The Effects of the American Revolutionary War on Britain

Political cartoon during the American Revolution
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. Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG/ Universal Images Group/ Getty Images

American success in the American Revolutionary War created a new nation, while British failure tore away a part of their empire. Such consequences were inevitably going to have effects, but historians debate the extent of each compared to that 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 the fact is it's possible to argue that the war was not only survived, but to such an extent that Britain could fight a very long war against Napoleon right next door soon after. Britain proved more resilient than many were expecting.

Financial Effects

Britain spent a huge amount of money fighting the Revolutionary War, increasing national debt hugely and creating a yearly interest of nearly ten million pounds. Taxes had to be raised as a result. The trade which Britain relied on for wealth was severely interrupted, with imports and exports experiencing large drops and the recession which followed caused stock 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 industry such as the naval suppliers or the elements of the textile industry which made uniforms experienced a boost, and unemployment fell as Britain struggled to find enough men for the army, a situation which would cause 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 also short term, as British trade with the new USA rose to the same levels as trade with them in colonial form by 1785, and by 1792 trade between Britain and Europe had doubled. Additionally, while Britain gained an even larger national debt, they were in a position to live with it and there were no financially motivated rebellions like those of France. Indeed, Britain was able to support several armies during the Napoleonic wars (and even field its own instead of just paying for other peoples). It's been said that Britain was even right to lose the war because of the economic benefits.

Effect on Ireland

There were many in Ireland who opposed British rule, and who saw in the American Revolution both a lesson to be followed and a set of brothers fighting against Britain. While Ireland did have a parliament which could make decisions, only Protestants voted for it and the British could control it, and this was far from ideal. Campaigners for reform in Ireland reacted to the struggle in America by organizing a boycott of British imports and groups of armed volunteers.

The British were afraid a full blown revolution would emerge in Ireland and acted conciliatorily. Britain thus relaxed its trade restrictions on Ireland, to allow them to trade with British colonies and freely export wool, and reformed the government by allowing non-Anglicans to hold public offices. They repealed the Irish Declaratory Act while granting full legislative independence. The result was an Ireland which remained part of the British Empire.

Political Effects

A government which can survive a failed war without pressure is rare, and in Britain, the failure of the American Revolutionary War led to demands for constitutional reform. The hard core of government was criticized for the way they had run the war, and for the apparent power they had, with fears that Parliament had ceased to represent the views of the people - albeit the wealthy people - 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 who could vote, and a redrawing of the electoral map. Some even demanded universal manhood suffrage.

The power the Association Movement had around early 1780 was huge, and it managed to achieve widespread support. It 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 any 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 Effects

Britain may have lost thirteen colonies in America, but it retained Canada and land in the Caribbean, Africa, and India. It then began to expand in these regions instead, building up 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.