Why did Britain lose the American War of Independence?

Because of this:

and this…

Britain won many times in the battlefield but lost in the taverns. Taverns were plentiful and they were the social network of colonial life. Some areas of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania had them every few miles. One could get mail in a tavern, hire a hand, talk to friends, sell crops, buy land, and eat some good chow.  In these places, capable and literate American settlers, many of whom had three or four generations on American soil, debated ideas, mustered militias and formed opinions.  And after an apple jack and a roasted hen, with the warmth of a fireplace, one might even talk about throwing off the yoke of the Mother Country.

It didn’t start out immediately with a call for war.  It started with a protest of the Stamp Act, other Intolerable acts, non-compliance, boycott and overall a call for assertion of American rights.   I would argue that in those debates in homes, taverns and colonial assemblies (and assemblies were often conducted in taverns), London didn’t have ‘a man’ in the tavern to argue their side.   And so the resistance swelled and went from lobby to boycott to arms gathering, to arms-using.

The colonies before being fully united were gathering news from each other and thus a blow in New England was felt in the Middle States and eventually South.  Here’s what Christopher Marshall, a “fighting Quaker’ and patriot leader in Philadelphia writes about how Philadelphia reacted to the crackdown in Boston in 1775.

Christopher Marshall writes:

“This being the day when the cruel act for blocking the harbor of Boston took effect, many of the inhabitants of this city, to express their sympathy and show their concern for their suffering brethren in the common cause of liberty, had their shops shut up, their houses kept close from hurry and business; also the ring of bells at Christ Church were muffled, and rung a solemn peal at intervals, from morning till night; the colors of the vessels in the harbor were hoisted half-mast high; the several houses of different worship were crowded, where divine service was performed, and particular discourses, suitable to the occasion, were preached by F. Alison, Duffield, Sprout, and Blair. Sorrow, mixed with indignation, seemed pictured in the countenance of the inhabitants, and indeed the whole city wore the aspect of deep distress, being a melancholy occasion.”  —  Passages from the Remembrances of Christopher Marshall, p. 6.

There was already by 1775 a national network, fueled by tavern talk, so that events in Boston could lead to protests in Philadelphia and Virginia.

All of this popular appeal for resistance might have been satisfied by better policies towards America, by meaningful olive branches, perhaps even by having American MPs in Parliament, but absent those steps, popular appeal was lost and it was never broken during the war.

Britain’s armies were large and had many victories, swallowing large parts of American territory, holding the commercial center of New York for all of the war and holding Boston, MA, Charleston, S.C., Newport, R.I. and Philadelphia, PA at different times.

When they captured Charleston, South Carolina, they had access to The Pink House, operating as a tavern since 1750.

Then it was pink because of the Bermuda stone that it was made of.  But the trouble maker in Charleston was McCrady’s Tavern. There the resistance in that city was plotted.  McCrady, in fact, ran the militia.  And when the British captured Charleston they locked him up.

The popular opinion so long developing in McCrady’s, the Green Dragon, Fraunces in New York, City Tavern in Philadelphia, building against England meant that the American ‘army’ was not a stable puny force running around the woods, but a fair representation of the populace’s mood and one that could be enlarged by new recruits and embodied local militias to match threats.   It did shrink some too, as recruits left.  But unlike the British, the American army had access to more people.    Howe and other commanders had hoped for popular support, they got some, but not enough to negate the need for an imported army.

You’ve heard the talk about a third/a third and a third, that support and opposition to Independence was even, but that was a misquote of John Adams (he was talking about the French Revolution, years later). Resistance to British excess was very popular, armed revolution was more controversial but still had popular support.  The American populace, with some exceptions, were won over by the idea of American Rights and eventually revolution by the time of 1775. Most states sent delegates to Philadelphia with instructions to vote for independence. Many movies and the musical 1776 distort the reality that most states (MA, RI, NH, CT, VA, GA, MD) had pro-independence majorities before Jefferson wrote a word.   The debate in Congress was to try to get Middle States and the Carolinas to be unanimous.   Some judges and towns had already declared independence or sent governors packing. Pennsylvania’s western counties rose in a militia that numbered tens of thousands.  Philadelphia also armed as of 1775.

Popular opinion meant that Britain had a devil of a time supplying its army because foraging teams sent out from Boston or New York during their occupation were met with resistance. Popular opinion meant that no matter how many East Enders Britain could drill into its army, it had 2.4 million people to subdue, and its army of 194,000 max strength British Army during the American War of Independence split across a Continent, was no match.

Popular opinion meant that Howe needed to garrison areas that he conquered, such as Trenton and Princeton, leaving small amounts of Hessian and British troops.  Easy prey for Washington’s counterattacks in the famous battles in those towns.  Popular support meant Britain could ravage seaports but often got caught in the back woods be it in King’s Mountain or the deadly CowPens, or the fields near Monmouth courthouse where they tried to flee to get to their ferry back to their seaport safety under the sniping of patriot bullets.

