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The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire

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by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

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A unique account of the American Revolution, told from the perspective of the leaders who conducted the British war effort

The loss of America was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the powerful British Empire. Common wisdom has held that incompetent military commanders and political leaders in Britain must have been to blame, but were they? This


A unique account of the American Revolution, told from the perspective of the leaders who conducted the British war effort

The loss of America was a stunning and unexpected defeat for the powerful British Empire. Common wisdom has held that incompetent military commanders and political leaders in Britain must have been to blame, but were they? This intriguing book makes a different argument. Weaving together the personal stories of ten prominent men who directed the British dimension of the war, historian Andrew O’Shaughnessy dispels the incompetence myth and uncovers the real reasons that rebellious colonials were able to achieve their surprising victory.
In interlinked biographical chapters, the author follows the course of the war from the perspectives of King George III, Prime Minister Lord North, military leaders including General Burgoyne, the Earl of Sandwich, and others who, for the most part, led ably and even brilliantly. Victories were frequent, and in fact the British conquered every American city at some stage of the Revolutionary War. Yet roiling political complexities at home, combined with the fervency of the fighting Americans, proved fatal to the British war effort. The book concludes with a penetrating assessment of the years after Yorktown, when the British achieved victories against the French and Spanish, thereby keeping intact what remained of the British Empire.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Johnson

 "Much of [the book's] value lies in the sheer volume of engaging material it brings together and in the originality of its organization and approach to a much studied question, namely why Britain lost the War of the American Revolution. . . . A treasure-trove of information on the British operation of the War.”—Richard Johnson, University of Washington 
Jon Meacham

 "Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy has written a remarkable book about an important but curiously underappreciated subject: the British side of the American Revolution. With meticulous scholarship and an eloquent writing style, O'Shaughnessy gives us a fresh and compelling view of a critical aspect of the struggle that changed the world. This is a great book."—Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
Gary Hart

 "Scrupulously researched and superbly written, these humanizing portraits of conventional cardboard figures from American history offer, like all great history, lessons for today: military might does not guarantee political success; do not try to govern that which you do not own; and resist empire's temptations."—Gary Hart, United States Senator (Ret.)
Alan Taylor

 "Deeply researched, carefully argued, and clearly written, The Men Who Lost America cuts through the thick crust of romantic myths to cast the American Revolution in a refreshing new light. Blessed with an impartial, open mind, Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy reveals the talents as well as the human foibles of a rich cast of intriguing characters including America's last king. In the end, O'Shaughnessy gives the American revolutionaries exactly what their story has so long needed: worthy adversaries who fought hard and well."—Alan Taylor, author of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies
Pauline Maier

"Beautifully written and deeply researched, The Men Who Lost America is a great achievement. It will provide any interested reader with a delightfully user-friendly way of understanding how and why the British lost the revolutionary war."—Pauline Maier, author of Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788
Fred Anderson

 “Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy brings the human experience of the Revolutionary era to life in these graceful sketches of ten British political and military leaders. To see the period from the perspective of the able, earnest men who struggled to hold the British Empire together is to understand the origins of the United States in ways that Americans have seldom tried to imagine them. It’s about time we did, and there’s no better place to start than with this book.”—Fred Anderson, University of Colorado, Boulder    
George Washington College - George Washington Book Award

Winner of the 2014 George Washington Book Prize sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, the prize recognizes the year’s best books on the nation’s founding era, especially those that have the potential to advance broad public understanding of American history.
Guggenheim-Lehrman Institute - Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History

Finalist for the 2013 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History.
New York Historical Society - American History Book Prize

Winner of the New-York Historical Society's annual American history book prize.
Fraunces Tavern Museum - Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award

Won the 2014 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.
The Weekly Standard - Edward Short

“[A] superb new study . . . the work of an historian in thorough command of his sources who writes with admirable grace and acuity. Since this is only his second book, we can all look forward to many more good things from Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy.”—Edward Short, The Weekly Standard
McGill University - Cundill Prize in Historical Literature

Shortlisted for the 2014 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature at McGill University.
The National Interest - William Anthony Hay

“[O’Shaughnessy] shatters entrenched stereotypes.”—William Anthony Hay, The National Interest
The Wall Street Journal - Brendan Simms

“[An] engaging study.”—Brendan Simms, Wall Street Journal
Open Letters Monthly

“A delightfully myth-shattering book.”—Open Letters Monthly
Washington Times - John Taylor

“An extensively researched, gracefully written study”—John Taylor, Washington Times
JM Northern Media LLC - Great Midwest Book Festival

Winner of the 2013 Great Midwest Book Festival in the Regional Literature category, given by JM Northern Media LLC
American Revolution Round Table, Richmond - Richmond Book Award

