Rick Atkinson Discusses His Book, “The British Are Coming”

As America grapples with political discord, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Rick Atkinson says the nation’s founding history holds the key to today’s challenges. He has dusted off King George III’s archives with “The British Are Coming”, the first book in his American Revolution trilogy, and sat down to discuss it with Walter in New York.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Now, as America grapples with political discord, our next guest says the nation’s founding history holds the key to today’s challenges. Rick Atkinson is a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian who delved deep into King George III’s archives to write his new book “The British Are Coming.” It’s the first installment of his planned American revolution trilogy. He walked our Walter Isaacson through the key players in America’s war of independence.


WALTER ISAACSON: Rick, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: Thank you very much. You know what really blew me away is the notion of you going through the archives of George III, King George, and Windsor. Had anybody ever tapped those archives before?

ATKINSON: You know, surprisingly, not really. There were 350,000 pages of Georgian in documents and the queen, Queen Elizabeth II, owns them and she decided in 2016 that she was going to open them up to scholars. I was one of the first ones in and to have them digitized so they would be preserved in perpetuity. And most of those Georgian papers are from George III because he was king for 60 years. So every day, I would show my badge at the Henry VIII gate and show my badge at the Norman gate and climb 102 stone steps and then 21 wooden stairs and you’d be in the garret of the round tower built by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. And that’s where the papers are kept. And they’re fantastic. George was his own secretary until late in life when he began to go blind. And so he not only wrote his correspondence himself, he wrote the copies and there’s a real tactile sense of being in his presence. And he’s a great list maker. He would write lists. He would write formulas for insecticide, for example, and theater reviews. And he would write lists of all of his regiments in North America and he would list the — a number of officers, the number of musicians, the number of rank and file. You can see his arithmetic scratching in the side as he does his sums. So I spent a month there in April of 2016 and really felt like I got to know him and felt like I, you know, he’s not the bumbling nitwit we see mincing across the stage in “Hamilton.” He’s much more a man of parts and has a greater depth than we Americans particularly have generally assigned to him. And he is running the train in the American revolution.

ISAACSON: And in your book, “The British Are Coming,” you’re able to do it from both vantage points, from the vantage point of the American colonists fighting as well as the British. And one of the interesting things about George III is that he was much more of a hardliner than we thought before.

ATKINSON: This is so true. And you know, when the revolution began in April 1775 and for some months thereafter, Americans wanted to believe that he was, if not an innocent bystander, that he was fundamentally on their side and that’s not true at all. He was, in fact, a hardliner. He was the force behind the hardliners within the cabinet. Lord North, he was his first minister, prime minister, really had no appetite to be a war minister and was not particularly interested in prosecuting a war for eight years across 3,000 miles of open ocean in the age of sail. And George is the one who’s constantly bucking him up. And George is the one who’s saying, blows must decide. And George is the one who is not necessarily drawing up the minutia of which battalions are going where but he’s very involved in the nitty-gritty of expeditionary warfare.

ISAACSON: Why? Why was George III so intent on pursuing a war against the colonies, in their war of independence?

ATKINSON: Yes, why, why, why, why? Indeed. I think the fundamental reason, Walter, is that he becomes king in 1760. In 1763, the first British empire is created with British victory in the seven years’ war, French and Indian War as we call it. They gained enormous territorial benefits from that victory. They get Canada. They get Sugar Islands in the West Indies. They get parts of India. They get a billion fertile acres west of the Appalachians. And George is Determined that he’s going to hang on to that empire and he also believes, and this is an article of faith within the cabinet and certainly for him, that if the American colonies are permitted to break away, if the insurrection succeeds, then Ireland is next, Canada, the Sugar Islands, India, and that the empire will dissolve. It will be the end of Britain as a great power, a newly created great power. And it’s a strategic misconception. It’s — they’re badly informed. This is not true. And yet, it really is the underpinnings of their determination to thwart American independence and to suppress, bloodily, the revolution.

ISAACSON: Could it have been avoided if they had found some more commonwealth-type structure?

ATKINSON: Yes, you know, commonwealth, I think, is the obvious answer but it wasn’t obvious in 1775. There were lots of negotiations. Benjamin Franklin was in London, as you well know, for years before he left in the spring of 1775, trying to find a modus vivendi, trying to accommodate both the British point of view and the colonial points of view. And I think positions are just hardened too much by that time. And so it just kind of unravels and once the shooting starts, then it’s very difficult to put the vase back together once it’s smashed.

ISAACSON: That was a Ben Franklin line. And, of course, he and his own son end up on different sides of the revolution. How common was that, that Americans were divided on whether or not they wanted independence?

