As American eyes turn to Britain for the Queen’s death and the new King’s accession, it’s fascinating to read a British history of American independence.

American history, at least how I was taught it in school, is highly chauvinistic.

In our version, we fought the Revolutionary War for the freedom of all humankind. England was our oppressive enslaver. A despotic and cruel King treated us like animals.

But that’s not the whole story.

Here’s an excerpt from A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins. Here’s part of how it covers the War of Independence in British eyes:

It was essentially an argument between loyalist and radical British subjects over trade and taxes, only gradually acquiring the rhetoric of civil rights and liberties. Even today that argument is mired in chauvinism. […] The protested Stamp Acts were imposed throughout the empire, as were other trade restrictions, while the colonists enjoyed their own assemblies and were for the most part autonomous. America was far better treated than Ireland.

Though most of the taxes were repealed, one remained on imported tea. When, in 1773, the hard-pressed East India Company was relieved of the duty and allowed to ship tea tax free to America, rival tea merchants, mostly smugglers, dressed up as Indians and tossed the offending merchandise into Boston harbour. The government in London, lacking intelligence on the ground and with messages taking weeks to cross the Atlantic, over-reacted by passing five so-called coercive acts, closing Boston harbour and reasserting direct rule by the Massachusetts governor. The acts stimulated a 1774 congress in Philadelphia, which wrote a declaration of rights, boycotted British imports and requested the repeal of laws’ penalising’ American trade.

When London rejected these requests, local militias called ‘minutemen’, as they were supposed to be ‘ready at a minute’s notice’, took up arms. They were backed by a wide coalition of colonists, many with mixed motives. Some genuinely desired freedom but others were fearful of London calling in land debts, requiring respect for Indian treaties or regulating slavery. In April 1775 an attempt by the British governor of Massachusetts to capture militia bases at Lexington and Concord saw his force beaten back to Boston with a thousand casualties. 

The following year, 1776, the same exasperated delegates who had earlier sought accommodation with London gathered again in Philadelphia. Tom Paine published a republican tract entitled ‘Common Sense’, accusing loyalists to the British crown of having ‘the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant’. A Declaration of Independence, largely written by Thomas Jefferson, was published on 4 July, declaring George III to be ‘unfit to be the ruler of a free people.’ Its most celebrated passage asserted that, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and tie Pursuit of Happiness.’

This ringing phraseology was a classic product of the European enlightenment. It did not, of course, apply to slaves or Native Americans. England’s most successful creation, the United States of America, was born.