In the United States, the Fourth of July is time to launch some fireworks and eat some hot dogs in celebration of American independence. But in 1776, when news reached Britain of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the atmosphere was anything but celebratory.
A look through letters from the period, now held in the archives of the U.K.’s Nottingham University, shows that British people were divided about the outbreak of war with what was then their colony—over how bad it was, whose fault it was and what to do about it.
Before the Americans officially declared independence, the British were worried about what King George’s response to the unrest there would be. After all, the Declaration of Independence was not the beginning of the American Revolution; the riot-provoking Stamp Act was passed in 1765, the Boston Tea Party took place in 1773 and the famous “shot heard ’round the world” that is seen as the start of the war was fired in 1775.
One 1775 letter from a group of merchants and traders in the southwestern port city of Bristol sheds light on the economic concerns provoked by the burgeoning revolution. They wrote to the king to express their concern about the “unhappily distracted empires” and urged him to give the American colonists the freedoms they wanted rather than risk a precious trading relationship.
“It is with an affliction not to be expressed and with the most anxious apprehensions for ourselves and our Posterity that we behold the growing distractions in America threaten, unless prevented by the timely interposition of your Majesty’s Wisdom and Goodness, nothing less than a lasting and ruinous Civil War,” they wrote. “We are apprehensive that if the present measures are adhered to, a total alienation of the affections of our fellow subjects in the colonies will ensue, to which affection much more than to a dread of any power, we have been hitherto indebted for the inestimable benefits which we have derived from those establishments. We can foresee no good effects to the commerce or revenues of this kingdom at a future period from any victories which may be obtained by your majesty’s army over desolated provinces and […] people.”
The traders warned the King that “the subsistence of a great part of your kingdom has depended very much on the Honourable and in this instance amicable behaviour of your American subjects. We have in this single city received no less than one million bushels of wheat […].”
While they were confident that “none can profit by the continuance of this war,” the traders remained optimistic that the Americans would stay friendly if the British adopt a more conciliatory approach, despite things having been “carried to unfortunate lengths of hostility on both sides.”
“[Our] fellow subjects in that part of the world are very far from having lost their affection and regard to their mother country or departed from the principles of commercial honour,” they wrote.
Though their optimism might seem misplaced today, at the time it wasn’t completely ridiculous. After all, this was the same year that Americans’ Second Continental Congress sent the crown the Olive Branch Petition, a last-ditch attempt to convince the King to back off so that the British subjects in the colonies could continue to live happily under his rule alongside their counterparts in England.
Other letters, however, give indications that some people had given up hope that the King would give in to the colonists’ requests.
For example, in March of 1775, Chevalier Renaud Boccolari—whose own homeland of France would see a massive anti-monarchical uprising just over a decade later—wrote to peers from Modena, Italy, warning of the “awful despotism [of the English king]” and the “crowd of blind and ugly [people] with whom he has shared his unjust power for some time.
“We still find among us souls who are sensitive to freedom, souls that have not been swallowed by the insulting dominion of priests, the barbarous constriction of the inquisition and the blind, despotic monarchy,” he wrote. But, he felt “every free country should be alarmed” that “in this century everything is tending towards the most illegitimate despotism.”
When news finally broke that the Americans had, in fact, declared their independence—that they planned on being their own country, no longer part of the British empire—many in the English aristocracy were horrified.
A series of letters received by the third Duke of Portland reveal how opinions differed on the subject.
On July 22, 1776, his wife Dorothy wrote to him from Nottinghamshire that she had “received letters filled with unpleasant news, that from America I trust in God is not true, it really is too shocking.” On Aug. 16 of that year, Baron Rudolph Bentick also wrote from the Netherlands, bemoaning the news and sharing what people in Europe thought.
“As to people’s opinion here of Great Britain’s disputes with America,” he wrote, “the well meaning all agree no doubt that it is a most unhappy business for both countries and probably will prove a mortal blow to the liberties of the people of England.”
He warned that the influence of certain ambassadors might lead the Dutch to take advantage of Britain’s loss, and “prevent this country from acting a part most consistent and honourable to themselves, as well as beneficial to the liberties of Europe. Prudence prevents me from saying any more as this letter is to go by the post.”
Some, though, blamed the British government for what was happening, and willed their leaders to give up and abandon the war with the Americans. On Sept. 7, 1776, Stephen Sayre of Harley Street, London, wrote to the Duke of Portland urging him and others to come to a meeting to figure out how to cut Britain’s losses. “And tho we think America is lost: yet we wish to preserve this country,” he wrote.
And on Oct. 18 1776, the Rt. Honourable Thomas Townshend wrote to the Duke of Portland complaining that “the Government and Majority have drawn us into a war, that in our opinions is unjust in its Principle and ruinous in its consequences.”
As he prepared for a meeting of Parliament, of which he was a longstanding member, Townshend told the Duke the British authorities “by their violence […] have driven the Americans to extremitys.”
“I cannot for one, on any condition, give my assent to any of their measures in the prosecution of it,” he wrote, worrying that many such measures would be proposed at Parliament’s next session. He worried that, despite his point of view “we shall have a difficult task to support the Americans declaring for separation” among the British political establishment.
Townshend dismissed concerns about his letter being read by censors, writing “I have no objection to any one knowing my opinion on this subject.”
Unsurprisingly, others were less sympathetic to the American rebels.
On Dec. 30 1776, one G.B. Brudenell wrote from London, to H.F.C. Pelham-Clinton, 2nd Duke of Newcastle under Lyne, giving news of the capture of Fort Washington by Gen. Howe, who drove the rebel forces from Manhattan, though at great cost.
“It is very melancholy to think,” Brudenell wrote, “that we must sacrifice so many brave lives, in order to put an end, to such an unnatural Rebellion.”