32. Britain’s Road to War

In his masterful study of British colonial policy during the period from 1772 to 1775, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), English author Nick Bunker subjects the actions of Parliament and the Crown to a withering critique that illuminates how the Anglo-American conflict became inevitable.

Britain Meant Business

By the 1770s, according to Bunker, Great Britain had come to view itself as an essentially commercial nation, so that even people whose social or economic status was based on owning land agreed that commerce was its lifeblood. Or to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge’s observation about America in the 1920’s, they believed the business of Britain was business. In line with this mindset, Britons generally regarded the American colonies as having only one purpose and that was economic. As Bunker memorably puts it, “the British scarcely saw the colonists at all as anything more than a bundle of economic resources or a destination for convicts. Often the American people themselves remained almost invisible, mere accessories dotted about in a landscape where, in British eyes, the objects in the foreground were fields of tobacco, sacks of rice, and barrels of molasses.”

The author notes that to Lord North (prime minister from 1770 until near the end of our war for independence) and his colleagues, the colonists’ demands for liberty rang hollow. They appeared as merely a sham protest designed to obscure the Americans’ obsession with evading taxes levied by Parliament. The upshot of all this was that the United Kingdom’s devotion to trade often reflected a narrow materialism that limited the vision of policymakers in London, so that they came to view their overseas empire—in North America, the West Indies, and India—as nothing more than a vehicle for enhancing Britain’s wealth. These possessions were simply too valuable to surrender, as they constituted a profitable system of global trade.


The Boston Tea Party in December 1773—that is, the dumping of the East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor, which proved a seminal event on the road to war—was a reaction to British efforts to thwart the epidemic of colonial smuggling by allowing the company to sell tea at prices that undercut smugglers while propping up the struggling company and reasserting Britain’s right to impose taxes in America, in this case on tea. What the Crown’s ministers failed to grasp, Bunker argues, is that “the prevalence of smuggling was simply another side effect of a speculative empire, and of a fiscal system that relied too heavily on the taxation of commodities that lent themselves to illegal traffic.”

Over time, the New World customers and clients that were the bedrock of an empire based on maritime trade developed their own ambitions and reinterpreted political principles and ideas they had acquired from the mother country to suit their own circumstances. The inevitable clash that emerges from Bunker’s masterful analysis derived from the failure of British statesmen to accept that the economic and political aspirations of the American colonists were valid. By the 1770s, the political culture that extended from Charleston to Boston was radically different from Great Britain’s, and that divergence could not be reconciled. Parliament’s legislative reaction to the destruction of tea by Bostonians—known as the Coercive Acts in London and the Intolerable Acts here—was intended to punish, in the view of those lawmakers, sinful and disorderly mob rule while upholding British sovereignty and Parliament’s will on this side of the Atlantic. They had yet to realize neither could be enforced without war—and not even then. You might say their hopes of doing so were emptea (ouch).

P.S. For anyone who’s interested, my recent interview with Dispatches: The Podcast of the Journal of the American Revolution is available through one of the links posted here. In addition, a new article of mine is awaiting publication in the JAR, and I will pass along a link when it appears.