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1776: Our Colony and Britain

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 17, 2024 3:03 am

1776: Our Colony and Britain

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 17, 2024 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, King George III was not "the mad king who lost the colonies," says renowned historian David McCullough. He was a king, and did lose the most prosperous land on Earth just as the British Empire was building up steam.

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What can I use in my toolbox? And we continue with Our American Stories. Joining historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough is the author of 1776. In this masterful work, he tells the intensely human story of those who marched with George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence, beginning in 1775. Here he is telling a little-known story about both the British perspective and their colonies in America.

Let's take a listen. I wanted to begin in London. I wanted to begin in late October in London because it's the day that the king went before Parliament to give one of the most important speeches ever any king or anyone ever gave before Parliament. When we fought at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill, we were not fighting for independence. We were fighting for our rights as freeborn Englishmen. In 1775, 1776, except for those 500,000 American men, women and children who were held in slavery, we had the highest standard of living of any people in the world, which is something most people don't understand. So we weren't fighting for independence and we were very well off in world terms. And we had more freedom, again, except for those 500,000 black men, women and children in slavery. We had more freedom than any other people in the world because people living under the British system had the most freedom of anyone. But on the day when the king addressed Parliament, which is very much like our State of the Union moment, you have the king coming before a joint session of Commons and House of Lords, and he addresses them with his policy.

And his policy was, in essence, the following. The American colonies are in rebellion. Their leaders, these political firebrands, are traitors.

And their real purpose is independence. Nobody, nobody had spoken, at least publicly or on paper, no one of any consequence or responsibility here of anything about independence as yet. And that he, the king, and his cabinet had concluded that they must send sufficient force to put the rebellion down, and furthermore, that they were conducting negotiations to hire additional troops, which, as we know, were the Hessians or the German mercenaries. When that letter, that text, that speech finally reached this country, it was a blow such as no one expected. It didn't arrive until the first day of the new year, January 1, 1776, it reached Boston. And right away, everybody knew this wasn't going to be a short war.

Washington had written to his wife, Martha, to say that he'd be home by Christmas when he first took command. Jefferson had written to a kinsman late in August of 1775 that he looked forward to the moment when we would be reunited with the mother country in the happy, good old way. But such illusions of a reconciliation went out the window with that speech. Now, George III was not the mad king who lost the colonies. George III's mental illness did not come on until 20 years later, 1776, he was a very healthy young man in his 30s.

And his madness was not understood then, it's a disease called porphyria, which is hereditary, wouldn't be diagnosed until the 20th century. George III was not a dimwit. He was a very intelligent, very interesting man. He was an accomplished musician, an accomplished artist, a great lover of literature, a great collector of books. And according to Samuel Johnson, one of the most interesting, engaging men that he'd ever held a conversation with.

And Johnson was a very severe critic or judge of other people. He was kind. He was honest. He was an ardent horticulturalist, agriculturalist, loved his farms at Windsor, was happiest there working on his farms, as were Adams or Jefferson or Washington.

And he had 15 children, for whom he was an excellent father. And he was doing what he thought was his duty as king. And he had the support of the country and the support of Parliament.

When Fox and Burke and others stood up and gave their magnificent speeches in the House of Commons in support or in sympathy with the American point of view, they were powerful and they were eloquent to the point of magnificent, that their speeches, particularly Burke's, are literature. But they didn't have the votes. And they knew they didn't have the votes. And they were thus free to say almost anything they wished. Furthermore, they too would always refer to our colonies. In other words, they didn't get it either. It wasn't going to be their colonies.

That was the point. There came a point where it was very close that reconciliation might have happened. But it was only possible if we gave up the idea of independence. And we weren't going to do that. John Adams said the American Revolution began in the hearts of the American people long before any war broke out.

And I think that's probably true. And the war could have gone either way any number of times, six or seven times, even during the course of the one year, 1776. The British didn't lose because their generals were dim-bulbed aristocrats who shouldn't have had high command. They were excellent officers.

Some were better than others, of course. If Henry Clinton had been in command instead of William Howe, it might have gone quite differently because Clinton caught the point, which we were slow to catch that it wasn't holding Boston or taking New York or holding New York or occupying New Jersey that was going to win the war. The only thing that would win the war for the British was to surround Washington and his army and put them out of business.

And Washington, too, was slow in realizing this. As long as the army survived, as long as the army held together, as long as there was fight in it, the war would go on. And he also knew how big a country this is. Whether we would have won had the French not come in, who's to say? If we hadn't won, the war would certainly have gone on a great deal longer without the French. But let's not forget, the French didn't come in because of any great love of democracy. They came in because it was an opportune chance to stick it to Great Britain. And in doing so, they spent so much money that they virtually bankrupt themselves, which in the chain reaction helped to bring on the French Revolution. Whereas the British, who were very concerned that if they lost the colonies, that would be the end of the British Empire.

And of course, we know, in hindsight, that in the 18th century, the British Empire was just getting into second gear, and it wouldn't be until the 19th century that the British Empire really became the powerful force in the world that it was. There are all kinds of ironies, there are all kinds of points to remember, the longest war in our history except for Vietnam, most people don't know that, and the bloodiest war in our history, per capita, except for the Civil War. Population of 2,500,000, 25,000 Americans were killed, that's 1% of the population. If we were fighting a revolution, a war for our independence today, we would lose over 3 million people on the same ratio. So for that generation, for those people, this was a terrible loss. And they would never, and many of them, recover from it. And it wasn't just those who were killed, it was those who were wounded, those who lost limbs, those who suffered acutely from disease and the after effects. We lost more people from disease than we did from musket balls or cannon fire.

And much of that was needless, and again, it was lack of discipline in the troops because the British were quite healthy through most of it. What a terrific job on the production and editing by Greg Hengler, and you've been listening to the late David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and he was speaking at the National Archives, one of the great places and spaces in Washington, D.C., and he was talking about his book 1776, the biography essentially of the year of our birth and what storytelling it was and is indeed. By the way, if you love our show and you love listening to it, what you're listening to is free, but it is not free to make. Go to Our American Stories and contribute. We're a nonprofit and your contributions are needed and your contributions are welcome. If you love the storytelling, go to and give. The story of the year of our birth, 1776, as told by David McCullough here on Our American Stories. Your podcast as IndieWire shares what we've learned from the movie week that was.

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