A few weeks ago, as you might recall, I expressed some frustration with the way AMC’s Turn indulges in some common stereotypes about British officers in the Revolutionary War.
Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book The Men Who Lost America has won the George Washington Book Prize, and speakers at the ceremony noted this tendency to remember the British commanders as either villains or fools:
In a statement praising the winner, Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, said: “Countless popular books and Hollywood films have portrayed the redcoats and their leaders as blundering nincompoops at best, sneering sadists at worst. O’Shaughnessy’s work ought to kill these stereotypes once and for all — and, in the process, give Americans a richer and more nuanced understanding of our nation’s origins.”
…Publishers in the U.K. told O’Shaughnessy that “no one wants to read about wars we lost.” But he had long been troubled by what he called “a tendency to parody the British commanders as aristocratic buffoons, which was even more pronounced in Britain than in the U.S. It is a thesis that is perpetuated in movie caricatures, popular history and even college text books.”
These stereotypes about the British serve as a foil to what we Americans would like to believe about our own ancestors. If the British were “sneering sadists,” then the Patriots’ virtue looks that much more sterling by comparison, even though Whigs could be extremely brutal to Tories in American-controlled territory. And if the British were “blundering nincompoops,” it makes sense to believe that the Americans could defeat them with nothing but pluck and good old Yankee ingenuity, even though American commanders like Washington and Greene knew that the only way to defeat the British regulars was to create an army with the same discipline, hierarchy, and professionalism.