Skip to Main Content (Press Enter)
An Empire on the Edge by Nick Bunker
Add An Empire on the Edge to bookshelf
Add to Bookshelf

An Empire on the Edge

Best Seller
An Empire on the Edge by Nick Bunker
Paperback $19.00
Aug 04, 2015 | ISBN 9780307741776

Buy from Other Retailers:

See All Formats (1) +
  • $19.00

    Aug 04, 2015 | ISBN 9780307741776

    Buy from Other Retailers:

  • Sep 16, 2014 | ISBN 9780385351645

    Buy from Other Retailers:

Product Details


Finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in History
Winner of the 2015 George Washington Prize
Winner of the 2015 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award

“[A] bracing gallop through the three years leading up to the ‘shot heard round the world.’. . . A broad and telling portrait.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Absorbing and detailed. . . . Bunker’s narrative is human and even-handed; and from the Boston harbourside to the salons of London, a complex and epic tale is told with colour and enthusiasm.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Bunker’s tightly argued and deeply researched book shows how a broader perspective can shed new light on even the most familiar events.” —Foreign Affairs
“A joy. . . . An exciting backstage look at the events that caused the American Revolution. . . . [and] an excellent analysis of the situation in the American colonies and Great Britain in the 18th century.” —New York Journal of Books
“Nearly two and a half centuries after the fact, it would seem all but impossible to shed fresh light and insight into the origins of the American Revolution. And yet, this is precisely what journalist-turned-financial analyst-turned-historian Nick Bunker has accomplished in a majestic new study of the events leading up to shots being fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775.”
 —The Manchester Journal
“Highly recommended.”
—Andrew Lambert, BBC History Magazine
“A nuanced global analysis of Britain’s failure to hold onto its American colonies. . . . riveting. . . . With a sharp eye for economic realities, Bunker persuasively demonstrates why the American Revolution had to happen.”
Publishers Weekly (boxed review)

“An eye-opening study of the British view of the American Revolution and why they were crazy to fight it. . . . the failure of British leadership to recognize the warning signs will astonish readers who thought the Revolution was just about tea. A scholarly yet page-turning, superbly written history.”
Kirkus (starred review)
“[An] enthralling examination of the three years leading up to the American Revolution. . . . Bunker sets the story in its global context. However, he is also good at zeroing in on the local and unfamiliar.”
The Times (London)
“Utterly absorbing and full of colour, we learn afresh what a mess Britain made of leaving America and, crucially and importantly, how that mess shaped the American psyche.”
—Justin Webb, presenter, BBC Today Programme 

“Bunker’s is a fascinating historical account, with implications that go beyond its subject matter into the question of how empire-building works—or doesn’t.”
The Columbus Dispatch

“Nick Bunker dazzles the reader with a deeply researched and clear-eyed accounting of the dissolution of the mighty—but woefully overextended—British Empire, and in particular its 13 colonies in North America. Bunker’s mellifluous prose fairly jumps off the page, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into this intricate and fascinating tale.”
—William D. Cohan


Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award WINNER 2015

George Washington Book Prize WINNER 2015

Pulitzer Prize (History) FINALIST 2015

Author Q&A

A conversation with Nick Bunker, author of

How Britain Came to Fight America

Q: For Americans, the Revolutionary War is an epic narrative of  heroism, to which we return again and again. In AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE, you’ve written a new account of the war’s origins—but you describe the story as “a tragedy of errors.” What do you mean by that?

As I worked on the book, I always had in mind the words of  the Roman poet Virgil, writing after the civil wars of his own era. Sunt lacrimae rerum, Virgil said, “there are tears in things.” Because the records that survive are incomplete, we’ll never know precisely how many British soldiers and sailors lost their lives trying to subdue the rebel colonies. But on the British side, the death toll came to at least 20,000: a very high number. Even in 1778, after  Saratoga, the British army had fewer than 55,000 troops deployed in the West Indies and America, and so the casualty rate was truly dreadful. That’s why I call the war a tragedy, and that’s why my book has an elegiac tone. The question a historian has to answer is this: how and why did Great Britain embark on a conflict so lamentable? In AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE, I’m trying to get inside the heads of  the politicians in London. I want to understand why they started a war that killed so many young men for nothing.

Q: You say that the British started the war, and yet the Boston Tea Party lies at the heart of your book. Wasn’t the destruction of  the tea in Boston Harbor an act of  provocation—some would say a form of  terrorism—to which the British had to respond in defence of  law and order?

