Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Scots Magazine & The American War of Independence - a personal post

 
          “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch –Irish Presbyterian rebellion.”
          These are the words of a Hessian officer fighting on the British side in 1778. There is an undoubted element of truth in them as the colonists did indeed comprise a ‘diaspora’ of Scots and Irish who, for various reasons, had migrated to America during the eighteenth century in search of a better life, perhaps a life free from oppression. The eighteenth century is regarded as the century of Enlightenment particularly in Scotland where people such as David Hume, Lord Kames, Adam Smith, William Robertson and many others dominated the world of scientific advancement, culture and philosophy. Their ground breaking thinking is often credited with forming the modern world.
          But the same century was one of civil, national and international strife as wars and conflicts followed in succession from start to finish. Not least among these wars was the American War of Independence which occupied the years 1775 to 1782.This rapidly became a truly global conflict involving Britain, America, Canada, France, Spain, the West Indies and even India. By the time of its conclusion the world had changed and a new nation had been born; The United States of America. Few people at that time foresaw what this meant but Adam Smith in his ‘Wealth of Nations’ was prescient when he declared that this was a ‘new form of government.....which seems likely to become one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was seen in the world.’
           With the benefit of hindsight and present day knowledge we can easily concur with these sentiments but how was the war and its outcome seen in Scotland and Britain at the time; how was it reported? Was there censorship of bad news and promotion of good? Today we can read learned historical commentaries which will show who acted wisely with better skill and foresight and who pursued foolish and misguide policies. But how much better if the events can be read about at the time of their happening and without the added dubious benefit of hindsight. The Library of Innerpeffray allows anyone to do precisely that by making available to read accounts of the contemporary actions and outcomes of the war. These ‘hot off the press’ reports can be found in the copies of the editions of the Scots Magazine held in the Library and covering the months and years of the war. Apart from the inevitable time lag involved in bringing the news across the Atlantic, the reports allow the reader to transport him or herself to the relevant time and be an eighteenth century Edinburgh citizen reading ‘all about it.’ The growing tensions in the American colonies following the Seven Years War; the imposition on the colonists of unpopular, and to the colonists unlawful, taxes; the insensitive and arrogant response to their complaints by the King and parliament in Westminster; the repeal of these taxes except for the tea tax; the boycotting of British goods; the so-called Boston Massacre; the Boston Tea Party, They are all reported in the Magazine as events of the moment.
          These initial confrontations eventually and almost inevitably led to direct conflict. Actions such as the siege of Boston and the battle of Bunker Hill meant that there was no going back and with the issuing of The Declaration of Independence on July 4th 1776 war was declared against Britain. The whole of the Declaration is given in the August edition of the Magazine together with considerable scathing comments from the British. The conflict which followed drew in France and Spain in support of the American cause, although these two countries had their own political agendas as they saw the war as a means whereby territories lost in earlier conflicts to the British might be recovered. Although the Americans avoided full scale battles with the more experienced British army, as time passed the colonial army began to turn the tide under the leadership of General Washington, aided by General Lafayette of France. When Lord Cornwalis was forced to surrender Yorktown, Britain had lost the war and the United States of America was a reality. The Treaty of Versailles confirmed and recognised this as fact.
- Bill Gray

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