Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz: Harvard And Evangelicals”

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…


17 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Quiz: Harvard And Evangelicals”

    • Nope, we got Florida by sending Andrew Jackson there and then informing the Spanish they could sell us Florida or they would have to keep Andrew Jackson.

    • No, Britain had previously got “the Floridas” from Spain (East Florida, roughly modern Florida, and West Florida, the coastal trip from there to Louisiana), much as it had got Canada from France. Spain got them (back) in the American War of Independence.

  1. But still, the insurgency – and the armed resistance by the colonies that DID revolt – was never defeated.

    That matters.

    There are at least eight million AR-15 rifles in the United States. Many of the semi-auto bans have seen significant non-compliance – I think 15% compliance has been considered high.

    Now, imagine that after an Australia-style gun ban is passed about ten percent of the non-compliant AR-15 owners decide to take up arms.

    How long do you think it would take to put down roughly 680,000 insurgents in the United States, largely in rural areas where they may have a lot of sympathy and support?

    The military was pretty much united in trying to win Afghanistan, and the Taliban are still around 17 years after 9/11. Do you think the military would be united if they were told to fight Americans who didn’t want to turn in guns?

    • And more importantly what doesn’t happen if history had NO armed colonists resisting the British Empire?

      No revolution for France to come assist.

      I’ve never figured out this line of reasoning against the 2nd Amendment.

        • Revolutions are generally ugly things in practice, even when good and necessary. The American Revolution was a fantastic exception, as the war resulted in a fairly peaceful bunch of well-spoken gentlemen arguing in stuffy rooms over how to govern with as light and fair a hand as possible.

          By all accounts Jefferson thought that the American Revolution would usher in a wave of similarly noble rebellions against kings and tyrants, and was very excited about the goings-on in France…until The Terror. I think Jefferson underestimated the unique character and culture of the Founders.

  2. I read an interesting blog/research that Britain had one thing that Europe as a whole didn’t have: a seriously higher surviving birth rate and lower mortality.[i] That would give the people to assimilate and grow into the power it became. How much of the French empire’s stuttering was from how they destroyed themselves? What bothers me is that we’re starting to feel more like the Terror than the Brits…
    [i] with additional link there to overlapping US stats

  3. None of the 13 colonies ever even thought of declaring for the Crown, even though some of them would have had a much easier time of it if they had, notably South Carolina after the fall of Charleston. Britain lost the Battle of the Capes because Thomas Graves, despite having caught the French at anchor and having the wind and the tide in his favor, disposed his ships to put his most aggressive commander (Hood) the farthest away from the action, and didn’t move immediately on the French vanguard when they got too far ahead of the French main line. Instead he let the French main body catch up, leaving him outnumbered by five ships of the line. The rest is history.

    Now, you are right that there were other things going on in Europe at the time, just as there were other things going on in Europe a generation earlier, to which the French and Indian War was a sideshow. You are also right that the French army was the key to the victory – the French artillerymen performed superbly and the Gatinois Chasseurs and Royal Deux Ponts Regiment (ironically a Hugenot regiment with a strong German presence) took a key redoubt at great cost. The fact of the matter, though, is that it was after Yorktown that Lord North threw up his hands and shouted “Oh God, it is all over!” and it’s also a fact that after Yorktown Washington’s army moved to New Windsor, New York, and did little more until the signing of the Treaty of Paris – because the subsequent Whig government in London restricted the British Army from launching more offensives.

    Still, none of this would happened but for the bravery and strategic insight of Washington at Trenton and Princeton and the American commanders’ steadfastness at Saratoga. The former kept the cause from falling apart in its darkest hour, the latter finally convinced the other powers that the US was a power worth supporting, not a band of brigands. The Revolution was as much a diplomatic victory as a military one, and still gave birth to the greatest power the world has seen to date.

    P.S. Throughout its history, the British Army almost always loses the first battle and almost always wins the last battle. The exceptions seem to always be when it battles fellow Anglophones. It’s yet to decisively beat the US in the field, although it had somewhat the better of the fight on land until New Orleans in the War of 1812, including Robert Barrie’s war crimes in what later became Maine (I’ll allow you the burning of DC, which was in retaliation for the unprovoked and unnecessary burning of York, now Toronto, I will NOT allow you the burning of Bucksport and Bangor, which was deliberate mistreatment of civilians by a villainous officer who sneered they were lucky he didn’t massacre them). It beat the Irish several times, until General Maxwell decided he was going to shoot the leaders of the Easter Rising without trial, thus losing the support of the Irish population, and Michael Collins developed modern asymmetrical warfare, with a generous element of assassination and terrorism, which they found difficult to defend against.

  4. The comment of the day omits the kingdom of Hannover. Though whether that was an asset or liability in the face of the overwhelming strength of hostile continental powers is debatable.
    Otherwise a good summation.

    As for the French – without them, the Revolutionary War would have gone down as the Second English Civil War, with the various colonies becoming quasi- then fully- independent Dominions in time, the same way upper and lower Canada did. But with long lasting bitterness the same way the US Civil War has produced, and incalculable effects on Great Britain herself. Probably nothing good.

    French intervention was something of an “own goal” for the French monarchy. The events of 1776 led to the events of 1789, just as the events of 1789 led to the events of 1917. The Terror put a stop to the incipient Whig sentiment that had been inspired by the English colonists in America. Had the Revolt in the colonies not succeeded, there may have been revolt in the home islands in time. Think Ireland.

    All in all, it may have been in both sides interest in the long term that the revolt succeeded. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is a darned good idea, and a goal I hope all nations will achieve in time. Especially the US, though my hopes of that have dimmed recently.

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