Book Review

Conway, Stephen. The British Isles and the War of American Independence. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002.

Each year, hundreds of new books are published on the American Revolution about events in the United States. From the opening shots at Lexington and Concord to the final siege at Yorktown, Revolutionary era battles, people, culture, and politics are copiously chronicled. While we read so much about the Revolution in the United States, very little is written about what happened in Britain during the conflict. Did many Britain’s volunteer to fight to keep the Americans within the empire? What was the impact of the conflict on the economy, culture, political environment and religion? What was it like to live in Britain during the War?

To fill this knowledge gap, I recommend reading Stephen Conway’s book, The British Isles and the War of American Independence. Conway busts key myths about the Revolution. For example, most people believe that King George III hired Hessians soldiers as he could not recruit enough Britains to serve in the army. King Geoge III retained the Germans as a quick way to deploy military assets but later in the war resorted almost exclusively to enlisting British subjects to fill  the army’s ranks. While not on the scale of the Napoleonic era but significantly increased from the early 18th Century wars, Conway asserts that a mass mobilization of the fighting age male population occurred as the war expanded into a global conflict with France, Spain, Mysore, and the Dutch Republic. He estimates that one out of seven or eight males of the appropriate age served in the army, navy, militia or volunteers.

Another misconception dispelled by Conway was that the Revolution negatively impacted the British economy to such an extent that financial distress was one of the principal reasons for granting American independence. Through meticulous research, Conway presents detailed economic data which demonstrates that the war did not have a disastrous impact on the vitality of the British economy. While there were significant dislocations such as the loss of exports to the colonies (especially Irish linen) and reduced industrial output, the economic stayed relatively flat during the war due to massively increased military spending providing a lift to the home economy.

Many writers assert that the conflict was a limited war and had a minimal impact on British society and culture. Conway comes to the opposite conclusion declaring the American War of Independence was a “deeply intrusive event.” For example, increased opportunities in the military led to new upward mobility while economic distortions led to a downward movement. Portending the future labor union movement, the first significant workplace tensions between manufacturers and workers emerged. Even cultural tastes changed with a substantial increase in patriotic paintings of war events and sculptures military leaders.

While politically divisive, the American War provided opportunities to bind together further various British factions. For example, high levels of Scottish men who volunteered to fight the Americans led to increased acceptance of Scottish loyalty. Also, the need for manpower led the Government to allow Irish Catholics to enlist in the army without taking an oath to the Church of England. In fact, for the first time, Irish, English, and Scottish men served together in the same military units. Finally, granting new political rights through reforms of press gang, penal, and religious laws.

Lastly, Conway posits that the loss of the American colonies indelibly changed British administrative policies from allowing colonial self-government to authoritarian rule. This move to despotic rule changed British government policies in India from delegation of government powers to a private company to central control by a supposedly more benevolent ruler than the indigenous kings and overlords.

Overlooked and minimized by other historians, Conway concludes that the Amerian War of Independence had substantial impacts on the British people. I highly recommend this book to all those interested in a complete account of the American Revolution. The adage that “you have to walk in the shoes of someone to understand them” is never more applicable to the students of the American Revolution to better understand the situation on the homefront to more thoroughly assess British military and political leaders and their motivations.