Skip to main content

Doves And Hawks, 1776

July 2024
14min read

On May 20, 1779, the Earl of Pembroke—lord lieutenant of Wiltshire, a former Lord of the Bedchamber to the reigning monarch, George III—was in despair. He felt a deep sense of shame that was impossible to hide. As he wrote to his son, Lord Herbert, who was making the Grand Tour in Italy: “I wish I were a Laplander, or anything but a Briton.”

A month later he explained at greater length to his son the reasons for his dissatisfaction: Our Ministry, taken en gros, are certainly such as no wise nor honest man can trust, & in whom the country can conceive no hopes; men who have proved themselves incapable, whose characteristic is indolence, & whose sistem is unwise, who are overpowered by misfortune, because they are leagued with absurdity, whose obstinacy is not to be softened by advice, & whose eyes are not to be opened by experience.

As a soldier (he was an over-age colonel in the elite Royals) Pembroke was of course distressed by the defeats sustained by the British forces in America —hence his shame—but his anger with the government welled from deeper springs than this. In his quick-tempered, completely uninhibited letters to his son, he does not disguise his contempt for the members of George III’s Parliament. He considered it an utterly corrupt institution and he wondered that the people did not nail up the doors of both Houses and set fire to them. In all cities, he told his son, there was the utmost discontent, particularly among manufacturers. His sympathy was with them.

Indeed the political state of England in 1779 was a sorry mess, and for nearly two decades every ministry had proved itself totally incapable of dealing with the American question. During the sixties, harshness alternated with weakness, repression was followed by conciliation as one Whig ministry rapidly followed another. The House of Commons was composed of small Whig factions struggling for power, and George III’s faith in Lord North derived from the fact that North in 1770 had brought to an end the confusion of a decade and created a stable ministry, solidly Whig at the core, but supported by many Tories and independents. Nevertheless, not until rebellion flared up was North’s American policy much more consistent than that of his predecessors. As rebellion turned to war and the war itself grew long and difficult, many of North’s erstwhile supporters began to have doubts of the wisdom of his policy. Criticism grew in volume. And criticism mattered. Public opinion was important in a crisis, even in the oligarchical structure of British politics. Since the accession of George III in 1760, the feeling had steadily strengthened that a Parliament of landowners, dominated by the aristocracy, was becoming out of touch with the true needs of the nation. Criticism of the parliamentary system as well as of North’s American policy had become widespread. The radicalism of these critics was social, legal, and religious; not, of course, economic. They believed in a wider democratic franchise, toleration of religious belief, and the rationalization of law and administration. This attitude was particularly powerful among the radical intellectuals and publicists: Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, Thomas Paine, and Junius—that savage critic of George III who still retains his anonymity. Their books and pamphlets were read as eagerly in the provinces as in London, and they had helped to make the American question a burning issue not only for members of Parliament, or even for parliamentary electors, but for all who could read. They appealed particularly to that mass of Englishmen who were politically dispossessed by the quaint franchises of the unreformed House of Commons and who, therefore, felt a natural kinship with the Americans in revolt.

This radical sympathy for America is nowhere reflected so sharply as in Sylas Neville’s Diary . Neville, probably the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, lived insecurely on the fringes of eighteenth-century social and intellectual life, driftine from London to East Anglia to Scotland, where he finally qualified as a doctor, and then back to Norwich, where he died in 1840. His diary, like Lord Pembroke’s papers, is a comparatively recent discovery and one that has passed almost unnoticed by the political historians of George III’s reign. For those who believe that radical public opinion mattered little in the eighteenth century, it is an uncomfortable document. Here are a few of Neville’s sentiments culled from 1767: [No] person is a true friend of Liberty that is not a Republican.
The evils of which monarchy is productive should deter any wise nation from submitting to that accursed government.
The Gazette says 10,000 people a year go from the North of Ireland to America and 40,000 in all. May they flourish and set up in due time a glorious free government in the country which may serve as a retreat to those Free men who may survive the final ruin of Liberty in this Country; an event which I am afraid is at no great distance.

Such sentiments would have done credit to a Boston radical, but these were not peculiar to Neville and his friends: they found their echoes elsewhere.

Neville was in touch with many like-minded men and women; some were well-known London radicals such as Mrs. Catharine Macaulay, the Whig historian who enraged Dr. Johnson; Caleb Fleming, the Unitarian minister of Pinners Hall; and Thomas Hollis, whose lavish patronage of liberal ideas helped to keep republican sentiment alive in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. These ardent radical intellectuals certainly fortified Neville’s attitude.

Even more impressive, however, are the chance conversations that Neville had, or overheard, which indicate the width of public criticism and the frequency with which it was expressed. At Terry’s Coffee House in August, 1768, he got into conversation with a stranger who said that he “wished N. America may become free & independent, that it may be an asylum to those Englishmen who have spirit & virtue enough to leave their country, when it submits to domestic or foreign Tyranny.”