The 2014 American Revolution Round Table of Richmond Book Award.
Society for Military History - Distinugished Book Award

Winner of the Society for Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award in the U.S. category.
National Society Daughters of the Revolution - American History Book Award

Winner of the 2015 National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Excellence in American History Book Award
Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey - Cincinnati History Prize

Winner of the 2014 Cincinnati History Prize sponsored by the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey.
American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence - PROSE Awards

Received an Honorable Mention for the 2013 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE), in the U.S. History category.
From the Publisher
"[An] engaging study . . . based on an extensive reading of the vast literature and of many original sources." ---Brendan Simms, The Wall Street Journal

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-C
Product dimensions:
7.30(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Men Who Lost America

British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire



Copyright © 2013 Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19107-3



"The Tyrant"


The Declaration of Independence casts George III as the leading villain of the American Revolution. It asserts that he is a prince whose character is "marked by every act which may define a Tyrant." and pronounces him "unfit to be the ruler of a free people."

John Adams, who had been a member of the committee that drafted the declaration, later admitted that it contains "expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant." Reminiscing at the age of eighty-eight, Adams thought it "too personal ... too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document." He confessed that he "never believed George to be a tyrant" or to be guilty of the "cruel" acts committed in his name. In his autobiography, Adams was also critical of Benjamin Franklin for his "severe resentment" and personal animosity toward George III. According to Adams, regardless of the appropriateness of the occasion, Franklin never missed an opportunity to cast aspersions upon George III.

In one of the most incongruous and remarkable encounters between former adversaries, after the Revolution John Adams and Thomas Jeverson actually met George III: the revolutionary leaders and the monarch whom they had vilified came face to face. As the first ambassador of the United States of America, Adams was presented to George III at St. James's Palace in June 1785. It was an emotional encounter between an outspoken advocate of independence and a king who had considered abdicating rather than accepting the loss of America. Dressed in a black formal coat with silk breeches and a sash, Adams told the king that the meeting would form an epoch in the history of England and America. He said that he thought himself more fortunate than his fellow citizens in having the honor to be the first to stand in the royal presence in a diplomatic role. He hoped to be instrumental in restoring the old good nature and humor between people, who, though separated by an ocean and under different governments, had the same language and a similar religion. He stressed the cultural ties that bound them, not the recent politics that had separated them. According to Adams, George III seemed much affected and answered with a tremor in his voice.

Assuming an air of familiarity, George III jested with John Adams that some people believed Adams was less attached than his fellow countrymen to France. Despite his surprise and embarrassment at what he thought an indiscreet comment, Adams attempted to match the royal humor replying that he had no attachment but to his country. "As quick as lightning," George III responded that an honest man will never have any other loyalty. After receiving a signal from the king to leave, Adams observed royal protocol by stepping backward and made his last bow at the door of the royal chamber. Accompanied back to his carriage by a royal official, Adams passed through the royal apartments where, at every stage, the serried ranks of servants, gentlemen-porters, and under-porters roared out like thunder, "Mr. Adams' servants, Mr. Adams' carriage." Adams was delighted that his person, his status, and his country had been accorded respect and kindness beyond his expectations from the king. Adams and his wife Abigail subsequently became quite fond of George III.

In the summer of 1786, John Adams arranged to introduce Thomas Jefferson, who was to receive a less civil reception from George III. At the time Jefferson was not known as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, an association that he did not promote until the rage of party politics in the 1790s. Unlike Adams, he was known to favor France over Britain in his capacity as the U.S. ambassador in Paris. On the day of his presentation, there was an unusually thin attendance at court, consisting of a few members of the royal family, government ministers, and foreign ambassadors. Other than an entry in his account book of the tips that he paid the porters at St. James's Palace, Thomas Jefferson wrote nothing of the encounter at the time. Writing thirty-five years later in his autobiography, Jefferson was more forthcoming, relating how "it was impossible for anything to be more ungracious" than the notice that George III gave "Mr. Adams and myself." He "saw, at once, that the ulcerations of mind in that quarter, left nothing to be expected on the subject of my attendance." According to Adams's grandson, the king publicly insulted them both by turning his back upon Jefferson and Adams which "was not lost upon the circle of his subjects in attendance.".

Jefferson certainly never ceased to blame George III personally for the breakdown in relations leading to the Revolution. Jefferson believed that from the beginning of his reign, George III had schemed to impose a tyranny on America, and wrote that "future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, to build a blatant and undisguised tyranny." After his return from London to Paris in August 1786, he wrote sardonically of George III as the American Messiah who had labored for twenty years to drive the nation to discover its own good, and "who had not a friend on earth who would lament his loss so much and so long as I should." In Jefferson's mind, George III always would be the villain, the antagonist in America's primordial narrative, its myth of origin. For Jefferson, this was not propaganda but objective truth.

