European Responses to America

views updated


When news of the Battle of Yorktown, decided by the capitulation of General Charles Cornwallis on 19 October 1781, reached London, British ministers who had viewed King George III's military involvement in America as folly rose in prominence. Critics of the military conflict in America viewed it as an extension of the conflict between Britain and France and thought that Britain was foolish not to subordinate its American concerns to the contest with France. In a memorable speech at the outset of the American Revolution, the leading British statesman of that age, William Pitt the Elder, had foretold that the war with America would lay Britain prostrate before the power of France. After Yorktown, new British ministers tried to prevent military defeat from becoming a complete diplomatic defeat as well, and fighting in America virtually ceased. Britain recognized an independent United States by the Peace of Paris of 3 September 1783. The American Revolution had a major impact not only on British diplomacy but on European diplomacy as a whole. The Revolution also affected European economies by spurring the establishment of free trade policies. Finally, the Revolution left its mark on European monarchies and national identities.


"Every nation in Europe," said Benjamin Franklin, "wishes to see Britain humbled, having all in their time been offended by her insolence." By the time of Yorktown, the truth of this was clear. France allied itself with the new American Republic and against Britain mainly because of the French leaders' desire to seize the diplomatic opportunity Britain had given them; but spite also played a part in the decision. The French defeat—largely at the hands of Pitt the Elder—in the Seven Years' War imbued the court at Versailles with bitter rancor toward King George III.

Other European states, like the Netherlands and Russia, welcomed the opportunity to weaken Britain but opted for neutrality rather than outright war. Even neutrality implied hostility toward Britain. As the legitimate sovereign in America, George III expected European princes to support him against rebels. Instead, neutral European states aided America through trade. Dutch neutrality failed as a policy, and Britain forced war upon them.

In the era of the American Revolution, the European states can be divided into two groups. There was a European center comprising Britain itself, France, and to some extent the Netherlands. These three states vied among themselves for supremacy, although the Dutch were experiencing a long, slow defeat in the contest. France and Britain were locked in bitter contest. British defeat in the War of the American Revolution induced the same kind of spite in Britain as in France, contributing to the unyielding mind-set of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, during which Britain truly, single-mindedly, and successfully fought France for supremacy in Europe.

Around the European center, there was a periphery comprising Spain, the German Empire with its principalities, and Russia, among other states. Some in this group welcomed the war because they hoped that a British loss in America would lead to a loosening of British power elsewhere. The Spanish, Germans, Russians, and other peripherals expected France to carry most of the costs, although some private individuals in these states were prepared to assist France themselves.

The most important peripheral state to join France was Spain. At one time a mighty power, Spain had declined to marginal status by the time of the American Revolution. This decline dated at least to the seventeenth century, but the Seven Years' War had hastened the process because Spain was humiliated, although it gained some North American possessions from France. Not content with the expulsion of France from North America and the humbling of Spain there, the Royal Navy dispatched Captain Cook to investigate whether Spain's South American colonies might also be opened to British trade. The Spanish

court felt therefore the same rancor toward Britain as did its counterparts at Versailles. Further, a family alliance bound the two courts, the French ruling house of Bourbon having placed one of its members on the throne of Spain. The two branches of the Bourbon family eagerly joined hands. They undertook joint naval action in 1779, threatening the English coast with invasion. In addition, the Spanish monarchy sent money, war materiel, officials, and military officers to America.

A small number of Europeans came to America to offer their personal assistance. The Marquis de Lafayette was perhaps the most famous. A major general in the Continental Army during the Revolution, he also played a prominent role in French politics during the French Revolution. Baron Friedrich von Steuben of Prussia was almost as famous, becoming inspector general of the Continental Army. Two other Europeans who made major contributions to the American cause were Count Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciusko, both from Poland.

However, these famous names belied the European reality. Whether at the center or on the periphery, most Europeans knew little of America and placed little value on its Revolution. America was a backwater. French scientists thought that even nature in America was feebler than in Europe, plants and animals smaller and weaker, and natural process more prone to decay. Although America had already produced a great philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, few Europeans read American books, and fewer valued American political ideas. Despite the contributions to the American Revolution of some German volunteer officers, reactions in Germany and Russia mostly reflected this combination of ignorance and disdain.