At Birmingham, a rapidly growing manufacturing town in the West Midlands of England, a group of professional men, manufacturers, and dilettantes had come together for the purpose of discussion and mutual improvement. They went by the name Lunar Society because they convened on the night of the full moon, which eased the dangers of travel on eighteenth-century roads full of pitfalls and alive with highwaymen. These men had been fascinated by the ideas of the Enlightenment, as indeed had many similar intellectual elites from Philadelphia to Marseilles. The importance of such groups—and particularly the British ones which existed in most large provincial towns—is that they represent not people outside the mainstream of economic and social development but those right in the heart of it. This is certainly true of the West Midlands group, largely based in Birmingham. Their names are well known—James Watt, the inventor; Matthew Boulton, whose great factory at Soho, Birmingham, which made almost anything from steel buttons to steam engines, was one of the marvels of Europe; Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, poet, philosopher, doctor; Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen without knowing it (and whose renown as a chemist, religious teacher, historian, and philosopher was as great in America, where he ultimately died, as in England); Dr. Small, who had tutored Thomas Jefferson in scientific studies at William and Mary College; Thomas Day and Richard Edgeworth, both deeply preoccupied with new theories of education and both weirdly eccentric; and, perhaps the most interesting of them all, Josiah Wedgwood, the potter.

Wedgwood, a man of vast intellectual appetite and broad human sympathy, makes a strong contrast to the drifting and feckless Neville. Everything that Wedgwood did succeeded, and he rose from obscurity to international renown. He was happily married, blessed with brilliant children, prosperous, secure, the admired and admiring friend of many distinguished men in all walks of eighteenth-century life. He certainly cannot be dismissed as a social misfit, as an unkind critic might dismiss Neville, nor can he be lumped together with Price, Priestley, Mrs. Macaulay, and the rest as a disgruntled, radical intellectual. He was a supremely successful man of affairs. He and his friends would have been thoroughly at home in the purposeful, expanding world of Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia. As with Philadelphia’s elite, so with the Lunar Society: its members felt the future in their bones. They were ready for a new world, freer from tradition, closer to the rational principles upon which they modelled their industry and commerce. In general, the Lunar Society members felt as Wedgwood did.

Wedgwood’s views on the American problem were conveyed in his letters to Thomas Bentley, his partner, whose judgment—in politics as well as in the arts, sciences, and social intercourse—he revered. Wedgwood and Bentley were, of course, wholehearted supporters of the American cause. They thought coercive measures wicked, preposterous, and doomed to disaster. Wedgwood sent for Dr. Richard Price’s Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty . He wrote back enthusiastically: I thank you for Dr. Prices most excellent Pamphlet. Those who are neither converted, nor frightened into a better way of thinking by reading this excellent & alarming Book may be given up as harden’d Sinners, beyond the reach of conviction.

He asked for more copies so that he could distribute them in the right places. Later Bentley sent him Paine’s Common Sense and many other pro-American pamphlets to fortify, if fortification were needed, his strong sympathies for America and to help in Wedgwood’s work of conversion of others. Wedgwood willingly subscribed twenty pounds toward alleviating the miseries of American prisoners captured by the British.

Of course, it is not surprising that many of the leaders of the Industrial Revolution should have been so strongly pro-American: they too wanted a social revolution, an end to the system of oligarchy and patronage that created not only a sense of keen injustice but also real practical obstacles to their industrial activities. Whatever they wanted—a canal, improved roads, efficient lighting or paving of streets, more education, better law and order, or a new water supply—they had to struggle to get it for themselves. What is surprising is that these social elites, which were beginning to wield so much economic power, proved in the end to be so weak an ally for the American cause.

This was only partially due to the nature of the oligarchical, unrepresentative British political system of the eighteenth century, which put all effective power into the hands of the landowning classes, for many of the industrialists had contacts with politicians, particularly with those Whigs, led by the Marquess of Rockingham and Edmund Burke, who opposed Lord North. The widespread sympathy for America failed to be effective for more profound reasons—the changes in the nature of the conflict itself.

In the 1760’s friendly support for America could be indulged with a clear conscience. The policy of successive ministries lacked consistency; many acts— particularly the Stamp Act—seemed to be as inimical to British commercial interests as to American; resentment could be shared in common. But American resentment hardened, developed a program, became a revolt so bloody and bitter that, as William Pitt had foreseen, it turned itself into a European war. Doubts clouded sympathy and consciences became uneasy. It required political and moral convictions of a thoroughly radical kind to support unquestioningly the right of the Americans to obtain their independence by any means whatsoever, once rebellion had started to transform itself into war. Indeed this is sharply reflected in Wedgwood’s correspondence. On February 6, 1775, he wrote to Bentley: I do not know how it happens, but a general infatuation seems to be gone forth,&the poor Americans are deemed Rebels, now the Minister has declared them so, by a very great majority wherever I go.

