How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution?

And what lessons does this history hold for today’s upheavals?

Thomas Jefferson was worried. The year was 1784, and he was in Europe to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of the newly independent United States. But the republic had a problem with its image. So Jefferson decided to set the record straight with an article in Europe's leading newspaper, the French-language Gazette of Leiden. "America," he wrote, characterizing the prevailing view, "is a scene of ... riot and anarchy." According to European newspapers, Congress was weak, the states were in turmoil, and people were fleeing to Canada. None of this was true, Jefferson assured the Gazette's readers. The trouble was that printers on the continent had "not yet got into the habit of taking the American newspapers. Whatever they retail ... on the subject of America, they take from the English." And the English view was not flattering.

Today, as the Arab Spring roils the Middle East, mixing hopes for reform with fears of betrayal, it is worth remembering that we have been here before. More than 200 years ago, the American Revolution captured the world's attention much as events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have over the past year. Then as now, most of what people knew about foreign events came from the media. In Jefferson's day, the leading outlets were pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, not the electronic venues that currently predominate. Yet the effect was the same: Some of the information was accurate, while a good deal was not. Either way, Britain was the chief international source for news about America, and British writers had a lot to say.

Because the British press was the freest in the world at the time, opinion on the revolution was hardly uniform. For people on the margins of British politics -- manufacturers in cities that were not represented in Parliament, humble men and women who shouldered much of the war's fiscal burden without having a say in its conduct, and religious dissenters of all descriptions -- the American Revolution was an event to be celebrated: a "new order for the ages," in the words of the motto that Congress adopted for the United States, and an example to be followed. Although outright support was limited, several of England's most popular newspapers expressed sympathy for what the Westminster Chronicle called their "brethren" in America. George Washington, in particular, was widely admired, with even hostile papers depicting the general as "a man of sense and great integrity," in the words of Edinburgh's Scots Magazine. Americans, wrote Thomas Pownall, a former British governor of Massachusetts and friend of Benjamin Franklin, in a widely read pamphlet from 1783, were the New World's "chosen people."

But many Britons took a different view of the United States, and they found a receptive audience among readers of newspapers that supported the British government. As with the Arab Spring today, the British felt threatened by the American Revolution in part because their own country had done so well under the order that the revolution sought to topple. Writing in 1776, the author of an English pamphlet warned that the loss of America would dismember Britain's empire by "inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland." Mindful that Congress was seeking allies in Europe, others worried that Britain's rivals, especially France and Spain, would use the Revolutionary War to expand their empires at Britain's expense, and there were fears that George III's colonies in Canada and the West Indies might someday follow the Americans' example. Whether America's bid for independence succeeded or failed, Britain stood to lose a great deal from the attempt.

In an echo of worries about the fate of minority groups in the Middle East today, the United States also encountered scathing criticism because of Americans' treatment of blacks and Native Americans. In Taxation No Tyranny, published in 1774, Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first modern English dictionary and an influential British writer, set the tone, asking readers how it was "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes." During the Revolutionary War, some of the most militarily powerful Native American nations in North America heeded the danger to their own interests and sided with Britain. Equally threatening to slaveholders like Jefferson, enslaved African Americans in Virginia and the Carolinas, emboldened by British promises of freedom, fled by the tens of thousands to take up arms in the king's forces. When the British evacuated New York in 1783, they took more than 3,000 with them. One, a Virginia freedman named Harry Washington, eventually settled in the African colony of Sierra Leone, where he built a plantation that he named Mount Vernon in honor of his former master.

According to most British writers, though, the biggest uncertainty of all was whether the United States -- a nation founded in the "criminal enterprise" of rebellion, as the English historian Edward Gibbon wrote in 1780 -- would ever be a worthy treaty partner for Britain and the other nations of Europe. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson promised that the former colonies would be good international citizens, yet the United States often seemed more like an international rogue. In the British press, two issues in particular stood out in this regard: the money that Americans had borrowed from British merchants before the revolution, and the property that state governments seized from Loyalist exiles after independence. To this day, estimates vary as to the sums involved. In Virginia alone, the prerevolutionary debt to British creditors was said to exceed £2 million, while the number of Loyalists who lost property and left the United States was at least 60,000 men, women, and children, and possibly more. Whatever the true figure, Congress lacked the authority under the Articles of Confederation, which served as the first federal constitution, to compensate the war's British victims, and the states refused to do so.

