Skip to main content

Hail Our Britannic Bicentennial

ISSUE:  Summer 1976

More than once in this Bicentennial year I have found myself asking the question, What would have happened if Cornwallis had been defeated at Yorktown? There was a time when no respectable historian would allow himself to be caught playing with such fanciful hypotheses, but now that Clio has equipped herself—at least for occasional wear—with the blue jeans of the social sciences it is only necessary to call our iffy questions “counterfactuals” for them to pass muster in her wardrobe. And indeed it is perhaps profitable to consider for a moment what consequences would have flowed from a British defeat in 1781.

I do not have to stress what a close shave it was. Everything, after all, hinged on command of the sea, that fickle element which has brought so many well-planned strategies to ruins. True, from 1778 onwards the British had been able to thwart every attempt by the French to hamper the sea communications of the British forces, but one did not have to be superstitious to believe that this only increased the chances of their luck turning against them next time, If the two British naval squadrons, Hood’s coming up from the West Indies and Graves’s coming from New York, had not been able to intercept Barras bringing his siege artillery down from Rhode Island, Barras, in conjunction with De Grasse’s substantial fleet, would have been able to land men and artillery at the Chesapeake with fatal consequences for Cornwallis’s poorly defensible entrenchments. The way would have been clear for Washington, reinforced to a strength of 16,000 troops, to overwhelm Cornwallis’s 6000, Cut off from reinforcements by sea and decisively outnumbered by land, Cornwallis would have faced the choice of annihilation or surrender.

Some historians addressing themselves to the same question, have surmised that the loss of Cornwallis’s forces would not of itself have proved fatal. Clinton had a much larger army at his command in New York, and there was no reason to suppose that Britain would not regain command of the Atlantic sufficient to guarantee reinforcements and fresh supplies. Indeed, within six months of Yorktown Rodney defeated De Grasse at the Battle of the Saints in the face of decisive odds. But certainly the recovery of North America would have been a long haul and we know that there were grave divisions inside the British government; it is doubtful whether the supporters of the war would have been able to overbear their critics in Cabinet and in Parliament, and induce them to persist in a costly and unrewarding struggle.

So one may reasonably assume that the first consequence of defeat at Yorktown would have been the loss of the American colonies. Would this have meant, by a kind of domino process, the loss of all the other component parts of the Empire? This was certainly what George III had been fearing: if America won independence “the West Indies must follow them . . . Ireland would soon follow the same plan . . . . Then this island would be reduced to itself and soon would be a poor island indeed.”1 One cannot exclude the royal hypothesis, but one must remember that the part of the Empire most nearly at risk, Canada, was also the one where loyalty was strongest, thanks in part to reinforcements by American Tories fleeing from the rebels. So if Canada could be held it would not necessarily follow that the rot would spread elsewhere. No other part of the Empire was in an analogous state of evolution. British rule in India would not depend upon who reigned in Philadelphia.

A more serious consequence would have been the loss to Britain of the trade and the whole community of economic interest represented by the North Atlantic area. The American colonies, once independent, would have gone their own way, developed their own mercantilism at whatever economic price, and would have cultivated close relations with Britain’s most permanent enemy, France, In the inescapable struggles of the Napoleonic War Britain would have had America as an enemy or at the very least as a neutral siding with the enemy. British forces would have been further extended by the necessity of operating in North America as well as in the West Indies, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. One shudders to think how much this would have prolonged the conflict with Bonaparte and what it would have meant in terms of strain on the British fleet, fighting a global war virtually single-handed.

Conceivably, however, Britain could have survived this additional stress and emerged nonetheless victorious in the long run. Far more serious in terms of the ultimate prospects for Anglo-Saxon democracy would have been the consequences inside America itself. It is hard to believe that the 13 colonies, who could not form a proper system of government between themselves even under the pressures of war, would have been any more successful in the afterglow of victory and peace. Even during the war they were quarrelling about their Western lands and about the distribution of power within the different parts of the Confederation. These disagreements would have inevitably broadened into open conflict as the main divergencies of interest developed. New England, living by trade and fisheries, would have been suspicious of the West and South, the South, committed to slavery and the export of its primary products, would have been at odds with the free and manufacturing parts of the Union. The middle states would have been torn between their Northern and Southern brethren. As the pressures for democracy mounted is it possible to believe that these differences could have been reconciled without war? Could the South have kept its increasingly anomalous and peculiar institution without fighting for it? In short, would we not have seen a disintegration of the Confederation accompanied by a war fought with the peculiar savagery and intensity of a conflict which was both civil and ideological? And, whatever the outcome of such a war, could it have failed to leave America weakened and divided, unable to play her part in the struggles of the great powers that marked the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century?

