Tuesday, February 18, 2014

6 Common Mistakes Every American Revolution Alternate History Makes

Although American Civil War and World War II histories dominate the English-speaking world, stories about a stillborn United States are still quite common. Whether it happens because the Thirteen Colonies lose the American Revolutionary War or else the political upheaval that led to their independence is avoided through diplomacy, all the timelines lead to a world where North America from the Arctic to the Rio Grande remains under the Union Jack.

While these timelines have merit, both professional and fans authors often make the same mistakes, historical misconceptions and omissions again and again. To prevent this from happening in the future, here is a list of common mistakes found within American Revolution what ifs...

At some point, whatever government is created for British North America, they will want Florida. Sometimes they just take it or other times they buy it. Either way Florida will stop being Spanish not long after the POD. Except why would they need Spain need to hand it over in the first place? This is a mistake I find again and again with alternate American Revolution timelines and it needs to stop...now.

Here is what history tells us: at the end of the French and Indian War/Seven Years War, Florida was ceded to Britain and was split into West and East Florida. The two Floridas remained loyal to Britain during the Revolutionary War, but in the end were ceded back to Spain after they had sided with the rebellious colonists. Much later West Florida rebelled against Spanish rule and was annexed by the United States, while East Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821.

In a timeline where Britain retains control of the Thirteen Colonies, Florida would have remained British because Spain would either have no war to join or else would have been on the losing side. The two Floridas would be components of whatever government is created for British North America and might even have special status in those versions that had a war since they had remained loyal. So please stop making this mistake before I start tearing my hair out.

Louisiana and the Great Plains
As British North America grows in these timelines it expands westward and (usually around 1803) decides it wants the port of New Orleans and the rest of the Great Plains. This proves quite simple since they usually just take it from those dastardly French (curse them!). But why would the French be there in the first place?

This does not happen as often as the Florida problem, but still often enough I feel I should address it. As we know, France ceded New Orleans and the Great Plains to Spain, who added it to the Viceroyalty of New Spain (a.k.a. Mexico) at the end of the French and Indian War/Seven Years War. The territory remained under Spanish control until 1800 when France took back the territory under Napoleon who dreamed of building an empire in the Americas. A slave revolt in Haiti caused the Emperor to scrap those plans and instead sell the territory to the young American republic.

Having Louisiana become French again in a timeline where there is no United States assumes a lot events of OTL will still happen as scheduled, including the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon. Even if they did happen (which I will discuss later) it is hard to believe that Napoleon would want such a huge tract of land only lightly populated by Europeans that was surrounded on the north and east by the British. Most likely he would look elsewhere for his overseas empire and leave the land to the Spanish. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that the British Americans wouldn't want the strategic port of New Orleans, but it is still possible the land we know today as the "Louisiana Purchase" might be part of Mexico in one of these alternate timelines.

French Revolution and Napoleon
Speaking of the French, who incidentally were big supporters of the rebels, they end up in these timelines never spending all that cash propping up the Americans and thus never have the ton of debt that brings the French Revolution upon the royal houses of Europe. Enlightened monarchies continue to govern the world with democracy being nothing more than a quaint Ancient Greek custom and a young Corsican artillery officer dies of old age without anyone ever knowing his name

Of course, when has history ever been that simple? France's support of the Americans was just one of many causes that brought on the French Revolution and the lack of a Revolutionary War won't hand wave them away either (and its not like the monarchy would take all the extra money they saved to help the lower classes). Even a failed rebellion could still be disastrous for Louis XVI's rule if he still decided to intervene. The events and names might be different, but the French Revolutions could still happen and the chaos caused could allow a man like Napoleon to rise to power.

I admit one of the unwritten rules of alternate history is that nothing is inevitable, but we still need things to be plausible. A POD around the 1770s is not enough time to butterfly away an event that happened in 1789. In all likelihood, instead of defending New Orleans from the British, we could see Andrew Jackson take Orleans while leading an army of Red Coats. We have to remember that a good alternate history has to plausible and certain PODs will effect some historical events, but not others.

