The American revolution was a matter of great interest for the people in Britain. The British press 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.
Lost Investments Could Ruin Britain’s Economy
One nagging questions for bankers and merchants of Britain was what would happen to their investments and trade deals if the revolt was successful. Millions of pounds were invested in property and trade deals in the colonies and should these colonies become independent, the investors would be left with very limited means of collecting these debts. The revolutionary governments had also seized all lands and property owned by loyalists an act many of these investors, mostly member of the British aristocracy, considered to be outright theft..
‘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.‘— Oxford Gazette, 1774
This potential of the American Revolution to wreak havoc on the British economy caused some to side with the Americans, hoping that a friendly stance would allow them some leverage in remaining solvent or at least limiting their losses. In 1775, a group of merchants from Bristol sheds light on the economic concerns provoked by the burgeoning revolution. They wrote to the king to express their concern about the “unhappily distracted empires” and urged him to give the American colonists the freedoms they wanted rather than risk that trade be irrevocably damaged.
“It is with an affliction not to be expressed and with the most anxious apprehensions for ourselves and our Posterity that we behold the growing distractions in America threaten, unless prevented by the timely interposition of your Majesty’s Wisdom and Goodness, nothing less than a lasting and ruinous Civil War,” they wrote. “We are apprehensive that if the present measures are adhered to, a total alienation of the affections of our fellow subjects in the colonies will ensue, to which affection much more than to a dread of any power, we have been hitherto indebted for the inestimable benefits which we have derived from those establishments. 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. According to most British writers, the uncertainty of whether the United States — a nation founded in the “criminal enterprise” of rebellion– would ever be a worthy treaty partner for Britain and the other nations of Europe. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson promised that the former colonies would be good international citizens, yet the fledgling United States upset every norm of international commerce in the 18th Century. Two issues in particular stood out 1! the money that Americans had borrowed from British merchants before the revolution, and 2) the property that state governments seized from Loyalist exiles. British creditors were said to have lost £2 million in Virginia alone and the number of Loyalists who fled the United States was at least 60,000 most of whom forfeited their property in the process.
The Colonies have “No Right to Rebel”
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.’Samuel Johnson, 1774
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. 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, 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”
‘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?‘Samuel Johnson, 1774
British newspapers and editorial pamphlets printed many articles on the American Revolution both supporting and criticizing the cause. 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. Some publishers sympathized with the Americans, proclaiming George Washington “a man of sense and great integrity,” while most publications took a negative view of the revolution. Most in Britain many viewed the American Revolution as a civil war within the empire destined to be resolved by some compromise and reconciliation. It was only in the later years of the of the war, when the press was flooded with stories of Loyalists refugees who claimed to have suffered at the hands of Patriots, prompting them to flee to Canada and Florida, that the American Revolution become viewed as a “criminal enterprise” and the British press (presumably also the British people) took a harsh view of the rebellion. While Britons expressed a wide array of opinions on the American Revolution, a general sentiment of loss and anxiety runs through most of these writings. Even those in Britain who sympathized with the revolution, were concerned with its effects on the empire’s economy, the morality of rebelling against one’s sovereign, and fears of the empire’s collapse. This is a story that will play out many times during the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries as Brittan transforms form the empire “upon which the sun never sets,” to a Commonwealth of nations all independent but acknowledging the sovereignty of the Queen. The next domino to fall will be Scotland, for as much as things have changed, many of the things that caused revolution in America, India, and Palestine continue today.