The result was an image of the United States that was fundamentally different from the beneficial new order that Congress proclaimed in the young nation's motto. For the revolution's British critics, the explanation for America's shortcomings was not hard to find -- and it has a familiar ring now. By overthrowing the government of George III, Britons claimed, Jefferson and the revolution's other leaders had given the American people far more power than they could responsibly exercise. During the early 1780s, critics flooded English newspapers with accounts of the suffering endured by Loyalists, of popular dissatisfaction with the new state governments, and of Americans moving to Canada.The British press followed with particular interest the independence movement in Vermont, whose people were in arms against the governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. The reason -- as the Whitehall Evening Post informed its readers in 1781 -- was that the three "ancient states" all claimed the Union's fourteenth state as their own.

No less troubling, writers noted the many ways the Articles of Confederation hamstrung the United States in its relations with other powers, especially the provisions that denied Congress the authority to levy taxes and the various restrictions that made it impossible for the national government to compel the states to honor foreign agreements. On this basis, newspapers mocked the efforts of Jefferson and his fellow diplomats to obtain commercial treaties. In a letter to John Jay from London in 1786, John Adams, then the American ambassador to Britain, warned that the king was unlikely to begin serious negotiations until Congress obtained "full power." How, Britons asked, could the United States honor its obligations to other nations when it could not govern its own people?

For Jefferson in 1784, and no doubt for many Americans today, such questions were unfair. In their coverage of the revolution's shortcomings, newspapers in England often exaggerated, and they neglected to mention the young nation's accomplishments. Although Americans acknowledged many of the problems that the British press highlighted, the years following the revolution were also a time of remarkable experimentation and creativity -- in Congress as well as among the states. Drawing on the lessons learned in the decade since independence, the nation's leaders would gather in Philadelphia in 1787 and draft a charter for "a more perfect union," in the words of the Constitution's preamble. In a sign that the American people were better rulers of themselves than the British claimed, the new document gave the federal government most of the powers that Congress had lacked under the Articles of Confederation. This included the power to tax, the power to negotiate and enforce treaties, and -- eventually -- the power to abolish slavery. As even Britain would come to recognize, the resulting change allowed Americans to take an important step toward becoming the responsible nation that Jefferson had promised the world they would be.

So, what lessons can we draw from these reflections? One is how difficult it is for one nation to understand what is happening in another. In the years following the revolution, the British press got as much wrong about America as it got right. The same, surely, is true of efforts to predict the outcome of the Arab Spring. Even more important, the American Revolution reminds us that whatever comes of the upheavals sweeping the Middle East, it will be the Arab people, not observers in the West, who ultimately decide their fate. As the American response to the British press makes clear, no nation ever fully controls its own destiny, including a nation founded on the self-evident right of the people to govern themselves. As ought to be equally clear, however, no one else is better placed to shape the course of a nation's history than the people most directly involved -- and who have the most to win or lose from the outcome. If Americans sometimes have a hard time remembering that lesson today, it is one that they knew very well 200 years ago.



The Whitewashed War

Why the War of 1812 was a disaster intentionally misremembered, and how it changed American foreign policy forever.

Foreign visitors to the United States are quickly struck by the American enthusiasm for ostentatious declarations of patriotism: the national fondness for hanging the Stars and Stripes on front porches, or the fact that no sporting event takes place unless the national anthem has first been performed (along with, increasingly, a fighter-jet flyover). Heck, millions of school kids are asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day, a ritual that would be considered creepy if witnessed in other countries. Of course, all this reaches a peak in early July each year. Fourth of July celebrates an uncomplicated, comfortable nationalism of a kind that is much harder to find in other countries less favored by history in general and the 20th century in particular.

But as Americans prepare for their annual festival of patriotism, the circumstances that gave birth to their star-spangled banner merit reappraisal. Francis Scott Key's poem commemorates the gallant defenders of Fort McHenry (near Baltimore), who repulsed a British raiding party in the latter stages of the War of 1812. The victory in Maryland compensated, at least in part, for the humiliation suffered when British troops strolled into Washington and burned down the presidential mansion. (It was only after the mansion was repaired and painted that it became known as the White House.)