ATKINSON: Yes. Yes. I mean, you know well, it’s one of the great tragedies of the war. His beloved son, William, who is the Royal Governor of New Jersey and he’s, you know, he’s participated with his father in some of the experiments and the kite flying and all the rest of it. And Ben Franklin talks about his happiest period of his life and he remains loyal. He does not become radicalized the way his father has over time in London and refuses to accede to fatherly advice that you need to get on the — you need to get on the side of the angels here. And, of course, he’s ultimately arrested, he’s imprisoned in New England. It’s really a tragedy. It’s quite common, this schism within families as a consequence of irreconcilable political differences. It really anticipated the civil war in that sense. This is a civil war, the revolution is, and it anticipates the civil war of the 19th century in the way that it fractures families.

ISAACSON: You call it a civil war and one of the themes of your book is you treat it as a civil war as opposed to just a war for independence. What do you mean by that?

ATKINSON: Yes. Well, you know, you can guess and scholars have calculated that 18 percent to 20 percent of the 2 million white Americans in the colonies at the time of the revolution are loyal. Now, loyalty is a shifting concept. You may be loyal if the Royal — if the British Army’s in your backyard and when they leave, you may be less loyal, particularly if your rebel neighbors are warning you that you’re going to be punished. But say 18 percent are loyal. Enough of them are loyal to form regiments, to fight, to support the king’s army and the Royal Navy, and to do the bidding of the ministers in London. And so it’s a civil war in the sense that there actually is armed conflict between Americans. If you’re a loyalist, the treatment you’re likely to receive from the rebels can be atrocious. You can have your lands confiscated, you can be jailed, you can be sent into exile, you can be executed in some cases. It’s a very harsh treatment. Some of the loyalists were put on skulls in the Hudson River below all beneath in dire conditions. Some were lowered by windless 70 feet below ground in an old Connecticut copper mine to these rock-walled cells known as hell. It was really a harsh treatment and it went back and forth. The loyalists sometimes persecuted their rebel neighbors. So, it’s a civil war in the most fundamental sense.

ISAACSON: Why was Washington such a great leader?

ATKINSON: He’s not a particularly good general, I think, it has to be said. He’s not a tactician. He’s a lot like Dwight Eisenhower in some ways. He doesn’t see the battlefield spatially and temporally the way a great captain does, a Napoleon and he’s got a steep learning curve. When he takes over the continental army on July 2, 1775, in Cambridge outside of Boston, he’s been out of uniform for 17 years. And in the five years that he was in uniform, you know, he’s a colonel in the Virginia Militia. He’s always under British superior commanders. There are a lot of things he does not know. As he acknowledges, he does not know how to run a continental army. He doesn’t know much about artillery. He doesn’t know much about cavalry so we start with the understanding that he makes a lot of mistakes on the battlefield. He’s got his moments. There’s no doubt about that, but he makes a lot of mistakes. He’s also got a lot to learn about the army that he’s commanding. He shows up in New England as a Virginian commanding mostly New Englanders in this continental army and he is fairly disparaging of the New Englanders. He writes about the dirty New Englanders and he has nothing good to say about the officers serving under him from New England. And it takes a while for him to understand, first of all, that he is someone who has scores of slaves and overseers back in Mt. Vernon taking care of business for him while he’s away, has trouble understanding the sacrifice made by men who leave their farms, their shops, their families, to come serve at his side in the cause. He doesn’t really get that at first. The army, the continental army, is the absolutely critical institution in this young republic aborning. It’s the indispensable institution and he is the indispensable man within it. And for the two of them to figure out how they fit together is going to take some time. Having said all that, he’s a great man. He’s a great man who’s worthy of our adulation and all the things that we think about him if we will acknowledge that there are some issues. When he dies, there are more than 300 slaves at Mt. Vernon. You cannot square that circle morally. Nevertheless, he embodies traits that I think should be the north star for all of us to this day, a sense of probity, a sense of commitment to a cause larger than himself, dignity. These are things we should demand in our leaders. These are things we should demand of ourselves. These are things that we should recognize in Washington and celebrate to this day. He can seem alabaster. He can seem remote and he’s not really. He’s got a three-dimensional quality that is really riveting and it’s important for us to remember that. He’s not just this distant figure who has been embalmed in reverence. He’s a fantastic person to help launch us on our journey.

ISAACSON: One of the other great generals in the book and actually far more colorful in a way is Charles Lee.


ISAACSON: Tell me about Charles Lee and what would have happened had there been no Washington. Would Charles Lee have been the one in charge and how would it have been different?

ATKINSON: Yes. Well, it would have been really different and probably not as good. Charles Lee was a British Army officer. He ascended to the rank of lieutenant colonel which is a fairly high rank in the British Army. He’d seen some combat. He’d been in America in the French and Indian War. He had been shot in the chest and survived that. Here’s a colorful guy, he’s a weird-looking guy by all accounts. He’s tall and spindly, the people describe him as having no shoulders. I mean he has an enormous nose. He accumulates many nicknames, one of which the cruelest of which is Nazo. He has a great affection for dogs. He likes dogs as he acknowledges much better than people. He’s always got a pack of dogs around him.He decides he’s going to emigrate. He becomes disaffected with his life in the British Army. He comes to America a couple of years before the revolution begins. He’s a radical at heart and he writes and speaks eloquently about the power of the ideas that are germinating in America, about potential independence but distance from the crown. And he writes powerfully about the — his assertion that this rather ragtag, badly armed, badly led, badly fed army in the making can hold their own against the British Army, one of the finest armies in the country. And this falls on welcome ears. The political leadership and other military officers are pleased to hear this. He’s made a general, major general, and he soon becomes second in command to Washington. He — Washington listens to him carefully because he knows things that Washington does not, and practical things about how to organize a bivouac and how to organize artillery and how to get men to do what you want them to do and how to do other things that Washington is really pretty green at all this. Unfortunately, he’s also very ambitious. So we see him successfully in command, on the scene when the British send the Royal Navy to try to take Charleston in June 1775. They’re repulsed in a very bloody and surprising defeat for the Royal Navy. Lee is the commander at the time. And he’s celebrated through the colonies for this clubbing of the Royal Navy and he begins to think that maybe, in fact, Washington’s having his problems, Washington’s going through a succession of defeats, that maybe what the country needs is Charles Lee as the commander in chief. He has a very disloyal correspondence with one of Washington’s aides, Joseph Reid, who’s a lawyer from Philadelphia. Washington opens a letter by mistake from Lee to Reed and discovers that, in fact, these guys are conspiring behind his back. He’s deeply wounded by it. When Washington retreats across New Jersey in December of 1775 — ’76, after being badly slapped around in New York, Lee has a wing of the army, Washington’s pleading with him to join the army, Lee’s taking his time, he’s corresponding with members of Congress, he’s forming the beginnings of a cabal. He makes a really serious mistake. And on one night in mid-December, 1776, he decides that he’s not going to camp that night as he’s moving to join Washington in Pennsylvania and he goes to a tavern, spends the night. There’s a British cavalry patrol that gets wind that he’s there, they attack this tavern early in the morning and they captured him. Washington, who by this point is shrewd enough to recognize that Charles Lee is a big problem for him, writes this very deaf letter to Lee in jail in New York saying, “Gee, I’m sorry about this. I can only hope that someone in your circumstance can be as happy as you might be in this circumstance.” It’s really Lee is later exchanged, he comes back, he joins the Army, disgraces himself in battle later. He’s really finished as a force. But he’s got a role early on and he’s a wonderful character to write about.

ISAACSON: Underlying this book sort of the foundational truths that helped create America, what do you think those truths are and how are we wrestling with them today?

ATKINSON: Well, first of all, I think the concept of truth is true. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. OK, that’s foundational and it’s asserted that it is true. And you know what? It’s not true because all men are not created equal in 1775. Those fine words did not apply to 500,000 black slaves. They don’t apply to women. They don’t apply to Native Americans. They don’t apply to indigents. It’s aspirational. As great Yale Historian Edmund Morgan wrote, “It doesn’t guarantee men these basic rights, it invites them to claim them.” And I think that that is the essence of what we see in those who are fighting for independence from Britain at the time. It’s aspirational. They recognize that there are issues to be worked out and it turns out there are issues to be worked out for 243 years subsequently. We’re working them out still. Archibald MacLeish, the poet, and librarian of Congress said, “Democracy is not a thing that’s done. It’s a thing a nation must be doing.” And I just think it’s very important to remember that, that we have — we’ve inherited this extraordinary political legacy, but it’s a work in progress and it’s always going to be. I think understanding what our forbearers thought they were fighting for, what they thought they were going — creating is important for us to understand that what we’re fighting for, what we are continuing to create, I just think it’s important to affirm it every day.

ISAACSON: Thank you so very much for being with us.

ATKINSON: Thank you, Walter.

ISAACSON: Appreciate it.



About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Angus King, Andy Beshear and Abbe Gluck to gain various perspectives on the opioid crisis in the United States. Walter Isaacson talks to historian Rick Atkinson about “The British Are Coming,” the first book in his American Revolution trilogy.