How do British refer to the American Revolution?
October 24, 2005 8:44 PM   Subscribe

For British Eyes Only: How do you refer to the American Revolutionary War?

Is the war taught in general history classes? How important is it considered in the scope of the class, and the British Empire? Are there good web resources or books available in the US that can give me a good idea of the British perspective on the American Revolution?

For bonus points: can you give me the primary school version of the narrative of the war? For example, here one might start with the Boston Tea Party. Basically, I want to hear the other side of the story.
posted by kyleg to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Call it the 'War of Independence', never learned about it in school. My history classes were British social history (ie how the Elizabethans, Romans, Victorians etc lived) in Primary school (-11) and mostly 20th Century political history (Nazi Germany, Cold War, Civil Rights Movement) between 11 and 18. I'm 25 if that makes a difference.
posted by crabintheocean at 8:54 PM on October 24, 2005

The American Revolution from a British Perspective

Rebels & Redcoats - How Britain Lost America
"Rebels & Redcoats: How Britain Lost clearly the perspective from Mother England; not a tale of freedom and independence, but one of loss."
posted by ericb at 9:03 PM on October 24, 2005

I lived a year in Britain, so I'll squeek through the door here and make a quick comment. I visited several bookstores during my time (usually to pick up a Discworld novel), but for the life of me, never saw any books for sale that were specifically addressing the American Revolution. I'd scour over the history section, but never any particular books on the topic.

I was hoping to find one for the same reason you're asking this question, I wanted a good British perspective.

Here's a BBC site on the Revolution.

And here's the National Maritime Museum with its section on the Revolution. Just a blurb in general, then a fascinating list of topics concerning the revolution. Such as the Virginia Privateer:

Privateers, like this vessel, were a constant menace to British shipping supplying British forces in America. Nearly all supplies had to be shipped from Britain itself. Many ships were lost to American privateers, who, long before France's entry into the war in 1778, often operated openly from French ports.
posted by Atreides at 9:16 PM on October 24, 2005

I recommend Stephen Conway's book "The British Isles and the War of American Independence" OUP 2000

Conway is at University College London.

There is no mention of the Boston Tea Party or Paul Revere in his book--the main discussion is of the war's effect on Britain.

It is not of course a standard text, nor present anything like the standard version, rather it's a scholarly work and I think would be of interest to Americans.

Another interesting British take on the American Revolution is Piers Mackesy's "The War for America, 1775-83"
posted by subatomiczoo at 9:45 PM on October 24, 2005

I was never taught about the 'American War of Independence' either. I doubt anyone here was. Primary history education was local history and history of costume, while secondary education was Prehistoric and Roman Britain, Industrial Revolution, and Modern History. The only US History taught was 20th Century political - Mafia and Hoffa; Civil Rights, JFK, Watergate, Cold War, etc.

My only education concerning War of Independence was at the Hall of Presidents, and the few books I've read. I guess most Brits are quite ignorant except for Hollywood, unless they have been self motivated.

I'm 31 and a keen tea drinker.
posted by desert_roamer at 9:54 PM on October 24, 2005

And as sideline, would you Brits consider taking us back?
posted by RavinDave at 10:22 PM on October 24, 2005

But it must have been the greatest trauma in British history! OK, maybe not.

One perspective out there is The Madness of George III (although I prefer parts I and II), in which the loss of the colonies is merely one aspect of a botched reign. Some quotes:

[Pitt has given the King some papers to sign]
George III: What is this? America, I suppose.
Pitt: No, sir.
George III: Oh, America is not to be spoken of, is that it?
Pitt: For your own peace of mind, sir. But it is not America.
George III: Peace of mind! I have no peace of mind. I have had no peace of mind since we lost America. Forests, old as the world itself, plains, strange delicate flowers, immense solitudes. And all nature new to art. All ours. Mine. Gone. A paradise lost.

[the King is reading his speech at the State Opening of Parliament]
George III: Whereas we, George III, in this year of our Lord 1788, do open this Parliament, giving notice that our will and pleasure is that the following bills shall be laid before this House. A bill for the regulation of trade with our possessions in North America...
[There is a reproving cough from Thurlow]
George III: Our *former* possessions in North America.

George III: What of the colonies, Mr. Pitt?
Pitt: America is now a nation, sir.
George III: Is it? Well. We must try and get used to it. I have known stranger things. I once saw a sheep with five legs...