In these timelines, the great Dominion of British North America stretches from sea to shining sea. Members of Parliament gather in the capital, Georgetown (named after the great King George III), to celebrate another year as the most important member of the Empire. No one notices the politicians from the far northern provinces, but it is not like these men from the lightly populated, snowy wilderness have ever contributed anything significant to the Commonwealth. Right? RIGHT?!?!

One of the greatest flaws of American Revolution alternate histories is that they tend to be written by...well, Americans. These authors, however, remain surprisingly ignorant of the OTL British North America, or to put it another way, Canada. These timelines gloss over the northern half of British North America as almost if it doesn't matter and instead read more like an American history where everyone speaks with a British accent. This is especially important with timelines where recognizable historical figures still make cameos, but you rarely see Canadian VIPs in positions of importance.

While I will admit that the center of power might shift to the south in an enlarged British North America, how can one of the world's largest economies and most cultural diverse OTL countries not have an impact at all in a world where America remained under British rule? The city of Toronto alone is the fourth largest city in North America, which would make it the third largest city in a British North America (beating out my hometown of Chicago) and making it a significant region in politics. I guess what I am trying to say is that ignorance of Canadian history is not an excuse for your implausible alternate history.

Native Americans
Another group who is ignored in these alternate histories (and history in general for that matter) are Native Americans. In timelines where the Thirteen Colonies stay British, their history tends to parallel OTL history, that is if the author decides to mention them at all. Essentially they remain non-entities in these universes.

Now the Native Americans were treated rough by most Europeans, but the British did try to normalize relations with the tribes with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which established the Indian Reserve that stretched from the Great Lakes to West Florida. The proclamation was controversial to the colonials and was one of the causes of the American Revolution. Most Native Americans east of the Mississippi sided with the British during the Revolutionary War and after the war were eventually driven west and forced to settle in reservations far from their ancestral homes.

In these alternate histories, however, it is unlikely the British would radically change their policy to Native Americans if they maintained control of the lands east of the Mississippi. In fact we might see the British grant autonomy to the most powerful and loyal tribes, much like the princely states of India of OTL. This policy might even be carried west if British North America expands that far leading to an ethnically diverse North America where Native Americans exercise more political power than they did in OTL. That sounds like a much more interesting alternate history to me.

The British Empire
Above is a political map of the world of The Two Georges, with the British Empire in red. Despite some loses in Africa, the British Empire is excessively larger than it was in OTL. In fact, most American Revolution alternate histories lead to an enlarged British Empire. But how plausible is it for the British Empire to be this large?

In a world where the Thirteen Colonies stay British, the Crown would need (if I can quote the late Warren Zevon) lawyers, guns and money to maintain their rule. If they are spending these resources on British North America, they would not be able to spend it elsewhere. Consider how different the history of Australia would be. Before the American Revolution, thousands of criminals had been sent to the Americas by the British. After the loss of the Thirteen Colonies, the British found replacement colonies in Australia. In a world, however, where they never lost their original penal colonies, there would be less interest about settling Australia and thus all or some of it could have been gobbled up by another Europe power.

The same can go for other important British colonies as well. A world without the French Revolution and/or Napoleon (if they for some reason do not happen) would not give the British the excuse to take South Africa from the Dutch. Plus considering the economic potential of the lands that make up the OTL USA and Canada, it might not be India that will gain the title of "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. In fact this same economic potential might even give some alternate leaders the motivation to try and break from the empire and could potentially cause an earlier collapse of the British Empire.


All of the above are either outright mistakes, historical misconceptions or overlooked people/ideas that are common to American Revolution alternate histories. The best way to avoid them, in my humble opinion, is to do your research when you set out to create your timeline. Remember, as Mark Twain once said: "It's not what you don't know that kills you, it's what you know for sure that ain't true."

