The American Declaration of Independence, adopted on 4 July 1776, was a key moment in the history not only of North America but also of Britain and the English-speaking world.
Until that moment, it has been possible that the fighting that had started outside Boston the previous year would end in a compromise, with George III backing down, the solution indeed sought by most of the American Patriots. However, the failure to reach compromise took the Patriots to revolution. What had seemed possibly a short-term conflict, ending when the British withdrew from Boston in March 1776, became instead a major civil war as the British empire struck back with a concerted effort at regaining the lost colonies by force and as the Patriots opted for independence. In March 1776, Congress was still unwilling to accept a motion by George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee that King George III, not the ministry, nor Parliament, be seen as “the author of our miseries”.
This became possible only because George III in effect disowned the Americans as rebels and treated them accordingly. British policies, including the ban on trade with the rebellious colonies, were designed to hurt, while the government’s attempt to recruit subsidy forces (called foreign mercenaries in the Declaration of Independence) was associated directly with George, not least because these troops were Germans.
The rejection of British authority was symbolic as well as constitutional. On 9 July 1776, after the colonial assembly of New York gave its assent to the Declaration of Independence, the inhabitants of New York City pulled down a gilded equestrian statue of the king erected on Bowling Green in 1770 (its metal was to be used for cartridges), while, more generally, the royal arms were taken down, and usually treated with contempt. The king’s name was removed from governmental and legal documents, royal portraits were reversed or destroyed, and there were mock trials, executions and funerals of the king, each a potent rejection of his authority.
1776 in context
The year’s drama was played out against a backdrop of great industrial and agricultural development – with concomitant social unrest
A year earlier, Thomas Farnolls Pritchard had designed the iron bridge that was to be erected at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire in 1777–9. Spanning more than 100 feet, the bridge carried the road on arched ribs springing from the bases of two vertical iron uprights. It showed progress in action, and was a powerful testimony both to the capability stemming from the working of iron, and to the possibility of economic change that was strongly grasped in this period.
Economic historians have produced wonderful work refining our understanding of the material realities of the Industrial Revolution, but the most important dimension was psychological, a belief in the prospect and attraction of change. From 1759, for example, there was a marked increase in the number of patents. This belief in change ensured that it became less pertinent to consider the future in terms of a revival of the past or a continuation of the present.
Alongside coal and canals, steam engines and turnpikes, there was of course much continuity. In 1800, more of the labour force was still employed in agriculture than in industry and more lived in the countryside than in towns. This was true of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Nevertheless, the trend toward new methods in transport, production and organisation were clear.
At the same time, economic development produced stresses. The environmental damage was little recognised, but it was considerable. More generally, working and living conditions could be very grim. Concern about the effects of new machinery on traditional working practices helped lead to violent action. In 1779, Richard Arkwright’s new factory at Birkacre near Chorley, with its machine-spinning of cotton yarn, was burnt down by 3,000-4,000 rioters angered by the offer of work at lower rates.
There was also discontent and direct action in rural areas. The enclosure of common land in order to increase agricultural productivity could lead to an angry, indeed violent, response, as with the riots of 1777–80 that accompanied the enclosure of the former Malvern Chase. More generally throughout the British Isles, poaching was a form of resistance that was crucial to the livelihood of many. The Game Laws were widely seen as unfair, while the gentry viewed challenges to them as theft and as threats to the preservation of the social order. Indeed, in the late 1770s, game preserves were first protected by spring guns and mantraps.
At the same time, industrial and rural discontent did not prevent an essential political stability. By modern standards, Britain was lightly policed and government relied on a widely-diffused cooperation. This was put under a severe test in Ireland during the 1790s, leading to the unsuccessful rising of 1798, but, elsewhere, the system held, and discord did not prevent an inherent stability.
The tottering state
In the short term, the impact of the Patriots’ struggle for independence was serious in the extreme. It launched Britain into a war that it did not win, and that became strategically threatening when France (in 1778), Spain (in 1779), and the Dutch (in 1780) joined in as allies of the Americans. As a result, Britain, the great maritime power, was outnumbered at sea for the first time that century. The entire empire was under threat. The British lost positions in the West Indies, West Africa and the Mediterranean. Gibraltar faced a long siege. Britain’s enemies also sought to strike at the heart of empire, with the French and Spaniards trying, unsuccessfully, to invade England in 1779. There was also the danger that resistance elsewhere to Britain, especially in India, would be encouraged by Britain’s enemies. Indeed, the Americans struck at Canada in 1775, and the French at India in 1780.
