By Jeffery Moore
The three part series Liberty!: The American Revolution is a very well made P. B. S. production that was first aired in 1997, winning the George Foster Peabody Award that year. Written by Ronald Blumer, directed by Ellen Hovde and Muffle Meyer and narrated by Edward Herrmann, the series lasts just under six hours in its entirety. Both highly educational and entertaining, with prominent stars such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Terrence Mann among others, the content and several noted historians bring American History to life. Period dress and music round out its visible attributes and give the viewer a feel for the times.
When viewing this or any historical documentary, the question begs to be asked: from what perspective was this made? Liberty, as most works concerning the American Revolution, comes from a pretty American viewpoint. The series does introduce some commentary from British generals such as Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis and the expected "snip", complete with arrogant attitude, from King George: "America has become a land of knaves - perhaps it is best that its inhabitants have become aliens to this kingdom."
But a truly fair historical analysis of the subject from the British perspective takes books. To better understand the nature of the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain we should start by attempting to understand Great Britain itself at the time. A very in-depth study was made by the author of British Politics and the American Revolution by Keith Perry. Perry tells us that "It would seem that the relationship between the old country and the colonies was rather in a muddle, but if that relationship was open, untidy and pragmatic it reflected the way Britain was governed in the eighteenth century. The aim of government was tranquility at home and in the colonies. In the eighteenth century Britain was governed in the same way that class or school is controlled, by a judicious combination of authority and concession or compromise. Forte be used but tempered with lenity; force in the form of the military was always a last resort. Government did not possess the means or desire to impose central control or the sovereign will of Parliament where it would offend important interests or conflict with ancient liberties."
In English Whiggism and the American Revolution author G. H. Guttridge details much about what was transpiring across the Atlantic that lead up to and included the Revolution itself. His book spells out just how divided the British Parliament was on the issues of taxation and the "Supremacy of Parliament" over the American Colonies. Divisions within both the Whig and Tory parties constantly sent mixed messages to the colonists, and the governors appointed to rule over them, leaving Parliament as ineffective as King George had become to Parliament.
It had become common belief in Britain at that time that Parliament,
not the king, held ultimate power in the British Government. What appeared to
be such a triumph for representative government in Britain proper appeared to
be an irony in the colonies. That no self respecting Englishman would accept
taxation without adequate representation was not lost on the colonists. What
was lost was that the colonists had no representation in Parliament. Though
most of Parliament, and Britain, was certain that it held the power to tax the
colonies, this seemed an illegitimate argument with which to persuade the colonists.
Voices of a more moderate strain, such as Benjamin Franklin and Sir Edmund Burke attempted to sway members of Parliament away from acts that would impose new or greater taxation on the colonies. As in the repeal of the 1765 Stamp Act there was some temporary success. Franklin was so infatuated with England that in his 1762 letters to friend William Strahan in England Franklin alluded to his plans to return for good. On his extended stay in England and travelling that country, as well as Ireland and Scotland, quite extensively, Franklin was appalled at what he saw What he had assumed was a modem and fairly operated country now seemed overtaxed, overworked, overregulated and underrepresented by a collection of self interested Lords, Dukes, Earls and other various overbearing landowners. What he saw, especially in Ireland, where he sat with the Irish Parliament, governed and taxed by the same acts and regulations as the colonies greatly influenced his new position. Independence for the colonies, rather than further attempts at reconciliation with a Parliament long accustomed to imposing its will on the poor and illiterate masses must be achieved.
At this point, in retrospect, the obvious answer to the problem would have been to allow the colonies representation in Parliament. What prevented that common sense approach was too much arrogance and power, and the struggle of members of Parliament to hold that power. Due to 150 years of virtual absenteeism by the British Government he colonists, therefore, knew of only the representation they had serving in their colonial assemblies. What power struggles and debts were occurring some 3,000 miles away was totally irrelevant to them. Voices which realized this fact, like Franklin and Burke, were, for all practical purposes, ignored. Acts such as the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 were repealed when the damage they would cause Britain's merchants was pointed out by a few more observant members of Parliament, persuaded by said merchants.
As one act was repealed another seemed to sprout to in its place. From the British point of view the reasons for the replacement acts was obvious, to tighten the tax in an attempt to collect only from the colonies. But confusion in the colonies led to the perception, by colonists and their Royal Governors, as with Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, of the Massachusetts Colony, that Parliament must have lost its mind. Letters to England advising stronger action with the Boston's discontented mobs, were given to Franklin, who promptly sent them to the colonies, knowing they would be published. Upon his arrival in London to meet with members of the military and Parliament, Hutchinson opposed the Boston Port Bill and advised that a moderate position be implemented but was ignored. As Hutchinson had feared, the Port Bill only escalated the situation in the colonies.
