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America declares independence from the motherland


The American Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 was a key moment in the history not only of North America but also of Britain and the English-speaking world.

Until that moment, it had been possible that the fighting that had started outside Boston the previous year would end in a compromise, with George III backing down: the solution indeed sought by most of the American Patriots. However, the failure to reach compromise took the Patriots to revolution. What had seemed possibly a short-term conflict, ending when the British withdrew from Boston in March 1776, became instead a major civil war as the British Empire struck back with a concerted effort at regaining the lost colonies by force and as the Patriots opted for independence. In March 1776, Congress was still unwilling to accept a motion by George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee that King George III, not the ministry, nor Parliament, be seen as ‘the author of our miseries’.

This became possible only because George III in effect disowned the Americans as rebels and treated them accordingly. British policies, including the ban on trade with the rebellious colonies, were designed to hurt, while the government’s attempt to recruit subsidy forces (called foreign mercenaries in the Declaration of Independence) was associated directly with George, not least because these troops were Germans.

The rejection of British authority was symbolic as well as constitutional. On 9 July 1776, after the colonial assembly of New York gave its assent to the Declaration of Independence, the inhabitants of New York City pulled down a gilded equestrian statue of the king erected on Bowling Green in 1770 (its metal was to be used for cartridges), while, more generally, the royal arms were taken down, and usually treated with contempt. The king’s name was removed from governmental and legal documents, royal portraits were reversed or destroyed, and there were mock trials, executions and funerals of the king, each a potent rejection of his authority.

In the short term, the impact of the Patriots’ struggle for independence was serious in the extreme. It launched Britain into a war that it did not win, and that became strategically threatening when France (in 1778), Spain (in 1779), and the Dutch (in 1780) joined in as allies of the Americans. As a result, Britain, the great maritime power, was outnumbered at sea for the first time that century. The entire empire was under threat. The British lost positions in the West Indies, West Africa and the Mediterranean. Gibraltar faced a long siege. Britain’s enemies also sought to strike at the heart of empire, with the French and Spaniards trying, unsuccessfully, to invade England in 1779. There was also the danger that resistance elsewhere to Britain, especially in India, would be encouraged by Britain’s enemies. Indeed, the Americans struck at Canada in 1775, and the French at India in 1780.

Foreign challenge contributed directly to domestic crisis in Britain. A sense of state and society as tottering were captured by the Gordon Riots in 1780, which brought violent crowds to the centre of London, and by the collapse of the long-serving ministry of Lord North in 1782. This collapse led George III to threaten to abdicate and to go to Hanover, a threat that captured a sense of political and personal breakdown.

The long term, however, is the crucial perspective for 1776. American independence permanently transformed the nature of the British Empire. Prior to then, the bulk of the subjects of the British crown were of British, or at least European, descent, spoke English, were Christian, and were governed – albeit not to the satisfaction of many in North America – through local legislatures. American independence, however, revealed important deficiencies in the incorporating character of British Empire, deficiencies that shattered this empire and that were to be tested thereafter in relations with Ireland.

The loss of America was followed, as a result of repeated British successes in war between 1790 and 1815, particularly in India and at the expense of France and its allies, by the creation of a very different British Empire. In this, the bulk of the subjects were not of European descent, did not speak English, were not Christian, and were not governed through local legislatures. This very different imperialism had a major impact, not only on conquered areas, but also in Britain itself.

Furthermore, the American Declaration of Independence led to an important division in the British political tradition, one of great importance at the global level. The Declaration asserted a set of principles that suggested a radically different political system, one in which inherited privilege and power were replaced by a fairer society that was open to talent. In time, these values were to influence Britain powerfully, in part as a result of the American success. The example of liberty and freedom in North America was a potent one elsewhere, and not only for radicals like Tom Paine.

Moreover, the creation of an independent state in North America was to ensure the combination of dynamic expansion on the most promising open frontier of the western world with a political society that owed much to the eighteenth-century British Whig tradition. Whig freedoms, not least of self-government and self-expression, and a limitation on the power of the Church, were enshrined in the American constitution and, thereafter, remained key to American exceptionalism. Many people, of course, were excluded from the initial span of American liberty, most prominently slaves and Native Americans, but the prospectus of freedom proved one that was extendable to embrace the immigrant groups that entered North America in large numbers, many from the British Isles.

The hold of Whig freedoms on the American psyche has proved long-lived, so the events of 1776 helped ensure that British political culture remained crucial at the world scale in the early twenty-first century, even after Britain had been subsumed into an inflexible European superstate with individual freedoms shadowed by collectivist solutions.

Moreover, many of the liberal ideas that played a central role in British assumptions in the nineteenth century were taken up by American writers and policy makers from the 1940s, in part, initially, in criticism of the protectionism then shown by the British Empire. Drawing on Adam Smith and others, there was a focus on free trade, and the unfettered movement of money, as political and economic goods, and thus as central goals for government. There was also the notion of a benign and mutually beneficial world order: a goal that proved very difficult in practice, as is very much shown today in the Middle East, but that was an alternative to an empire simply of control, constraint and coercion.

The year 1776 also saw the publication of two very significant books. Adam Smith, a Glasgow professor, published The Wealth of Nations, which provided the basis for modern economic theory (an achievement marked by his appearance on the £20 note in 2007). Smith argued the case for the free trade that was to become the ideology of the nineteenth-century British state and economy. This was the cause of much prosperity, in Britain and around the world, as well as of some hardship on the part of those who suffered from the greater international trade and economic specialization that resulted.

Also published were the first volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, an enlightened MP. In place of a cyclical theory of history, Gibbon’s work suggested that progress was possible, and claimed that it was not inevitable that a fresh wave of barbarians would destroy Britain as had happened in Rome. He also argued that even if new barbarians brought down European civilization, it had already been reborn on the other side of the Atlantic.


1756 Start of the Seven Years War. Britain suffered a national crisis as France was victorious in North America and the Mediterranean. Britain’s humiliating failure to relieve a besieged garrison in Minorca led eventually to the court martial and execution of Admiral Byng. The government of the duke of Newcastle fell. William Pitt the Elder became the secretary of state.

1759 Year of Victories. The navy defeated French invasion fleets at Lagos and in Quiberon Bay, gaining naval mastery. British forces achieved several other major successes, including, crucially, James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec. In Europe, British troops defeated the French at the battle of Minden and the ‘bells of victory’ rang out across Britain.

1763 Peace of Paris. This marked the end of the Seven Years War – with Britain victorious, winning major territorial gains from France and Spain, including New France (Canada) and Florida. Britain was now seen as the leading oceanic power and the anxieties of a few years earlier about the risks of French invasion were over.

1769 Watt’s patent for an improved steam engine. James Watt’s design was a major improvement on the earlier Newcomen steam engines. The first to perfect the separate condenser for the steam engine, Watt produced a machine that was more energy efficient and therefore less expensive to run. In the 1780s, he patented further innovations that gave a comparative uniformity of rotary motion, and thus increased the capacity of steam engines to drive industrial machinery.

1784 William Pitt the Younger wins in a crucial general election. Chosen as prime minister in 1783 by King George III, against the wishes of the Whig majority in the House of Commons, Pitt’s success ended the political crisis. It ushered in a period of calmer parliamentary and ministerial politics that was to be reaffirmed by his electoral victories in 1790 and 1797. Pitt understood the need for sound finances. His prudent fiscal management and a growth in overseas trade stabilized government finances.

1788–9 Regency Crisis. The recovery of George III ended the crisis caused by his attack of porphyria, which had been thought to betoken the onset of insanity. This prevented the creation of a regency and a Whig ministry. Pitt and his system were thus preserved, and stability was reaffirmed.

1793 Britain and the French Revolutionary War. Anxious about French moves in the Low Countries, Britain joined a coalition against France. This, however, was to be unsuccessful, and also increased domestic discontent. Meanwhile, the opening of the Monkland Canal stimulated the development of the Lanarkshire coalfield in order to serve the rapidly growing Glasgow market.

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