Was The Revolution A Mistake?
Were the Colonists wrong to toss aside the British Empire so casually?
Conrad Black, a Canadian-born historian and member of the British House of Lords who has, admittedly, a rather checkered recent past, argues over at National Review that the colonists were wrong to overthrow the Crown:
It is verging on secular heresy to make the point, especially in the week of July 4, but the American colonists didn’t have much to complain about, either. The British pretension that the Mother of Parliaments could represent the Americans although they had no members of it was nonsense, especially as America had 30 percent of the population of Great Britain by the Revolution, and was the most prosperous British entity. But the taxes imposed were less than the British Isles were already paying; Britain gave the Americans a year to propose alternative sources of revenue; and all Britain was seeking was help in reducing the national debt, which had doubled during the Seven Years’ War (largely owing to the effort to throw the French out of Canada, at the insistence of the Americans). The original tea partiers, disguised as Indians, were overreacting to a tax that was confined to tea and was not excessive. Their current emulators are less colorful and imaginative.
The colonists had the better of the argument with the British, but individual Americans did not have substantively more liberties at the end of the Revolution than they had had at the beginning, nor more than the British in the home islands had (then or now or at any time in between), apart from having a resident sovereign government. The whole American notion of liberty came from the British, along with the common law and the English language. If the Americans had maintained their British status, they would control Britain and Canada and Australia and New Zealand now (another 120 million people and over $5 trillion of GDP), have all their energy needs met, and enjoy better government than they have actually endured for the past 20 years. It would have been much easier to abolish slavery and, if there had been a Civil War, it would not have lasted long, nor cost a fraction of the 750,000 American lives that it did. There would have been no World Wars or Cold War, or at least no conflict remotely as perilous as those were. The United States would also have less than its current 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people, and wouldn’t have a legal cartel that devours 10 percent of its GDP. These are matters that, though they verge on secular heresy, Americans may want to consider, in between singing splendid anthems and rereading Jefferson’s defamation of poor old George III and his blood libel on the American Indian in the Declaration of Independence, this national holiday.
Black makes this argument in a longer piece that argues, quite forcefully, that colonialism, especially of the British variety, provided a better way of life for those over whom it ruled than the post-colonial world has brought. Judging from the wars that erupted in the immediate aftermath of the end of colonialism, especially on the Indian subcontinent, as well as the general corruption, deprivation of liberty, and poverty, that is commonplace in the former colonial areas of Africa, one must admit that Black has a point here. Of all the post-colonial nations, the ones that have seemed to have succeeded the most are those that were once part of the British Empire, such as India, but even there the transition was far from peaceful, and the eventual secession of Pakistan and Bangladesh was quite bloody indeed. Nonetheless, Black does have a point when he argues that self-government hasn’t exactly worked out for many of the former subjects of European colonial powers. In the end, though, it seems fairly clear that the end of Colonialism was inevitable, especially after the high costs of World Wars One and Two made it ever harder for Europe to maintain the dominance it once had.
As for his theory about what might have happened to the American Colonies in North America if Revolution had been avoided, it strikes me that he’s being a bit overly optimistic here. For one thing, if the colonies had not become an independent nation it seems unlikely that what we now call the United States would have been a Continental nation. It’s unlikely, for example, that Napoleon would have willingly turned over the French territories in North America to the British and, unless those territories had ended up being taken as booty after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, they would have been the home of either a French colony in North America or perhaps even an independent nation stretching from Louisiana to the Canadian border. Indeed, if the colonies had maintained their status as a British possession it’s entirely possible that the Napoleonic Wars would have resulted in fighting across the Atlantic so, in that sense, revolution may have saved the colonists and their descendants from a bloody repeat of the French & Indian Wars. Mexico likely would have claimed the territory in the southwest, along with most if not all of California and Nevada. To the extent the colonies advanced West it would have occurred in what is now Canada. With such a smaller size, Black’s projections about the economic output of the colonies seems to be a bit too high.
As for the rest of it, yes we might have avoided the Civil War and other such events, but the trouble with positing alternate history scenarios is that, even if you can state with some accuracy that Event X would not have happened, you have no idea what other avenues history might have taken. Imagine World War One fought on the North American continent, for example. Black assumes that history would have unfolded roughly the same, but that’s most certainly not the case.
There is one thing that Black’s argument does remind one of, though, and that is how easily the British might have been able to avoid the loss of their North American colonies if only King George and his advisers. In the beginning, the colonists major demands centered almost exclusively around greater representation in Parliament, and greater control over their own affairs. Had Britain relented on some of these demands, they quite likely would have taken much of the wind out of the sails of the nascent movement for independence because, as any good student of history knows, the American Revolution was more about political independence and self-government than it was about “liberty” in and of itself. Indeed, it wasn’t until the drafting of the Bill of Rights in 1789 that many of the complaints that had been lodged against the British as deprivations of liberty were actually addressed in American law. Of course, even if that had occurred, it’s quite probable that it would have only delayed the political break between England the colonies and that the inevitable desires for independence that distance from the homeland created would have come to the surface again.
The one thing that Black’s article doesn’t examine is how history would have been different without an independent United States of America. The ways in which the U.S. has influenced the course of world history, sometimes for ill but quite often for good, are quite innumerable, and one has to wonder how the world would have turned out without us around in a political, economic, and cultural sense. Since Black is obviously an Anglophile, and a British Peer to boot, perhaps he thinks we Americans haven’t added anything positive to the world that the Brits wouldn’t have been able to take care of on their own. He’d be wrong to think so, though, because I think it’s rather self-evidence that, on the whole, the United States has shaped the world in a positive manner over the past 236 years.
It’s always fun to play “What if” games with history, and Black’s example does bring up an interesting scenario to play around with. However, while I agree that history would have been different, but I doubt he’s correct that it would have been better. So, in the end, I’m just fine with the idea that we sent King George and his Redcoats packing and decided to figure things out on our own.