I see the Boston Tea Party as a historical accident that had been waiting to happen for many years. The  British had created a loose, ramshackle empire whose only purpose was to make a profit for the mother country. Because it was based upon speculation in commodities—tea, sugar and tobacco—and because it was financed by debt, this commercial empire was inherently fragile. Worse still, the British had forgotten a lesson their own history should have taught them: that the exercise of  hegemony over a subject people requires tact, sensitivity and the utmost respect for local laws and customs. Britain’s ruling elite simply never took the  trouble to understand their American cousins. They never reached out with sympathy to people such as George Washington and John Hancock who should have been their friends.

Q: Two British statesmen occupy center stage in your book: the premier, Lord North, and his kinsman Lord Dartmouth, the minister responsible for the colonies. How did you approach them?

I immersed myself in their letters and papers—not only those that directly concern America, but also their family correspondence—and I visited what remains of their country estates. In Lord North and Lord Dartmouth, I  found two men who, in their private lives, displayed many admirable qualities. They were loving husbands, they gave freely to charity—especially Lord Dartmouth—and they were sincerely Christian. Indeed, I came to feel affectionate towards them both, but only up to a point. Public life requires other virtues, of  forethought and analysis, that they did not possess. Addicted to social hierarchy and to protocol, they could not  think outside their little box of  privilege.  They could not appreciate the values of  farmers in New England and Virginia. And so, in January 1775, they issued  the  orders that sent the redcoats up the road to Lexington.

Q:  How does AN EMPIRE ON THE EDGE shed new light on the Tea Party’s origins?

There’s a riddle we have to solve: exactly why, in 1773, did Lord North decide to ship the East India Company’s tea  to America in such huge quantities? Since the tea carried a tax that Americans bitterly  resented, he ought to have known what a fuss it would cause. I made it my business to investigate all the relevant archives. I examined those of the East India Company, the Bank of England and the British government, and also the newspapers and the letters of  Thomas Hutchinson, the Governor of  Massachusetts. What did I find? When all the facts are in, what emerges is a tale not of tyranny but of  incompetence. Lord North saw the shipping of the tea as a cunning ploy to make the Americans see sense and pay at least one of the taxes they owed to the empire. That was a very big mistake.

Q: You call the American Revolution “a lawyer’s war.” Why do you say that?

In the 21st century, the closest bond of friendship between Great Britain and the United States ought not to be a military alliance, but instead a shared commitment to civil liberties and the rule of  law. However, we should never forget that the phrase “the rule of law” means different things to different people. Even now we disagree about its definition, but in the 1770s  the gulf of  misunderstanding was almost bottomless. At every step on the road to war, the British government took legal counsel; and each time the lawyers told them that Americans had committed high treason, for which they had to be punished. Technically, the British lawyers were correct, but I suppose the moral of the story is this: don’t blindly follow your attorney’s  advice. The other side has lawyers too. Their arguments also need to be heard.

Q: You’re about as British as an author can be, born and raised in and around London, a former journalist for the Financial Times, and you live next to a medieval cathedral. But you choose to write about American history—first the Mayflower Pilgrims, and now the Boston Tea Party and the origins of the  Revolutionary War. What attracts you to Americana?

: It all began with National Geographic! Our dentist’s waiting room was piled high with back numbers, and that was how—at the age of  six—I learned about Lincoln and the Civil War. In one issue, I found an advertisement from a company called Sinclair Oil offering a free map of  the battlefields. So my mother and I wrote to Sinclair’s home office in California, and a month or two later the map arrived. Stonewall Jackson became my boyhood hero: I was too young to understand the wickedness of  slavery. And then, in the 1970s,  when Vietnam and Watergate filled our television screens, I began to study American history seriously. I was taught at my grammar school by a brilliant man, Denis Winter, who wrote superb narratives of  the trench warfare of  World War I. “Forget the Tudors,” Mr Winter told me. “If you want a real challenge, try to puzzle out American politics —there’s no subject more complex or more demanding.” He lent me books by two great American historians,  Samuel Eliot Morison and Richard Hofstadter, both of whom I still regard with reverence. From that moment, I was hooked.

David Archer / / (212) 572-2331

Looking for More Great Reads?
21 Books You’ve Been Meaning to Read
Back to Top