Fox: You see that the King did not write his own speech, Mr. Pitt.
Pitt: The King will do as he's told, Mr. Fox.
Fox: Then why not be rid of him? If a few ramshackle colonists in America can send him packing, why can't we?

Seriously, though, Britain has had 200 years of coping with colonial losses, some of them more significant and traumatic. In some ways I imagine the eclipsing of the Empire by the Pax Americana is probably more of a factor today. A quick reading of "america independence site:uk" results suggests, for instance, two primary reactions to the Boston Tea Party: 1) Americans liked tea as much as Brits; 2) the Tea Party was a coordinated political protest against British rule, rather than a spontaneous uprising. In that sense the Brits get a better picture than most American schoolkids. ;-)

There also seems to be a distinct edge of anti-royalist sympathy -- after all, the Brits ended up staging their own democratic revolution during the 19th century.
posted by dhartung at 10:45 PM on October 24, 2005

I'm under the impression that, while most Britons have heard of the American Wars of Independence, they would have to be reminded that it was Britain America was seeking independence from.
posted by cillit bang at 10:54 PM on October 24, 2005

I'm currently reading Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson - It has a lot of interesting information about Franklins time in Britain before and during the run up to the war. I'd never heard any perspective in my American education regarding the British motivations and feelings regarding the colonies. The Mercantile economic philosophy seems as much at fault as anything.
posted by muddylemon at 11:08 PM on October 24, 2005

Ok I’m a Brit. So I’m up for this, though I’ve been an expat for 30 years.
When I was at school the American War of Independence was mentioned in passing.
It was a continuation from the Seven Years War 1756 – 1763 and a lead in to the final great contest with France and the the Napoleonic wars.
British History has always seemed to look on the American war of Independence as part of the whole Atlantic Empire question. After all there was no direct threat to England. The American revolutionaries were not going to invade. France was a much greater threat for that. America was a Colony and possibly Canada was more important.
Schoolboys knew about the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere and had to try and remember about the Navigation acts. Not surprisingly most history focussing on the War of Independence has been written by Americans. The reprecussions to trade and the effect on the English economy are what are more often discussed.
For the actual Campaign try parts of: The Green Dragoon – Bass, Robert 1957 a biography of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson.
For a broader picture: The Cousins Wars – Kevin Phillips
and The economy of British America 1607 – 1789 – McCusker + Menard.
It should be pointed out that whilest “far away” the War had reprecussions. Britain lost about 2000 vessels and 12000 sailors and cargo to about UKL 18,000,000.
posted by adamvasco at 12:36 AM on October 25, 2005

When I think of it, I think of it in the larger context of the death of the British Empire. It's not a big deal.
posted by seanyboy at 12:39 AM on October 25, 2005

I'm 18. (Just left school!) It was definitely mentioned in passing, but we were never taught about it, and now I think about it I know pretty much nothing on the subject.
posted by Lotto at 1:30 AM on October 25, 2005

I must have had a good history teacher, or perhaps a weird curriculum.

We were taught about the American War of Independence, but most of it came up in Secondary school. It started with the Boston Tea Party, but also talked about the use of taxation/foreign labour and resources to fund British Foreign adventures. I think it was the first time, as a 14 year old, that I came across the idea of a foreign power exploiting another country to fund lots of other things. And it made some sense.

As a sideline, I loved my History lessons during the 12yr-16yr period. We spent a huge amount of time on old stuff, but we also dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Irish Question and the Assassination of JFK (with all the conspiracy theories, and ideas, too). At one point we had a mock courtroom setup, I was with the prosecution trying to get a conviction for Oswald, some of my friends were with the Defense, and we spent around 6-8 hours of lesson time trying to convince a jury, reading witness statements from the record. We had closing speeches, and everything. It was brilliant.
posted by gsb at 2:01 AM on October 25, 2005

My experience is the same as seanyboy. The American War of Independence is of little significance to the British. We gained and lost a whole empire and America was just one part of that. In addition, with hindsight, America was always going to get it's independence at some point. Look at Canada - it's independence was entirely peaceful.
posted by salmacis at 2:18 AM on October 25, 2005

When I was in a (Welsh) secondary school, I seem to remember being taught about the Great Long March (China), Catherine The Great (Russia) and Prohibition (USA), but nothing specifically about 1792 or whenever it was.
posted by badlydubbedboy at 2:57 AM on October 25, 2005

