What mistakes did the British make in their attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the Americans during the early stages of the war?

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The problem was that the British made no serious attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the American colonists. They continued to treat them with utter contempt even after the initial skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, which should have told them that the Americans were prepared to fight for their liberty.

The main reason for such off-hand treatment is that the British regarded the Americans as traitors, which, technically speaking, they were. The American colonists had staged an armed uprising against British rule, which was about as treacherous as it was possible to get. That the Americans subsequently attempted to hold out an olive branch to the British made no difference whatsoever. As the king and his government regarded the Americans as traitors, they held that there was simply no point in replying to them except by force of arms.

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The major mistake of the British is that they failed to appreciate the colonists' desire to enjoy the rights of Englishmen, primarily the right to be taxed by their elected representatives rather than a distant Parliament. After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress sent a petition to George III which expressed those sentiments:

The apprehension of being degraded into a state of servitude from the preeminent rank of English freemen, while our minds retain the strongest love of liberty, and clearly foresee the miseries preparing for us and our posterity, excites emotions in our breasts which, though we can not describe, we should not wish to conceal. Feeling as men, and thinking as subjects, in the manner we do, silence would be disloyalty. By giving this faithful information, we do all in our power to promote the great objects of your royal cares, the tranquility of your government and the welfare of your people.

 We ask but for peace, liberty, and safety. We wish not a diminution of the prerogative, nor do we solicit the grant of any new right in our favor. Your royal authority over us, and our connection with Great Britain, we shall always carefully and zealously endeavor to support and maintain.

This "Olive Branch Petition," drafted by the eminent colonial lawyer, James Dickinson, might easily have reconciled the colonists to Parliamentary government. Sadly, at the time of its submission, the differences between Parliament and the colonies had become a matter of principle. George III refused to even read the petition, and issued a declaration of rebellion the next day. By so doing, he forever ended any possibility of winning the hearts of the colonists.

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