How Did the British Press Cover the American Revolution?

And what lessons does this history hold for today’s upheavals?


Thomas Jefferson was worried. The year was 1784, and he was in Europe to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of the newly independent United States. But the republic had a problem with its image. So Jefferson decided to set the record straight with an article in Europe’s leading newspaper, the French-language Gazette of Leiden. “America,” he wrote, characterizing the prevailing view, “is a scene of … riot and anarchy.” According to European newspapers, Congress was weak, the states were in turmoil, and people were fleeing to Canada. None of this was true, Jefferson assured the Gazette‘s readers. The trouble was that printers on the continent had “not yet got into the habit of taking the American newspapers. Whatever they retail … on the subject of America, they take from the English.” And the English view was not flattering.

Today, as the Arab Spring roils the Middle East, mixing hopes for reform with fears of betrayal, it is worth remembering that we have been here before. More than 200 years ago, the American Revolution captured the world’s attention much as events in Egypt, Libya, and Syria have over the past year. Then as now, most of what people knew about foreign events came from the media. In Jefferson’s day, the leading outlets were pamphlets, journals, and newspapers, not the electronic venues that currently predominate. Yet the effect was the same: Some of the information was accurate, while a good deal was not. Either way, Britain was the chief international source for news about America, and British writers had a lot to say.

Because the British press was the freest in the world at the time, opinion on the revolution was hardly uniform. For people on the margins of British politics — manufacturers in cities that were not represented in Parliament, humble men and women who shouldered much of the war’s fiscal burden without having a say in its conduct, and religious dissenters of all descriptions — the American Revolution was an event to be celebrated: a “new order for the ages,” in the words of the motto that Congress adopted for the United States, and an example to be followed. Although outright support was limited, several of England’s most popular newspapers expressed sympathy for what the Westminster Chronicle called their “brethren” in America. George Washington, in particular, was widely admired, with even hostile papers depicting the general as “a man of sense and great integrity,” in the words of Edinburgh’s Scots Magazine. Americans, wrote Thomas Pownall, a former British governor of Massachusetts and friend of Benjamin Franklin, in a widely read pamphlet from 1783, were the New World’s “chosen people.”

But many Britons took a different view of the United States, and they found a receptive audience among readers of newspapers that supported the British government. As with the Arab Spring today, the British felt threatened by the American Revolution in part because their own country had done so well under the order that the revolution sought to topple. Writing in 1776, the author of an English pamphlet warned that the loss of America would dismember Britain’s empire by “inclosing [sic] us within the confined seas of England, Ireland, and Scotland.” Mindful that Congress was seeking allies in Europe, others worried that Britain’s rivals, especially France and Spain, would use the Revolutionary War to expand their empires at Britain’s expense, and there were fears that George III’s colonies in Canada and the West Indies might someday follow the Americans’ example. Whether America’s bid for independence succeeded or failed, Britain stood to lose a great deal from the attempt.

In an echo of worries about the fate of minority groups in the Middle East today, the United States also encountered scathing criticism because of Americans’ treatment of blacks and Native Americans. In Taxation No Tyranny, published in 1774, Samuel Johnson, the compiler of the first modern English dictionary and an influential British writer, set the tone, asking readers how it was “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.” During the Revolutionary War, some of the most militarily powerful Native American nations in North America heeded the danger to their own interests and sided with Britain. Equally threatening to slaveholders like Jefferson, enslaved African Americans in Virginia and the Carolinas, emboldened by British promises of freedom, fled by the tens of thousands to take up arms in the king’s forces. When the British evacuated New York in 1783, they took more than 3,000 with them. One, a Virginia freedman named Harry Washington, eventually settled in the African colony of Sierra Leone, where he built a plantation that he named Mount Vernon in honor of his former master.

According to most British writers, though, the biggest uncertainty of all was whether the United States — a nation founded in the “criminal enterprise” of rebellion, as the English historian Edward Gibbon wrote in 1780 — would ever be a worthy treaty partner for Britain and the other nations of Europe. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson promised that the former colonies would be good international citizens, yet the United States often seemed more like an international rogue. In the British press, two issues in particular stood out in this regard: the money that Americans had borrowed from British merchants before the revolution, and the property that state governments seized from Loyalist exiles after independence. To this day, estimates vary as to the sums involved. In Virginia alone, the prerevolutionary debt to British creditors was said to exceed £2 million, while the number of Loyalists who lost property and left the United States was at least 60,000 men, women, and children, and possibly more. Whatever the true figure, Congress lacked the authority under the Articles of Confederation, which served as the first federal constitution, to compensate the war’s British victims, and the states refused to do so.

The result was an image of the United States that was fundamentally different from the beneficial new order that Congress proclaimed in the young nation’s motto. For the revolution’s British critics, the explanation for America’s shortcomings was not hard to find — and it has a familiar ring now. By overthrowing the government of George III, Britons claimed, Jefferson and the revolution’s other leaders had given the American people far more power than they could responsibly exercise. During the early 1780s, critics flooded English newspapers with accounts of the suffering endured by Loyalists, of popular dissatisfaction with the new state governments, and of Americans moving to Canada.The British press followed with particular interest the independence movement in Vermont, whose people were in arms against the governments of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York. The reason — as the Whitehall Evening Post informed its readers in 1781 — was that the three “ancient states” all claimed the Union’s fourteenth state as their own.

No less troubling, writers noted the many ways the Articles of Confederation hamstrung the United States in its relations with other powers, especially the provisions that denied Congress the authority to levy taxes and the various restrictions that made it impossible for the national government to compel the states to honor foreign agreements. On this basis, newspapers mocked the efforts of Jefferson and his fellow diplomats to obtain commercial treaties. In a letter to John Jay from London in 1786, John Adams, then the American ambassador to Britain, warned that the king was unlikely to begin serious negotiations until Congress obtained “full power.” How, Britons asked, could the United States honor its obligations to other nations when it could not govern its own people?

For Jefferson in 1784, and no doubt for many Americans today, such questions were unfair. In their coverage of the revolution’s shortcomings, newspapers in England often exaggerated, and they neglected to mention the young nation’s accomplishments. Although Americans acknowledged many of the problems that the British press highlighted, the years following the revolution were also a time of remarkable experimentation and creativity — in Congress as well as among the states. Drawing on the lessons learned in the decade since independence, the nation’s leaders would gather in Philadelphia in 1787 and draft a charter for “a more perfect union,” in the words of the Constitution’s preamble. In a sign that the American people were better rulers of themselves than the British claimed, the new document gave the federal government most of the powers that Congress had lacked under the Articles of Confederation. This included the power to tax, the power to negotiate and enforce treaties, and — eventually — the power to abolish slavery. As even Britain would come to recognize, the resulting change allowed Americans to take an important step toward becoming the responsible nation that Jefferson had promised the world they would be.

So, what lessons can we draw from these reflections? One is how difficult it is for one nation to understand what is happening in another. In the years following the revolution, the British press got as much wrong about America as it got right. The same, surely, is true of efforts to predict the outcome of the Arab Spring. Even more important, the American Revolution reminds us that whatever comes of the upheavals sweeping the Middle East, it will be the Arab people, not observers in the West, who ultimately decide their fate. As the American response to the British press makes clear, no nation ever fully controls its own destiny, including a nation founded on the self-evident right of the people to govern themselves. As ought to be equally clear, however, no one else is better placed to shape the course of a nation’s history than the people most directly involved — and who have the most to win or lose from the outcome. If Americans sometimes have a hard time remembering that lesson today, it is one that they knew very well 200 years ago.

Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

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