Another Brit. Nothing at all at school on American War of Independence. We did Bronze age, Iron age, Romans, Normans, Tudors, Stuarts from 11-14, then British Social History 1700-1900 which must have been the dullest curriculum ever: Farming, canals, railways, luddites, unions (bit more exciting).
I still don't know how the UK doesn't own Europe given that only battles we won were ever mentioned. What happened between Crecy and Agincourt and us being an island again?
posted by biffa at 3:19 AM on October 25, 2005

I wasn't taught about US Independence at school. My feeling is that it has no particular significance in Britain. We had one heck of an Empire, and don't any more. Big deal.

As a Brit, this cropped up for me a year or so ago. Speaking to an American, she referred in passing to something called the American Revolution. I had no idea what she was talking about, and thought that it was some obscure reference to the US Civil War. After a pretty vague explanation of why the War of Indepence was a revolution, I came to the conclusion that, as revolutions go, it was a bit of a fizzler.

A typically British condescending joke is that the British won the American War of Independence, and the French got the US as the consolation prize. Thus we get to insult both the French and the Americans at the same time.
posted by veedubya at 4:24 AM on October 25, 2005

What happened between Crecy and Agincourt and us being an island again?

The Civil War, of course.

I'm not surprised that the Brits don't spend extensive coverage on the events of the 1770s. About the only reason anyone hears about the war of 1812 in America is a song about New Orleans, and we kind of gloss over the fact that, oops, somebody done burned down the White House. (Nice show, chaps.) and lord knows there might have been a whole paragraph about Korea and Vietnam.

IOW, you lost that one, so you don't like to talk about it.
posted by eriko at 4:25 AM on October 25, 2005

"American War of Independence." Not taught at school. It's taught at university, if you're interested in that kind of thing. (My wife's mother, who's an American high school teacher, asked for a copy of the British school textbook on the American Revolution. I laughed very much.)

Simon Schama's 'The Wrong Empire' (part of his History of Britain series) is a very good introductory take on American independence from the British perspective, though; it makes the point that the British Americans regarded themselves as British (in fact, more British than the British, in their commitment to the principles of the Glorious Revolution) as late as Lexington.

American history at school? We were taught about Woodrow Wilson, isolationism, prohibition, depression, the New Deal, etc. Post-1918. We learned about Rosa Parks, but not Thomas Jefferson. (I learned the basics while studying eighteenth-century English literature at university: Taxation No Tyranny, etc.) And that's probably the experience of most people educated in Britain. Point is, we have a lot more national history to get through, not to mention the stuff about the other bits of the world we used to run and messed up.
posted by holgate at 4:50 AM on October 25, 2005

eriko, we don't talk about it because, as galling as it may seem to our colonial cousins, it's not particularly interesting. What exactly did we 'lose'? A troublesome colony, full of upstarts that liked to talk about liberty for all, whilst retaining the right to own slaves. In terms of both land mass and mineral wealth, Canada was much more important, and that's still part of the Commonwealth.
posted by veedubya at 5:31 AM on October 25, 2005

What you need to realise is that until recently, most British history -- especially the history taught in schools -- was written from a very Whiggish perspective. In other words, the Big Story was the rise of parliamentary democracy. According to this version of events, George III was a bad king -- because he had old-fashioned ideas about royal power, tried to interfere in politics (instead of leaving his ministers to run the show), and generally hindered the transition to a fully-developed system of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. As a result, British history books tended to sympathise with the American colonists -- who were seen as having rebelled, with good reason, against George III's arbitrary and authoritarian style of government.

I was seven at the time of the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, and I remember being taken to the big 'Spirit of 76' exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. (As I recall, the Bicentennial was celebrated in quite a big way in Britain, probably because the Wilson government saw it as a good opportunity for a public display of Anglo-American friendship.) Later on, at the age of about fourteen, we did a course on 'world revolutions' at school -- the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and (rather incongruously) the Industrial Revolution. This repeated the standard Whiggish line -- George III was an incompetent king, and the American colonists had been right to rebel against a government in London that didn't understand their grievances.

