This July Fourth, I’m celebrating by taking a plane from the US to the United Kingdom. The timing wasn’t intentional, but I embrace the symbolism. American independence in 1776 was a monumental mistake. We should be mourning the fact that we left the United Kingdom, not cheering it.
Of course, evaluating the wisdom of the American Revolution means dealing with counterfactuals. As any historian would tell you, this is messy business. We obviously can’t be entirely sure how America would have fared if it had stayed in the British Empire longer, perhaps gaining independence a century or so later, along with Canada.
Would we be better off today if the Revolution had not succeeded? Rather than celebrating our independence from the mother country, ought we to regret it? I am something of an anglophile, so I am a bit wistful about that regrettable separation myself. Sometimes I do think it would be nice to be part of the country that gave us Doctor Who and Mister Bean, not to mention the many more substantial gifts that the British have given the world. Still, that is not saying that we would all be better off, and it is possible that much that was good about the British Empire may not have come to be without the sentiments expressed by our founding fathers.
It is, of course, impossible to know what would have happened. It seems to me that much would depend on the way in which the American Revolution had failed. If King George and his ministers had been more statesmanlike and showed a better understanding of the sentiments of the colonists, and if cooler heads had prevailed in the colonies, the Revolution might have been averted altogether. Perhaps there might have been some trouble in 1775 which was quickly resolved by judicious compromises, in which case the North American colonies might well have developed somewhere along the lines of Canada or Australia. On the other hand, if the British had defeated the Continental Army in 1779 or 1780 and killed George Washington, things might have been very different. Years of war had increased bitterness on both sides and it is likely that the rebellious colonies would have been held as conquered and occupied provinces, much like Ireland. Like Ireland, there might have been continuing unrest and repeated rebellions. Since Mr. Matthews seems to take the former scenario, so will I.
Dylan Matthews gives three reasons for believing that the American Revolution was a mistake.
But I’m reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.
I believe all three reasons are mistaken. I do not think that slavery would have been abolished earlier, that the policy towards the Indians would have been greatly different if the American Revolution had not succeeded, nor do I believe that a parliamentary system of government is superior.
The main reason the revolution was a mistake is that the British Empire, in all likelihood, would have abolished slavery earlier than the US did, and with less bloodshed.
Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of theSlavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there, too, in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.
This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.
According to Matthews, the American Revolution was fought by White men, for White men and everyone else would have been better off if they had failed.
The main benefit of the revolution to colonists was that it gave more political power to America’s white male minority. For the vast majority of the country — its women, slaves, American Indians — the difference between disenfranchisement in an independent America and disenfranchisement in a British-controlled colonial America was negligible. If anything, the latter would’ve been preferable, since at least women and minorities wouldn’t be singled out for disenfranchisement. From the vantage point of most of the country, who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?
Though he admits that abolishing slavery would have been harder if the North American colonies were still in the British Empire.
It’s true that had the US stayed, Britain would have had much more to gain from the continuance of slavery than it did without America. It controlled a number of dependencies with slave economies — notably Jamaica and other islands in the West Indies — but nothing on the scale of the American South. Adding that into the mix would’ve made abolition significantly more costly.
But the South’s political influence within the British Empire would have been vastly smaller than its influence in the early American republic. For one thing, the South, like all other British dependencies, lacked representation in Parliament. The Southern states were colonies, and their interests were discounted by the British government accordingly. But the South was also simply smaller as a chunk of the British Empire’s economy at the time than it was as a portion of America’s. The British crown had less to lose from the abolition of slavery than white elites in an independent America did.
It is not clear to what extent abolitionism would have gained any traction in Britain if a major part of their empire depended on slave labor and if the principles of equality and consent by the governed that were expressed so well by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence had remained unwritten. In any case, slavery would not have been confined to the South. In 1776, slavery was legal and accepted in all thirteen colonies. It was only after the American Revolution had been won that the first wave of abolitionism, prompted in part by the obvious hypocrisy of declaring all men equal while still holding slaves, led to the Northern states to abolish slavery. In 1787 the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, organizing the Northwest territories and prohibiting slavery. Most people believed that it was only a matter of time before slavery was ended in the South. This didn’t happen partly because of the invention of the cotton gin and partly because the expansion into the south west, where slavery hadn’t been prohibited, was made easier by slave labor.