The American people thought of themselves as such. They were for the most part people born in the United States or born in Ulster or Germany.  Most outside the wealthier Americans had not visited Britain. They were angry about the Stamp Acts, Sugar Acts, Iron Acts. They were angry about restrictions on trade, angry about limits on Western expansion (read my child’s future homestead and my economic growth), angry about taxes and angry about controls on harbors and ports. And heck by 1775, the British army was out and out attacking American seaports and hiring mercenaries to do the King’s bidding. So much of the discussion,

the cooperation between colonies, the drafting of plans, sometimes the meeting of rebel governments, happened in taverns. The British did not have representatives at these meetings. By the time they did, they needed muskets and bayonets to get in. (Shame of it is for the British, they had in the early colonial days, encouraged the taverns as a way of having militia meetings and fostering commerce.)

I especially like the creative name of this one — the Man Full of Trouble Tavern in Philadelphia.

Taverns in the Middle States were of a mixed and cautious opinion in the lead up to war of course.   But they played a role even in the ‘swing’ areas.   Lest we forget the founding of the U.S. Marines which happened in, well you probably know what I’ll say:  A tavern.   The Tun Tavern in Philadelphia.

From “Oh Say Did You Know” by Fred DuBose

An early brew house, the Tun Tavern served many Revolutionary War leaders with good bear and Red Hot Beef Steak prepared by Peggy Mullan, the wife of the tavern owner.  On November 10, 1775 when the Continental Congress authorized a marine corps, Robert Mullan was appointed Chief Marine recruiter.  The tavern served as the first recruiting station.

Not only that, the Indian Queen also in Philadelphia was a fav spot of Thomas Jefferson when he was crafting the Declaration of Independence.
It must have been a scene.  But you can’t eat oysters there in 2015.  You can eat these delicious oysters here, at the City Tavern:

from its website:

and In 1774, as the breech with great Britain widened, politics were the dominant topic of conversation at City Tavern.        In May, leading citizens held a meeting    in the Long Room to shape Pennsylvania’s response to the “intolerable acts.”    Three months later, as the delegates to     the First Continental Congress began to    arrive in Philadelphia, the Tavern was thrust     center stage in the dispute with England  From that time until the    close of the century, City Tavern knew the    patronage of the great and near-great of     the American Revolution.

When they decided the question and war came, the taverns had new roles.  Helpful roles.   As locations of battlefields, as important points on the map, as supply and information depots, as a place to get a fresh horse, and and asgathering places for armed men.  The first to tackle the British were at Lexington, and that militia was organized here..


It is often said that Britain was so powerful, it could have easily won, but that ignores some logistics.  Britain was a naval power and its army at the time of the Revolution was a measly 45,000 spread around the world.  The Pennsylvania militia alone could (on paper) get near that.  Population was the American’s power base.  The British had more people, but the Americans were growing faster in population.  That fact was lost on no one.   Raising an army and sending them across the ocean is a very onerous task for a population.  The British grew their army to four times the size with some drastic steps, including the drafting of prisoners and hiring of German mercenaries. But it still was not overwhelming considering the American population and the militias.  Supporting an army for a sustained conflict by sea once you’ve recruited them is difficult.  There were some terrible supply issues and to win the British needed on the ground support from the American people.  They got some on the ground support, but never enough as London wanted or imagine.

Loyalism had its proponents, especially in Middle States, Quakers, Scots, French Indian War Veterans with British land grants, merchants and among elites with British business or commissions, but never a full third across the Continent.   In New England, planter Virginia, or in Scots-Irish enclaves, Loyalism would be hard to find support for King and Parliament at all.

There was some indifference of course, some wait and see, but still mostly support for the Revolution.  Americans ate up the pamphlet of Thomas Paine and pushed their colonies to declare independence and form state governments. They formed militias and took arms against British soldiers, whom they considered violators of their American rights. Before the declaration was signed.  On June 10th, 1776 in a forgotten event those armed men, led by the Committee of Privates of Philadelphia mustered on the mall in front of what is now Independence Hall and surveyed the battalion of two thousand – they demanded the colony throw out its charter and allow pro-independence minded people to lead the provincial convention.

By May 20th, a crowd of 4,000 appeared in the State House Yard in Philadelphia to demonstrate popular support for independence.  William Hogeland describes this in his Declaration! (available on Google books:)

Was the current government of Pennsylvania competent to the exigencies of affairs (as Congress had put it)? The crowd favoring independence, be created by a constitution, on advice of the city committee, the authority of the people, and the support of the Congress? The crowd said yes

Just to put that in perspective, that’s something like a crowd of 200,000 appearing in Philadelphia today with its current population.  Leaders got the message.   By June 24, 1776, a few days before the United States was born, the provincial of Pennsylvania declared independence.

