American Revolution

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Why couldn't colonial and British leaders reach a compromise to save the empire?

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Political compromise ultimately proved impossible because both sides had radically different understandings of what the American colonies were for. The British tended to regard the colonies as little more than a cash cow, a useful source of revenue for the Treasury. The American colonists, on the other hand, were adamant that, if not quite a nation, the thirteen states were more than just a remote colonial outpost. On American soil, the ancient English concept of liberty had taken firm root and the American colonists believed themselves fully entitled to the benefits of that inheritance.

To the British, this was just so much humbug. The aristocrats who ran the British government looked down on the Americans as colonial upstarts who were no more entitled to the liberties they demanded with such insistence than their equivalents in British society such as merchants and tradesmen.

Over time, attitudes hardened considerably. Attempts at reaching an amicable settlement were routinely made, but without success. A dialogue of the deaf ensued in which the British and the Americans talked past each other, both sides clinging stubbornly to their jaundiced world-view. As disagreement was grounded in a matter of principle it was almost inevitable that neither side would give way.

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Political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic failed to reach a compromise because it would have been very difficult for either side to back away from its demands.  Leaders on both sides would have lost tremendous amounts of prestige for themselves and for the entities they represented.

If the British had backed down, they would have been weakening the image of their government.  It would have looked as if the government would simply give in to any pressure from a group that did not want to obey the law.  This is dangerous for any government.  If the colonists would have backed down, they would have lost much of their ability to govern themselves.  They would also have appeared weak and frightened in the face of danger. 

For these reasons, neither side was eager to compromise.

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Why did colonial and British leaders fail to reach political compromise to save the Empire?

It is overly simplistic to place the blame for this series of events on either side; in fact blame is hardly an issue. It is more nearly correct to say that America and Great Britain had over time evolved into separate societies with precious little (except perhaps language) in common. For that reason, political resolution of their differences was impossible.

Americans first developed a sense of a distinctly American culture following the French and Indian War. They had fought as British citizens in the war, but had done so to defend their own homes and property. As defenders of their homeland, they soon developed a sense of being Americans rather than Britons living in America. This distinction became more apparent when Britain attempted to assess the colonies for the cost of the war. Christopher Gadsden, at the Stamp Act Congress commented:

There ought to be no New England men, no New Yorker, &c., known on the Continent, but all of us Americans.

Political leaders in Great Britain also recognized that Britain and the colonies had little in common with each other. In a speech to Parliament, Edmund Burke commented:

The last cause of this disobedient spirit in the colonies is hardly less powerful than the rest, as it is not merely moral, but laid deep in the national constitution of things. Three thousand miles of ocean lie between you and them. No contrivance can prevent the effect of this distance in weakening government. Seas roll and months pass between the order and the execution; and the want of a speedy explanation of a single p0int is enough to defeat a whole system.

Thomas Paine argued in Common Sense that the differences between the two nations compelled separation:

Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'tis time to part.

A political solution was not possible. The passage of time and series of events prior to the revolution had inexorably moved Britain and America so far away from each other that a political settlement was impossible, despite attempts on both sides of the Atlantic to effect that settlement. It was perhaps best stated by John Adams:

The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.

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Why did colonial and British leaders fail to reach political compromise to save the Empire?

I would put the blame for this on the British, though their actions were understandable.  To them, losing the colonies would have seemed like a huge blow in terms of prestige and (they thought) economic power.  These were mercantilists who did not believe in Adam Smith's ideas about free trade.  They could not see that the colonies could be just as beneficial to Britain if they had autonomy.  Therefore, they remained stubborn and refused to give the colonies autonomy.

It is clear that the British learned their lesson because, a few decades later, they gave Canada autonomy instead of trying to keep it as colonies.

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