Why Great Britian Lost Its Colonies Essay

, Research Paper

The British loss of the American colonies could have easily been prevented. British incompetence and a strong American want for self government are among the chief factors which caused the British loss.

The first successful British colony, Jamestown, founded in Virginia in 1607, was plagued by problems caused by poor decision making capabilities. Before making any key decisions colonists had to communicate with the London Company in England, 3000 miles and six weeks away. For the colony to survive, some kind of government was needed in North America. The solution was the House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly, created in 1619.

Other colonies soon followed, i.e. Massachusetts Bay, in 1630, and Maryland, in 1632. Each colony had its own North America-based government. Self-government was rooted in the colonies from the very beginning.

Since the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spain’s power diminished, and there were only two countries to reckon with: Britain and France. Before the French and Indian war, the two countries had gone to war several times, but the fighting remained on the European continent. In the French and Indian war it was just the opposite.

For the first couple years France appeared to be winning the war. Then William Pitt became the British Secretary of State in 1756. He used brilliant military devices such as a global strategy to help the British. France was humbled in 1763, and peace was cemented by the Treaty of Paris. France was forced to give up its lands in North America. This left Britain as the only remaining superpower.

Britain was a Mercantilist nation, and viewed all of its colonial extremities as a means for increasing the nation’s wealth. As early as 1660 Parliament began passing acts that insured that Britain made a profit from the colonies. These were the Navigation Acts (the exact same act was passed in 1650 by the Commonwealth). The required that British colonial merchants trade only with Great Britain. This was one of the first steps the British took in driving a wedge between the colonies and the motherland.

By the early 1700’s New England was relying heavily on their triangular rum trade with the West Indies and Africa. The British Indies could only supply a small amount of the molasses need, so the colonies still bought large amounts of Dutch and French molasses. In 1733 Parliament passed the Molasses Act requiring a stiff duty on all molasses imported from foreign West Indies. Colonists largely ignored the act, or bribed the customs officials, and the triangular trade continued.

After the French and Indian war concluded, the British needed even more revenue. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Grenville, appointed in April, 1763, began to create various acts that further interfered with the colonial life. The Sugar Act in April of 1764 reduced the molasses duty by 50%, but added duties to several other items, such as coffee, wine, sugar, etc. Colonists recognized that this act was concerned not only with the regulation of trade, accepted by colonists as a right of Parliament, but also with raising revenue. Because this tax was levied by Parliament, and not by the colonial assemblies, colonists feared it broke their tradition of “no taxation without representation.” They refused to pay the tax even though the average tax in the colonies was 26 times lower than in England.

In 1765 Grenville had another stroke of genius and wrote the Quartering Act. This required colonists to support the several thousand British troops in North America by providing barracks, bedding, and beverages. Colonists, who already disliked the troops, found that being in such close contact with them intensified their hatred.

On November 1st of the same year, Grenville passed his Stamp Act. This act taxed just about everything that wasn’t taxed before. The act was a nuisance and highly visible, so it couldn’t be ignored . Grenville included a provision stating that all offenders of this act were to be tried in Vice-Admiralty Courts, depriving them of a normal trial in colonial courts. This was the most blatant attempt at taxing the colonists so far. The Sons of Liberty blocked stamped items from being unloaded, and the Stamp Act Congress sent a petition to the King and Parliament, stating their position. The Stamp Act was repealed in March, 1766, but was immediately followed by the Declaratory Act, denying the claims of the Stamp Act Congress and reaffirming Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.

Grenville was succeeded by Charles Townshend in 1767. The Townshend Acts put a duty on all items imported from Britain to pay for the colonial administration. Since the colonial assemblies already paid those expenses, the measure was seen as another tax. The result was the nonimportation agreement of 1768. Charles also attempted to enforce the Quartering Act by making an example of New York (he suspended their assembly), the primary offender of this act. Soon faced with dangerous hostility levels, he changed the Quartering Act.

Troops arrived in Boston to deal with the growing hostility in September of 1768. On March 5, 1770, tensions exploded in the Boston Massacre, a tragedy and embarrassment to the British government. Lord North, appointed by King George in 1770, prudently repealed the Townshend Acts and the Quartering Act. For the next two years there was a lull in the hostilities.

The British government, announced in 1772 that it would henceforth pay the governor and judges in the colonies. The colonists, who normally paid the salaries themselves, recognized this as a new attack on their authority. Shortly after, the Tea Act was declared and rekindled the antagonism. The Tea Act hurt many colonial merchants by cutting them out of the tea trade. The act cut out the middlemen from the British tea sales in order to compete with less expensive Dutch tea. The Boston Tea Party, on December 16, 1773, was the eventual reaction of the colonial merchants.