“We the Deputies of the People of Pennsylvania, assembled in FULL PROVINCIAL CONFERENCE, for forming a Plan for executing the Resolve of Congress of the 15th of May last,  “ for suppressing all Authority in this Province derived from the Crown of Great-Britain: and for establishing a Government upon the Authority of the People only.

This in a Middle State.  So I do think that representations that America was divided in half are off.  It wasn’t.  In New England and Virginia, the declarations already had been made.  After that, those seeking reconcile with Britain felt the heat of popular opinion.  John Dickinson didn’t appear for the next vote in Continental Congress.

There was no Gallup to take polls at that time, but it’s pretty clear, Great Britain’s approvals were not high.

Oh and as to the Americans fighting in the woods, Indian style, as old stories used to tell us (I must credit my history teacher for debunking it).  When they fought the British, the men of Lexington lined up against them. For as long as they could…

The British lined up and volleyed in a superior fashion and in that case, dispersed them.

So, that stuff about the Americans always fighting in the trees like Indians while the Brits were so gentleman-like they fought in the open is not true. Though the works at Bunker Hill did help.

and at Kings mountain, both sides fought in the woods.

Some of the talk about “fighting in the woods” and the like might be reductionism and refer more to Concord, one battle and one victory, where there was some crossfiring by troops that were parallel to the road the British were taking, which likely put them in the woods.  However there was also a force in front and behind in a triangle, until the British could outrun them.)

“The regulars soon reached a point in the road now referred to as the “Bloody Angle” where the road rises and curves sharply to the left through a lightly-wooded area.[84] At this place, the militia company fromWoburn had positioned themselves on the southeast side of the bend in the road in a rocky, lightly-wooded field. Additional militia flowing parallel to the road from the engagement at Meriam’s Corner positioned themselves on the northwest side of the road, catching the British in a crossfire, while other militia companies on the road closed from behind to attack. Some 500 yards (460 m) further along, the road took another sharp curve, this time to the right, and again the British column was caught by another large force of militiamen firing from both sides. In passing through these two sharp curves, the British force lost thirty soldiers killed or wounded, and four colonial militia were also killed, including Captain Jonathan WilsonBedford, Captain Nathan Wyman of Billerica, Lt. John Bacon ofNatick, and Daniel Thompson of Woburn. The British soldiers escaped by breaking into a trot, a pace that the colonials could not maintain through the woods and swampy terrain. Colonial forces on the road itself behind the British were too densely packed and disorganized to mount more than a harassing attack from the rear.[85]

Not surprisingly the nearest location to this part of the battle was, you guessed it, a tavern.   Brook’s House.

So some of the talk of Americans fighting like Indians or like guerrillas is the fantasy of the underdog story and some of it is based in a little reality here or there.  The Americans did a) surprise b) fight while retreating to fight another day and c) attack supply lines, all of which might lead people to think it was some kind of guerrilla  war.   What they were not interested in doing is remaining in the woods and ceding the whole countryside to the British.

Bayonets?  British and their Hessian allies had plenty of bayonets. Ouch!
But the reason there were always numbers to fight the British at these various engagement was that the popular tide was with the patriot cause.

I focus on popular opinion.  That’s what feeds an army.  But I do acknowledge that you can’t overlook the military side.  Because a few different events – George Washington doesn’t escape New York for instance, a loss at Saratoga, and the British would really change events and thus change the ‘tavern talk,’and convince enough sunshine patriots to abandon the cause.

I have no doubt that popular will would not sustain a fool’s errand, if the entire war was like the Battle of Long Island, redcoats storming and Washington running. It wasn’t. There were enough American victories at the right times to sustain the popular support, support critical for keeping militia ranks full, recruiting Continentals and raising money.

It should be remembered that the British had a well-trained army, made some great moves, kept the fight going for a long time — 6 years between Bunker Hill and Yorktown, nearly crushed Washington in the first encounter under his command, and controlled a lot of what we know call American territory throughout the war. With control of the sea lane they were able to send troops to any part of the Continent and force Washington to split up his army defending these attacks.

To some degree, Britain lost the “battle in the taverns” long before, probably at the time of the first King George, but it took until 1775 to seal the deal. Colonies governed themselves for the most part. Massachusetts had already rebelled, expelled a governor and presented themselves to London as gentlemen and merchants running a colony.  Larger New England absolutely considered itself independently governing and only part of the Empire for defense purposes, not for administration. South Carolina overthrew its English owners in 1719.  Maryland was given to the Baron of Baltimore by Charles II.  Pennsylvania was a charter colony and thus had assumed a control of its governance.

Indeed, it could be called the “American Assertion” instead of the Revolution.  In this way it might be different from India or Jamaica. There were already established governments with colonial assemblies in the colonies, and at the time of Revolution the people from the Assemblies were among the first to form state governments and committees of Public Safety,  easily bypassing British rule.   The colonies already had the militia system which mean Americans were armed and trained.  By the time the King sent the troops over, it was like they were attacking a foreign country.