Press enter to see results or esc to cancel.

How the American War Altered the British Concept of The Empire

Historians often focus on United States in the wake of the American Revolutionary War. However, the effects of this war rippled beyond North America throughout the British Empire and the world. The British reaction to the loss of the American colonies sheds light on the reasons that imperialism began to shift in the nineteenth century. The American War brought many issues regarding the concept of empire into the minds and conversations of British citizens and marked a shift into a new era of British imperialism as they sought to form a stronger, more unified empire.

Although part of the British Empire, the colonies across the Atlantic Ocean increasingly developed their own identities distinct from Britain.[1] In the 1760’s, Britain began to tighten its economic control over the American colonies.[2] The goal of increasing revenue from the colonies was made in an effort to keep the colonies profitable for Britain.[3] However, what the British saw as fair taxes, the increasingly independent American economy saw as burdensome, especially because the Americans had just fought on behalf of Britain in the French and Indian War.[4] When the British Parliament raised taxes in these areas, the colonists rebelled and, in the case of the Thirteen Colonies, broke off completely from the empire.[5]

Prior to the American War, British sentiments about the American colonists were varied.  Some believed that although the Americans were not directly represented in Parliament, this was appropriate for members of British colonies.[6] Others saw the American colonies as just as much a part of Britain as states such as Ireland.[7] In general, most believed that the colonists were subjects of the King, and even George Washington wrote about his allegiance to the king in 1776.[8] Thus, when the Americans declared their independence from Britain, they did it as a measure of last resort because they felt their fundamental right to representation that was due to them as British citizens was not being granted – a feeling that many Britons shared.[9]

As the British Empire grew and became a commercial power, there was a debate about how to reconcile some of the practices of colonialism with Britain’s values of liberty and humanity.[10] This conflict became especially relevant as the American colonies cried out against unfair taxation.[11] When entering into the war with the American colonies, the British government hoped to win a decisive victory that would assert its hegemony over the British subjects across the ocean.[12] As the Americans rebelled, the Britons began to distance themselves from their brothers across the Atlantic, claiming that the rogue colonists were acting most ungentlemanly and disgracefully.[13] Many sought to bring the American colonies back under British control through even more forceful restrictions of liberties.[14] However, some Britons opposed the war, appealing to the British ideals of liberty and commerce, as well as common humanity and British brotherhood.[15]  As the war continued much longer than expected, Britons such as George Johnstone began to worry about the implications the war might have on Britain’s reputation.[16] They feared that Britain’s commitment to humanity and justice would be called into question.[17]

The defeat of the British army made people question how a military with much greater experience, training, and numbers could be beaten by a substantially less-prepared group of civilians.[18]  James MacPherson tried to console his fellow Britons by recalling the fallibility of the Roman Empire and remembering its greatness despite occasional losses.[19] Others, however, saw Britain’s defeat and, even more so, its participation and behavior during the war as very telling of the ruthless and inhumane character of the British Empire.[20] A particular supporter of the idea of the wars as evidence of Britain’s inhumanity was Thomas Day, who questioned the integrity of his nation that fought so hard against liberty and justice.[21]

The American Revolutionary War left Britain’s economy saddled with huge debts, which resulted in higher taxes throughout the empire.[22] Britons’ view toward the American revolutionaries were varied, but the political unrest that the war precipitated remained civil and nonviolent.[23]

Immediately following the war, there was much disagreement among the British regarding the effects of losing the American colonies.  Many were unhappy with the loss, but some, including James Anderson, rejoiced, saying that the colonies had been draining the British economy and that the empire was stronger without them.[24] People along this same line of thinking argued that Britain had already lost many other holdings and yet remained a great world power that continued to grow and blossom.[25] However, others felt the pain of the loss and began to question the ability of King George III to rule as well as his predecessors.[26] In addition to Day’s deep regret at what this war suggested about the character of the British nation, Joseph Williams lamented that with the loss of the American colonies, Britain also lost the title of “Empire.”[27]

Others, like Thomas Tod, suggested that there could still be hope for the British Empire for economic relations with the young United States through trade.[28] King George III similarly called for friendly relations with the United States in his speech after the American War.[29] Despite the positive view that some people took regarding the loss of the American colonies, few people believed that this meant that Britain should give up her other colonies. [30] Most British citizens wanted their nation to continue to be a European and world power, even if the American colonies were no longer part of it.[31]

As the British public discussed the situation of the American War, they began to call into question Britain’s relationship with other colonies, particularly India.[32] Some such as Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox promoted the retaining of India as the height of the remaining British Empire.[33] Others, however, viewed Britain’s control of India as oppressive and unjust.[34] No matter the opinion that people held regarding India’s status as part of the empire, all agreed that Britain would need to proceed carefully so as not to have another disaster like that of the American War.[35]  In 1783, it was decided that the East India Company could retain its hegemony in India as long as it was more closely supervised by the Board of Control.[36] Despite this, India remained an issue of controversy for many decades.[37]

Another issue that was brought to the forefront of Britons’ minds after the American War was that of slavery.[38] Many appealed to the common humanity of the slaves and called for the abolishment of the slave trade in Britain’s remaining colonies.[39] Perhaps this movement against slavery was done in an effort to rebuild Britain’s reputation as a kind and humane empire.

