Why did the Americans win and the Jacobites lose? The classic answer is that the Americans represented the future, a future of liberty, freedom, secularism, and individualism. The Jacobites were the past, reactionary and religious, the products of a hierarchical society motivated by outdated dynastic loyalty. This difference was supposedly reflected in their military methods, in a way that explained their respective success and failure. Thus the mass charge of the Scottish Highlanders was seen as anachronistic, bound to fail before the disciplined firepower of British infantry, while, conversely, the individually aimed shooting by American riflemen was seen as superior to the mindless, mechanistic methods of disciplined British and Hessian soldiers. This contrast reflects potent national myths, but it is flawed. It expresses an arrogant hostility to the Jacobites, and particularly the Scottish Highlanders, that is misleading. The analysis also adopts an inaccurate teleological reading of the American War of Independence.

A short article is not the place to offer a rewriting of two wars, but several comparative points are worth underlining. First, the 18th-century British state controlled a formidable war machine, arguably the strongest in the world at that point, and Jacobite failure is no more discreditable or evidence of anachronism than is George Washington’s inability to regain New York. Britain controlled the largest navy in the world, had the best system of public finance, was the strongest commercial power, and had recent experience of successful transoceanic operations. Secondly, Britain had a good record in defeating internal insurrections and winning civil wars. Aside from defeating the Jacobite risings in 1715-16 and 1745-46, the British state had also crushed Monmouth’s rising in 1685 and Irish opposition in 1690-91, and was to smash the Irish rising of 1798.

The American Revolution, therefore, was the only successful rising within the 18th-century British world. This was not thanks to French participation alone, for the French intervened to assist Scottish and Irish rebels without bringing victory to either. Nor was the factor of distance necessarily crucial. The British had managed to conquer Canada in 1758-60 and were able to act effectively in India, which was then far more distant. Indeed the factor of distance helped the British in one important respect. However unsuccessful they might be in North America, there was no danger of the Americans seizing London as the Jacobites threatened to do in December 1745. Thanks to British naval strength, the American threat could be contained, as it was again to be in the War of 1812. The American privateers were irritants, but no more. The flow of British supplies and soldiers to North America was not cut.

The Continental Navy was a failure. Thus, when the ice on the St. Lawrence broke in early 1776, the British were able to relieve Quebec without hindrance, and in 1778, when Clinton withdrew from Philadelphia, he was able to sail to New York from the New Jersey shore after the battle of Monmouth Courthouse. Indeed, the inability of the Americans, the Jacobites, and the Indian opponents of Britain to mount an effective naval challenge was crucial to Britain’s power and helps to explain the importance of French intervention.

In America, Britain’s opponents could trade space for time, crucially so in the middle colonies from 1778 and in the South from 1780. The Jacobites and the Irish lacked that space for retreat and maneuver. America was also a more prosperous and populous society, better able to support the strain of protracted conflict than the often harsh terrain of Ireland and Scotland. Yet, it is clear that victory for the Americans was no more inevitable than it was for the royal army in 1745-46. The heavy casualties that the Americans suffered were a testimony to the severity of the conflict. Although American deaths in battle amounted to about 6,000, the number of probable deaths in service was over 35,000, as a result of casualties in camp and among prisoners. This was 0.9 percent of the population in 1780, compared to near 1.6 percent for the Civil War, 0.12 for World War I, and 0.28 for World War II.

These heavy casualties reflected the fact that there were two stages to the War of Independence. Driving the British out in 1775-76 proved relatively easy, not least because the British concentrated their forces in Boston, leaving royal authority to collapse elsewhere with scarcely a struggle: the loyalists were undermined by this foolish policy. However, in 1776, the British sent a major army to crush the revolution and thus began a second stage that was more widespread, bitter, and sustained than had at first seemed likely. This was equivalent to the British riposte after the Jacobite advances in 1715 and 1745, but the Americans had the space and resources to cope, whereas the Jacobites did not. On the other hand, the British base in the British Isles was not exposed to American attack.

Even so, the struggle was more close run than is sometimes made clear in the American public myth which, paradoxically, underrates the challenge posed by Britain and treats its defeat as inevitable, and thus both minimizes the American achievement and detracts attention from the actual details of the conflict. By 1780, the Americans faced growing exhaustion and war-weariness. The limited creditworthiness of Congress and the reluctance of the states to subordinate their priorities and resources to Congress meant that the army had to live from hand to mouth. In January 1781, short of pay, food, and clothes, and seeking discharge, both the Pennsylvania line and three New Jersey regiments mutinied. The Pennsylvania mutiny was ended only by concessions, including the discharge of five-sixths of the men. The episode was a salutary warning to the Revolutionary cause and cannot but give rise to speculation as to what would have happened had the army been obliged to endure another harsh winter without the prospect of a victorious close to the conflict created by Yorktown.

