Item of the Day: Stedman’s History of the American War (1794)
Full Title: The History of the Origin, Progress, and Termination of the American War. By C. Stedman, who served under Sir W. Howe, Sir H. Clinton, and the Marquis Cornwallis. In Two Volumes. London: Printed for the author; and sold by J. Marray, J. Debrett, and J. Kerby, 1794.
[Stedman’s History of the American War contains a contemporary account of the American Revolution, written by an American Loyalist who served as an officer under General Howe. After the war, he was appointed to examine American Loyalist claims for the British government. It was in answer to Stedman’s History that Sir Henry Clinton wrote his Observations. The following text is taken from Stedman’s summation at the end of Chapter XLVI in Volume II.]
The American Revolution is the grandest effect of combination that has yet been exhibited to the world: A combination formed by popular representation and the art of printing. So vast a force as was exerted by Great Britain had never been sent to so great a distance, nor resisted by any power apparently so unequal to the contest. The military genius of Britain was unimpaired; she rose with elastic force under every blow; and seemed capable, by the immensity of her revenues, of wearying out, by perseverance, the adversity of fortune: But wisdom, vigour, and unanimity, were wanting in her public councils. The eloquence of some legislators in opposition to government; the narrow views of ministers at home; and the misconduct of certain commanders abroad, through a series of pusillanimity, procrastination, discord, and folly; brought this country, in spite of the gallant efforts of the British officers and soldiers by land and sea, the justice of their cause, the firmness of their sovereign, and the general vows of the people, to a crisis, which has not indeed been followed (so limited are our prospects into futurity) by all that calamity which was generally apprehended, but which, nevertheless, although the national character, for spirit and enterprise, was abundantly sustained by individuals, cannot be regarded otherwise than as a disgrace to the British: Since it exhibited, in our public conduct, the triumph of party over genuine patriotism, and a spirit of peculation and pleasure prevailing in too many instances over military discipline, and a sense of military honour. The British minister did not possess that towering genius which is alone fitted, in difficulty and turbulent times, to overcome the seditious, and rouse the remiss of their duty. Though a man of fine talents, as well as an amiable disposition, he was constitutionally indolent: And, besides this, there was not that degree of cordiality and perfect unanimity that the minister was led to suppose amongst the friends of his majesty’s government in America. It is, perhaps, a matter of doubt whether the loyalists were not, on the whole, too sanguine in their expectations. But it is the nature of men to cherish the hope of relief with an ardour proportioned to the greatness of their misfortunes.
On the whole, the British government did not proceed on any grand system that might control particular circumstances and events; but studied to prolong their own authority by temporary expedients. They courted their adversaries at home, by a share of power and profit; and the public enemies of the state, by partial concessions. But these availed much more to the establishment of new claims, than all the declarations of parliamentary rights and royal prerogatives with which they were accompanied, did to maintain the rights of established government: For facts quickly pass into precedents; while manifesto is opposed to manifesto, and argument to argument. Had the measures adopted by Britain, been adopted in time, perhaps they would not have been adopted in vain. Their concessions, as well as their armaments, were always too late. Earlier concession, or an earlier application of that mighty force which was at the disposal of the commanders in chief in 1777, might perhaps have prevented or quashed the revolution.
While the natural strength and spirit of Great Britain were embarrassed and encumbered with the disadvantages and errors now enumerated, the Americans, in spite of a thousand difficulties and wants, by the energy of liberty, the contrivance of necessity, and the great advantages arising from the possession of the country, ultimately attained their object. The Americans, indeed, were not fired with that enthusiastic ardour, which nations of warmer temperament, in all ages, have been wont to display in the cause of freedom. But they were guided by wise councils; they were steady and persevering; and, on all great occasions, not a little animated by the courage of general Washington, who has been proverbially called a Fabius, but whose character courage, in fact, was a feature still more predominant than prudence. The American generals, having the bulk of the people on their side, were made acquainted with every movement of the British army, and enabled, for the most part, to penetrate their designs: To obtain intelligence, on which so much depends, was to the British commanders a matter of proportianable [sic] difficulty. The Americans had neither money nor credit: But they learned to stand in need only of a few things; to be contented with the small allowance that nature requires; to suffer, as well as to act. Their councils, animated by liberty, under the most distressing circumstances, took a grand and high-spirited course, and they were finally triumphant.
The Revolution of America, though predicted by philosophy, was generally considered as a remote contingency, if not a thing wholly ideal and visionary. Its immediate causes were altogether unforeseen and improbable. It came as a surprise to the world: and men were obliged to conclude, either that the force of Great Britain was ill-directed, or that no invading army, in the present enlightened period, can be successful, in a country where the people are tolerably united.