The Long Fuse
England & America, 1760-1785
—A British Perspective on the American Revolution
by Don Cook, Grove/Atlantic, 432 pages .
The “long fuse” the British writer Don Cook refers to is the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, a conflict that kept the English monarchy from focusing too hard on its American colonies. When it was over, in 1763, the crown departed from Sir Robert Walpole’s policy of “salutary neglect” and initiated a series of measures intended to maximize the colonies’ earning potential for the Empire. The Americans, who had grown used to semiautonomy while the great European powers battled, saw the new taxes as an assault on their New World freedoms. With help from King George III, Cook argues, the European struggle “laid the long fuse that would eventually splutter into revolution.”
This is a fresh way to look at the American story: Why didn’t we go the quiet way of Canada? Among other things, Cook blames the king’s overmanagement: George dated his memorandums by the hour, and his collected papers run to six large volumes. “The governing minds of England,” Cook writes, “could not understand how Americans, largely of English stock and professing loyalty to King George, had become a different people, how the very vastness of America was shaping the politics of independence and a new nation.” Instead England introduced an increasing number of taxes to support a standing army that grew from five hundred redcoats in the early 1750s to ten thousand only ten years later. From the Stamp Act of 1765 to the Battle of Yorktown, Cook asserts, the king refused “all thoughts of conciliation or compromise with the colonies.” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, who captured Louisbourg in 1758, typified the official British view of the colonists in his diary: “They are sufficient to work our boats, drive our waggons, to fell trees and do work that in inhabited countries are performed by peasants. If left to themselves they would eat fryed pork and lay in their tents all day.”
Something urged the Americans out of their tents and into open revolt against the most powerful nation in the world. Cook argues that while the colonists derived new independence from their wilderness, the British did everything they could to ruin a good thing.