Britain in the 1760s: Evil or Inept?

It is patently unfair to characterize eighteenth-century Britain as “evil,” especially when compared to the truly malevolent madmen the twentieth century produced. “Inept” is perhaps closer to the mark, though I am not so sure it is fair to paint the entire British people or even its government with such broad strokes. George III and many of his ministers and legislators were certainly overmatched in the job of governing the American colonies, and the British system of government perhaps contributed to the problem. Patronage appointments, political coalitions, and shifting alliances within and without the court of George III were handled by aristocrats who often had little or no formal training or experience in governing.[1] Indeed, actual governing seemed in many cases to take a back seat to plots, counterplots, political infighting, and, ultimately, how the spoils would be divided.

I also somewhat disagree with Tuchman’s thesis that “folly” led to the war and Britain’s defeat; that “the greater was thrown away for the less, the unworkable pursued at the sacrifice of the possible.”[2] For Tuchman and Ferling (and, at least from the historical evidence, for the American colonists), taxes were the issue. Perhaps even George III and many in his government believed this to be the case. But if we view the situation from a wider angle, it makes more sense to me to assert that the supremacy of Parliament was the primary problem. Parliament was attempting, albeit often very clumsily, to exert its authority over not just the American colonies, but also over the mother country and the rest of it possessions around the world. When viewed from this perspective, Tuchman’s “greater” becomes Parliament’s supreme authority, an authority which it could not allow to be undermined by provincials who, quite frankly, would not have wanted to pay any taxes at all.

 


[1] Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine, 1984), 137-42.

[2] Ibid., 128.

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