Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > "[America] may be conquered with more Ease than governed": The Evolution of British Occupation Policy During the American Revolution

The Military Enlightenment had a profound influence upon the British army’s strategic culture regarding military occupation policy. The pan-European military treatises most popular with British officers during the eighteenth century encouraged them to use a carrot-and-stick approach when governing conquered or rebellious populations. To implement this policy European armies created the position of commandant. The treatises also transmitted a spectrum of violence to the British officers for understanding civil discord. The spectrum ran from simple riot, to insurrection, followed by rebellion, and culminated in civil war. Out of legal concerns and their own notions of honor, British officers refused to employ military force on their own initiative against British subjects until the mob crossed the threshold into open rebellion. However, once the people rebelled the British army sought decisive battle, unhindered by legal interference, to rapidly crush the rebellion. The British army’s bifurcated strategic culture for suppressing civil violence, coupled with its practical experiences from the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 to the Regulator Movement in 1771, inculcated an overwhelming preference for martial law during military campaigns. The British army’s beliefs about occupation policy changed slowly during the American Revolution. General Thomas Gage initially hoped a military show of force would awe the American colonists into submission. This approach failed in Boston between 1768 and 1770 due to legal restraints. The creation of a garrison government by appointing Gage as the governor-general in 1774 only prompted escalation, ultimately resulting in both civil war and martial law in June 1775. When the British captured New York City in 1776 they did not reconstitute civil government because of their belief in imminent victory. However, by 1777 Sir William Howe realized that Commandant James Robertson could not administer the entire city on his own and implemented hybrid civil-military organizations such as the Court of Police and the Superintendent of Imports and Exports to enhance order. The British replicated these bureaucracies in every other city they occupied. By 1779, Commandant James Pattison and Superintendent Andrew Elliot sought to use effective governance as a war-winning weapon in the battle for the colonists’ hearts and minds.