Shelley described George III in 1819 as “an old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,” an example of “rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know, / But leech-like to their fainting country cling.” This would not have been a fair description of the George III of 1775, who was sane, sober, and dedicated to his work — yet it was a perennially accurate description of a governing paradigm that has always failed. Many ruling classes will blindly adhere to existing policies, doubling down on the very features that make them disastrous, and reach for coercion where reason and persuasion can no longer serve.
Kevin Phillips has written a timely and useful portrait of the beginning of the end of the first British Empire and the mercantilist system that guided its rulers. The story he tells is a fascinating one for people interested in that era, but it has contemporary relevance as well. It is a case study for those of us seeking to understand the rapidly approaching end of the failing institutions of our own era: big bureaucratic government, labor unions, and crony corporations. Just as George III did, our rulers cling to power and seek to intensify the very features that are causing their downfall.
1775 is a long and sprawling book that argues at several levels and on several main points. Phillips writes in his usual serious and content-rich, but not academic, style. He has not intended this as a primer: He assumes the reader is familiar with the basic chronology and personalities of the Revolution. The book drills down in detail on a large number of specific episodes. In touching on such a great many subjects, it incurs the inevitable problem of such a broad survey. For instance, on the topic of the British forces’ supply problem, Phillips criticizes the Royal Navy and its administrator, Lord Sandwich, for their performance, citing a number of authorities. However, N. A. M. Rodger, one of the most eminent current authorities on the Georgian Navy, and a biographer of Sandwich, has taken rather the contrary view, raising points Phillips does not address.
Fortunately, though, such issues do not weaken the author’s main argument: that the year 1775 (or at least the “Long Year 1775,” which he defines as running from mid-1774 through July 1776) has been unjustly overshadowed in popular perception by calendar year 1776, the year of the Declaration, as the decisive start of the Revolution. He cites a great deal of detail to support his contention, making in particular the point that 1775 was really the period of greatest popular fervor for fighting, and that it was the momentum of that year that carried the Patriot movement into the final step of the Declaration.
1775 is also a continuation of the plausible argument Phillips made in his 1999 book The Cousins’ Wars: that the American Revolution should be seen as the middle piece in a set of three great civil wars within the English-speaking world (the others were the 17th-century English Civil War, which included battles between American Cavaliers and Roundheads on American soil, and the American Civil War).
Both 1775 and The Cousins’ Wars also hark back to Phillips’s classic 1969 work, The Emerging Republican Majority, which first brought him to national attention. What the three works have in common is a detailed understanding of the structure of America — and indeed of the broader English-speaking world, since many American affiliations and enmities originated in the British Isles. Following in the footsteps of the master electoral analyst V. O. Key, Phillips brings out clearly the degree to which motivations, in 1775 as today, often owe more to specific and local loyalties, affiliations, and interests — the Burkean ties of religious denomination, ethnicity, region, family history, and occupation — than to the broad-sweep ideologies and economic interests to which historians often attribute them.
Phillips cites many instances in which ethnic or denominational affiliation was a better predictor of loyalties than economic interest was. For example, the Quaker merchants of Nantucket remained loyal to the Crown, or at least neutral, while their Congregational fellow-merchants on the mainland, with similar economic interests, became fervent Patriots. Congregationalists remembered a long history of conflict with royal, Anglican authority dating back to before the English Civil War, while Quakers remembered Charles II as the friend and protector of William Penn, and remembered the persecution of Quakers by Congregationalist authorities a few generations earlier.
This fine-grained detail supports Phillips’s thesis that the American Revolution was a civil war, not only between different parts of the English-speaking world, but within the colonies as well. Often loyalties were chosen for immediate and fairly arbitrary reasons: If the Hatfields declared for the Congress, the McCoys would typically declare for the King.
Particularly useful is Phillips’s detailed explanation of how Lord North’s government infuriated so many Americans and moved them to action. Americans have traditionally understood the run-up to the Revolution as a matter of taxation and lack of representation, and of acts of high-handed arrogance such as the East India Company’s official tea monopoly. Contrarians have pointed out that Americans received defense from the Empire that cost far more to provide than was received from America in tax revenue, that Britons paid far more than Americans per capita in taxation, and that before too long, independent Americans were paying higher taxes to their own federal government than they ever had paid to the Crown, for public goods that were for a long time inferior.