In reality, George III had less power than virtually any other monarch in Europe. During the seventeenth century, Britain had had two revolutions of its own in which the supporters of Parliament successfully deposed Charles I and James II. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, Britain was a republic for eleven years, and following the fall of James II in 1688, Parliament negotiated a revolutionary settlement in what became known as the Glorious Revolution. It included a Bill of Rights (1689) and a Toleration Act (1689), which became the foundation of the British Constitution and ensured that the crown would henceforth govern through Parliament. The monarchy retained the power to appoint the government, but its choice was limited in practice to prime ministers who had support in Parliament. Although the system of elections was corrupt and the crown had considerable influence through patronage, the survival of the government was always dependent upon the support of independent members of the elected House of Commons. The British consequently regarded their political system as a bastion of freedom and liberty, in contrast to the absolute monarchies of Europe.


George III's accession seemed like the dawn of a new age with unbounded promise. It coincided with a dramatic expansion of the British Empire in America, the Caribbean, and India. In a worldwide conflict (1756–63) known as the Seven Years' War in Europe and the French and Indian War in America, Britain won a series of spectacular victories against France. There was much self-congratulation about "victories won in every quarter of the globe." William Pitt boasted that the British had overrun more of the world than the Roman Empire.

In 1760, amidst great anticipation and euphoria, George III was crowned king. He was the first native English speaker to sit on the throne since Queen Anne (1702–14). At the beginning of his reign he proclaimed that he was born and educated in the country and that he gloried "in the name of Briton." He was a youth of twenty-two, who was variously described as tall, robust, graceful, affable, cheerful, fair, and fresh, with blue eyes, auburn hair, and a strong melodious voice. He was very conscious of having a tendency to corpulence which he kept in check by plenty of exercise and horse riding. Horace Walpole, whose memoirs did so much to denigrate the reputation of the king among later historians, was initially favorably impressed. He described how the king did not stand in one spot with his eyes fixed on the ground, in contrast to his seventy-seven-year-old grandfather and predecessor, George II. He walked about and spoke to everyone. In September 1761, the popular frenzy mounted when the new king chose to marry a seventeen-year-old German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.

George III seemed to embody the culture, breadth, and inquisitiveness that we associate with the age of Enlightenment. He was fluent in French and German and familiar with Italian. His interest in science surpassed that of any of his predecessors. He assembled the finest contemporary collection of scientific instruments within the first decade of his reign. He was particularly fond of astronomy and built the Royal Observatory at Richmond to view the transit of Venus in 1769. He was the patron of William Herschel, who transformed the understanding of the solar system and the universe by his discovery of the planet Uranus in the year of the battle of Yorktown, 1781. George III was fascinated by mechanical devices, especially clocks and watches, which he was able to dismantle and reassemble. He commissioned a table to chart the principles of mechanics and an air pump to demonstrate the properties of the atmosphere. He was keenly interested in gardening and horticulture, expanding the royal gardens at Kew and appointing Sir Joseph Banks as his botanist in 1771. He was similarly interested in agriculture and farming, which later earned him the nickname of "Farmer George." He was an accomplished horseman who liked to go out riding every day, and he enjoyed regular visits to the theater.

George III also became the most significant royal patron and collector of art since Charles I. In 1768, he was influential in the founding of the Royal Academy of Arts, and remained closely involved in its administration, helping it relocate to Somerset House in 1780. George III was especially enthusiastic about the work of the Pennsylvania-born artist Benjamin West who was a founding member and second president of the Royal Academy. Trained by Sir William Chambers, George III was himself a competent architectural draftsman who did many of his own plans and drawings. He was a patron of many of the leading architects of his era, including James "Athenian" Stuart, Robert Adam, James Wyatt, and Thomas Sanby, and commissioned the landscape architect "Capability" Brown. He loved music. He played the flute, pianoforte, and harpsichord, collected compositions including the works of Lully, Palestrina and Scarlatti, and during his courtship of Queen Charlotte, he composed a song for her called "The Royal Bride." He several times invited the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to perform for the royal family during his visit to England in 1764. Before his departure in 1765, Mozart dedicated a set of sonatas for harpsichord and violin to Queen Charlotte. George III later tried to persuade Joseph Haydn to stay permanently in London and was instrumental in the revival of his favorite composer, George Frederick Handel. He was an enthusiastic bibliophile whose collection became the foundation of the British Library and numbered sixty-five thousand books by the time of his death in 1820.

