By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
American historians have proven to be harsh judges of the British during the War for Independence. Certainly such animosity can be understood by writers in the first generation of an independent United States. The wounds of that long conflict were quite fresh in mind, and the US was rather insecure being a markedly lesser power in world politics.
As time went on, some of the bile lessened, but rarely did the British get much of a break from American history books. To this very day, many people who visit Saratoga NHP are firm in their belief of the utter stupidity of the British army. For these visitors in spite of solid historic documentation the British are complete idiots, standing in orderly ranks allowing themselves to be gunned down by rifle toting American Backwoodsmen who wouldn’t (and couldn’t) be harnessed by military discipline.
If the rank and file were fools, their leaders come in for even more of a lambasting. After all, it was their political blunderings that cost Britain the allegiance of thirteen of their North American colonies, not to mention the access to the resources that were so abundant on the continent. King George and his ministers are depicted as a mixture of tyrannical impulses, with a strong dash of ineptitude. Nothing that they did seems to have been anything but examples of failure at the highest levels.
That the King and his ministers did make some egregious errors is beyond doubt and those who support the notion of American Independence ought to be extremely grateful that those errors were made. Nonetheless, it ought to be noted that on occasion, even some of these individuals could see a bit further than some of their peers.
Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for Colonies is considered one of the main architects of the war against the rebelling Americans and, of course, its failure. He comes across as a rather unsympathetic character. Germain’s mismanagement and interference in the conduct of the War for American Independence has been vilified by countless historians. His squirming mendacity in his role during the Burgoyne debacle makes him the object of utter scorn. And yet, like the blind squirrel discovering the occasional nut, or the broken clock having the correct time at least twice in a day, George, Lord Germaine could actually say something prescient.
It is interesting to recall that the British Parliament was rather unique among legislative assemblies in the 18th century: it had an opposition. Even the Continental Congress lacked such a bloc. Certainly that august body was anything but a big happy family; there were various factions and much disagreement, but no one seems to have ever stood up and expressed the idea that maybe Independence wasn’t such a hot idea after all.
By contrast, in the House of Commons at Westminster a vocal minority opposed the policies of the North Ministry. Individuals like Earl Chatham (William Pitt the Elder), Colonel Isaac Barre, Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke led this group, getting in some very pointed oratorical digs. Despite their verbal barbs their sole accomplishment during the Revolutionary War was to be able to say “See? I told you!” when things went wrong for the British.
Although they could do little to derail the North Ministry’s hell-bound train, the opposition gamely kept up its criticism. One such exchange took place in the House of Commons between the Opposition and the Government and duly reported in the North British Intelligencer or Constitutional Miscellany (1777).
At one point in the proceedings, Colonel Barre rose and:
“told the House in a most peremptory tone, that a war of the most serious kind threatened this country, a war from the united powers of France and Spain. That the attack would shortly be made, and made within the hearing of those who then sat in the House. A laugh arising from the opposite benches, the Colonel observed with some warmth, Gentlemen may laugh, but I dare aver, that those who laugh now, will in the moment of danger, be lying, in tears, on their backs like cowards. He then declared that France was full two months before hand with us in preparation; that we were, in fact defenceless [sic], unable to make any resistance should she soon begin…
Frederick, Lord North replied:
“…he firmly believed the court of Versailles[to be preferring the course of peace]: but as he was no prophet, he would not answer for events six months hence. He complained of having his words watched, and thrown perpetually in his teeth.”
After some discussion about the readiness of the home fleet to protect Albion’s shores, Lord Germain added:
“And now, Sir, having replied to these queries, permit me to make one remark on the house of Bourbon’s supposed design of assisting the Americans, by going to war with us. I can give no credit to this idea, and my reason is, because it would be manifestly against their interest. How well do you suppose would those countries like to have the spirit of independence cross the Atlantic? Would you not fear that their own colonists would catch fire at the unlimited rights of mankind; would they not like that language better than digging gold? And would not there arise great danger from powerful independent states being near them, freed from all controul [sic] from Europe. I cannot believe, Sir that they would be so blind to their own interests.”
In a rather dense paragraph, Germain unwittingly, yet quite correctly, touched on what actually did happen as a result of American Independence. The spirit of independence did cross the Atlantic, inspiring a complete revolution in France. Spain’s colonies did like the rhetoric of liberty “better than digging gold” and by 1825 had pretty much ejected the Spanish. The sole remaining Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba and Puerto Rico, were eventually brought into the orbit of the “powerful independent states”in the early 20th century.
And yet, Germain underestimated the fierce hatred that France and Spain had for Britain. Both powers had been humiliated in the Seven Years War, and were determined to exact revenge by any means at hand. Even if it meant assisting a gaggle of miscreant rebels who had very unpleasant notions about monarchy, Spain and France were willing and able to stick it to their traditional foe.
Perhaps they felt that the United States might be controlled, but in the following 50 years they found to their sorrow that Lord George Germain’s predictions were true.