All this is long ago now, and I don't know what the National Curriculum teaches children nowadays about the American Revolution. But my impression is that most Brits know about the Revolution in very basic terms, even if they don't know any of the detail. The bits of American history which really are unknown in Britain -- in the Rumsfeldian sense of being 'unknown unknowns', i.e. a lot of people don't even know they ever happened -- are the War of 1812 and the American Civil War. As a child, I can remember being rather puzzled by the War of 1812 -- surely the American Revolution had settled the matter, so what were the British doing fighting another war in America? And as for the Civil War, I can remember what a shock it was to me to discover that Palmerston's government had supported the South. Of course I had assumed that 'we' were against slavery and would therefore have supported the Union.
posted by verstegan at 5:39 AM on October 25, 2005

A troublesome colony, full of upstarts that liked to talk about liberty for all, whilst retaining the right to own slaves.

Well, I doubt England would have had much opposition to slavery than as we all do know, since they made a good bit of money off the slave trade -- but some pesky revolution wouldn't stop that lucrative bit of business.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:08 AM on October 25, 2005

I was getting at the notion that the perception outside the US, is that the US tradition of liberty and democracy is more honoured in the breach. This isn't new either; Charles Dickens refers to it at length in Martin Chuzzlewit.
posted by veedubya at 6:25 AM on October 25, 2005

If the british taught their kids about every upsart colony that rebelled against them, they wouldn't have time to teach anything else.

pax britannica?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:20 AM on October 25, 2005

I don't think it's a case of only teaching our children about British victories - after all, we don't learn about how Wellington conquered India, or the Peninsula Wars either. Holgate does make the very good point that we have an awful lot more history than you Yanks do, so by necessity, only small chunks can be taught as part of the school curriculum.
posted by salmacis at 7:27 AM on October 25, 2005

It was a continuation from the Seven Years War 1756 – 1763

This is perhaps the most important thing I've learned about the Revolution (or War of Independence, a better name) since leaving school. British Americans were perfectly happy to be British, but they'd gotten used to running things their way; the Seven Years' War (aka French and Indian War) showed them how appallingly British (non-colonial) soldiers were treated (and thus how different their own lives, prospects, and assumptions were). Simultaneously, Whitehall was deciding it was high time things got tightened up and the colonies were forced to pay for their own security (hence all those taxes that caused all those protests). Increasing resentments on both sides, and pretty soon you have troops firing on civilians, committees of correspondence, and a Declaration of Independence (which shocked most people, but once it was out there, there was no going back).

Sorry, slight derail, but I thought it was an interesting contribution to the discussion.
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on October 25, 2005

The practical issue is this, as far as teaching history is concerned: the consequences of American independence per se, on the British side, are difficult to teach as part of any historical narrative, Whig ameliorist or not. That isn't to minimise the importance... but history depends, to a great extent, on what's palpable. And losses, or absences, are hard to teach.

You live in an old mill town? You get taught about the growth of the mills, and you'll probably be taught about how the triangular trade sent slaves to the Americas and cotton to Lancashire.

(In fact, most British 18th-c political history is ignored at the school level: too much chewy stuff. Social and industrial history is taught because it shaped the landscape.)

But compared to my wife's schooling in Georgia, which spent six months on Reconstruction and left out 20th-century American history, there's no post-mortem, because it's difficult to see (and thus care about) what was lost.
posted by holgate at 7:36 AM on October 25, 2005

I can understand that the American Revolution isn't taught in detail in UK schools, but to suggest that Canada was more important to Britain is decidedly NOT the reason.

Canada only really became Canada after 1763 and even after Wolfe took Quebec from the French, the British were pretty much held to a standoff by the Canadiens. At the end of the 7 Years' War just following, Britain essentially tried to give Quebec BACK to France - who preferred to retain Guadeloupe instead of "quelques arpents de neige".
posted by mikel at 7:59 AM on October 25, 2005

"After all there was no direct threat to England. The American revolutionaries were not going to invade."

Oh, no?

(Apologies for the derail.)
posted by soiled cowboy at 8:10 AM on October 25, 2005

Well, I doubt England would have had much opposition to slavery than as we all do know, since they made a good bit of money off the slave trade

Sorry, dagnyscott, don't know what you are trying to say here. However Simon Schama (mentioned upthread) has a new book out about just this: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution.
posted by ninebelow at 8:16 AM on October 25, 2005

NPR spoke with Stanley Weintraub, author of "Iron Tears" -- about precisely this subject -- earlier this year.
posted by schoolgirl report at 9:00 AM on October 25, 2005

IANAB, but for a British view of American history, I recommend Alistair Cooke's America, both TV series and book.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:08 AM on October 25, 2005

We were taught it at school as, "The American War of Independence." We spent about two months on it, as I recall.