American notions of political liberty or representative government were attractive to very few Germans. Instead, Germans thought of America, when they did think of it, mostly as a place of fantasy or escape. "Here or nowhere is my America!" wrote the greatest German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, over the door of his house in Weimar. Under the nominal sovereignty of the German emperor, German princes were nevertheless effectively independent, and they could even go to war with one another. Some German princes opposed Britain in spirit. Silas Deane, an American diplomat in Europe, recommended Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick as a possible commander of American forces. Other German princes supported King George III, who after all was himself a German prince and who eventually married his eldest son to a daughter of the Brunswick house. American notions of republican liberty had even less appeal in Russia than in Germany. Empress Catherine the Great and Tsar Alexander I both had some sympathy with republican notions, but Catherine stayed neutral. The British attempted to obtain her cooperation against America; she suspected British motives, yet she did not want to seem too hostile to Britain. Nor did Alexander assist the French Revolution. Hostility to all revolution then hardened in Russia in the early nineteenth century. When a French visitor, the Marquis de Custine, visited Russia in 1839, he discussed American notions of a representative republic with Tsar Nicholas I. Reminding Custine of the legacy of Tsar Alexander I, who had established a constitutional monarchy in Poland, Nicholas told Custine that the constitutional system was vile, complaining that a monarch should not have to stoop to petty deals with base politicians.


After news of the Battle of Yorktown was reported to the Scottish economist Adam Smith, the carrier of the news said that the British nation was ruined. Smith replied coolly that there was much ruin in the British nation. He had predicted before the Revolution that a political separation of America from Britain would in fact make both parties more prosperous. Smith was not alone in this view. The eccentric but brilliant English economist Josiah Tucker had been even more outspoken than Smith on the subject, saying well before the Revolution that American colonies were a burden to Britain.

Smith described the principles that had long governed British thinking on matters of international trade and colonial administration. Calling these principles mercantilism, he said that states attempted to achieve a favorable balance in trade with one another, leading nations to regulate and limit trade. These were futile attempts because each nation viewed wealth as something to be gained at the expense of its neighbors. When states left trade free, wealth increased in absolute terms because merchants had larger markets and therefore incentives to invest more capital in larger and more efficient systems of production. So long as Britain controlled American commerce, Smith believed, regulation would tend to stifle trade. American independence would open American markets and rationalize British production.

The removal of British regulations in America stimulated transatlantic trade. The former colonies soon bought more British goods than they had before the war, with exports to North America from England and Wales rising from 2,460,000 in 1772–1773 to 5,700,000 in 1797–1798. Then, during the French Revolution, Britain blockaded European ports, and it enjoyed the Atlantic trade without much rivalry or interference from other European powers. These opportunities more than repaired the loss of its thirteen American colonies, and Britain rose to unparalleled economic and political power in the nineteenth century. Britons learned from Smith. "We are all your students now," the younger William Pitt told Smith during the wars of the French Revolution.

The movement toward free trade was a permanent European legacy of the American Revolution. However, this movement further exacerbated the contrast between the European center and the European periphery. Britain, France, the Netherlands (which included Belgium until 1830), and parts of Germany and Italy all made rapid economic progress, partly owing to the spread of free trade policies, while the peripheral region fell behind.

monarchy and national identity

In the late nineteenth century, the liberal English economist Walter Bagehot explained how the American Revolution had changed the role of the British monarchy. American colonists were wrong about the monarch, said Bagehot. They thought George III was a tyrant, but instead he was a fool and a madman. However, King George did nearly as much damage as if he had been a tyrant. His incapacity triggered the American Revolution, a misfortune that revealed to the British that their monarchy required an adjustment. In Bagehot's view, Britain's poor showing in the War of the American Revolution impugned George III's active, daily oversight of government.

Bagehot's opinions echoed those opposed to George III's policies, and Bagehot implied that these ideas reflected public opinion at large in Britain. However, the most careful recent scholarship has failed to establish clearly how the various parts of the British public reacted to the American Revolution. No doubt, opinion was split, and changed over time. Exactly how it was split, and exactly how it changed, however, is not known. One result was clear: Britain established a foreign office, replacing the cumbersome system that previously mixed the management of foreign policy.

Such reforms, many of them consequences of the American Revolution but more of them of the French Revolution, allowed European monarchies to become powerful symbols of national identity. Some scholars have argued that the American Revolution created national identity. Others have argued instead that Britain had a strong national identity before the American Revolution, which that event recast and strengthened. What is indisputable is that a spring of nationalism welled up in the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and in the nineteenth century that spring became a European torrent. For the most part in Europe, monarchs succeeded in making the monarchy a symbol of this torrent of identity. The rise of free trade and the emergence of powerful European national identities, symbolized by renewed and in some cases reformed monarchies, were the two most important European reactions to the American Revolution.

See alsoBritish Empire and the Atlantic World; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; European Influences: The French Revolution; Lafayette, Marie-Joseph, Marquis de; Revolution, Age of; Revolution: European Participation; Treaty of Paris .


Bailyn, Bernard. To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Dickinson, H. T. Britain and the American Revolution. London: Longman, 1998.

Dull, J. R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America: 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Namier, Sir Lewis. England in the Age of the American Revolution. London: Macmillian, 1963.

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c.1500–c.1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Palmer, R. R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Scott, H. M. British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The First Salute. New York: Knopf, 1988.

John A. Taylor

About this article

European Responses to America

Updated About content Print Article


European Responses to America