The rifle did not make American victory inevitable. It carried no bayonet, took one minute to load, and an expert to fire it, of which there were relatively few. British muskets could be fired faster and were fitted with bayonets. This absence of a technological gap can be paralleled in the Jacobite ease by recent work, particularly by the American scholar Michael Hill, suggesting that the Highland charge should not be dismissed as an anachronistic system of warfare. On September 21, 1745, the Highlanders crushed a royal army at Prestonpans, to the cast of Edinburgh. A Highland charge, the formation unbroken by the fire of Sir John Cope’s opposing infantry, led the royal forces to flee in panic a few minutes after the first impact of the charge. They only fired one round before the Highlanders, with their broadswords, were upon them. Cope’s army was destroyed, taking heavy casualties during the retreat.

The Jacobites were again successful at the battle of Falkirk (January 17, 1746). A Highland charge was again decisive, although the royal troops were also hindered by having to fight uphill, while the heavy rain and growing darkness of a late winter afternoon both wet their powder so that it would not ignite and hindered aiming. It is misleading to separate Jacobite from Western European warfare. Other armies relied on the attack, tactical or strategic. Frederick the Great was a bold general. In 1745 Prussian infantry attacks brought victory over Austro- Saxon forces at Hohenfriedberg, Soor, and Kesselsdorf. These victories appeared to vindicate the commitment to cold steel that had led Frederick in 1741 to order his infantry to have their bayonets permanently fixed when they were on duty. Marshal Saxe, the leading French general of the mid-1740’s, was also an exponent of the strategic offensive and close-quarter tactics. The rapidity of his campaigns in Flanders in the summer of 1745 and in Brabant in early 1746 can be compared to the speed of the Jacobite advance. Similarly, Franco-Spanish forces advanced rapidly in northern Italy in late 1745.

Western European warfare is often typecast as slow, limited, and indecisive by reference to lengthy sieges. The Jacobites who lacked heavy artillery, in contrast, are not associated with sieges. Yet, again, the contrast should not be pushed too far. Western European armies could rely on storm as Bavarian, French, and Saxon forces did at Prague in I74I and the French at Charleroi in 1746 and at Bergen-op-Zoom in 1747, the last the best-fortified position in the Low Countries. Thus, rather than seeing Jacobite warfare as totally different from Western European warfare, as alien, for example, as that of Africans in the late 19th century, it is possible to regard it as an aspect of Western European culture, to place it on a continuum, rather than contrasting it with a rigid model.

The royal forces only won one of the battles in the ’45, but it was decisive. At Culloden (April 6,1746), the terrain suited the defending Duke of Cumberland, and the Jacobite plan for a night attack failed. His artillery and infantry so thinned the numbers of the already outnumbered advancing clansmen that those who reached the royal troops were driven back by bayonet. The general rate of fire was increased by the absence of any disruptive fire from the Jacobites, while the flanking position of the royal units forward from the left of the front line made Culloden even more of a killing field.

The Americans never suffered a defeat as severe as Culloden, although they did suffer serious blows. Charleston surrendered, with 5,500 Continentals, militia, and armed citizens, and what was left of the Continental navy, on May 12, 1780. At Camden on August 6, 1780, Horatio Gates’ army was smashed, with the loss of about 800 dead and wounded, as well as 1,000 taken prisoner and the loss of their supplies. Cornwallis had only 300 casualties. These were serious setbacks. They established the British position in coastal South Carolina, and the Americans were not to regain Charleston during the war.

Yet neither blow was fatal. A major strength of the American cause was that it was based on the free association of different communities Each colony/state had military and economic resources of its own, and a British victory in one part of America had only a limited effect elsewhere. The fall of Charleston did not make that of Boston more likely. Collectively, the American economy was very strong and standards of living high, higher than in the British Isles. Successful capitalism was thus an essential precondition of American independence.

Clearly the middle colonics were more crucial, because of their geographical position. Here again, however, the Americans suffered severe blows, but not fatal ones. In 1776, they were defeated at Long Island and lost New York; in 1777, they were defeated at Brandywine and lost Philadelphia. Yet, in neither case did this lead to the collapse of the revolution. In large part the Americans were helped by the fact that their defeated forces were able to retreat. There was no total loss, as the British suffered when they surrendered at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781), and the Americans likewise at Fort Washington (1776) and Charleston (1780).

Even had the British achieved a more decisive victory at either Long Island or Brandywine, they would still have had to face an undefeated New England and South. Compared to the Jacobites, the Americans benefited from having a more divided leadership and more military and political autonomy. There is also an instructive contrast with the French Revolution of 1789. Unlike the Jacobites, but like the Americans, the French Revolutionaries were successful in carrying through a seizure of power and then defending it from domestic and external forces.

However, there were major contrasts between the two revolutions. Although the Americans and their militia could be quite harsh in their dealings with Loyalists, their treatment was less savage than that meted out to Royalists in France: in America the tumbrels never rolled. American society was less mobilized for war than that of revolutionary France was to be, and more respect was paid to private property and preexisting institutions. This was in part because there was less of a social contest in the American Revolution than in its French counterpart. French local government was reorganized institutionally and geographically, provincial assemblies being a major casualty. In America there was no equivalent centralization; in fact, avoidance of centralization was a principle of American revolutionary ideology. Before their respective revolutions, America lacked a strong identity, other than as part of the British world, certainly nothing comparable with that which France enjoyed, and in America, unlike France, there was to be no source of revolutionary activity able to terrorize those who supported the Revolution but had alternative, less centralist views of how the new state should be organized. Nor was there any comparable attempt to export the revolution, certainly not outside North America. The Americans were free of many of the illusions of the possibility of and need for universality that were to affect so many of the politicians of revolutionary France and many 20th century American liberals.