Yet sympathy for America remained extensive and vociferous. At a meeting at Stafford to adopt a Loyal Address in support of the policy of George III toward America, Mr. Woolridge, a London merchant and friend of John Wilkes who had estates in Staffordshire, produced a counterpetition and proposed it so vigorously that, according to Wedgwood, “the Gentlemen were cut down &could not answer him …”; nevertheless most of them signed the Loyal Address. Woolridge and his friends, not to be outdone, advertised their counterpetition in the local press, and signatures were canvassed in Birmingham, Lichfield, Walsall, and Hanley. Yet Woolridge, not his opponents, proved to be the loser.

The contrast between the effectiveness of merchant radicals in America and merchant radicals in England became quickly apparent. War strengthened the former and weakened the latter. The taking of New York brought the mob out into the streets. “Our people at [Newcastle],” wrote Wedgwood, “were wild with joy,” and he was relieved that those stalwarts who refused to illuminate their houses were not attacked. Elsewhere the mob roared their delight at a British victory. War had inflamed the natural xenophobia of the semiliterate, as indeed it did in America, but, whereas in American mob-support the hopeless anger and despair of the dispossessed strengthened radical and revolutionary attitudes toward government and society, in England the reverse process took place. British merchants who worked for the American cause (short of independence) feared an open alliance with the radicals when war brought the real test, not only because the radicals might be victorious, but also because American independence might lead to a ruin of trade.

In America, radicals were able to exploit patriotic sentiment and so wrest the leadership from the more doubtful and conservative northern merchants or southern planters. Loyalists, supporters of conciliation, could be regarded as traitors and treated as such. The radical detestation of aristocracy could be clothed in hatred for British officials and royal servants. The xenophobic moods of the mob could be used to threaten violence against all who suggested compromise. By such means the radical theories of natural rights and of the equality of men, and the belief that all men had a right not only to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but also to overturn and abolish governments that did not grant them, became essentially American; radical attitudes and patriotism were united by the call of war.

In England, war divided radicalism and patriotism, and tainted the support of America with sedition. Tom Paine became not a hero but an anathema, the symbol of a violent, radical traitor. No one had been more constant in his sympathy toward America than Wedgwood, but war brought him doubts. In the summer of 1779 the extension of the war had so denuded Britain of regular troops that the government encouraged its supporters to raise subscriptions to finance regiments in their counties. On August 7, 1779, Wedgwood attended a meeting of the lord lieutenant, sheriff, and gentlemen of Staffordshire: “The meeting was thin but respectable in number,” Wedgwood reported, “and its proceedings enlightened only by a trenchant speech by Mr. Eld, a man of eighty who, after complimenting the soldiers on their bravery, went on to say: In the times of our prosperity & exultation we, the gentlemen of this county, thought ourselves of consequence enough to address the throne, &, with offers of our lives & fortunes, call’d upon our sovereign to pursue the coersive measures already begun in America. In these days of our humiliation & despondency, which should be a time for learning wisdom, I wish we could now think our selves of importance enough to address his majesty once more,&humbly beseech him to grant such terms to his late subjects in America as freemen may accept . I have heard of none such being hitherto offer’d to them. Submission without terms—Unconditional submission! are offers for slaves, & those who accept them must be such. I hope & trust we are none of us in love with slavery.

Wedgwood observed that the old man broke off abruptly. He had wished Eld to say more because he was troubled. He read all the arguments that he could in favor of not subscribing, yet they did not carry conviction with him. In the last resort they conflicted with his patriotism: [I] am not at present fully convinc’d by them, that it is better to fall a prey to a foreign enemy, rather than to defend ourselves under the present ministry. Methinks I would defend the land of my nativity, my family & friends against a foreign foe, where conquest & slavery were inseparable, under any leaders—The best I could get for the moment, & wait for better times to displace an obnoxious minister, & settle domestic affairs, rather than rigidly say, I will be sav’d in my own way, & by people of my own choice, or perish, & perish my country with me. If subscribing would certainly rivet the present ministry in their places, & non-subscribing would as certainly throw them over, the nation at large being in no hazard at the same time from a foreign foe, I should not hesitate a moment what to do—but none of these propositions seem clear to me.

The upsurge of patriotic sentiment that Wedgwood experienced was typical of many men of similar views. But their support in Britain contracted rather than expanded, once the country was involved in a largescale war.