When Lord North and King George learned of the Tea Party they fumed over the uncontrollable colonies for days until they devised the Coercive Acts. These acts closed Boston’s port, took away the state’s charter, closed the courts, stopped town meetings, and placed the entire colony under military control. Also the Quartering Act was dusted off and reinstated. The Quebec Act followed on the heels of the Coercive Acts. It expanded Canadian borders and allowed the Canadians to freely practice their Catholic religion. This act was not aimed at the colonies, but was intended to earn the loyalty of the French-Canadians. The colonies saw the act as an effort to block westward expansion. These two acts became known collectively as the Intolerable Acts.

By the time the first shots were fired at Lexington in the winter of 1774-75 the colonies were furious at the Brits. The British had managed to alienate the colonies to the point of revolution by pounding a diplomatic wedge between the continents with successive acts of legislation, such as the Tea Act and the Coercive Acts.

The first skirmish at Lexington between British officer John Pitcairn and a group of minutemen led by John Parker went exactly as one would expect. The men under Britain beat the minutemen in less than 15 minutes and proceeded on to Concord. Score one for the Brits. At Lexington there was a surprise waiting for the small unit of British soldiers. They were surrounded by 3000 minutemen and forced to retreat. The score was surprisingly tied at one to one.

In 1775 a backwoodsman, Ethan Allen, exercised the colonies home-field advantage and scored another battle for the colonies. He surprised the British troops at the strategic Fort Ticonderoga. The American’s had a distinct advantage fighting for their own country, fighting with more fervor for the land they loved than the foreign armies. They knew the terrain better than any commander who’d spent most of his life in Europe. They used this knowledge in planning many of their guerrilla attacks. The British commanders were used to fighting “civilized” battles, in which one army lines up on one side of a field and the opposing force on the other side, and they shoot at each other. The colonists used different tactics, often ambushing regiments when they were being moved from one place to another. The American force would jump out of the trees and, after a brief skirmish, disappear again. When the two armies did face one another in open combat, the Americans had two more very helpful advantages. Although under-equipped for most of the fighting, colonists fired with hunting rifles, and not muskets, like the Brits. The rifles were much easier to handle and had better aim. The second advantage colonists had was the fact that their opponents wore bright red coats, and were easily seen from across the dusty field.

Embarrassed by their losses to the colonial forces, the British forces attacked Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill in 1775. The rebel force under Israel “Old Put” Putnam was defeated, but only after the third attempt by the British forces. After this battle the score was two apiece.

In September of the same year the colonial forces received word that Sir Guy Carleton of Canada was planning an invasion from the north. They decided to strike first. Colonel Benedict Arnold led his force to Quebec where he was joined four months later by General Montgomery. The siege failed. A combination of bitter weather, an outbreak of smallpox, and a lack of supplies took their toll on the colonists. The Canadians, with plenty of supplies, simply waited in their fortified city until the siege was over. The British pulled ahead and the score was 3 to 2.

The Continental Congress hired George Washington soon after the battle at Bunker Hill. He acted swiftly and attacked British commander General Howe from Dorchester Heights. William Howe was caught off guard and retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Colonists managed to tie it up again at 3.

Independence was officially declared in July of 1776. There had been one final attempt by the moderates of the Continental Congress to reconcile with Britain in the previous year. On July 8, 1775, the Olive Branch Petition was accepted and sent to King George. George delicately responded with the Prohibitory Act declaring that there was “a general state or rebellion among the colonies,” and the traitors would be brought to justice. George didn’t want to make up with the colonies.

Declaring independence was a good idea for two reasons. Firstly, all American soldiers captured in the war would have to be treated as prisoners of war, and not traitors subject to the death penalty. Secondly, it would bring any British enemies to the side of the colonies.

The British quickly bounced back from their defeat at Dorchester and General Howe attacked New York with an impressive force a couple months later. General Washington was driven out of Manhattan Island and Long Island, across the Hudson and Delaware rivers into Pennsylvania. The British were ahead again, 4 to 3.

In December Washington was desperate. His men were deserting, and many of their terms of enlistment were going to expire on new year’s day. He made a valiant show force by charging across the Delaware into Trenton and destroyed the force of Hessians (German mercenaries working for the Brits) there. Four days later he crossed the Delaware again with twice as many men and took Princeton. He was driven out by Lord Cornwallis. He had to retreat to the Morristown hills. The score was 5 to 4, and the Brits were still ahead.