If the capital's most famous building was whitewashed, the American version of the war was given a makeover too. The War of 1812 was not the costliest of America's wars, nor even the most foolish. But it was a humiliating experience, and it necessitated a swift rewriting of history to reinterpret the war as a triumph for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Despite its defiant bluster, it is hard not to hear some sound of relief in Key's poem -- and no wonder. The Americans had made a terrible blunder, and for President James Madison, the final six months of the war were, in the judgment of historian Daniel Walker Howe, "probably the most harrowing that any president has been called upon to endure".

The war, notionally fought for "free trade and sailors rights" -- that is, in protest against British restrictions on American shipping during the Napoleonic wars and against the Royal Navy's habit of impressing into service British-born sailors found working on American ships -- was a foolish, even futile, enterprise from the start. By the time it ended, not a single one of the fledgling nation's ambitions had been achieved. Indeed, the new British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, a replacement for the assassinated Spencer Perceval, quickly rescinded the Orders in Council that had previously subjected American shipping to inspection. News of this only reached Washington after Congress and Madison had declared war.

The best that could be said of the American war effort was that the United States fought the British to a draw. The British, who had been keen to avoid war in the first place, could accept a kind of draw since their attention lay elsewhere. The War of 1812, so crucial to the young American republic, was a grave inconvenience to the British but rarely a matter of grave importance. Their beef was with Napoleon Bonaparte, not Madison. (The Americans, by definition, found themselves allied with Napoleon, gambling that his Russian adventure would succeed. It didn't.)

With Britain and the rest of Europe convulsed by the twin dramas of the Peninsular War in Spain and Napoleon's epic (and doomed) invasion of Russia, the War of 1812 was reduced to sideshow status. The British were, by and large, happy just to retain their existing North American possessions. At war's end they were content to relinquish the parts of Maine they now occupied and that many inhabitants had assumed would shortly be swallowed by Canada.

For Madison and the war party in Washington, the stakes were high and the risks terrible. No wonder the war had to be re-imagined as a great American triumph in which daring Yankee sailors bearded and bested the mighty Royal Navy and Andrew Jackson's volunteer army spanked the British on land at the Battle of New Orleans (nevermind that this encounter actually took place after the peace was signed but before news of it had reached the Americas).

It was 200 years ago next week that the first American ships sailed to pillage the trade on which Britain depended. The Duke of Wellington's army, battling up the Iberian Peninsula, depended on North American wheat, and trade was Britain's lifeblood. The myth of the War of 1812 has it that the tiny American Navy -- just six frigates strong -- pioneered "asymmetric" warfare on the high seas and humbled the all-powerful Royal Navy.

Up to a point, but the truth is more complicated. It is true that the American frigates, skippered by resourceful captains and crewed by experienced sailors, scored notable successes in single ship action. The Constitution (soon to be nicknamed "Old Ironsides") defeated the British frigates Guerrier and, later, Java while the USS United States, captained by Stephen Decatur, captured HMS Macedonian. The British public was appalled by these losses, and confidence in the Royal Navy's invincibility was shaken.

The British fared poorly in a number of smaller actions too. After the brig-sloop Peacock had been bested by the American ship-sloop Hornet in February 1813, the Royal Navy's court-martial complained about the "want of skill in directing the fire, owing to an omission of the practice of exercising the crew in the use of the guns for the last three years." But the chief reason for American success was that their frigates were larger than their British rivals and capable of delivering a heavier broadside. The American heavy frigates were armed with 24-pound guns, while the standard British frigate had to make do with 18 pounders.

Stirring as these American victories were, they proved little more than symbolic. Although American privateers enjoyed some success against British merchantmen, Sir John Borlase Warren, the new commander of the North American station, was given additional ships with which to blockade much of the American seaboard, and soon re-established its grip on the high seas. A temporary spike in Bermuda-based insurance rates was just that: temporary. The British convoy system -- which would be used again in another global conflict 130 years after the War of 1812 -- provided enough protection that losses became first tolerable and then negligible.

By 1813, the Royal Navy, already blockading most of Europe, was charged with squeezing the American economy, too. It did so to such great effect that coastal interstate trade all but disappeared. New England insurance rates for shipping and cargo rose by 75 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. exports declined precipitously, from $45 million in 1811 to just $7 million in 1814. The economic crisis was so severe that some Federalists in New England began to whisper about secession from the United States.