Typically for British history, it was described as "a good thing", to quote "1066 And All That". For instance, the Romans invaded Britain -- "a good thing"; the Normans invaded Britain -- "a good thing"; the Americans rebelled against bad King George -- "a good thing".

Of course, in the next breath, our history teacher told us that the American War of Independence was actually an far-sighted British government plot to obtain a free nuclear umbrella two hundred years later! :)
posted by blue_wardrobe at 12:12 PM on October 25, 2005

^an far-sighted^a far-sighted
posted by blue_wardrobe at 12:20 PM on October 25, 2005

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and abolished slavery in 1833.

The Seven Years War is more commonly known as the French and Indian War in the US. Fred Anderson's Crucible of War (discussion) is a good history.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:42 PM on October 25, 2005

Second the recommendation for Crucible of War, one of the best books I've read about American history.
posted by languagehat at 1:12 PM on October 25, 2005

I'm sure it's right that there are "ideological" reasons - for want of a better word - why the American Revolutionary War might not feature in British history lessons. If you take today's curriculum, for instance, one of the main ways in which British students will come across American history is in looking at black history, something which wouldn't really have been taught across the board 20 years ago. Do the American Revolutionary Wars have as much resonance today? Still, that whole period does tend to get ignored. I wasn't taught about the French Revolution or the French Revolutionary Wars either (which I think are actually pretty vital to understanding the next 150-200 years of European history) - we just did a few weeks on Napoleon, Nelson and Waterloo.

I think that's partly due to the constraints of the curriculum - there's a link to the various stages up to 16 here if you're interested in finding out what British children are studying in history at the moment. Even looking at GCSE level, there's no much scope for this period of American history to feature. At primary level (5-11), historical periods are often a peg for all sorts of subjects to be hung from. For instance, the Roman Empire will be used to look at the lives of certain emperors (eg lots of salacious details on Nero), Roman numerals (fun way of looking at maths), Roman art (eg make your own mosaic), and so on. By the time you get to secondary level, history is not a compulsory GCSE so you can drop it at age 14. That leaves 3 years in which to cram lots in, so a lot of the less traditional topic areas don't get a look in. In many schools a bit of medieval history is blended together with the Tudors, the First World War and that's about it. The comments about industrial mills in mill towns - or whatever your town happened to have been involved in - is also spot on.

(NB was at secondary school in the 1990s so that's the perspective I'm coming from. The curriculum has moved on slightly since 1997, particularly with the emphasis on citizenship, although I'm sure the basic time constraints still apply).
posted by greycap at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2005

we have an awful lot more history than you Yanks do

An Englishman once tweaked me when he asked what I studied in college. American history, I told him. "Well that must be easy," he said. How so? I asked. "Well, there is so little of it!"

"That is true," I said there are really only two periods.

"And what are those?" he asked.

"Periods in which America defeats England in wars, and periods in which American saves England from the Germans."

I repeat this here because it is the only time in my life I made a really good comeback.
posted by LarryC at 3:14 PM on October 25, 2005 [1 favorite]

"The bits of American history which really are unknown in Britain -- in the Rumsfeldian sense of being 'unknown unknowns', i.e. a lot of people don't even know they ever happened -- are the War of 1812 and the American Civil War."

"we have an awful lot more history than you Yanks do"

I am not trying to claim insult or to insult anyone, or to in any way state any support for the South's clearly wrong-headed position. All I ask is that Brits remember enough about the American Civil War to understand why some of us bristle a bit at being called a "Yank."

(Sorry, it's a personal pet peeve. In my rural Southern youth, "yankee" carried certain negative connotations and was used mostly to refer to those people who came through about 100 years previously, burned everything and pushed everybody around. People from, say, New York are "from up North" -- a term that doesn't have negative connotations. Calling someone a "Yankee" would be very close to an insult in this part of the country, even if they were "from up North.")

Also, ask the average American about the French and Indian Wars or the War of 1812 and you'll get an incredibly blank stare.
posted by Jaie at 5:43 PM on October 25, 2005

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