It seems likely, then, that by 1834 slavery would still be legal throughout North America both in the original thirteen colonies and in the settled lands beyond the Appalachians. Would the British Parliament still have abolished slavery, knowing that such an act would lead to revolution in the colonies. We would have fought the American Revolution in the 1830’s instead of the 1770’s. It seems likely that the Parliament might have delayed abolishing slavery for many years rather than lose the colonies, especially if the French, no Louisiana Purchase, and the Spanish, no Florida cession and perhaps no revolutions in Latin America, maintained some presence in North America.
What about the Indians?
Starting with the Proclamation of 1763, the British colonial government placed firm limits on westward settlement in the United States. It wasn’t motivated by an altruistic desire to keep American Indians from being subjugated or anything; it just wanted to avoid border conflicts. But all the same, the policy enraged American settlers, who were appalled that the British would seem to side with Indians over white men.
American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels.
Ethnic cleansing is a loaded word that is not particularly applicable to what occurred in the relations between the Indian tribes and the American government. It was never an official policy of the U.S. government to exterminate the Native Americans. Here is what the Northwest Ordinance had to say about the Native inhabitants of the Northwest territory.
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.
Condescending, to be sure, but meant well. Unfortunately both Indians and settlers wanted the same lands so there was war and the Indians were defeated. This is bad enough but not the same as rounding people up and exterminating them in camps. But, who cares about accuracy when we have a chance to portray America as the Evil Empire? In any case, there is no reason to believe that the Indian policy, both intended or actual, would have been greatly different. The Proclamation of 1763 could not have been enforced for any period of time, given the demographic pressures that led the British colonists to want to expand westward. Matthews compares the treatment of the Indians by America and Canada, in Canada’s favor, but there were fewer settlers in Canada and the lands were less desirable.
Finally, the question of good government.
And parliamentary democracies are a lot, lot better than presidential ones. They’resignificantly less likely to collapse into dictatorship because they don’t lead to irresolvable conflicts between, say, the president and the legislature. They lead to much less gridlock.
In the US, activists wanting to put a price on carbon emissions spent years trying to put together a coalition to make it happen, mobilizing sympathetic businesses and philanthropists and attempting to make bipartisan coalition — and they still failed to pass cap and trade, after millions of dollars and man hours. In the UK, the Conservative government decided it wanted a carbon tax. So there was a carbon tax. Just like that. Passing big, necessary legislation — in this case, legislation that’s literally necessary to save the planet — is a whole lot easier with parliaments than with presidential systems.
This is no trivial matter. Efficient passage of legislation has huge humanitarian consequences. It makes measures of planetary importance, like carbon taxes, easier to get through; they still face political pushback, of course — Australia’s tax got repealed, after all — but they can be enacted in the first place, which is far harder in the US system. And the efficiency of parliamentary systems enables larger social welfare programs that reduce inequality and improve life for poor citizens. Government spending in parliamentary countries is about 5 percent of GDP higher, after controlling for other factors, than in presidential countries. If you believe in redistribution, that’s very good news indeed.
This is actually the best argument I could make against a parliamentary system. It is too easy to pass legislation. Under Britain’s current system all that is needed to make any changes imaginable is a majority in the House of Commons. There are no checks and balances. Any dictator would only need that majority to impose whatever rules he wanted. It is only tradition and the good sense of most Britons that has prevented anyone from trying, so far. I would be happier if the House of Lords had equal power with the House of Commons and the Monarch would still exercise a veto over legislation. This would be undemocratic, but many people confuse democracy with liberty, or ends and means. The end of government is the preservation of liberty. Democracy is only a means to that end. A democratic government can fail to preserve liberty and tyranny under a democracy is every bit as odious as any other kind. Frankly, I prefer freedom to efficiency in government.
After reading this article, I am not convinced that the American Revolution was a mistake. If anything, I am more grateful than ever that the founding fathers made the sacrifices they did to make the United States of America a free and independent country. I do not believe the world would have been a better place if the revolution had failed. It is more likely to have been less free and less prosperous. So, I will continue to celebrate the Fourth of July, while being grateful that the British are our best friends.
- Vox: On Second Thought, The American Revolution Was A Mistake….. (debatepolitics.com)
- Book Review: The American Revolution (openlettersmonthly.com)
- 5 Myths About Revolutionary America (sofrep.com)
- American patriotism is a revelation. Britain needs to stop hating itself (telegraph.co.uk) Britain is the second best country in the world, right after us of course, there is no reason for them to hate themselves