Why Britain Lost Thirteen Colonies

Harry Dalton, Dickson College, 2013

This essay was written as part of the Revolutions in the Modern World unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2013. It was written in response to the following question: '“In the end Britain made rebels where there had been none.” Evaluate Tuchman’s argument that British policy towards the American colonies was a case of ‘folly’.

In 1760, George III ascended to the throne in Britain. The young king inherited the responsibility of ruling over more people and more land than any previous English monarch. His reign encompassed Britons on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: in the British Isles and, across the vast expanse of ocean to the Thirteen North American Colonies. While Britons had come to the New World for a multitude of reasons—escaping religious persecution, to make their fortune on the colonial frontier—the majority of them considered themselves British subjects, owing allegiance to his majesty. Over a period of fifteen years, from 1760-1775, a remarkable change occurred within these colonies. They went from having a good relationship with Britain, in which they respected and were subservient to the English monarch, to become a people independent of Britain who renounced the king as a tyrant. In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman examines Britain’s role in the revolution of its own colonies and claims this revolution was the result of British folly. Tuchman defines folly as: "…the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved. Self-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.” (p. 5)

According to Tuchman, the issue at the centre of the Anglo-American conflict was that of taxation. The end of the Seven Years War began the debate over taxation. In the wake of the conflict, British parliament proposed the idea of a standing army in the colonies to defend against the continuing French and Indian threat. Appropriation for such an undertaking would be needed and so a chain of legislation was put into effect designed to obtain the necessary funds from the Thirteen Colonies. This culminated in the Stamp Act of 1765: the realisation of the novel idea of an internal revenue tax to be imposed on the colonies. Proposed by the British prime minister of the day, George Grenville, the majority of parliamentarians supported the idea—the American colonies should pay for their own defence and as such should be taxed to pay for it. Up until then, parliament had only levied trade tariffs and customs duties and had not endeavoured to tax the colonies internally. "America had not been subject to metropolitan taxation, and the fact that this had not been exercised gradually created the assumption that the “right” was lacking." (Tuchman p.129)

Throughout the period during which Britain tried to tax the American Colonies, the underlying problem was British arrogance. Tuchman explains that British arrogance, fortified by ignorance was responsible for almost every American outrage along the road to Revolution. Prior to Britain’s attempt to tax the colonies, the two peoples had enjoyed a mutually beneficial and generally amiable relationship. Trade underpinned that relationship and provided the mother country with plentiful profits. One factor contributing to the quality of transatlantic relations at this time was that Britain left the colonies alone. This was because, apart from the importation of American goods, the three thousand miles of ocean separating the North American continent and the British Isles meant there was little to remind the English parliamentarians of their American assets. "…While the colonies were considered of vital importance to the prosperity and world status of Britain, very little thought or attention was paid to them. (Tuchman p. 130) This meant Britain grew complacent and ignorant concerning her colonies. By 1760, British parliamentarians failed to understand either the nature of colonial life or the attitudes of the American colonists. They supposed most of the colonists were rabble, uneducated and politically illiterate people “uncouth provincials, the ‘spawn of our [prisoners’] transports’ rabble-rousers ‘with manners no better than Mohawks,’” (Tuchman 156) not a people with political awareness to rival (and surpass) that of most Europeans. In short, they underestimated their American ‘children’. They assumed the colonists could be subjugated and continued to believe this long after it proved false. They recognised the colonists were loyal British subjects who were friendly towards England. Their failing was in taking that loyalty for granted and believing it unchangeable. As a result, they embarked upon a series of harmful measures, which according to Tuchman ensured the alienation of Englishmen in America. British arrogance and refusal to acknowledge certain crucial facts doomed them from the start. Self-assured of their legislative authority, the parliamentarians’ major failing was in their ignorance and disinterest in the people they were dealing with. Tuchman explains however, that politicians in Britain ignored evidence of anti taxation sentiment; assured of their parliamentary superiority “Britain was regarded as sovereign and the colonials as subjects.” (Tuchman 152)

While the British Government’s rationale for the tax seemed reasonable, it would appear most of those in favour of it did not bother to consider the implications of its imposition. Unsure of the legislative support, Prime Minister Grenville could have simply requested the colonial legislatures to tax the colonists. While it is uncertain whether the colonies would have complied any less reluctantly had they been requisitioned to tax themselves through their own legislatures, the fact this avenue was not even investigated alludes to the ulterior motives of the British politicians. Grenville was especially eager to use the opportunity to establish parliament’s right to tax the colonies internally. Once a precedent for imperial taxation had been set, it would not be open to questioning: a fact, the importance of which the colonists undoubtedly came to recognise. Some in Britain were aware of the greater consequences of trying to tax the colonists and spoke out in opposition. The folly was in the reasoning behind the tax. Already profiting greatly from the Mercantilist economic system in place, Britain chose to impose a tax, which it was known could not surpass or equal the profit made from trade. British taxation eventually provoked the colonial Non-Importation agreements, which affected trade. In attempting to draw more revenue out of the colonies, Britain had inadvertently hurt its existing sources of revenue. For Tuchman, this highlights the arrogance and folly of the British parliamentarians.