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. His new short story "Road Trip" can be found in Forbidden Future: A Time Travel Anthology. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. An excellent examination of the conditions surrounding North America in the times of the Revolution. I've noticed many people gets their 'facts' from movies and TV shows, leading to numerous misconceptions. This was a complicated time that requires serious research.

    1. Indeed. Perhaps I should break down all the historical misconceptions in Mel Gibson's The Patriot...but that would take forever, haha.

  2. Fantastic article Matt. Nothing more annoying than seeing either a victorious British Empire behaving in the same way as a victorious USA within an alternate history or a vast British Empire that follows the same events but conquers more land without consequence. Covered a number of important points.

    1. Thank you. That British Empire issue mentioned above can generally be categorized under the "space filling empire" trope. Too many writers will keep their empire expanding as soon as they get one.

    2. "Time for Patriots", by my former astronomy professor, Thomas Hamilton, (Strategic Books, 2011) has a very different alternate outcome, with a POD that is more like Turtledove's "Guns of the South".

  3. Sobel was guilty of the Florida mistake in For Want of a Nail, but not the Louisiana mistake. It is true that he tended to ignore OTL Canadians; I think the only one he mentioned was Louis Papineau.

    1. I was told elsewhere that in scenarios I describe above that the Loyalists would never immigrate to Canada and thus it would be predominantly French. Thus famous Loyalists/Canadians of the late 18th century would still be living in the Thirteen Colonies. Still the point remains that in those works that use historical figures well into the 20th century it is silly not to include Canadians as well.

  4. If the colonies remained reasonably contentedly part of the Empire, it would be a source of additional resources, not a consumer of them. Hence expansion would probably be greater, particularly since local pressures would be more intense. British expansion was, increasingly from the 17th century on, a matter of the "men on the spot" seizing opportunities rather than direction from London. In fact, it was as often as not carried out -against- London's wishes, by the private enterprise of merchant-adventurers, settlers, and soldiers and bureaucrats 6 months travel time from Westminster.

    In particular, the American colonial population was growing very, very rapidly before 1776, both because of an extremely high rate of natural increase and a steadily surging rate of emigration from both Britain and other sources (see Bailyn's "Voyagers to the West".)

    British attempts to restrict colonial expansion to the west (the 1763 Proclamation line) were a proximate cause of the Revolution. Any long-term settlement would have to accept the massive demographic surge westward. This would spill directly into Upper Canada (Ontario) as well as right over the Appalachians.

    The Spanish possessions to the west and south were temptingly weak, as American history (see early California and Texas) was to demonstrate. Filibusters and frontiersmen wouldn't be any less aggressive under the Union Jack - the French and Indian war was sparked by American frontier speculators and militiamen (including one G. Washington, see Fort Necessity). Presumably this would keep happening.

    As Benjamin Franklin pointed out in the 1760's, the day was not far distant when the majority of the people of British descent and most of the wealth of the British Empire would be on the western side of the Atlantic. Eventually political authority would follow, if the political unity of the English-speaking world was maintained.

  5. The British reversal in North America led almost directly to their deepened involvement in India. If the British keep North America, can they (or would they) also try to maintain the Raj?

    As for Australia, the Dutch already had established a presence in the Indonesian archipelago. It wouldn't take much effort or incentive for them to colonize a continent from that base, and having been ejected from North America by the British having a continent all to themselves would be very appealing. Australia becomes the Dutch equivalent to British North America, and the Dutch remain a major world power much longer.

  6. Thank you for a very interesting post! I've dabbled a bit in alternative history myself, mostly German history (earlier German unification, German victory in WWI)...don't know why, but I find it fascinating.

    What is also interesting for me is the question about slavery. Britain abolished slavery already in 1833 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_Abolition_Act_1833), the US in 1865 and Brazil didn't abolished slavery before 1888! So if the American Revolution hadn't happened as it did in the real world, that could have meant that slavery had been abolished earlier in the Americas as well. Anyway, thank you very much for an interesting post!

    -Thais Munk (I couldn't get blogger to sign in using my Wordpress account for one reason or another)