Why George Washington Could Give Three Cheers for the British Empire


    In 1775, George Washington, commander in chief of the American forces in rebellion again the British, led his officers in raising toasts to King George III. It was an old habit, one learned as an officer who had fought to expand British influence on the continent and continued now because Washington was reluctant to cut all ties with the country that had given America its very existence—not to mention its religion, its laws, its culture, and its political experience of self-government, extremely low taxation, and light-handed rule that was part and parcel of “the rights of Englishmen,” which Washington thought he was defending. Washington took no pleasure in the thought of a fratricidal war—and neither did his opponents, including General Sir William Howe, Admiral Lord Howe, and General Lord Cornwallis, all of whom had been public advocates of reconciliation with the Americans.

    Actually, in his previous service to the British Empire, Washington had fired a volley “in the backwoods of America that set the world on fire” (in Horace Walpole’s famous phrase) igniting the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War in North America). One unexpected outcome of that war was the Proclamation Line of 1763. The British were keen on avoiding future Indian wars, and set aside the lands west of the Appalachians for the Indians. Many Americans, like Washington, were appalled because they already envisioned America as a looming continental empire.

    Empire, indeed, was the word Americans used to describe their future. John Adams looked forward to the “transfer [of] the great seat of empire to America,” which would dwarf the Mother country in size. The American Whig editorialized in 1769: “Courage, then Americans! The finger of God points out a mighty empire to your sons.” Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist One, referred to America as “an empire, in many respects, the most interesting in the world.” George Washington saw America as a “rising empire.” Thomas Jefferson referred to America as an “empire of liberty”—and advocated annexing Canada (an early ambition in the colonists’ war for independence and in the War of 1812). King George III recognized these tendencies quite clearly. He told Parliament in October 1775 that the “rebellious war” in America “is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.”

At the beginning of the war, the southern aristocrat Washington was, in the words of one military historian, “psychologically closer to the British than he was to his own northern troops.” After the war, Washington, ignored his Francophile secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, and with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton as allies, steered American foreign policy in a pro-British direction, so much so that Jefferson muttered that Washington had been “shorn by the harlot England.” When Washington warned in his farewell address against “permanent alliances” his remarks were directed in large part at the Jeffersonian Republicans whose Francophilia had not been diminished by the French Revolution.

Hamilton (himself born in the British West Indies, the illegitimate son of a blue-blooded Scotsman) and the largely pro-British Federalist Party had a sager view of things. The British Empire’s fight against Revolutionary France was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century version of the British Empire’s (and America’s) confrontation against international communism in the twentieth century. As the Federalist senator (and briefly first secretary of the Navy) George Cabot of Massachusetts put it, “If England will persevere, she will save Europe and save us; if she yields, all will be lost.…She is now the only barrier between us and the deathly embraces of universal irreligion, immorality, and plunder.” Luckily, Britain won.

    Once America became the empire the founders envisaged and helped create—brushing aside Indians, removing the Spanish from Florida, buying out the French from Louisiana, claiming through force of arms an “immense empire” (in President Polk’s phrase) from Mexico, and annexing Hawaii—George Washington, had he been alive, would likely have taken as much pleasure as Winston Churchill did from the triumph of the “English-speaking peoples.” Britain made tacit common cause with the United States after the War of 1812, with the Royal Navy enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. In the nineteenth century the Royal Navy and the United States Navy cooperated to combat the slave trade, which the Royal Navy was charged with ending around the world. And the British Empire ensured that America had friendly ports of call from the Cape of Good Hope to Hong Kong and Singapore, and with our British-colonial cultural cousins in Australia and New Zealand.

    In the spring of 1795, John Jay reported from London to President Washington, “You have doubtless heard that the merchants concerned in the American trade gave me a dinner. The principal Cabinet Ministers were present, and about two hundred merchants. Many toasts were given. When ‘The President of the United States’ was given, it was proposed to be with three cheers, but they were prolonged (as if by preconcert, but evidently not so) to six.” Had he been there, the dignified, reserved Virginian might not in return have offered six cheers for the British Empire, but three? He definitely—and in good conscience—could have managed that.