Phillips makes it clear that although these contrarian arguments are technically true, they are irrelevant. The real root of the Empire’s problem was that the mercantilist paradigm, which had overseen a period of great growth and prosperity, had become the engine of its own destruction. Mercantilism held that colonies should be sources of raw materials for their metropolis, and in turn be captive markets for the mother country’s manufactures and sophisticated financial services. The Navigation Acts and the decisions of the Board of Trade were all based on this theory. But America had grown so prosperous and populous that, inevitably, it wanted more, better, and cheaper manufactured goods and financial services than Britain was able or willing to supply, and America had more products than the British Empire was able to absorb. Home manufacture and free trade with non-British markets, both illegal, were what America wanted and needed. Mercantilist theory, and the crony-capitalist interests of Britain’s corrupt Old Whig system, worked together to deny these wishes. Americans of that time argued — as Phillips shows, justifiably — that although the formal, overt tax burden on them was low, the hidden taxes of the monopoly system and the opportunity costs of the mercantilist regulatory system were enormous, and were hampering American development.
Furthermore, the British Empire was by 1775 getting rich not so much because of its mercantilist system as in spite of it. Phillips indicates that the previous decades of marvelous growth and prosperity were in substantial measure owing to widespread, even endemic flouting of the Navigation Acts and the manufacturing-licensing system. Americans and Britons alike smuggled at will, with only a token and inadequate revenue-collection system to occasionally harass them. When they were caught, juries would refuse to convict them. (Phillips relates that smuggled Dutch gin was so cheap in England that coastal villagers used it to clean windows.) Americans opened up and expanded iron foundries without licenses or greatly in excess of what licenses permitted. Far from being primarily a resource provider, America had, as its biggest pre-Revolutionary export, ships: A third of the Empire’s merchant fleet was American-made, and by 1775 half of the Empire’s shipbuilding capacity was in America.
As a result, the British tax system was in constant crisis, and North’s government strained to pay off the large debt run up in the recent French and Indian War. Faced with a system that was not working, but continuance of which was essential to the personal enrichment of the inner circle of the Old Whig clique, North’s government chose to double down on the old model. It resorted to ever more intrusive levels of state coercion to plug the holes in revenue enforcement, invented new forms of taxation that would be harder to evade, and abused the exceptions of admiralty law to circumvent the centuries-old right to jury trial, even far inland. High bail and distant trial venues served to make prosecution itself the punishment, regardless of an eventual verdict. Abusive enforcement of the customs laws fell heaviest on the colonies, which had no members of Parliament to complain on their behalf.
Particularly oppressive was the use of the Royal Navy to enforce the Navigation Acts. A handful of revenue cutters once engaged in token enforcement. Now, Navy ships, whose captains could carry out summary, jury-free enforcement under admiralty law, swarmed up and down the American coast. They disrupted the technically illegal commerce with the French West Indies that was a mainstay of colonial American prosperity, while seizing ships and impressing sailors into Navy service, despite the fact that many of them were legally exempt. Law enforcement and defense are two distinct activities, and the mind-set appropriate to one is not appropriate to the other. Use of the armed forces to enforce civil law is always the sign of a system in crisis, and so it was in pre-revolutionary America.
Phillips’s identification of 1775 as the turning point comes from this understanding of the Revolution as the result of a crisis not just in Anglo-colonial relations, but in the overall Atlantic mercantilist system. It was the escalation to systematic armed resistance in 1775, combined with the persistent preference of North and George III to escalate coercion rather than negotiate compromise, that made the Declaration of Independence a foregone conclusion.
Phillips argues that for the Patriot leaders of 1776, many of whom had no strong preference for independence per se, the Declaration was not at that point a radical step, but rather a conservative one, a means of legitimizing order in a time of chaos. George’s intransigence and declaration of rebellion had cut off any retreat back to empire and subjecthood. State committees and conventions, with no obvious legitimacy, were exercising de facto power with no de jure basis. Independence and statehood became the only way to create legitimacy, both for domestic stability and for the international status needed to seek and receive help. The Declaration was, as Phillips put it, “a stitch in time.”
This story has direct relevance for our own era. The institutions of the first British Empire were once reasonably functional, and they helped produce an age of unprecedented prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic. Partly because of their success, they became less and less functional as the Empire grew and changed. Some of the most intelligent minds of the English-speaking world of that day — among them Franklin, Burke, and Adam Smith — devoted much thought to diagnosing these problems and proposing changes that would preserve a united Empire as a free, prosperous, and constitution-based polity. They failed, primarily because the minds in charge of the system were too small, unimaginative, self-interested, and arrogant to understand the scope of the crisis they faced, or the futility of escalating coercion against people with a long tradition of freedom and self-government.
Patrick Henry famously declaimed: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and George III — may profit from their example.” I would hesitate to draw a blind parallel today in a much different era, one in which we have many constitutional tools for change, not available to our ancestors, that have not yet been tried. Yet there are many today defending an old, tired, blind, and bankrupt system who may yet profit from the example of others such in the past.
– Mr. Bennett is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge and a co-author (with Michael J. Lotus) of the forthcoming America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century — Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come (Encounter, May).