In those back and forth struggles leading up to the actual
Revolution, a revolution of sorts seemed to be taking place in the very Houses
of Parliament. Even with the perception that Parliament governed England, no
one knew, with great certainty, just who was governing Parliament. Prime Ministers
came and went. Acts were passed, then repealed, and then replaced under a different
name. All drew the same response of boycotts, demonstrations and riots from
the Colonials. The situation only worsened with players such as Ben Franklin
releasing the letters that irritated the colonists further towards both their
governors and Parliament.
Financial interests on both sides ofthe Atlantic seemed doomed to take heavy losses but Parliament insisted, under one party's leadership or another, in imposing its domination over the colonies for its own sake. King George III was easily convinced, by both Parliament and the military, of the steps necessary to bring the colonies into submission. Soon the rag-tag coalition that Burke and Franklin had stitched together lost steam and events in the colonies escalated toward war. Parliament may well have perceived its own capability to tax the colonies but lacked the means of enforcement, short of using the military.
In British Politics and the American Revolution Charles R. Ritcheson also elaborates on the disarray of Parliament, citing factions from both major parties, Whigs and Tories, in disagreement on taxation. The "who and how" which were targeted for taxation were as crucial to the British economy as it was to the American economy. Also seldom pondered was what actions would be necessary to enforce these taxes and the cost of that enforcement. What seems to have been most overlooked was the resolve of the colonists not to pay, either taxes or homage, to a self important Parliament, which seemed incapable of agreeing on anything but its own import. Nor were the colonists impressed with the conditions which they felt were imposed upon them by a king and his military.
Defense of the colonies became more difficult and expensive as the wars of ideals and words gave way to one of bullets and blood. With the "Boston Massacre" and then Lexington incident tempers on both sides became far too inflamed to extinguish. What had started as an attempt to impose the will of Parliament and the Royal Sovereignty of King George III had failed and the time for negotiations and compromise was over. The crux of the matter was that Britain needed the colonies as much as the colonies were perceived to have needed Britain, seems to have gone totally unnoticed. The economics losses that Britain would suffer, both in war and from future lost revenues and profits, also seemed unnoticed. As British essayist Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, quoted in Liberty, expressed much of Britain's view toward the end of the war in writing: "Ah, yes Cornwallis, that Columbus who was to bestow America on us again! For asked to lose a second army, now this is an achievement! Well, here ends another volume in the American war. I would suggest that it's all over, but for the fact that there are three other wars that have grown out of it! And we're 40 million L in debt!"
Walpole's observation speaks volumes of how inefficiently the war was waged. Pomp and ceremony often took precedent over the actual conduct of the war. With time and manpower spent on balls and other distractions, the British allowed Washington's unfed, barely clothed and inexperienced groups of volunteers to just wear them down. The hierarchy of the British society and military had finally met a group that was neither impressed with their status nor their style, of being or warfare. Old European ideals both of government and warfare were ineffective in America.
That the colonies had made both Britain's merchants and treasury rich was taken for granted, the assumption made that it would always continue. The colonies for some 150 years had not demanded much attention in the way of governance or military protection. This issue became irrelevant following the Seven Years War. Parliament saw it as the colonies duty to them and the crown to pay their fair share for Parliament's idea of protection. Working against Parliament and the king were centuries of submission to the crown, and its significance, by the English, Irish and Scottish. Granted Scotland and Ireland did resist the English crown; but their systems were used to "a crown" and all that it brought with it. The colonists had long since been forced to pay homage and did not relish the idea. With whatever knowledge Parliament and King George had gathered, they had discerned this fact, and with this in mind the goal of imposing both tax and will over the colonies became priority one.
The colonists however saw their lack of British supervision as a "business as usual" system and acted accordingly. What needed defended, they defended, what needed governed, they governed and paid for as means would permit. These means and concepts to Parliament and the King were as foreign as the wilderness of the American continent itself. That Parliament or King George III now sought to impose their wants and wills was to the colonists as equally an ironic concept. In attempting to explain this logic to Parliament Franklin and others merely antagonized the arrogant streaks that Parliament King George possessed. Parliament only believed more firmly that the only means of remedying the situation was the use of force.
The total incapability of both the Parliament and the colonists to understand the others situation proved caustic and history was working against the British this time. The colonies unlike other opponents the British had formerly faced would fight to win with whatever means necessary and in whatever manner needed. The old ground rules for gentlemen on the field of battle were briefly attempted by Washington, who quickly realized the effort was futile. One hundred and fifty years of fighting Indians in a wilderness served the Americans well as they fought the British on the home turf, a turf where the British numbers and superior training lost it advantage.
Again, cooler and more logical heads in Parliament might have
studied the situation longer and harder, seeking other remedies. The king however
may have taken more convincing, only if he were presented, and then convinced,
with just how much Britain stood to lose would he have ever considered a compromise
of any kind. Taking for granted that the colonists were all joyful and loyal
subjects was at the time a huge assumption. The bond between king and subjects
seemed incapable of a 3000 mile bridge and the ultimate test of the power of
Parliament was not whether it had the power or the will to tax the colonies,
rather if it had the will to lose them.