Foreign challenge contributed directly to domestic crisis in Britain. A sense of state and society as tottering were captured by the Gordon Riots in 1780, which brought violent crowds to the centre of London, and by the collapse of the long-serving ministry of Lord North in 1782. This collapse led George III to threaten to abdicate and to go to Hanover, a threat that captured a sense of political and personal breakdown.
The long-term, however, is the crucial perspective for 1776. American independence permanently transformed the nature of the British Empire. Prior to then, the bulk of the subjects of the British Crown were of British, or at least European, descent, spoke English, were Christian, and were governed, albeit not to the satisfaction of many in North America, through local legislatures. American independence, however, revealed important deficiencies in the incorporating character of British empire, deficiencies that shattered this empire and that were to be tested thereafter in relations with Ireland.
The loss of America was followed, as a result of repeated British successes in war between 1790 and 1815, particularly in India and at the expense of France and its allies, by the creation of a very different British Empire. In this, the bulk of the subjects were not of European descent, did not speak English, were not Christian, and were not governed through local legislatures. This very different imperialism had a major impact, not only on conquered areas, but also in Britain itself.
Furthermore, the American Declaration of Independence led to an important division in the British political tradition, one of great importance at the global level. The Declaration asserted a set of principles that suggested a radically different political system, one in which inherited privilege and power were replaced by a fairer society that was open to talent. In time, these values were to influence Britain powerfully, in part as a result of the American success. The example of liberty and freedom in North America was a potent one elsewhere, and not only for radicals like Tom Paine.
A beneficial world order
Moreover, the creation of an independent state in North America was to ensure the combination of dynamic expansion on the most promising open frontier of the western world with a political society that owed much to the 18th-century British Whig tradition. Whig freedoms, not least of self-government and self-expression, and a limitation on the power of the Church, were enshrined in the American constitution and, thereafter, remained key to American exceptionalism. Many people of course were excluded from the initial span of American liberty, most prominently slaves and Native Americans, but the prospectus of freedom proved one that was extendable to embrace the immigrant groups that entered North America in large numbers, many from the British Isles.
The hold of Whig freedoms on the American psyche has proved long-lived, so the events of 1776 helped ensure that British political culture remained crucial at the world scale in the late 20th century, even after Britain had been subsumed into an inflexible European super-state with individual freedoms shadowed by collectivist solutions.
Moreover, many of the liberal ideas that played a central role in British assumptions in the 19th century were taken up by American writers and policymakers from the 1940s, in part, initially, in criticism of the protectionism then shown by the British Empire. Drawing on Adam Smith and others, there was a focus on free trade, and the unfettered movement of money, as political and economic goods, and thus as central goals for government. There was also the notion of a benign and mutually beneficial world order, a goal that proved very difficult in practice, as is very much shown today in the Middle East, but that was an alternative to an empire simply of control, constraint and coercion.
The year 1776 also saw the publication of two very significant books. Adam Smith, a Glasgow professor, published The Wealth of Nations which provided the basis for modern economic theory (an achievement marked by his appearance on the £20 note in 2007). Smith argued the case for the free trade that was to become the ideology of the 19th-century British state and economy. This was the cause of much prosperity, in Britain and around the world, as well as of some hardship on the part of those who suffered from the greater international trade and economic specialisation that resulted.
Also published were the first volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, an enlightened MP. In place of a cyclical theory of history, Gibbon’s work suggested that progress was possible, and claimed that it was not inevitable that a fresh wave of barbarians would destroy Britain as it had done Rome. He also argued that even if new barbarians brought down European civilisation, it had already been reborn on the other side of the Atlantic.
More turning points in British history
Read next: 1832: The Great Reform Act
Go back: 1776: The Jacobite Rebellion
Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter. His books include A History of the British Isles (2nd edn, 2003), The British Seaborne Empire (2004) George III (2006), and A Short History of Britain (2007: reviewed in this issue’s book section)
Further reading: Eighteenth-Century Britain by Jeremy Black (Palgrave, 2001); A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783 by Paul Langford (Oxford University Press, 1989); Albion Ascendant. English History 1660–1815 by Wilfred Prest (Oxford University Press, 1998)
This article was first published in the July 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine