The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy (review)
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American Revolution, King George III, Lord George Germain, British diplomacy

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire. By Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. Pp. 480. Cloth, $37.50.)

In this work Andrew O’Shaughnessy attempts to answer an old question—why Great Britain lost the American Revolutionary War—by separate examinations of ten British political, military, and naval leaders who oversaw the conduct of the conflict. Because these men were subjected to satire and ridicule on both sides of the Atlantic, scholars as well [End Page 666] as popular culture have unjustly come to see them as incompetent and hidebound.

To understand the roots of Britain’s defeat, O’Shaughnessy argues, requires a more nuanced and complex understanding of these men and the political and material constraints within which they operated. As a group, they were far from ignorant: Most were well educated and conversant with the British Enlightenment; a number were actively involved in literary and cultural life. Although part of an oligarchy, they and other British leaders competed for positions of power and prominence through merit and hard work. Essentially, they were confronted by a war that became for many reasons unwinnable. Yet its futility was not always clear as the war progressed; the British were in fact close to victory at several points and seemed to be so at others. Beyond simply providing a more three-dimensional portrayal of these complicated men, this book’s greatest virtue is its illumination of the strong elements of division and ambivalence regarding the war, not only within the British public but also among those who led the military effort.

Perhaps inevitably, O’Shaughnessy begins with George III. Although far from a tyrant and relatively uninvolved in the early stages of the imperial crisis, the king was an energetic, informed, and articulate architect of policy from the time of the Boston Tea Party through the war years. More than other leaders, he recognized that American resistance and revolt threatened both the foundations of government within Britain and the survival of British international power. He actively pressed his prime minister, Lord North, toward a more uncompromising and aggressive pursuit of victory. Opponents of the war recognized his leading role and pursued measures in Parliament and in public discourse to reduce the king’s influence upon his ministers and government policy.

Lord George Germain, the secretary of state for America, shared the king’s viewpoint. He pushed for a decisive military victory, in part to forestall French entry into the war; recognized that secure control of substantial American territory was essential; and urged close coordination between the army and navy. His ability to influence policy, however, was severely limited by an earlier court martial’s condemnation of his battlefield conduct and by his widespread reputation for homosexuality. The first Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, espoused similar strategic views. Ironically, in the later years of his reign, George III came to be seen as a national icon: informal and personable, wisely resisting change in a revolutionary era, and living simply and virtuously in a [End Page 667] period of aristocratic decadence. Neither Germain nor Sandwich would experience a similar reassessment.

Other political and military leaders diverged from this perspective. Lord North came to doubt the prospects for success through coercion and military force even before the outbreak of hostilities. These doubts, along with a personal aversion to confrontation and decisive action, led him to repeated efforts at peace through compromise with his American adversaries—sometimes in opposition to the wishes of the king and others—and this contributed to the persistence of disunity, indecision, and lack of clear military and diplomatic policy within his administration. On the other hand, without Lord North’s charm, intellect, and gift for compromise and persuasion, Parliamentary support for the war effort would have disappeared far more quickly.

Similar assessments of the limited prospects for success through exclusively military means led the Howe brothers to insist on appointment as peace commissioners before assuming their military and naval commands in North America and shaped...