Fortunately this is mere surmise—a sobering reminder, at best, of the course that history in less fortunate circumstances might have taken. A more profitable occupation for a historian in a Bicentennial year is to reflect on what actually occurred, and leave might-have-beens to moralists and newspaper men.


It is worth recalling what was the situation that confronted the victorious British government at the end of 1781.They were victors on the battlefield and at sea, but rebel resistance did not cease with Yorktown. In every colony there was a revolutionary administration in being and although the so-called Continental Congress had fled from Philadelphia to a hideout in the Catskills it still existed, a shadow of a shadow, as a potential rallying point for disaffection. The economy of the country was in ruins, with inflation of paper currency roaring unchecked, trade at a virtual standstill, and undisciplined groups of rebel militia roaming the countryside in search of food and shelter.

In such a situation the main problem for the victor was not pacification but restoration. The enemy was anarchy and paralysis, not rebellion. Fortunately Lord North’s administration fully realized this. Critics of North have often accused him of sloth and complaisance, none of ideological bigotry or vindictiveness. At this juncture his faults and his virtues combined for the empire’s benefit. Steven Watson in the Oxford History of the period, well says of him that he is best described as “an easy-going man of business who, lacking both long-term plans and close party attachments, therefore met all problems separately and as they were forced upon him. For his chief virtues were his good sense and his good temper.”

So much is true yet, as sometimes happens to such men in the hour of triumph, success brought out in North a magnanimity of spirit which was more than mere good temper. His justly celebrated speech, delivered in the borough of Lincoln on the morrow of victory, both expressed what the better part of the nation felt and shamed the vengeful minority into silence:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to the finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

The chord thus struck provoked an instant response. Parliament passed an “Act of free and general pardon, indemnity and oblivion” whose wording, almost identical with that passed at the Restoration in 1660 (12 Car. II c, 12), reminded the King’s subjects on both sides of the Atlantic that the conflict just concluded had indeed been a civil war. The consequent amnesty combined prudence and generosity in equal degrees. That it should also meet the exigent demands of justice was perhaps too much to expect. The Loyalists and the Indians, the two groups who had stood by the Crown throughout the long arbitrament of arms, were sacrificed on the altar of Reconstruction (as the media men of the period soon dubbed the postwar settlement). No provision was made to protect the Red Man’s hunting grounds against the pressures of the palefaces’ westward movement. The Proclamation of 1763, with its pledge to respect the claims of the natives to lands west of the Appalachians, was not indeed repealed; it was simply allowed to lapse. Similarly, although the punitive legislation passed by state assemblies against the Loyalists was disallowed, it merely shared, in this respect, the fate of all the state legislation of the war years. No particular provision was made for restitution of Loyalists’ property or employment, either for those who had fled to Canada or those who had gone underground at home, They were simply left to pursue their claims through the courts of their colony, with consequences that were only too predictable. Disappointed and bitter, many of them preferred to stay in Canada rather than return home or join the unhappy refugee colony in Britain, and it is indeed to their long and bitter memories that the War of Canadian Secession, that unhappy, if mercifully abortive, conflict of the 1860’s, is in large part due.

North’s policy in fact was to treat with the rebel leaders as equals, almost indeed as colleagues. In this he was immeasurably assisted by the responsive attitude of Washington. Throughout the war Washington had made little or no secret of his contempt for the incompetence and irresolution of the Continental Congress:

“I see one head gradually changing into thirteen. I see one army branching into thirteen, which, instead of looking up to Congress as the supreme controlling power of the United States, are considering themselves as dependent on their respective states. In a word, I see the powers of Congress declining too fast for the consideration and respect, which are due them as the great representative body of America, and I am fearful of the consequences”.

