‘An Unnatural Rebellion’: How the British Perceived the American Revolution

Today I’d like to welcome a new guest to All Things Georgian – Jordan Baker. Jordan holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. He is a lover of all things historical and concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history and can be found at eastindiabloggingco.com.

The coming of the American revolution was a matter of great interest for the people back home in Britain. And, as with anything that proves interesting, the revolution was the subject of many different opinions. Across the country, the British weighed in on economics, military success and failures, the morality of the revolution, and more, through the press and private correspondence. As the British enjoyed one of the freest press systems in the world, not everyone felt obliged to speak out on behalf of His Majesty or the policies of Parliament. Mix all these ingredients together and you get some colourful, eighteenth-century commentary.

Money Problems

One of the most nagging questions for people in Britain during the American Revolution was what would happen to their investments and trade deals in the colonies. Merchants, nobility, and other well-to-do British subjects had millions of pounds invested in land holdings and trade deals in the colonies that now claimed independence. And, what was worse for these titans of finance, the revolutionary governments had seized all lands and property owned by loyalists.

As the Oxford Gazette put it in 1774,

The consequences of an American War to England will be estates in houses selling for nothing; in land high; money very scarce, and public credit low; no debts paying; no trade stirring.

This rather foreboding view of the war’s potential to wreak havoc on the British economy caused some to side with the Americans. In 1775, a group of merchants from Bristol wrote to the king, expressing their desire for an end to the conflict, lest trade be irrevocably damaged.

We can foresee no good effects to the commerce or revenues of this kingdom at a future period from any victories which may be obtained by your majesty’s army over desolated provinces and […] people.’

While some merchants felt that British trade could continue to prosper even if the rebelling colonies were given independence, others within the realm felt defeat would spell the beginning of the end for the empire. In 1776, one pamphlet writer, fortuitously forgetting about Britain’s holdings in Canada, the Caribbean, and India, insisted that losing America would be tantamount to “inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland.”

Reynolds, Joshua; Doctor Samuel Johnson; Tate

Samuel Johnson and the Political Argument Against the Revolution

A leading voice of the opposition, British writer and political philosopher Samuel Johnson published his scathing opinions in his 1774 treatise, Taxation no Tyranny. To begin this work, Johnson gave a nod to the economic arguments that dominated the early days of the revolution, weighing in with his opinion:

‘That our commerce with America is profitable, however less than ostentatious or deceitful estimates have made it, and that it is our interest to preserve it, has never been denied; but, surely, it will most effectually be preserved, by being kept always in our own power. Concessions may promote it for a moment, but superiority only can ensure its continuance.’

The crux of Johnson’s argument, though, was the American colonies had no right to rebel and that their protests over taxation and lack of representation were unfounded. When Americans, or their ancestors, had left the island of Britain where they enjoyed representation in Parliament to seek land ownership or other opportunities in the New World they had given up their representation in the government of the empire.

Or, as Johnson stated,

he who goes voluntarily to America, cannot complain of losing what he leaves in Europe.

Additionally, since the British government protected these colonists, most recently during the French and Indian War, it had the right to tax them in order to afford to offer such protection.

Finally, as the final point in his argument, Johnson delved into the moral questions of the revolution. Penning one of the most scathing retorts to the American Revolution, a sentiment that still gets brought during discussion of the revolution, Johnson argued:

We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

Hot off the Press

Much of what we know regarding how British citizens across the Atlantic viewed and thought of the American Revolution comes from the copious amounts of coverage it received in the British press, between both newspapers and more editorialized pamphlets. Given that the revolution was the biggest news of the day, newspapers felt obliged to print articles on the happenings in America, lest they lose their readership and their profits.

While some publishers sympathized with the Americans, calling them the “chosen people” of the New World and proclaiming George Washington “a man of sense and great integrity,” most publications took a more negative view of the revolution. Indeed, in Britain many viewed the American Revolution as a civil war with their American cousins. Throughout the war, many newspapers throughout Britain stoked the flames of this opinion. “It is very melancholy to think that we must sacrifice so many brave lives, in order to put an end, to such an unnatural Rebellion,” G.B Brunell, a citizen of London, wrote in December 1776.

During the last few years of the war, the British press became flooded with stories of how Loyalists suffered at the hands of Patriots, prompting them to flee to Canada and the Floridas, and articles claiming that a dissatisfaction with the new state governments widely existed in  

America. Such stories led many Britons to doubt the ability of the United States to properly govern its own people, let alone do business with other nations. If a nation was born of the “criminal enterprise” of rebellion, could it ever really be trusted?

Conclusion

While Britons expressed a wide array of opinions on the American Revolution, a general sentiment of imperial anxiety runs through most of these thoughts. Whether those in Britain opposed or sympathized with the revolution, most of the thoughts written on the subject dealt with the effects on the empire’s economy, the morality of rebelling against one’s sovereign, and fears of the empire’s collapse.

Featured Image

John Trumbull, American, 1756–1843 Yale University Art Gallery