- “The Unnatural Rebellion of This Country”The American Revolution, Loyalism, and Enduring Anglo-Atlantic Identities
In July 1779, a widow living in British-occupied New York named Mary Price petitioned military officials for financial assistance. Her recently deceased husband had been a surgeon of considerable repute and unwavering loyalty to the British Empire. In her appeal for assistance, Price repeated her husband’s allegiance and added her own profession of loyalty. [End Page 515] As quoted in Ruma Chopra’s Choosing Sides, Price declared herself “one of the numerous unhappy persons who have suffered by the unnatural rebellion of this country” (161).
Mary Price’s assessment of the American Revolution captures the tenor of recent scholarship on the relationship between Great Britain and its former American colonies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In contrast to Whiggish accounts of a people set apart from their former colonial masters by American exceptionalism, the four books reviewed in this essay provide a different perspective on how the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. We learn that the Revolution was not a decisive break, but that the two nations remained tied in complicated and contradictory ways. Written from the perspectives of parliamentary leaders and British generals, Loyalists of different races, and American and British authors, artists, and manufacturers, these four books open new insights into Loyalism and its historiography, the challenges of placing Anglo-American relations in a truly Atlantic context, and the persistent disciplinary divide between history and literature. They also raise larger questions about the enduring relationship of the United States and Great Britain which may lead us to agree with Mary Price that the Revolution was indeed an unnatural rebellion.
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire provides an excellent introduction to the policies and decisions of British leaders whom history has remembered unkindly. O’Shaughnessy explores the lives of ten elite, white men, most of whom are well known: King George III; Prime Minister Frederick, Lord North; General Sir William Howe; Admiral Richard, Lord Howe; General John Burgoyne; Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord George Germain; General Sir Henry Clinton; General Charles, Earl Cornwallis; Admiral Sir George Rodney; and First Lord of the Admiralty the Earl of Sandwich. Despite their prominent names and roles, O’Shaughnessy argues that historians have never really understood these men. To Americans, they are evil and incompetent; to Britons, they are depressingly uninteresting. To both, they are the reason that Britain lost the colonies because, as O’Shaughnessy notes, “it was a war Britain seemingly should have won” (4). Yet O’Shaughnessy is able to breathe new life into what might seem a settled matter. He not only offers new insights into [End Page 516] each man, but he weaves their stories together in a nuanced and persuasive account of what went wrong with Britain’s war effort.
The Men Who Lost America is organized in a highly accessible manner: each chapter focuses on a particular man, except for the Howe brothers who are treated together. In some sense, each chapter is a stand-alone biography that begins with the man’s birth and ends with his death; the bulk of each chapter focuses on his particular role in the War for American Independence. This approach will no doubt make the book popular among general audiences as well as scholars. Indeed, the short biographies reveal many new detailed insights that readers of various levels of expertise will find astute. For example, we learn...