The American Revolution looked much different through British eyes than it did to the rebels who claimed to fight for liberty and democracy.
So when angry Bostonians sacked the houses of tax stamp collector Andrew Oliver and Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson within the space of two weeks, British Crown officials saw them as looters and rioters, not freedom fighters.
Gov. Francis Bernard, for example, disdained their cries of ‘Liberty and Property.’ He called them ‘simply the usual notice of their intention to plunder and pull down a house.’
And Hutchinson, unsurprisingly, called the men who ransacked his house ‘ruffians.’
Through British Eyes
Samuel Johnson perhaps best expressed the British point of view in his pamphlet, Taxation no Tyranny, An Answer to the Resolution and Address of the American Congress. Johnson wrote that ‘because the British ‘have always protected the Americans, we may, therefore, subject them to government.’
Johnson also outraged the rebels by insisting that if they continued to resist, the English government should ‘give the Indians arms, and teach them discipline, and encourage them now and again to plunder a plantation.’ Worse, he suggested arming slaves.
The rebels retorted that Johnson was a sycophantic slave, a mercenary reptile and a tool of traitors. Johnson then doubled down, calling them, ‘rascals, robbers and pirates’ who he would willingly destroy.
Unfit and Impatient
The British military shared a low opinion of the rebels’ fighting ability, thinking them fools and cowards. Gen. James Murray expressed the common judgment that the American soldier was ‘a very effeminate thing.’ He was also ‘very unfit for and very impatient for war.’
British soldiers themselves developed a hearty hatred of America and the Americans. Capt. John Bowater, for instance, described them witheringly from America – ‘their diabolical country.’
“The Natives are such a Levelling, underbred, Artful Race of people that we Cannot Associate with them,” wrote Bowater. “Their dress is so formal and their words come up so Slow, that I frequently long to Shove a Soup ladle down their throats.”
But Frances Wentworth, wife of the New Hampshire governor, cautioned against viewing the rebels as a despicable rabble. [‘T]heir numbers makes them formidable and they take all possible pains to improve themselves in military skill,’ she wrote.
And not every English citizen sided with the government. Kenneth Howard, Earl of Effingham, told Parliament, ‘the Americans have made the most respectful remonstrances.’
“You answer them with bills of pains and penalties; they know they ought to be free, you tell them they shall be slaves,” he wrote.
Then when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, British soldiers began to see the rebels differently.
During the ceremony of surrender, wrote one British officer, ‘the Americans behaved with great delicacy and forbearance.’
“When I visited their lines immediately after our parade had been dismissed, I was overwhelmed by the civilities of my late enemies,” he wrote.
A Lesson Learned
The British government eventually changed its approach to governing the remaining colonies.
After rebellion broke out in Canada in 1837-38, the government sent the Earl of Durham to find out why. His conclusions reflect years of serious thought about the loss of the American colonies.
In the Durham Report on British North America in 1839, he wrote that the government of the white colonies should answer to the colonists’ representative assemblies. “And not,” he wrote, “simply the agents of a distant royal authority.”
Self-government then followed in at least parts of the British Commonwealth, including Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
This story about the American Revolution through British eyes owes thanks to Redcoats and Rebels by Christopher Hibbert. This story was updated in 2022.