It was increasingly clear that American naval victories could not do more than prick the Royal Navy. Ships in harbor are useless things -- and most American frigates spent most of the war bottled up in port. As the great British naval historian N.A.M. Rodger notes, "After the summer of 1813 the U.S. Navy's opportunities were nearly gone. Only small warships still managed to get to sea, with fewer and fewer successes. Decatur's frigates were laid up at New London. The Essex cruised successfully against British whalers in the remote Pacific until early 1814, but she was the last American warship of any size at sea. In June 1814 Isaac Hull, now commanding Portsmouth Navy Yard, was told by the Secretary of the Navy that it was not worth defending as the ships were now valueless. The President escaped from New York in January 1815 but was captured within a few hours."

That amounts to a strategic defeat, by virtually any measure. Britain ruled the waves, and British ships sailed the Chesapeake, unmolested by any American counter-measures.

Nor were American operations on land notably more successful, though here the war was characterized by considerable incompetence on both sides. Nevertheless, American desires on Canada proved fruitless and -- far from expelling the British from North America -- the war ended by confirming their presence. Thomas Jefferson had predicted that the "acquisition of Canada this year ... will be a mere matter of marching." He was quite wrong. The war secured Canada and would in fact guarantee its separate, freeexistence. (It seems charmingly typical that Canadians worried this year about celebrating this victory too loudly.)

If Canada was the winner in the War of 1812, there was no doubt who the losers were. The Federalist Party, sensibly skeptical about the war from the beginning, was nevertheless a victim of its prosecution. If their fate was irrelevance, though, much worse befell the Native American population. In the years after 1815, the United States turned its eyes westward. Even tribes such as the Cherokee who had fought with the Americans against the British discovered this service afforded them precisely no protection at all as the Indians endured their long, appalling trauma.

By 1815 and Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, the original reasons for the war had been rendered moot by events. The Royal Navy now had too many sailors, not too few; there was no need to impress anyone from American ships. Restrictions on American trade had been lifted before news of Madison's declaration of war had even reached London, making the war an even more dubious misadventure.

Be that as it may, the British conceded nothing, and the Treaty of Ghent made no mention of either of the matters for which the United States had ostensibly gone to war. Treasury bonds soared by 13 percent as soon as news of the peace reached Washington. Elsewhere there was much relief that Madison's reckless folly had ended at last.

Despite disgruntlement in trade-reliant New England, Albert Gallatin, leader of the American delegation sent to Europe to plead for peace, declared the war had "renewed and reinstated the national feelings and characters which the Revolution had given." War was nation-building too:  "The people ... are more American; they feel and act more as a nation," Gallatin said.

Though supplanted in the popular memory by other wars since, this was 1812's chief importance: It renewed the young republic's fighting purpose and sense of identity. Following the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy turned its attention to the Barbary States again. Having defeated them, Commodore Decatur offered a now famous toast: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!" Nationalism was ascendant again.

The war's other legacy was the emergence of Andrew Jackson -- the hero of New Orleans and hammer of the Indians -- as a national figure whose eminence was soon beyond dispute. Jacksonian politics would make marks on American government that can still be seen today. His expansionist, individualistic, pugilistic, ethics-free brand of politics sowed seeds that still sprout and flower. Jackson's genes are part of the modern Republican Party's DNA, while the turn west would inspire Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis," making good American claims of manifest destiny.

This nationalist revival helped disguise that the War of 1812 had been a futile enterprise from the start -- one in which the United States achieved none of its stated aims and which, far from uniting the country at the time, came closer to destroying it than any other American war, save the Civil War. Some 15,000 Americans perished (many of them from disease), and the navy, despite the manner in which its officers were feted as heroes, suffered an overwhelming (if also inevitable) strategic defeat.

Yet none of this could prevent the writing of another American myth: that the War of 1812 was a battle for liberty in which the United States bloodied Britannia's imperial nose. The truth is that the war, almost wholly forgotten in Britain today, was an act of needless aggression from which Madison and his party were fortunate to escape relatively unscathed. Madison was fortunate; not every president has had the good fortune of seeing his acts of greatest folly end so comparatively well. Nevertheless, a folly it was. That Washington was rebuilt and the war subject to instant revisionism does not change all that. Perhaps this too is worth a thought when the Star-Spangled Banner is played this week and celebratory fireworks take the place of rockets and bombs bursting in mid-air.