Why did the British lose the American War of Independence?


The reasons behind the loss of the colonies are large in number and complicated in nature so that one can easily blame foreign intervention for Britain’s defeat and forget to mention other factors such as Britain’s failure to comprehend the changing political and economic context of the time or North’s intolerable Acts which along with other Acts such as the Stamp Act alienated American support. Nor can one fail to mention Britain’s military inadequacies during the war itself or the sheer difficulty involved in moving troops across the Atlantic.

Foreign intervention was certainly was one of the main reasons behind Britain’s defeat. During the war, the intervention of both France and Spain caused major strategic problems for Britain. On one side there was the French from whom Britain had to protect troop convoys, the West Indies and India which also was under the threat of the French. On the other side there was Spain who threatened to invade Gibraltar and Florida which eventually they did unsuccessfully. The French also supplied the Americans with weapons so that by the end of the War, 9/10 of the weapons used by the Americans came from France. The war also became that much harder for the British when the French took control of the seas at Chesapeake Bay in 1781. Fighting off the French, the Americans and the Spanish proved to be too much of a strain on the British economy.

During most of the wars preceding the American War of independence Britain had at least one ally so that as Evens says: « Britain could not hope to win without them ». Their diplomatic isolation was such an important factor because Britain lacked the manpower to field a large army and navy without dislocating their economy. They did not find an ally who could provide supplies and troops when needed because supporting British rule in America offered very little or no reward for most countries and those who were most likely to help had scores to settle with Britain. Other nations such as Russia refused on the grounds that is was more rewarding to be part of the League of Armed neutrality which, with Holland, Sweden and Russia as members defended their right to trade with America during the war. Britain’s military inadequacies and American guerrilla tactics accounted for some of Britain’s defeats during the war. There was an enormous number of patriots ready to fight for independence, their poor military skills meant they were incapable of winning conventional battles however they could occupy strong points and settlements and could use guerrilla tactics. British casualties were much higher, 800 in ‘72 as opposed to 95 for the rebels as the British found themselves constantly ambushed by small forces in the mountains and on bridges. The Americans lost most of the early battles but the British kept letting Washington escape and in 1777 when the Americans finally won a battle at Saratoga the British gave up the offensive in the North. One could say that if Burgoyne hadn’t let Washington escape at Brandywine or hadn’t walked into heavy rebel resistance in Saratoga, France and Spain wouldn’t have joined in the war and the British would have won.

To wage a war in a land so far away poses an enormous problem and Britain’s inability to get troops in fast and efficiently was an important factor in the Americans winning the war. It took 3 – 6 months to get a body of troops and supplies across the Atlantic so that by the time the ships did get there, many soldiers no longer desired or were unable to fight and thus were ineffective. Many large ships could only make the crossing during the spring on account of the bad weather during the winter so that reinforcements only came for 3 months a year! After the French and the Spanish joined the war, British ships were constantly ambushed which made it even harder for troops to get across the Atlantic. Co-ordinating offensives in a country so big also posed problems for the British who did not dispose of internal communication as the Americans did.

One of the main reasons for the Britain’s defeat lies in the period preceding the war during which the British alienated American support. Their biggest failure seems to be their inability to understand the changing nature of political and economic relations. The Americans felt as if they had no right to be taxed if they were not represented politically. They controlled the administration as the Governor of South Carolina said: « the people have the whole administration in their hands » and felt suppressed by the laws on trade which meant they could only trade with Britain. The few supporters of British rule changed their mind when Britain started to show off it’s dominance with political and constitutional Acts which became a source of great discontent among the Americans so that the Philadelphia Congress was called after North imposed his « Intolerable Acts ». Among the Acts, the Stamp Act of 1765 was one of the worst, it required newspapers, legal documents, playing cards and newspaper advertisements to bear a government stamp and as Christie suggests: « gave provocation to all the most influential and vocal sections of colonial society: planters, merchants, lawyers. »

The fact that the British lost the war was not a surprise to anybody, they were outnumbered and their soldiers fought for a cause that was not entirely their own while the Americans fought for independence and once foreign powers kicked in Britain’s failure was pretty much inevitable.



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