This proved true of radicalism’s best-organized and strongest supporters, the freemen of the City of London. In the mid-seventies they left Lord North’s government with no doubt of their sympathy for the American revolution. In 1773, they chose two Americans then in London, Stephen Sayre of Long Island and William Lee of Virginia, to be sheriffs; in 1774, they insisted on their parliamentary candidates signing pledges to support a bill which would have given America the right to elect its own parliament and to tax itself. Naturally the Coercive Acts were denounced; even as late as 1778 London’s freemen refused to give public support to the war. Yet even among men as tough-minded as these, there is a marked decline in their pro-American activity after 1776.

Although they had achieved more or less effective control of the corporation of the City of London, and one or two representatives in Parliament, the radicals had no effective political party. But their ineffectiveness is not to be explained either by the upsurge of patriotism or by the incompetence of their political organization. An important cause arose from their total inability to carry any major Whig politician with them.

Lord Brougham, a radical himself and a politician with long parliamentary experience, wrote early in the nineteenth century, “Is any man so blind as seriously to believe that, had Mr. Burke and Mr. Fox been ministers of George III, they would have resigned rather than try to put down the Americans?” And it should be remembered that as late as 1778, Charles James Fox spoke in favor of the Declaratory Act, which categorically stated England’s right to tax and rule her colonies. The Whigs brought neither consistent action nor consistent policy to the American situation. In 1774, when radical agitation was at its strongest, the Whig leaders in opposition to the government showed the utmost reluctance to concentrate their energies on the problem of America. The Duke of Richmond said he was sick of politics, and Edmund Burke had to convince the Marquess of Rockingham of “the necessity of proceeding regularly, and with your whole force; and that this affair of America is to be taken up as business.” Lacking political leadership in Parliament, smeared with antipatriotism, the widespread radical sentiments of the late sixties and early seventies failed, except in the City of London itself, to become a powerful factor in the American Revolution.

In the end, the acceptance by Britain of America’s independence was secured by those country gentlemen who had decided every major political issue in Great Britain since the Reformation. The country interest, the independent members who sat in Parliament as knights of the shire, who never spoke in debates and usually voted with the government, finally rebelled for the very same reason that they had given their initial support to George III and Lord North—taxation. Self-interest, the need to lighten their own taxes, to relieve themselves of the costly burden of defending America, had combined with their traditional respect for the Crown and the sovereignty of Parliament to make them tolerant of the ramshackle confusion, the endless contradiction of what passed for American policy in the 1760’s and 70’s. What broke their spirit was defeat and, more especially, the cost of defeat.

Lord Pembroke’s cry that he wished that he were a Laplander or anything but a Briton was the true patriot’s cry, wrung from him by his sharp sense of shame at his nation’s failure. Indeed patriotic sentiment deeply influenced all British attitudes to the American Revolution—perhaps more than any other factor. It was only to be expected that sympathy toward America should be rarest among those who were content with the fabric of their society—the aristocrats, gentry, government officers, admirals, generals, lawyers, and ecclesiastics, and that it should be strongest among those new men—the industrial and aggressive commercial classes—to whom the future belonged.

Although radicalism, especially in its demands for parliamentary reform, began after 1783 to climb back to respectability under the aegis of William Pitt and William Wilberforce, the revolutionary wars with France reimposed even more markedly the stigma of disloyalty upon it. Demands for political and social equality became seditious: the ancient institutions— monarchy, aristocracy, landed gentry—were sanctified by patriotic gore. And this sanctification took place when the archaic institutions by which Britain was governed—an extraordinary hodgepodge of feudal custom, medieval chartered rights, and Tudor legislation—were becoming ever more inadequate to meet the needs of the rising tide of industrialism. Consequently, when reform came in the nineteenth century, it was piecemeal, ad hoc , never radical in any fundamental sense; Britain never enjoyed, as did America and France, the purging joys of a social and political revolution. Hence, a radical attitude to political institutions and social organization was always tainted with disloyalty in England. And perhaps it should be stressed once again that eighteenth and early nineteenth century British radicalism demanded no more than political and social equality; no more, in fact, than Americans were now guaranteed by their Constitution. Such ideas, however, were no longer British; they were alien, Jacobin.

The American Revolution was almost as much a watershed in the development of British society as of American, for it rendered feeble a widespread middleclass intellectual radicalism that was beginning to root itself in many of the socially and commercially aggressive sections of British society. Its failure to develop and grow, its relegation to political insignificance, its exclusion from the heart of British society, was to taint that middle-class radicalism with oddity, eccentricity, social neurosis, and so justify the continuing anti-intellectualism of the British Establishment. And the corollary was to link patriotism with George III, with monarchy no matter how stupid, with aristocracy no matter how incompetent. As a future of social equality and equal opportunity opened for America, Britain became more firmly saddled with its feudal past.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.