To say that one of the more consequential events in world history is the War of American Independence would be making an understatement of the highest magnitude.
A war that is regarded, both by contemporary and modern historians, as the war that ended the first British Empire and paved the way for the second and influenced it immeasurably. It was regarded by contemporary Britons as a war that could have ended their empire and brought untold misery to the home country by depriving it of a market of 2.5 million customers and started a chain reaction that would see the British kicked off permanently from the North American continent.
Michael Pearson, author of Those Damned Rebels, a book that places the American Revolution from a contemporary British viewpoint, writes “They [the rebels] were to transform the tranquil scene he [King George III] had described in Parliament, plunge Britain into war once more with his traditional enemies, the Bourbon kings of France and Spain, and, eventually, even cause the birth of a new world power.“
He describes, in the foreword, “This book tries to see the war–the decisions that were made and the actions that were fought–in a contemporary setting…What it does try to do is…to present a realistic picture of a major power attempting to put down a revolt for the very understandable reason that its leaders believed that if they failed, the whole Empire would collapse.
Some scholars, however, have disputed the extent to which it affected Britain.
In his 1964 work The War for America, British historian Piers Mackesy argued that the American
War of Independence was a typical eighteenth century regional conflict of little scope, which had a relatively minor impact on Britain. Mackesy’s work was recognized as usefully placing the war in a broader context and providing some balance to the patriotic analyses of earlier American historians.
However, even at the time of publication his work was criticized significantly.
In her review of Mackesy’s book, military historian Ira D. Gruber, who specializes in the American Revolution, acknowledged “a fair measure of truth in Mackesy’s argument”, but claimed he had overstated his case and that his overall argument was weakened by “a careless use of evidence” and “a number of errors in fact”.
She observed “Mackesy is not consistently trustworthy in matters of fact and chronology”, and concluded that while Mackey’s book was important for placing the war in a global context, “It would be more important if Mr. Mackesy had taken the time to brace his interpretation with better research”.
In an article in 1995, historian Stephen Conway went a step further, not only repudiating Mackesey’s argument, but claiming on the contrary that “for Britain the American war was far from limited in its impact”.
In Mackesy’s view, then, the War of Independence, whatever its impact on America, did little to alter the texture of life in Britain.
This article offers a different interpretation. It will argue that for Britain the American war was far from limited in its impact, and that it anticipated, in many important ways, the British experience in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.
The 66 ships of the line available in 1778 increased to 90 in 1779 and 95 in 1780.
Twelve new infantry battalions were raised in the spring of 1778; another 14 in 1779, plus three regiments of light dragoons.
By 1783 there were 118 battalions of line infantry on the regular establishment, compared with just 70 when the war broke out.
By the last years of the struggle there were 66 corps of militia, together with four regiments of fencible-men in Scotland.
In Ireland unofficial volunteer units were formed by the Protestant population when the Bourbon invasion threatened, and in Scotland similar bodies emerged at the same time and shortly afterwards.
In England, too, volunteer corps appeared all over the place from 1778 – there are reports of units in London, Bath, Birmingham, Norfolk, Kent, and Sussex, and from Devon a militia officer wrote in 1779 that: ‘There is scarce a Town or Village in this County but what have Raised Independent Companys or Company’.
By the close of the war more than a quarter of a million British and Irish subjects of King George were serving in the official armed forces (110000 in the army, 107000 in the navy, and about 40000 in the English and Welsh militia and Scottish fencibles).
It seems likely that another 60000 or so Irish Protestants were active in volunteer units, and perhaps about half as many Britons.
If we take into account deaths, desertions, and discharges, the number of men who served, at one time or another, was probably around half a million. The population of Britain, to put that number in context, was 8 million, 2.35 million of which could be considered the military manpower of the nation.
This was a significant proportion of the male population of military age during the war years – between one in seven and one in eight.
As a military participation rate this was less than the one in four (or five or six) calculated for the Napoleonic Wars, let alone the nearly one in two for the First World War.
But it exceeds the ratio for all earlier eighteenth-century conflicts (perhaps one in nine to ten in the Seven Years War of 1756-63 and only one in 16 for the War of Austrian Succession of 1739-48).
To support this considerable military effort required a vast amount of money.
The land tax was increased to its normal wartime rate of four shillings in the pound, and excise duties were extended and increased, raising altogether an average of £12 million a year.
Government borrowing, which was made possible by the reliable tax base, also increased dramatically.
The national debt rose from £127 million in 1775 to £232 million in 1783.
In fact, about half the cost of the war was covered by borrowing; and that cost was much higher than ever before: £109 million was spent on the army, navy, and ordnance, compared with nearly £83 million in 1756-63 and just under £56 million in 1739-48.
In 1780 military spending was the equivalent of 12.5 percent of estimated national income; a larger proportion than in some of the years of war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, when Britain is generally thought to have been under immense strain (in 1800 military spending accounted for 10.4 percent of a much increased national income).
Impact of Increased Taxation
Many Britons were affected by the increased taxation required to help to finance the conflict.
A land tax of four shillings in the pound predictably led to a chorus of protest from the squirearchy; and the comfortably-off were supposed to contribute in other ways, too: Matthew Flinders, a Lincolnshire surgeon, was pleased to escape the ‘new heavy tax on male servants’, but he could only reduce his liability for the window tax by blocking up two of the windows in his house.
The poor were soon also required to dig deeper into their pockets, as indirect taxes were extended to new items of consumption, or the rates increased on goods already subject to duties.
We can only speculate on the effect of the increased tax burden on purchasing power; but we can see that it had a very definite impact on some forms of economic activity.
The construction trade was experiencing something of a boom until it was badly hit in 1777 by higher duties on glass and wallpaper; bankruptcies in this sector rose from an average of 15 per year between 1772 and 1777 to 30 in 1777 itself and 58 in 1778.
Increased borrowing also had a noticeable effect on the economy. To attract savings, the government offered interest rates over the 5 percent maximum imposed by law on private borrowers.
Unable to compete, bankers saw their stocks steadily decline, and were obliged to reduce their new lendings.
The overall pattern was clear: the government’s need for money was deflecting investment from building, from canal and road construction, and from the land – the war years coincided with a sharp decline in enclosure activity.
The difficulties for the domestic economy were exacerbated by the disruption of overseas trade, which lowered profits and so further depressed investment.
Smugglers no doubt flourished with the navy’s attention distracted, but legitimate trade declined: between 1775 and 1778 imports fell by 26 per cent, exports by more than 18 per cent, and re-exports by 35 percent.
The contraction owed much to the near-cessation of trade with America.
In July 1775 the Virginia agent of a Glasgow tobacco merchant predicted that the war would have a ‘direful effect’ on business.
He was right: Scottish tobacco imports slumped from 46 million lb weight in 1775 to only 7 million in 1776. By 1777 they were languishing at a mere 210000 lb
The sharp decline in the American trade seems to have been particularly damaging for the textile industry.
In 1772 the official value of woollen exports to the Thirteen Colonies was more than £900000; by 1776 this had fallen to a trifling £58000.
In the West Riding wool-producing area, it was not until the close of the war that output consistently returned to the level of 1773.
This inevitably had an impact on the wool-growing regions. Wool prices slumped and wool-growers, especially in Lincolnshire, became restless.
In 1780 and 1781 they petitioned Parliament – though unsuccessfully – for permission to export raw wool to Europe.
The loss of most of the American market also had damaging consequences for the metal-working trades of the West Midlands.
The war also influenced the development of penal policy in Britain.
Before 1775 it was standard practice for felons to be pardoned on condition that they were transported to the American colonies. Lesser criminals might be sentenced to transportation by the courts.
The outbreak of fighting between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies made the continuation of this practice impossible.
Once it became clear that the interruption in the export of offenders was to be prolonged, new methods of dealing with the deviant population had to be devised.
Male offenders – and even suspects – might be packed off to the army, navy, or marines, or, like John Whiteley, found guilty of horse-stealing at the York assizes in 1776, were pardoned on condition that they entered the king’s service either ‘at Sea or Land’.
But the number absorbed by the armed forces was limited; not least because the war office and officers on the spot were often reluctant to take recruits of this type.
The Americans, many historians would accept, became a people at arms nearly two decades before the French. Less recognized is the extent of popular mobilization in Britain.
During the American war the British army and the royal navy recruited more men than ever before.
A higher proportion of Britons and Irishmen served as soldiers, sailors, militiamen, or volunteers than in any previous war.
For Britain, as well as America, this was an ideological struggle – a struggle that divided the nation.
Its political, economic, and social impact was greater than is usually realized; it affected, in one way or another, the lives of countless thousands – even millions – of people in the British isles.
The French Revolutionary War was still more dramatic in its impact; but for Britain the events of 1775-83 provided a strong foretaste of what was to come.
- The British Isles and the War of American Independence by Stephen Conway
Mancall, Peter C., and Thomas Weiss. “Was Economic Growth Likely in Colonial British North America?” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 59, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 17–40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2566495.
- Those Damned Rebels
Stephen Conway. “The British Army, ‘Military Europe,’ and the American War of Independence.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 1, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2010, pp. 69–100, https://doi.org/10.5309/willmaryquar.67.1.69.
Conway, Stephen. “The Politics of British Military and Naval Mobilization, 1775-83.” The English Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 449, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 1179–201, http://www.jstor.org/stable/577103.
- Jasanoff, Maya. “The Other Side of Revolution: Loyalists in the British Empire.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 65, no. 2, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2008, pp. 205–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/25096784.
- Simon Hill (2016) The Liverpool Economy during the War of American Independence, 1775–83, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 44:6, 835-856, DOI:10.1080/03086534.2016.122714
- The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789
- The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware
- Paul Revere’s Ride
- The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783
- Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
- Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped The World
- An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came To Fight America
- The American Revolution – John Fiske
- (1999) Who cared about the thirteen colonies? Some evidence from philanthropy, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 27:2, 53-67,
- 9 Recruitment Tips to Hiring the Best Employees - February 11, 2023
- Britain and the Impact of the American War, 1775-1783 - February 10, 2022