George III was conversant with the works of contemporary literary writers, philosophers, and historians like Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Samuel Johnson, and James Boswell. He permitted scholars to use his library at the Queen's House, which later became Buckingham Palace. Samuel Johnson described him as "the finest gentleman I have seen," and thought him the first monarch in a hundred years to identify seriously with the interests of his people and to try to make friends with his fellow countrymen. In 1767, when the king heard that Johnson regularly visited the library at the Queen's House, he asked the librarian to introduce them and then proceeded to quiz Johnson about his views on current theological debates, his thoughts on the best literary journals, and whether there was any important work being done at Oxford University. When the king asked him about the progress of his own writing and Johnson replied that he "thought he had already done his part as a writer," the king replied "I should have thought so, if you had not written so well," which delighted Johnson as a compliment "fit for a King to pay. It was decisive." After the meeting, Johnson famously told a friend that he did not reply, since "It was not for me to bandy civilities with my sovereign." George III is wrongly alleged to have said to Edward Gibbon, "Another d——d thick square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?" It was actually said by his brother the Duke of Gloucester.


George III did not instigate the colonial policies that triggered the American Revolution. The government ministers, not the king, were the architects of those policies, whose origins predated his reign. When he ascended the throne, George III was politically inexperienced. Throughout the 1760s he was preoccupied with the problem of forming a stable government. The king appointed the ministers of the government—the most significant of the political powers remaining to the monarchy—but his choices were confined to men who were able to command majority support in Parliament, and were governed by domestic rather than imperial considerations.

George III not only did not initiate the policies that led to the breakdown in imperial relations, but he was even a restraining influence on some of the more extreme measures proposed by his ministers. His first statement about affairs in America recommended that the colonies receive proper compensation for their expenses in the French and Indian War. He discouraged George Grenville's government from including a clause in the Quartering Act (1765) that permitted the billeting of soldiers in private houses in America. He later remarked that the Stamp Act was "abundant in absurdities," having "first deprived the Americans, by restraining their trade, from the means of acquiring wealth, and (then) taxed them." He supported the conciliatory colonial policies advocated by the Duke of Grafton's ministry in 1769.

George III advised against the more draconian proposals of Lord Hillsborough, the secretary of state for America. He agreed that the abolition of elections for the Council of Massachusetts Bay might indeed "from a continuance of their conduct become necessary; but till then ought to be avoided as altering Charters is at all times an odious measure." He similarly advised against the proposal to abolish assemblies that denied the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. He argued that such action was "of so strong a nature that it rather seems calculated to increase the unhappy feuds that subsist than to assuage them." He cautioned that colonial governors "ought to be instructed to avoid as much as possible giving occasion to the Assemblies again coming on the apple of discord." He suggested that a hint be given that colonies that submitted to the Townshend Duties (1767) might be exempted from the tax on tea. He had been willing to grant such a favor to Virginia and the British West Indies in 1769, but desisted because "the Virginians were so offensive the last Spring."

It was not until the Boston Tea Party (1773) that George III suddenly became actively involved in the growing imperial crisis in America. He became more vehement from the conviction that the crisis had been caused by too much lenience towards the colonies. He regretted that Britain had previously indulged them by repealing the Stamp Act in 1766. Believing that any concessions were likely to be interpreted as a sign of weakness and that they would only encourage further demands, he was against appeasement of the colonies. He was much impressed by the advice of the commander of the British army in America, General Thomas Gage, that "they will be lyons, whilst we are lambs; but, if we take the resolute part, they will undoubtedly prove very meek." He denied wishing to use force, but argued that it was the only means of success.

George III saw the struggle as fundamental to the defense of order and the Constitution. A devoutly religious man, he treated political issues in moralistic terms. Later in his reign, he opposed legislation to give Catholics the vote in Ireland because he believed it his duty under his coronation oath to uphold the Anglican Church. In America, he argued that he was "fighting the battle of the legislature" in defense of the authority of Parliament to govern America. It was essential to the maintenance of order and hierarchy that the colonies acknowledge the supreme authority of Parliament. As the revolutionary movement became more republican, he became ever more passionate about crushing the rebellion and defending the dignity of kingship. He regarded monarchy as essential to liberty as part of a system of checks and balances in which the crown acted as a constitutional safeguard against the excesses of both the aristocratic and the democratic elements of government in the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

Excerpted from The Men Who Lost America by ANDREW JACKSON O'SHAUGHNESSY. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

Richard Johnson
 "Much of [the book's] value lies in the sheer volume of engaging material it brings together and in the originality of its organization and approach to a much studied question, namely why Britain lost the War of the American Revolution. . . . A treasure-trove of information on the British operation of the War.—Richard Johnson, University of Washington 

Meet the Author

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy is Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Monticello, and professor of history, University of Virginia. He lives in Charlottesville, VA.

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The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution and the Fate of the Empire 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is interesting. I purchased this book from Barnes and Noble online July 13 and the expected ship date is August 2 2013. Amazon ships in two days. Wow.