Holding such views, Washington was only too ready, in the collapse of any ail-American government after Yorktown, to assume the role of chief executive which de facto was already his. It was he who negotiated the instruments of surrender, he who communicated their terms to the state governments.

Characteristically, the leader whose resolution had alone kept the rebellion in being for so long now became the principal figure in effecting the processes of Reconstruction. It was at his initiative that the remnants of the Continental Army before being disbanded took an oath of allegiance to “His Majesty, George III, of America and all his Dominions, King,” It was his imaginative idea that the King should create an American peerage, consisting in the first instance of the heads of all the state governments, whatever their previous revolutionary record.2 It was he who urged on North the vital necessity of building on the American union that the war had created. At first the King was totally opposed to this and argued that to do so was to recognise a government of usurpers and to override the royal charters which his predecessors had conferred on colony after colony. But Washington warned that to keep North America divided was to open it to what he called, in a striking phrase, “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” Whenever Britain resumed—as she was surely foredoomed to do—her long struggle with France for world mastery, the French would certainly play on revived memories of their old alliance with the rebels to seduce first one and then another of the colonies from their British allegiance, particularly those colonies where French radicalism would strike a responsive social chord.(Washington foresaw only too clearly that the France of Lafayette would soon decline into the France of Robespierre, )

It took time for Washington’s arguments to sink in. At first Whitehall simply resumed the powers it had had before the rebellion. But such an arrangement, if unduly protracted, was obviously only too likely to lead to a repetition of the unhappy events of the 1760’s and 70’s. That it lasted at all is only explicable by the lack of leadership in the defeated colonies. Washington himself, after a brief period of recuperation amongst the pastoral pleasures of Mount Vernon, was persuaded by the King to assume fresh burdens in India. On the retirement of Warren Hastings he placed his reputation for tenacity, resolution, and a short way with Indians at the service of the Crown as Governor-General of Bengal. Though far from universally popular amongst his subjects—his Bengali sobriquet may be loosely translated as “the stepfather of this country”—his martial prowess coupled with his personal integrity won him a respect which he preferred to affection.

On his return from India Washington found a changed America awaiting him. Prosperity had returned with reviving trade and a re-stabilized currency. But as the westward movement took increasing numbers of settlers across the Alleghenies fresh occasions of anxiety arose. The old arguments about the disposition of western lands were raging more fiercely than ever now that the restraint imposed by fighting in a common cause was removed. All the thirteen states wanted a finger in the western pie. Meanwhile the rivalry between the developing industries of the Middle and Eastern states and the agricultural economies of the South was taking the form of a bitter argument over protection versus free trade. Controversy over the great 1776 manifesto of freedom—I refer of course to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations—seemed only too likely to eventuate in a clash of sections as well as of opinions,

Washington saw nothing but disaster ahead if these sources of friction were not allayed; he feared in particular an outbreak of sectional conflicts that could easily lead to civil war. They could be suppressed, of course, by an exercise of the imperial fiat, but no one remembering the troubles of the 1760’s and 70’s could wish to provide a fresh occasion for dissension between the colonies and the metropolis. Better by far if machinery could be devised for enabling as many as possible of these disagreements to be resolved by the colonists themselves. With this in mind Washington approached William Pitt, who had not succeeded to the Premiership, and enlisted his support for an American union. Pitt was uniquely equipped to carry such a scheme to fruition. A Tory, he could not be suspected of flirting with revolutionary notions, and he could count on the full support of the King. Yet in the American context he was, above all, the son of his father— that Earl of Chatham who had opposed the American War as “unjust in its principles, impracticable in its means and ruinous in its consequences”. Thus it came about that Pitt, with a singularly imaginative stroke of statesmanship, gave Washington in effect a mandate to return to America and use his potent influence, with the authority of the King, to bring together representatives of all the colonies with a view to creating, not a feeble conference of ambassadors like the wartime Confederation, but a form of government which would unite in perpetuity His Majesty’s North American subjects.


On May 14, 1787, delegates assembled in a constitutional convention at Philadelphia. The world well knows the success of their labours, but sometimes forgets how protracted and difficult the negotiations of some of the constitution’s clauses were. The proposal to abolish the slave trade at once and slavery itself by 1808 was particularly hard-fought, and it required a liberal distribution of royal patronage amongst the otherwise incorruptible representatives of the Old Dominion before Virginia’s acceptance of this modification of her peculiar institution could be guaranteed. No one familiar with the high principles and resolute character of the author of the Declaration of Independence will need to look further afield than that document itself to explain Mr. Jefferson’s eventual acceptance of this provision, but many thought that the graceful gesture of his appointment as His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to the Court of France was in some measure at least a reward for this striking demonstration of the identity of principle and practice.4

In other respects the constitution was based essentially on the Galloway plan of 1774.Defeated then by only one vote in the first Continental Congress, it represented the point of maximum consensus in the changed circumstances of 1787, It provided for a President-general to be appointed by the King and holding office at his pleasure. His assent was to be necessary to all acts of the legislature. But whereas in Galloway’s plan the legislature was unicameral, the Philadelphia Constitution wisely provided for two chambers, the second, the Senate, consisting of “gentlemen of property and standing”, two from each state, selected by the state assembly but raised on election to the peerage and enjoying thereby the right when in London of participating, as equals, in the debates of the House of Lords.5 The colonial legislature, though “an inferior and distinct branch of the British legislature”, was to have “like Rights, Liberties and privileges as are held and exercised” by the British Lords and Commons respectively.

The King’s decision to appoint Lord Washington as the first President-general did much to ensure the new constitution’s acceptance among the colonies. A prudent decision, to make the continued funding of colonial debts contingent upon the creation of a “stable frame of government”, did nothing to retard the constitution’s acceptance in responsible circles. With Hamilton at the Exchequer there was a virtual assurance that the administration would find support in business circles. Franklin, as Postmaster-general, administered the patronage with foresight and thrift. Aaron Burr’s appointment as Secretary of the Interior, initially popular, was unfortunately marred by certain malpractices in subsequent years and had to be terminated with some abruptness.

It is no part of our present purpose to follow the newly-united colonies through the details of their subsequent history. The outbreak of the Napoleonic War in 1793 abundantly vindicated, if vindication were needed, the wisdom of the Reconstruction programme in general. From the narrowly British point of view the knowledge that the shores of the North Atlantic were in friendly hands enabled the fleet to be released for duties elsewhere. Direct American participation in the European conflict was confined to the services of a small but gallant band of volunteers, consisting largely but not exclusively of Loyalist veterans or their offspring, the self-styled “rough riders” who particularly distinguished themselves in the ancillary conflict against Spain, together with a host of privateering captains from New England who found it more rewarding to employ themselves in this form of enterprise than to run the risk of impressment for service in the Royal Navy.6 But on the American continent the war offered the colonists a golden opportunity to seize the remaining Spanish possessions North of the Rio Grande—the “Louisiana Purchase” was what Mr. Jefferson (now Secretary of the Interior) jestingly called it—so easily did the old French territories on the west bank of the Mississippi fall into General Andrew Jackson’s filibustering hands.

The way was now open for American expansion to the Pacific. With no wars to distract her, once Bonaparte’s menace had been removed, with peace and order pervasive from the Rio Grande to the Northwest Passage, the United Colonies spread from sea to sea. Before the lines of settlement had met between the Mississippi and the Rockies the United Colonies had become the entirely self-governing United States. When visited by Queen Victoria, the Empress of America as Benjamin Disraeli proudly hailed her, the U.S.A. provided, on the centenary of the Peace of Yorktown, a demonstration of exuberant affection, from New York City’s Battery to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, the like of which had never been seen within the bounds of Empire. The sentiment was fully reciprocated by Her Majesty; she established a royal residence within the confines of what later became known as the Colorado Highlands. Her Leaves from a Journal of Our Life in the Rockies became a best seller in two continents, while the foibles of her coloured body-servant, John Brown, were the gossip alike of Mayfair and Long Island. As for Prince Albert, his combination of high seriousness and a passion for technological improvements guaranteed his popularity in America as in Britain. He personally promoted the Great Chicago Exhibition of 1861, where a Crystal Palace twice the size of its London progenitor of ten years earlier accommodated crowds drawn from every state in the Union.

As the golden summer of Queen Victoria passed into the Indian summer of King Edward a dark shadow fell across Europe from the rivalries of the continental powers and the disorders of the undeveloped Balkans. But although imperial diplomacy could not avert a succession of crises, the solid front of an English-speaking unity which stretched across the Atlantic as well as to the Indian Ocean and the Cape gave the would-be aggressors pause. To challenge such a far-flung empire with the foreknowledge that it would spring unitedly to arms was something which neither a German Kaiser nor a Hapsburg Emperor would lightly undertake. The diplomatic services of President Wilson, acting with the full endorsement of Sir Edward Grey, proved invaluable at this juncture. Out of his pacific triumph the League of Nations was born in time to avert a conflict which would have engulfed Europe and perhaps the world. True, even the moral force of Geneva was not enough to prevent the rise of Hitler; nonetheless the ability of the democracies once again to present a united front served as a deterrent which gave the moderate elements in Germany an opportunity to recover control of the Reich. Thus twice in one generation mother and daughter saved the world from war; mutually pledging to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honour. Small wonder that in 1981 when the Peace of Yorktown becomes due for its bicentennial we shall be celebrating on both sides of the Atlantic 200 years of Interdependence.

1. Correspondence of George III, ed. Sir J. Fortescue, IV p. 350 f.


2. Not all, of course, accepted. John Hancock of Massachusetts declined, preferring exile in France. John Adams, on record as favouring a senate consisting of “the rich, the well-born and the able”, found no difficulty in stepping into his place. Thomas Nelson was allowed to assume the style of Nelson of Yorktown, not as an indication of unreconstructed rebelliousness but as a chivalrous tribute to his selfless devotion in selecting his own residence as the primary target for rebel fire when the attack on Cornwallis began.


3. Though judging it prudent to sweeten them by assuming the debts of the rebel state governments, an action which attached the bondholders to the mother-country at the price of provoking a near rebellion amongst the country gentlemen at Westminster.


4. When the outbreak of war with France brought Jefferson’s ambassadorship to a somewhat premature conclusion the King, acting on the advice of the aging Edward Gibbon, appointed the American savant to be the first holder of the newly-created Regius Chair of North American History at Oxford. It is sad to have to record Professor Jefferson’s failure to secure recognition for his “upstart discipline” at the hands of the Oxford Faculty of Arts.(Indeed for over a hundred years the subject languished and the chair’s endowment was devoted to the study of the Christian Fathers until, thanks to the bounty of another hand, it was revived with the Harmsworth Chair of American History.) But what academic history lost, real history gained. Throwing up his professorship in disgust, Jefferson returned to his beloved Virginia and soon re-entered politics, as a member of President-general Washington’s first administration<.


5. This facility, though seldom exploited, did upon occasion result in some remarkable contributions to the British Hansard. Those who heard them did not quickly forget the Lincoln-Gladstone Debates (somewhat misnamed, because the two debaters never directly confronted each other—Lincoln spoke one day in the Lords and Gladstone answered on the next in the Commons), in which the railsplitter of Illinois delivered his celebrated ultimatum—”a house divided against itself cannot stand.” His claim for an equality of treatment between Americans and Britons was the prelude to the British North American Act of 1859 with its declaration of virtual dominion status for both Canada and the U. S. A. , the U. S. A. to have its own elected President and full control over its foreign as well as its internal policies. The election of the President was, however, made by the joint vote of both houses of Congress and his tenure of office was dependent upon his keeping his majority. Thus the United States was spared, by its adoption of a virtual parliamentary system, those quadrennial tourneys, casting their paralyzing shadows so far before them, that mar the working of Canadian representative government.


6. In fact the Navy’s ready recourse to impressment aroused much resentment in New England and obliged President-general Washington to make strong, private representations to Nelson to secure an abatement of a practice less readily tolerated in Portsmouth, Maine than in Portsmouth, England.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading