O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson.New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.
Review by David Pitlyk
The prevailing narrative in most popular history of the American Revolution written, not surprisingly, by Americans, is that a series of bungling, out of touch dandies incompetently prosecuted a war in the British North American Colonies that they could not possibly have won. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, the British-born Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, makes a compelling argument in The Men Who Lost America that this was not the case.
His thesis is straightforward. The officials and generals of the British government were acting under certain constraints and with imperfect information and made what were, in the larger picture, perfectly understandable decisions. Lord George Germain’s difficulties are much better understood when one learns that his “task of coordinating the work of departments outside his immediate scope of authority [the army was managed by twelve distinct departments] was the more difficult because he had to overcome the junior status of his position as secretary of state for America [created 1768].” (p. 196)
One strength of this book is in its organization, which O’Shaughnessy terms “multi-biographical.” Rather than tackling the war thematically, O’Shaughnessy organizes a series of biographical sketches in roughly chronological order, following the through-lines of the lives of top men. Policy is the outcome of a series of decisions and the author takes the reader through these steps that have traditionally been glossed over.
Another strength is in the author’s ability to contextualize. As O’Shaughnessy points out, “after 1778, the British army and navy were engaged not only in the war for America, but in the protection of the British possessions in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, Africa and India.” (p. 14) It is worth noting that patriots triumphed over a British Empire that was beset on all sides.
Of particular interest is the treatment that Burgoyne receives. O’Shaughnessy lets the man speak for himself. His State of the Expedition is quoted to great effect. Burgoyne was no fool and knew why he had failed: the government and the army had simply misjudged the extent of loyalist support. It is unclear, at least early on in the war, how they might have come by this information in an era, as O’Shaughnessy points out, without public opinion polls.
While generally one is inclined to accept O’Shaughnessy’s conclusions, there are certain figures for whom the salvaging of their good reputation is still difficult even centuries later. He writes, for example, that “the deficiencies in North’s leadership were not due solely to his personal shortcomings” (p.68) and then argues that his position was a difficult one. It could, however, be argued that the Prime Minister might have risen to the occasion rather than vacillating between divergent policies and routinely trying to offer his resignation.
Overall this book is a welcome contribution. While its approach of studying “great men” has perhaps fallen out of vogue (though less so when it comes to the Revolution, which produced more remarkable leaders than any other period of our history), it is undeniable that a relative handful of individuals had outsized influence on the course of the American War of Independence. The Men Who Lost America may be labeled revisionist by some, but it is a much needed revision, especially when it comes to a subject such as this that has been mythologized so completely in the American mind.