Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy delves into the British side in the American Revolution. O'Shaughnessy is a historian and a member of the Royal Historical Society. The book examines ten men who were instrumentally important to the British war and political effort. The work is broken into parts, and each part examines a different man.

The most notable person covered is King George III, whose short biography highlighting the American Revolutionary War years is outstanding. Other subjects include Lord North, George Germain and William Howe, to name just a few.

I believe that this is an important book for anyone, but particularly for Americans who are interested in the American Revolutionary Period. I note its importance to readers on my side of the Atlantic because, after a lifetime of reading about this subject, I can attest to the fact that finding works from the British point of view is difficult.

The books by American historians that mainly focus upon the American perspective have not demonized the British or their leaders. However, these works are often critical of British leadership in ways that seem to exhibit a bias. English military and political leadership is sometimes portrayed as semi-competent and as mediocre leaders.  Their errors and foibles are emphasized while their strengths and virtues are downplayed. Reading this book has helped to highlight this bias for me.

O'Shaughnessy makes another interesting contention. That is, even British historians, at least until recently, have also exhibited an unfair bias against British leadership. The author writes,

"The British commanders and politicians were discredited not least because their enemies triumphed and their opponents wrote the histories. This was equally true in Britain, where the view that America was lost by incompetent leadership began during the war and became the popular orthodoxy in the immediate aftermath. When in 1792 one of the earliest British consuls to the United States met President George Washington, he reported home that Washington was “a great man . . . but I cannot help thinking, that the misconduct of our commanders has given him the principle part of that greatness.” Until well into the twentieth century, British historians portrayed George III and Lord North as enemies of progress who secretly conspired to introduce an unconstitutional despotic form of government in both Britain and America."

In contrast to many other accounts that I have read, this book portrays many of these men as being both competent and honorable. They are also to a great extent, portrayed as intelligent people who understood both balanced government and liberty. Several of them believed that defending the British system of balanced government, which was a system that did protect many individual freedoms, was the best way to promote liberty.

O'Shaughnessy writes,

"The men who lost America were not opponents of liberty and representative government. Far from conspiring to establish tyranny in America, they regarded themselves as defending liberty and the rule of law that they believed could be safeguarded only by upholding the supreme authority of Parliament"

He goes on to say,

"The British politicians and commanders were not ignorant bigots. They were conversant with the Enlightenment emphasis on rational thought in an era that prided itself on being an “Age of Enlightenment.” "

I must add, however, that the men described in this book were all complex and had different beliefs, philosophies and experiences. Thus, it is difficult to generalize too much about them.

This work also provides valuable insights into the inner workings of the British government of the time. It delves into both the intricacies of the British Cabinet as well as Parliament. Furthermore, as the American Revolution turned into a global conflict with the entrance of France, Spain and the Netherlands into the war, the author highlights political, military and social activity that occurred in such diverse locations as the Caribbean, Central America, The Mediterranean, India and more. This is also a subject where information is scarce on this side of the Atlantic.

This is an extremely enlightening and enjoyable history. For many people who have read mostly American accounts of the conflict, it will be especially insightful. It has whetted my appetite to read more about this side of the Revolution from non-American perspectives. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in this period of history.


36 comments:

Lory said...

It was when I read The Duchess by Amanda Foreman that I finally gained a more balanced and complex view of the forces behind the American revolution -- through Georgiana's involvement in the Whig politics of the time. My admittedly sketchy public school history education had given me a very limited and skewed understanding of the period, which I would definitely like to remedy. This sounds like another valuable source of information, thank you!

James said...

This sounds like a worthwhile and interesting work of history. I appreciate your emphasis on both the complexities of the characters and the insights into the workings of the British government of the time. I would recommend the film version of Alan Bennett's award-winning play "The Madness of King George".

Suko said...

Brain Joseph, this really does sound fascinating! I enjoyed your enthusiastic review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - The Duchess by Amanda Foreman looks like a really good book, I would like to read it.

I think that it is safe to say that many folks who are fairly knowledgeable about the American Revolution are themselves sketchy about British politics at the time.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - i saw "The Madness of King George". It was an outstanding film. I recall that it only covered a small portion of George's life. This book fills in another.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

Sharon Henning said...

Hi Brian! This sounds like a very interesting book and I plan to look it up on Amazon. I have always been fascinated by analysis of battles, wars and the leadership. It will be interesting to see what this author has to say. Thanks for the review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - This book really digs deeply into all the things that you mentioned.

R.T. said...

Of course, a major problem was lack of timely communication between parties. Attitudes and actions suffered. Too simple?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - Communication was indeed a major issue for the British. the book does delve into that a bit.

Tracy Terry said...

What sounds like an interesting read, I love your enthusiasm for this period in history and couldn't help but think of that saying that has that history is always written by the victors.

thecuecard said...

Brian, Interesting perspective. If the King and his government weren't necessarily despotic, I wonder what the colonialists were clamoring so much about? Perhaps they had changed and just didn't want to be told what to do from a place so far away. They didn't want taxation without representation. Perhaps there was the perception of Britain's persecution and despotism. Hence I havent read about the Revolution since college and high school so I'm sure I could use a refresher course or book reading. Nice review.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan.

My very general take on what happened in the colonies was as follows: England was not that despotic at all. However, for a very long time the colonies were backwaters. Britain mostly did not bother with them. there was little taxation and few regulations. After the Seven Years War, Britain became more intrusive with taxes and other regulations. The colonist bristled and friction mounted.

HKatz said...

I would love to read this; thanks for the thoughtful review. Even on the American side, the feelings towards the British were rather mixed, with many hoping for reform rather than a complete break from England in the years leading up to the war (though in popular accounts it seems much more uniform, with everyone - except for some loyalists - rising up in unity against hard-hearted oppressors). So to see a book that thoughtfully explores the British POV is fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Without a doubt there were many loyalists who were adamantly opposed to the Revolution.

With that, as per this book, the British consistently overestimated their strength.

Violet said...

This sounds like something I'd enjoy reading, because it deals with one of my favourite eras in British history. I think that because the colonies were mostly looked upon as sources of revenue by the British, there was always going to be trouble once the colonists started to create their own society and loosen the ties to 'home'. Poor old George III. I'm quite fond of him, really, but some historians have not dealt kindly with him.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Indeed the British were trying to extract revenue from the Colonies and that was a major source of friction. They were also expanding a lot of revenue in defense of those colonies, thus many felt that it was justified.


This book portrays a very positive view of George III.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Indeed history written by the victors, or at least being biased towards being the victors, id often true. This book really does illustrate that fact.

Maria Behar said...

Fascinating commentary as always, Brian!

I remember reading very derogatory things about George III in my high school American History classes, and, indeed, the British government of the time was criticized in the textbook we used. So I've always had a negative opinion of this English monarch. I wonder if high school students today are being taught a balanced view of the American Revolution.

On the other hand, England -- like Spain -- has always had imperialistic tendencies. They took a very long time letting go of India, for instance. I also remember the Falkland Islands debacle a few years back, in which Margaret Thatcher took a very strong stand. Those islands should rightfully belong to Argentina. In fact, they are known as "Las Islas Malvinas" in Spanish.

Having stated all of the above, what's fair is fair, and, if any academic discipline should be totally free from bias, it should be history. Unfortunately, historians are fallible human beings, so they will probably continue to skew historical events -- at least in small ways, for you can't argue with certain things being historically true -- in favor of the nations or political groups they (unconsciously, perhaps?) tend to identify with.

Now that I have my literary fiction/nonfiction blog running again, I must definitely include books such as this one in my blog posts!

Thanks for your interesting thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - You raise really good points about Imperialism. Indeed Great Britain unjustly dominated the lands of many peoples.

There was one difference that I think was fairly important in regards to the Colonies. In regards to America, it was not native people's who were rebelling, Up until war broke out, most folks on both sides of the Atlantic considered the Colonists and the British as one people.

Hibernators Library said...

Sounds like a great way to see the war from the other side - It's always good to get a more balanced view, especially when you are the "winners" of the war. I should see if my dad's read this one - he reads a lot about the Revolutionary War.

The Bookworm said...

Sounds like a good way to get the British point of view and to learn about their government.
Fantastic post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - It sounds like me and your dad have a lot in common if he reads a lot about The American Revolution.

Indeed there seem so few books around from this perspective.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The information on that British government is usually hard to come by if one reads the usual stuff from the American side.

Caroline said...

I think it's a bit too specilaized for me but it does sound interesting. Btw - did you see that Stacy Schiff has a new book out? About the Salem Witches. I remember you reviewed her Cleopatra. But the Selem withces should be interesting as well for you.
Are you book girl? For some reason when you leave a comment on my blog that's what it says.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I was aware of that new book by Stacy Schiff. I read both Cleopatra as well as A Great Improvisation and I loved them both. I really want tp read her new book.


that Book Girl thing is bizarre. I know who that is. I helped her with a blogging issue about 4 years ago and I think that somehow something really strange happened with the Wordpress accounts. Occasionally her name pops up when I try to leave comments. Thanks for letting me know. i need to get that straightened out.

So many books, so little time said...

I keep saying I need to read more history, this sounds like one for me to keep an eye out for. There are actually quite a few I have seen, from here and other blogs, I will need to start writing them down.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I love history and The American Revolution is my number one interest so I am partial to the subject.

There are so many interesting areas worth delving into.

Priya said...

To be honest, I have read little on the American Revolution, and so your comments on the bias do not resonate with me. That said, I would like to read more on the revolution. Which American perspectives would you recommend?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Priya - The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff is an unparalleled encapsulation of the conflict.

Both Gordon Woods radicalism of the American Revolution as well as Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution map out the ideas both behind and that emerged from the conflict.

If you check out my book index I have also posted commentary on a lot of other books that I found to be noteworthy.

JaneGS said...

Sounds like a marvelous book--will definitely try to get a copy myself. Interestingly, I've been reading about India lately, and the drive to break from Britain, and have been thinking about the similarities (and profound differences) between the two revolutions. Also, at a recent JASNA meeting, there was a good discussion about what a good man GIII really was--he's been painted as a tyrant over the years, but that really was not the case. Now, I want to read up on him myself.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Many of the British leadership during The American Revolution went on to serve in India or on issues pertaining to India. Because France entered the conflict there were,military operations and battles in India that, technically, were part of the American Revolution.


Though I have a fair bit of knowledge about the Indian Independence movement I really could do to learn more.

Vicki said...

Great review! Your thoughts have me tempted to read this even though it's a genre I usually stay away from.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Vicki - This has been a lifelong interest of mine.

I find the biographies of some of America's founders are a good way to delve into the subject.

Citizen Reader said...

I'm not particularly interested in the American Revolution--but am enough of an Anglophile that this history about the British side of that period might make for some interesting reading. Thanks for reviewing this book--I'd never heard of it before!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Sarah.


This book taught me all sorts of things about the British government and society that I do not think that I would ever had learned otherwise.