The conservatism of the American Revolution thus emerges clearly in contrast with that in France. This conservatism can be seen as crucial both to the success of the American cause—allowing the often differing American regional political cultures to combine and cooperate—and to the definition of the political character of America.

The French revolutionaries adopted a harsher attitude toward the rights, responsibilities, and property of individuals and institutions. They also felt it entirely proper for the state to try to change society, as with the creation of a new calendar and the attack on Christianity. Had the Americans emulated this attitude in order to win, the consequence might have been a very different American public culture, one that stressed the national state more than the individual, obligations more than rights. The ideological underpinnings of the Revolution were so strong that it is possible that the Revolution would have been abandoned by many, if not by most, Americans in the face of such a betrayal of their principles. To a certain extent, the advocates of strong, centralized government in modern America arc trying to reverse the crucial political legacy of the struggle for independence.

The Jacobite risings were similarly conservative in contrast to the French Revolution and, in addition, in contrast to the American ideology and practice of freedom. The total failure of the Jacobites stemmed not from their conservatism, but both from the particular geographical circumstances of the conflict and from contingent political and military factors. The Jacobites were badly weakened by their failure to coordinate effectively with French invasion plans in 1744-46. They were also hindered in late 1745 by the lack of substantial support in England when Bonnie Prince Charlie marched south. Furthermore, unlike what happened off the American coast in 1781, the British navy did not lose its maritime superiority.

Against these factors must be set Jacobite success prior to Derby, where on “Black Friday,” December 5, 1745, the decision was taken not to march on for London. Aside from the victory at Prestonpans, the Jacobites had also been victorious when they invaded England: Carlisle castle, with its weak defenses and small garrison, surrendered on November 15 and, thereafter, the Jacobites encountered no resistance. As Penrith, Kendal, Lancaster, Preston, Manchester, and Derby fell without resistance, the fragility of the Hanoverian state was brutally exposed, as it was to be again when royal authority collapsed so readily in America in 1775. As in America, the defense of the Hanoverian regime in 1745-46 had to rely on regulars, who were outmaneuvered both in Scotland and England.

That the Jacobites could have won is one of the interesting conclusions to emerge from a consideration of the strategic situation in December 1745. Separately, both a Jacobite advance from Derby, and the invasion of southern England that the French were planning, were serious challenges. In combination, they could each contribute to the threat posed by the other. Jacobite forces in the London area could have handicapped any attempt to mount coherent opposition to a French advance. The French could have supplied the Jacobites what they lacked: siege artillery, regular infantry able to stand up to British regulars in a firefight, and a secure logistical base.

The failure of the French invasion in 1744, thwarted by the weather, did not mean that their naval power and amphibious capability were not threats in 1745-46. The sole naval battle hitherto in the war, off Toulon in 1744, had been indecisive, leading to bitter disputes between the British admirals and savage parliamentary criticism. Unlike during the next French invasion attempt, in 1759, which was to be smashed by Hawke’s victory at Quiberon Bay, there was no British blockade of Brest, the principal French naval base, in 1744-46; while Forbin’s success in taking a French invasion squadron from Dunkirk to the Firth of Forth in 1708 indicated the problems of blockading that port successfully. Had Marshal Richelieu’s force embarked at Dunkirk on December 17, 1745, as he considered, it could probably have reached England. Amphibious operations in this period were far from easy—ships were dependent on wind and tide, there were no specialized landing vessels and few docks—^but William of Orange had landed successfully in Torbay in 1688, and Richelieu, like William, would have had an unopposed landing. Richelieu was to be successful with his, and France’s, next amphibious operation, the 1756 invasion of British-ruled Minorca.

Thus, the role of contingency repeatedly emerges when considering Jacobite failure. It can also be seen in the case of American victory. What if Admiral Howe had cut off the American retreat from Long Island or Washington had failed to achieve surprise at Trenton? What if Burgoyne had not plunged south towards Saratoga in 1777 or if General Howe had taken Philadelphia earlier? What if France had not entered the war or had failed to block the Chesapeake in 1781? The list can readily be extended. Each hypothesis can be weighed and none disproves the strength of the American, and weakness of the British, position. Yet, each reminds us of the role of chance in war and of the folly of assuming an inevitable outcome. As to whether the South could have won the American Civil War, it is misleading to dismiss speculation on this theme as pointless or as revisionist obscurantism and nostalgia. The past, and therefore the present, can never be understood if the options facing individuals in the past are ignored and if it is assumed not only that the path of history is preordained and obvious, but that the past belongs to the victors and that they should also own the present and the future.