The English also began to question the status of Ireland.  The Irish people, inspired by the success of the Americans began to act upon their discontent with their status in the British Empire.[40]  They demanded independence: the right to control their own affairs including government and taxation.[41] Despite the debates that took place regarding Britain’s remaining colonies in the wake of the American War, little was settled upon or resolved by the end of the eighteenth century.[42] Still, it remained clear that the loss of the American colonies brought up many questions concerning the treatment of Britain’s remaining colonies.[43]

In addition to these British discussions regarding the war and the future of the empire, there were changes that took place within the greater empire itself.  According to historian P. J. Marshall, the end of the American War with the defeat of Britain was a watershed moment for the British Empire.[44] The loss of the North American colonies marked the beginning of a shift from the first British Empire in the west to a second empire in the east.[45] As Britain reorganized after her loss of the American colonies, she turned her sights to Africa and Asia.[46] Although the British holdings in the West Indies and the Caribbean remained important to British trade, the efforts to end the slave trade decreased the profitability of these areas.[47] Because of this, Britain channeled more energy into the trade between India and China.[48]

Along with this shift in geographic focus, the British government realized that it would need to reassess its practices of governing the colonies.[49] King George III acknowledged this in his 1780’s speech.[50]  It became clear that the heavy-handed governance that had driven away the American colonies would need to be amended so as to maintain the other colonies. [51] To do this, Britain allowed for more localized governments.[52] To prevent further rebellions in Britain’s other colonies, a number of acts were implemented to ensure that the empire did not lose any more territory.[53] For example, the Canada Act of 1791 strengthened the local government in Canada and set up churches.[54] Similarly, the Declaratory Act of 1778 promised that Parliament would not tax its colonies for revenue.[55] In 1782, Poyning’s Law was repealed, which made Ireland equal with Scotland prior to the 1707 union.[56] Despite these changes, Parliament remained the ultimate authority in the colonies.[57]

These changes marked the beginning of the new British Empire.[58] Although a distinct turning point cannot be cited as the moment this new empire began, Marshall argues that the change was precipitated by the American War.[59] In an effort to preserve and strengthen the remaining empire, Britain implemented changes in the treatment of colonies and the geographic focus. These changes, along with the debates that occurred regarding Britain’s identity as an empire, were some of the far-reaching effects of the American War that are often overlooked.

[1] C. A. Bayly, Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830 (London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1989), 90.
[2]P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914 (London: Longman, 1993), 94.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Bayly, Imperial Meridian, 90.
[6] Eliga H. Gould, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution,” in The British Atlantic World 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), 209.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Jack P. Greene, Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 200.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 203.
[13] Ibid., 206.
[14] Ibid., 215.
[15] Ibid., 216.
[16] Ibid., 227.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 229.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid., 242.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Gould, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution,” 210.
[23] Ibid.
[24]Greene, Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism, 296.
[25] Ibid., 297.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid., 298.
[28] Ibid., 299.
[29] George III, “Letter on the loss of America writing in the 1780s (precise year unknown).” The British Monarchy, accessed February 2, 2016. https-//
[30] Greene, Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism, 304.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid., 305.
[33] Ibid., 306.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid., 315.
[37] Ibid., 317.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid., 318.
[40] Ibid., 332.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid., 339.
[43] Ibid.
[44] P. J. Marshall, “Britain Without America,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II: The Eighteenth Century, ed. P. J. Marshall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 576.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid., 577.
[47] Ibid., 578.
[48] Ibid., 581.
[49] Ibid., 588.
[50] George III, “Letter on the loss of America.”
[51] Marshall, “Britain Without America,” 588.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Gould, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution,” 211.
[54] Ibid.
[55] Ibid.
[56] Ibid.
[57] Marshall, “Britain Without America,” 588.
[58] Ibid., 595.
[59] Ibid.
Bayly, C. A. Imperial Meridian: The British Empire and the World 1780-1830. London: Longman Group UK Limited, 1989.
Cain, P.J. and Hopkins, A.G. British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914. London: Longman, 1993.
George III. “Letter on the loss of America writing in the 1780s (precise year unknown).” The British Monarchy. Accessed February 2, 2016. https-//
Gould, Eliga H. “Revolution and Counter-Revolution.” In The British Atlantic World 1500-1800. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 196-213. Houndsmills: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.
Great Britain Sovereign (1760-1820 George III). “By the King. A Proclamation, Declaring the Cessation of Arms.” America’s Historical Imprints. 14 February 1783. Accessed February 5, 2016.
Greene, Jack P. Evaluating Empire and Confronting Colonialism in Eighteenth-Century Britain. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Marshall, P. J. “Britain Without America.” In The Oxford History of the British Empire, Volume II: The Eighteenth Century. Edited by P. J. Marshall, 576-595. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.