Next month will mark the 236th anniversary of an event which heralded the end of the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). On October 19, 1781, a besieged Charles Cornwallis—Marquess, Earl, Lord, General and favorite son of Great Britain—was forced to surrender at Yorktown. So embarrassed was his lordship, he lacked the strength to face the victorious Continentals and French forces in person. Instead, the deflated commander sent a fellow general, with sword in hand, to meet Washington and Rochambeau in defeat. This much is commonly known about the Revolutionary War. Presented here, however, are ten lesser-known factors that precipitated the Crown’s defeat in North America.
The American Revolution was a Global Conflict
Great Britain’s wartime concerns stretched far beyond the shores of North America. In addition to facing colonial opposition, the embattled King George III also warred with France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Mysore during the late eighteenth-century. France and England had antagonized one another for centuries. Spain, still yearning for strategic lands both at home and abroad, decided to ally with France. The Dutch Republic, meanwhile, resented England for the years of internecine conflict she offered during four Anglo-Dutch Wars. Moreover, economic and military commitments in India left British forces stretched precariously thin elsewhere in the world.
France resisted England in the New World when the House of Bourbon formally entered an alliance with the Continentals in February 1778. Louis XVI faced very few challenges from other European countries, who saw Great Britain as a vast continental threat. The Franco-American Alliance culminated in a French military intervention at Yorktown, where they prevented the British Royal Navy from reinforcing a besieged Cornwallis. Redcoats were consequently forced to surrender to General George Washington, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau, and a jubilant Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent. The French also harassed England in Canada, parts of the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic Ocean.
In the meantime, the Spanish, Dutch, and certain Indian factions actively opposed the British Crown. Charles III jointly declared war on Great Britain with France, fighting British forces in Florida, while simultaneously shipping war supplies to the colonies and attempting to retake Gibraltar. The Dutch Republic, although only a pale shadow of its former self, still offered George III resistance closer to home, which placed an additional draw on British military assets. A series of Anglo-Mysore Wars (1766-1799) also raged in India, where Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan battled for supremacy against the British East India Company and their Maratha allies.
Worldwide Economic Concerns
It’s generally accepted that the Revolutionary War was, in part, precipitated upon unwelcomed British taxation in North America. Colonial tax revenues provided the Crown with a valuable source of income. Parliament allocated these funds to expand and maintain Great Britain’s enormous Royal Navy, while simultaneously backing several state-sponsored foreign trade ventures, such as the British East India Company. Colonial America, however, was not Great Britain’s sole source of overseas revenue. The Crown’s interests, along with the watchful gaze of her sworn adversaries, included greater parts of the globe. From the early 1600s onward, the British mercantile economy gradually became dependent upon foreign trade.
The British moved swiftly in establishing a foreign trade monopoly by drafting and enforcing a series of Navigation Acts designed to regulate the movement and transfer of valuable commodities across the Atlantic. A product of mercantile policies, the Navigation Acts were designed to maximize state profits while depriving the Crown’s rivals of gold and silver.
The Molasses Act of 1733, for instance, forced colonists to purchase Caribbean sugar from British subsidiaries, economically undercutting the French West Indies. Other trade regulations were even more oppressive. The earlier Staple Act of 1663 required any colony-bound trade goods from Africa, Asia, or Europe to first pass through English ports.
During this Age of Mercantilism, British assets were spread across four major areas. The lucrative British West Indies relied on slaves to produce profitable Caribbean sugar, while the British East India Company, on the other side of the globe, accounted for half the world’s trade in fabrics, dyes, and tea. The Thirteen Colonies and maritime commerce of continental North America were only part of a larger economic system. Hence, the British were unwilling and unable to leverage 100% of their military and political assets in the suppression of an American rebellion. Nor was this lost on the Crown’s many adversaries, such as the French, who attacked British economic strongholds at will.