Friday, July 5, 2013

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessey - Book Review

The Men Who Lost America: BritishLeadership, The American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-C) by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy (Yale University Press, 2013, 480 Pages, $37.50) approaches the history of the American Revolution from a perspective few Americans ever get a chance to see, understand, or appreciate. The reader is introduced to a number of military and political personalities usually seen as representing a tyrannical government far removed from nation growing out of thirteen separate colonies owing allegiance to the British crown, governed lightly by mother land dependent upon it as a market as well as a source of raw materials who primarily sought to garner enough taxes from it to recoup the costs of maintaining a presence there and protecting its frontiers from marauding Indians, the French, and the Spanish. It asks and answers the questions “Were we a good as we think were?” and “Were they as bad as we've been led to believe?”

In order to tell the story through the lives of a number of British leaders, the author must cover much of the same ground from slightly different perspectives several times, making the narrative somewhat repetitive. By looking at King George III, Parliament, and several military and naval leaders, he details the problems each faced as well as the commitments they sought to maintain as they undertook to serve the interests of their nation. He also pictures the degree to which many of those men felt deep sympathy towards America, led important and productive careers which were illustrious before the Revolution and continued afterwards, and were thoughtful, resourceful, skilled men operating in a difficult economic, military and political environment. He shows the degree to which heated political rhetoric and personal ambition, so familiar to us in our our own sharply divided political environment today, often does not serve the purposes of effective problem solving.

King George III

In TheMen Who Lost America, the narrative reveals King George III as a knowledgeable and thoughtful person who believed strongly in the prerogatives of his position and the primacy of the British Empire. He viewed retaining the colonies as essential to maintaining the strength of his Empire. He was, nevertheless, aware of where his political strength lay, demanding and earning the respect and obedience of his ministers in the government. His early career shows him as a man of the enlightenment with many of the beliefs and attitudes similar to those fomenting revolution in America. He was deeply conservative, personally frugal, relatively approachable, acting as the defender of national honor and the role of the monarchy. He was the last politically powerful monarch in Britain. Lord North, George III's Prime Minister through much of long reign, emerges as a brilliant debater and parliamentary tactician filled with doubts about the war and his ability to conduct it. He sought to resign from the government a number of times due to his doubts about pursuing the American adventure.

Military and Naval figures like brothers General and Admiral Howe, Burgoyne, Clinton, Lord Cornwallis, Admiral Rodney, and others are shown as innovative and creative military leaders who had deep experience and great expertise. Contrary to what we are often taught, the British military had developed fighting skills to counter the guerrilla style warfare of the rebels, were well trained, and often quite effective. With few exceptions, British military won more battles than they lost, successfully capturing Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. Their success, however, often became a problem as they were not provided with the personnel or material resources to maintain garrisons in all the places they occupied. Their major losses (Saratoga, Kings Mountain, and Yorktown) occurred where their supply lines were stretched too far. Meanwhile, George Washington brilliantly fought a war of attrition. The book emphasizes the lack of unanimity in prosecuting the war at all levels of power and influence in Britain. There were mixed levels of support in Parliament, the military, the press, and amongst the populace for what the British saw as a civil war.

Frederick Lord North

The British loss of America was a result of a number of causes. The size of the American territory made it impossible for the British Army and Navy to occupy and blockade the entirety of the continent given their scarce and divided resources. They believed they would triumph with the aid of what they believed to be significant loyalist support, which turned out not to be present and to become less fervent as the war continued and the intrusiveness of the British military became more odious. The Revolution became increasingly popular in America as time wore on. The unconventional warfare waged by citizen soldiers became increasingly difficult to oppose. The increasing effectiveness of the central government added strength to the American cause. The British forces were active in too many many theaters (America, the Caribbean, India, Gibraltar, France, Spain, etc.) to concentrate sufficient forces in America and their supply lines back to Britain and to the beleaguered Caribbean islands were too long. The increasing power of the press in England weakened support for a foreign war, while General Washington's skill wore down the British forces in America. Finally, O'Shaughnessy suggests that the loss of America preserved the rest of the British Empire in India, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean into the 20th century.

Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

  Author Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy, a dual citizen of both the United States and Great Britain, is the Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello and Professor of History at the University of Virginia, providing him with a unique perspective from which to view the development and history of both countries. While the title of the book and its organization emphasizes the men (and they were all men) involved in the struggle to maintain a united British Empire, O'Shaughnessy recognizes and discusses at length the complex and difficult Geo-political environment these men had to function in, their character and ability, and the problems of communications and resources which made the Revolution such an earth shaking event. By structuring his narrative around the lives, careers, and personalities of ten individual British leaders, he has created a difficult to solve problem that tends to make his narrative somewhat repetitive. Nevertheless, this highly detailed and fully annotated volume is worthwhile reading for the general reader interested on gaining a new perspective into the roots of America. It is also instructive in helping to understand today's problems as it shows a nation stretched to the breaking point trying to manage world crises in too many theaters.

The Men Who Lost America: BritishLeadership, The American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-C) by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy (Yale University Press, 2013, 480 Pages, $37.50) is a highly readable account offering an unusual perspective for the reader of American history. I read the book as a pre-publication galley provided to me by the publisher through Net Galley. I read it on my Kindle.