The Effects of the American Revolutionary War on Britain

The Crown's losses overseas detracted little from Britain's power

Cow representing English commerce is milked and de-horned by France, Spain, Holland, and America while the British lion sleeps, during the American Revolutionary War.
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American success in the Revolutionary War created a new nation, while British failure tore away part of the empire. Such consequences were inevitably going to have impacts, but historians debate their extent compared with those of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, which would test Britain soon after their American experience. Modern readers might expect Britain to have suffered greatly as a result of losing the war, but it's possible to argue that the hostilities were survived so well that Britain could fight a very long war against Napoleon soon after.

Financial Effect

Britain spent a huge amount of money fighting the Revolutionary War, sending the national debt soaring and creating a yearly interest of nearly 10 million pounds. Taxes had to be raised as a result. The trade that Britain had relied on for wealth was severely interrupted. Imports and exports experienced large drops and the following recession caused stocks and land prices to plummet. Trade was also affected by naval attacks from Britain’s enemies, and thousands of merchant ships were captured.

On the other hand, wartime industries, such as the naval suppliers and the part of the textile industry that made uniforms, experienced a boost. Unemployment fell as Britain struggled to find enough men for the army, which caused them to hire German soldiers. British "privateers" experienced as much success preying on enemy merchant ships as almost any of their opponents. The effects on trade were short term. British trade with the new USA rose to the same level as trade with the colonies by 1785, and by 1792 trade between Britain and Europe had doubled. Additionally, while Britain gained an even larger national debt, it was in a position to live with it, and there were no financially motivated rebellions like those in France. Indeed, Britain was able to support several armies during the Napoleonic wars and field its own instead of paying for other people. It's been said that Britain actually prospered from losing the war.

Effect on Ireland

Many in Ireland opposed British rule and saw the American Revolution as a lesson to be followed and a set of brothers fighting against Britain. While Ireland had a parliament, only Protestants voted for it and the British could control it, which was far from ideal. Campaigners for reform in Ireland reacted to the struggle in America by organizing groups of armed volunteers and a boycott of British imports.

The British were afraid a full-blown revolution would emerge in Ireland and made concessions. Britain relaxed its trade restrictions on Ireland, so they could trade with British colonies and freely export wool, and reformed the government by allowing non-Anglicans to hold public office. They repealed the Irish Declaratory Act, which had secured Ireland's dependence on Britain while granting full legislative independence. The result was that Ireland remained part of the British Empire.

Political Effect

A government that can survive a failed war without pressure is rare, and Britain's failure in the American Revolution led to demands for constitutional reform. The hard core of government was criticized for the way it had run the war and for the apparent power it had, with fears that Parliament had ceased to represent the views of the people—except for the wealthy—and was simply approving everything the government did. Petitions flooded from the "Association Movement" demanding a pruning of the king’s government, the expansion of voting, and a redrawing of the electoral map. Some even demanded universal manhood suffrage.

The Association Movement had huge power around early 1780, and it achieved widespread support. That did not last long. In June 1780 the Gordon Riots paralyzed London for almost a week with destruction and murder. While the cause of the riots was religious, landowners and moderates were frightened away from supporting more reform and the Association Movement declined. Political machinations throughout the early 1780s also produced a government with little inclination for constitutional reform. The moment passed.

Diplomatic and Imperial Effect

Britain may have lost 13 colonies in America, but it retained Canada and land in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. It began to expand in these regions, building what has been called the "Second British Empire," which eventually became the largest dominion in world history. Britain’s role in Europe was not diminished, its diplomatic power was soon restored, and it was able to play a key role in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars despite the loss across the sea.