Spain: it had a more resilient financial system than France and Spain (though not than Holland, a minor rebel ally), and it had denied France more territory even though it had not yet consolidated that for itself.
Britain was – at the time – equal in naval power to France, though not yet to France and Spain combined, which it only became after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. That was why Britain lost the.Battle of Chesapeake Bay, which in turn made Yorktown into a Dien Bien Phu rather than at worst a Corunna or a Dunkirk, or at best even a Torres Vedras.
The kicker is that Britain had a much weaker army than nearly every major European power, comparable to Denmark and Holland’s armies though – apparently – without it being as tied up by land defence needs as those. This was for constitutional and economic reasons that flowed from the history of the previous century and a half. Whatever the causes, Britain found itself weakened further by Holland welching on a treaty by not releasing British units seconded to help Holland (the “Scots Hollanders”). That meant that Britain was without enough discretionary land forces as some its own had been tied up after all (that was why it first went looking for German troops).
France and Spain had much stronger military forces, and even though they couldn’t use them easily in the North American theatre, except in Florida, they could and did use them to build up an invasion threat against the British Isles (which include Ireland, remember) and to wage heavy war in the Mediterranean theatre, where they inflicted great costs at Gibraltar and captured Minorca from Britain in the last two years of the war, thus forcing Britain to pause operations in the North American theatre after Yorktown (no, Yorktown did not effectively end the war – it was the last two years’ campaigns elsewhere that did that).
So, no, the revolting colonists never did resist the greatest empire the world had seen to date, they allied with two of the greatest, albeit declining, empires the world had seen to date against one that had yet to surpass those empires and all the others – while the others stood aside. It is U.S.-centrism to talk up Britain and leave out the rebels’ even stronger allies of France and Spain.
Oh, and not all the colonies revolted, though some from there did. The Maritimes, Canada proper, Florida and the West Indies didn’t revolt.
Yes, I’m in a Gilbert and Sullivan mood…