An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America

  • By Nick Bunker
  • Knopf
  • 448 pp.
  • Reviewed by Thomas B. Allen
  • October 9, 2014

Why the American Revolution happened, according to the Brits.

An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America

Everything that most of us know about the American Revolution comes from American historians because, as the old adage says, history is written by the winners. Now hear from an eloquent spokesman for the losers: Nick Bunker is a British writer who searches for the roots of the Revolution in the politics and economics of his homeland. He looks back to see “two overlapping empires,” political and commercial. In Bunker’s harsh and well-documented opinion, British politicians “valued their commercial empire more highly than the flags they had planted on the map.”

Bunker sees the Revolutionary War as a costly mistake stemming from British failure to govern the restive colonies within a market-driven foreign policy. Commerce, not conquest, was the major motive for the creation of the British Empire, he writes. The real estate of that empire included a vast swath of North America acquired by victory in the Seven Years War (which Americans call the French and Indian War). When he compares the wealth that flowed from the East to the unproductive land beyond the Appalachians, he concludes that “the Ganges far surpassed the Mississippi as a prize.”

The Mississippi River was the western boundary of the empire, and on its shore Bunker discovers Fort Charters, a British Army outpost. In the early 1770s, the fort was “slipping into ruin like the rest of the imperial system” — a symbol of “Great Britain’s plight in North America as a whole, a continent she did not comprehend and could not hope to rule.” That is the heart of Bunker’s opinion, which he lays out with lucidity and an often breezy confidence. In his view of the two sides as they move toward war, neither King George III nor a blundering, squabbling Parliament knew what was happening in the American colonies.

Bunker gives more time and analysis to the rebels’ attack on the Royal Navy’s Gaspée than to the Boston Tea Party. In February 1772, a band of Rhode Island rebels seized and boarded the Gaspée, which had run aground while in pursuit of a suspected smuggler. One of the rebels shot the Gaspée’s captain, ordered the crew to abandon the ship, and then set her afire.

The attack on the warship was a well-planned act of treason by leaders of the maritime community, Bunker points out. Yet, what the politicians saw in this and other such acts, was “merely agitation, not a tight and disciplined insurgency.” In Britain, the ruling class could not understand why the raiders were not denizens of an unruly waterfront. 

“Here,” Bunker writes, “was an act of the blackest treason, committed by men whose wealth and status should by rights have made them pillars of society.”

Nor could Americans understand the complex workings of a Parliament that seemed more concerned with saving the East India Company from bankruptcy than dealing with a simmering crisis in the colonies. Debates over North American policy could inspire nasty words in Commons — and even a duel in Hyde Park. But no one was capable of finding a peaceful solution.

Bunker, a former investment banker, plunges deep into the workings of the tea market, providing a detailed examination of the financial activities that preceded the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773. There may be too much economics for some readers. Others will appreciate his appendixes on “The Meaning of Treason” and “The Value of Money in the 1770s.”

Bunker’s background material on the Tea Party reveals a fundamental fact: The government “relied too heavily on the taxation of commodities that lent themselves to illegal traffic,” making every American a potential smuggler. To British policymakers, Americans were more interested in tax evasion than in breaking free of British rule.

The empire’s treatment of America “had no guiding vision, and it had no high ideals.” The British, in Bunker’s view, “scarcely saw the colonies at all as anything more than a bundle of economic resources or a destination for convicts.”

Many of the characters in Bunker’s story will not be familiar to most Americans as he delves into the actions and inaction of Parliament. But Benjamin Franklin makes frequent appearances in legislative corridors, hoping to find compromises while gradually realizing that war was inevitable.

In January 1775, the Duke of Richmond said in the House of Lords, “You cannot force a form of government upon a people.” In February, Parliament declared Massachusetts in a state of rebellion. In March, Franklin sailed for America, just in time to become a Founding Father. On April 19, about 700 British troops left Boston on a march to Concord to seize a cache of rebels’ arms. The route took them through Lexington, and, as Bunker writes, the redcoats “met the rebels, and somebody pulled a trigger.”

The American Revolution had begun and, in England, “No one could honestly claim to be surprised, and yet they were, and horrified as well.”

Thomas B. Allen is the author of Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War and George Washington, Spymaster.

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