In 1777 the British devised a plan to isolate New England. The plan was for Lieutenant Colonel Barry St. Leger to march down from Montreal. He was then to meet up with John Burgoyne who was to come down from Quebec. Finally General Howe was supposed to come up from Maryland, thus severing New England from the rest of the colonies. However, General Howe decided it would be better for their cause if he changed his plans and attacked Philadelphia. Howe successfully crushed Washington at Brandywine, but destroyed the original plan. Barry St. Leger made it to Fort Stanwix when he discovered a huge force led by Col. Arnold was coming to engage him. John Burgoyne managed to reach Fort Ticonderoga, but was defeated when he reached Saratoga. That was one more for the Brits and two for the Americans, making the score tied once again at 6.

The defeat of the British at Saratoga was the kind of battle the French had been waiting for. They began sending support to the Americans almost immediately afterward. In becoming a superpower England had made a lot of enemies who were eager to join in the fight supporting the American’s. France was enemy. Spain and Holland were others. The formation of a multi-national force helped immensely in the defeat of England.

When France entered the war the British Royal Navy became more involved. Up to this point the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich, had been complaining that his navy had been under used. The ships had been used mainly as transports for army troops. When France entered the scene, he believed that the focus of the navy should be in the Channel to protect against a “continental enemy.” The navy was in no condition, however, to engage in a full scale naval war. The ships were in disrepair and the administration was corrupt. Lord North, who was clueless when it came to war, advised the king that he would save valuable money by cutting the navy’s funds. The ships did play an important role in supplying the British troops in North America, though. Having to fight a war clear across an ocean was a major disadvantage for the British.

When the navy did come into play it was just plain incompetent. A poor communication system and self-serving Admirals did not help England at all. Many admirals were sympathetic toward the American cause and under difficult circumstances, they quit. They also were constantly disagreeing with each other because of personal beliefs or political orientations. The Earl of Sandwich was not on good terms with George Germain either.

Conflict among military leaders seemed to be a recurring theme in our discussions. Army leaders Clinton, Cornwallis and Howe couldn’t agree on anything. Opposing opinions and spontaneous changes in plans (i.e. Howe’s Philadelphia campaign) assisted in the loss of the colonies.

When Howe bollixed the attack in the north a completely new plan of attack was necessary. Howe retired in early 1778 and Clinton took his place. Clinton designed a new strategy for invading the south and chose Lord Cornwallis to execute it.

While this was taking place near the coast, George Rogers Clark was winning battles for the Americans further west. The native Americans sided with Britain in this war. This was one of the few advantages they had. British troops with Indian allies were harassing American forts around the Ohio Valley. Finally the Americans scored a decisive battle at Vincennes. This made the score Americans 7; Brits 6.

Cornwallis began the attack on the south by taking Savannah, Georgia in 1778. After this battle Clinton left him and went back to New York, enhancing Cornwallis’ animosity toward him. In May of 1780 Cornwallis pushed on to Charleston and won there. Shortly after that he defeated Horatio Gates at Camden. Washington reacted by replacing Gates with Nathaneal Greene. Cornwallis proceeded to Cowpens where he was defeated by Daniel Morgan in January of 1781. Undaunted, Cornwallis marched on. He received a paralyzing blow in April at the Guilford Court House, losing most of his army. It was neck and neck, and the score was tied 9 to 9!

The campaign in the south failed mainly because of two reasons. First, the British were depending on support from a large loyalist population in the southern states. This was grossly overestimated. Second, the French had ships patrolling the coasts and made it difficult for the British troops to land.

Cornwallis then withdrew to Wilmington, then refused an order from Clinton to send part of his 7000 man army to New York, and instead went to Yorktown. This was his final mistake. When Washington led his combined land and sea attack, Cornwallis was trapped. At the end of September military forces led by Washington, Rochambeau, Wayne, Lafayette, and de Grasse descended upon Cornwallis’ men. His only chance for escape lay in the hands of Admiral Graves, who was defeated by de Grasse because of his poor judgment. Cornwallis’ fate was sealed. He surrendered to Washington on October 17, 1781. The final score was America 10, Great Britain 9.

It was a combination of many factors that caused England to lose the colonies. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that a nation’s destiny is determined by its founding. The individual colonies were each established with a certain amount of self-government. That self-government blossomed over a century and a half into complete independence.


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