Like any people, the colonists, when confronted with a new source of taxation sought to avoid it. The colonists argued the tax was levied without their consent, as the colonies had no representatives in Westminster. Enough indignation ensued from across the Atlantic to warrant the repeal of the Stamp Act. However, this does not mean the British should not have attempted to tax them. It may not have been unreasonable for the parliamentarians to consider internal taxation but it was unwise "…it was not unreasonable or oppressive for the British crown to expect its American subjects to make a small contribution to the costs of an empire … Yet the manner in which these duties were imposed caused an uproar that couldn’t be quelled. (Davies p. 600) The British met the colonists’ argument of non-consent with the theory of ‘Virtual Representation’. This stated that members of parliament gave their consent to legislation on behalf of all Britons, in the British Isles as well as the Crown’s colonies. However, as Tuchman notes, by doing so they passed up an opportunity to silence the colonists. If given representation, the colonists could no longer resist taxation—something Britain did not consider. Britain “…never seriously considered the advantage to themselves of admitting American Representation.”

Parliament had sought to exercise its right to raise revenue in the American colonies and had been duly rejected by the colonists. Thereafter, the issue became a point of parliamentary sovereignty. Britain could have left the issue at that, its pride and sovereignty relatively intact. However, it chose to continue the affair and in doing so, would ultimately lose any sovereignty over the colonies. The successor to the Stamp Act was the Townshend duties, passed by a delusional House of Commons in 1768. While these were an external duty on trade, their introduction so shortly after the repeal of the Stamp Act can be characterised as nothing short of ‘folly’. In short, Britain dug itself a significantly deeper hole. The introduction of taxation ultimately destroyed trans-Atlantic relations and as such the mercantilist economic system, which it had so benefited from.

British repeals failed to conciliate the colonists as they did not address the cause of colonial grievances. Actions intended to consolidate and reaffirm parliamentary supremacy only served to alienate the colonists and ultimately lessen British influence. The expectation that Britain’s Parliament could use force to impose its will is also folly for two reasons. Firstly, if the British did resort to force, they would be forced to fight in enemy territory. The British were at a distinct disadvantage fighting a war on the North American continent, 3000 miles away from Britain. Secondly, the outcome of the war was never going to make matters better for the British: had they won, they would have faced the task of trying to maintain their influence over a people, who would have had few sympathies for Britain. At the end of the war: "…they found out by hard experience what they should have known from the start, namely that Britain’s military capacity was extremely limited." (Davies p. 601) With the benefit of hindsight, the extent of the damage caused by Britain’s folly is revealed through reflection upon what had been, and what was afterwards. Britain had been in possession of the wealthiest colonies in the world. But in looking to exert its influence over the American colonies, Britain drove them to the point of revolution and induced the separation of the colonies, thereby losing any influence. Britain ultimately lost the better part of the North American continent and alienated a people who had once been loyal and helpful to Britain, all in the name of asserting British sovereignty. The folly of British policy was that it assumed parliament could impose its will on the colonies and Britain would be able to enforce it, contrary to indications at the time.

Tuchman is correct in her assertion: British folly led to the Revolutionary War. Britain acted counterproductively to its own interests by implementing measures, which were not conducive to continuing its profitable trade relationship with the colonies. Furthermore, British policies served to alienate colonists to the point of revolution. Britain continued to push measures—such as taxation— which provoked the colonists British actions undermined their own policies and drove a people uninterested in separation to rebellion. Britain’s folly was in its lack of foresight and arrogance in dealing with the colonies.


Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
No Comments

Annotated Bibliography

Tuchman, Barbara, 1984, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Ballantine Books, New York
Tuchman closely examines the failings of Britain’s interaction with the Thirteen Colonies arguing that British policy concerning America was predominantly responsible for the American Revolution. She presents a persuasive case supported by contemporary accounts, which was useful.

Davies, Norman 2000, The Isles: A History, Papermac, London
An in-depth history of British civilization, Davies briefly talks about the period during which Britain lost the American colonies. It provided useful information, which supported Tuchman’s case.

Hutchinson, Walter, c. 1920, Hutchinson’s Story of The British Nation, Hazell, Watson & Viney, London
Similar to Davies, Hutchinson presents a highly detailed history of British affairs, both foreign and domestic. Though his book is somewhat archaic, his accounts of events are succinct and clear.

Christie, I.R, 1966, Crisis of Empire Great Britain and the American Colonies 1754-1783, Edward Arnold, London
Christie provides a succinct description of events leading up to the American Revolution. A highly accessible text, it elaborated on crucial issues.

Wright, Louis B 1962, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies 1607-1763, Harper & Row, New York
Wright’s focus is almost entirely on the nature of colonial life during the period before the introduction of the Stamp Act and the beginning of hostilities. While there was useful background information, this did not pertain to events after 1760.

Parkinson, Roger, 1971, The American Revolution, Wayland Publishers, London
Drawing on contemporary illustrations, Parkinson presents an engaging commentary on the lead up to the war.

Weir, Stephen, 2005, History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them, Murdoch Books, Australia
An entertaining look at misguided decisions throughout history and their impact, this provided a concise examination of British ‘folly’ focused specifically on the Boston Tea Party.

Brogan, Hugh, 1999, The Penguin History of the USA, The Penguin Group, England
An overarching and highly detailed academic text, Brogan deciphers key actions, which influenced and shaped events. Brogan’s point of view is dispassionate but convincing.