Friday, July 3, 2015

Was the American Revolution a Mistake?

With Americans preparing to celebrate their independence tomorrow, the inevitable counterfactual about what would happen if the Thirteen Colonies never left the British Empire was bound to appear. The one that seemed to catch many alternate historians attention was Dylan Matthews' "3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake" on Vox. In it Dylan argues the world would be a better place if the Americans were still taking orders from London, but is he right?

To Dylan's credit he does actually cite sources for his argument and he admitted that no one can be entirely certain what can happen when you start changing history. Nevertheless, I am not entirely convinced the world would be a better place without the USA (see Without Warning for a modern take on what I just said). To prove this I will like to address Dylan's three main reasons for why the world would be a better place without the American Revolution: "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."

Lets start with slavery. There shouldn't be any doubt in one's mind that slavery was a bad thing. Regardless of what the most virulent Confederate apologist will say, slavery lasted longer than it should have in America. Thus a common argument against the Revolution in our timeline is that slavery in America would have ended earlier with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Dylan argues that if the Americans never rebelled, slavery in America would have ended around the same time. Its not a bad argument and certainly many alternate historians have factored in an earlier end of slavery in a still British North America.

That being said, I though Dylan dismissed the power of the southern colonies in his alternate history to quickly by just assuming London would ignore them. For example, what if the American Revolution was avoided because the British actually did allow the colonies to send representatives to Parliament? In this situation, the southern colonies could argue against abolition and even delay the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act. When the act is eventually passed, it could lead to a violent rebellion, much like the election of Abraham Lincoln led to the South seceding and starting the American Civil War. Thus the American Revolution could still have happened and may have been successful in this world still if other European powers sided with the rebels. Even if a violent revolt didn't happen, the implied argument that the freed slaves would have less discrimination in a British North America is rather week when you consider that the former British dominion of South Africa didn't get rid of its racial segregation until 1994, while in America it can be argued the last of the overtly racist laws were repealed in 1968.

Again that is just one scenario out of many and Dylan's argument regarding Native Americans having better treatment under a British North America is his strongest point. While some may find its debatable whether Canada treated its native peoples better than the United States and certainly both countries have horrible histories when it comes to their relations with the tribes, I still felt Dylan did a good job at arguing Native Americans would have a better experience under a British North America. I myself argued as much in my article on common mistakes found in American Revolution alternate histories, suggesting that we could say a North America dotted by native states much like the princely states of India. Today the closest we come to such an entity is Nunavut, which again is another point in favor of Dylan's argument.

I still, however, have some nitpicks. It bares mention that regardless whether the rebels were defeated or the Revolutionary War was avoided altogether, the American's negative reaction to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 will need to be addressed. For Dylan's vision to work out the Royal Proclamation would likely need to be repealed or just ignored. Considering the number of treaties, like the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, that opened up westward settlement long before the American Revolution, its likely that a still British North America won't stop America's drive to the Pacific. This doesn't necessarily mean Dylan's argument is null, but it just means that when push comes to shove, the British government could easily side with the colonists and history plays out as it did once again.

We now move from Dylan's strongest point to his weakest: that America's system of government would be better if we stuck with Britain. Its true that there is a lot of supporting evidence that suggests a parliamentary system is the best form of democracy, but Dylan ignored many of the criticisms, such as the possibility of abusing the election calendar and not being able to directly elect a Prime Minister. On top of that, even today some British citizens aren't happy with their version of democracy. All that aside, what really makes this argument weak is that Dylan describes the United States government as a presidential democracy and even criticizes our system because: "The US is saddled with a Senate that gives Wyoming the same power as California, which has over 66 times as many people."

What Dylan forgets is that the United States is a federation, built by in part by states who did not want to become overwhelmed by their more populous brothers. The states of the United States are all equal members who retain power often ceded to the central government by provinces or other types national sub-divisions found in other countries. This system means that people won't be discriminated against by the federal government simply based on their geographical location. Thus richer and more populous states can't simply ignore the rest of the country when championing their proposals. Yes it can make for an ineffective form of government, but also avoids issues found in the British system. For example, Scottish and Welsh MPs can vote on matters effecting only England, but English MPs can't vote on matters only effecting Scotland and Wales. There is also something to be said by how long the United States Constitution has lasted compared to other governing documents of history, showcasing how flexible this short document has been with the changing times.

So while Dylan does make some good points, he nevertheless falls into trap that many do when they try to create a "better world". He strives so hard to turn history in the path he wants to take it that he ignores the more plausible directions it could have gone in favor of his overall message. His article is not bad when it comes to social commentary, but its value as alternate history is minimal.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. 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. To begin with, in both Canada and America the natives lost almost all the good agricultural land.

    America has more of that, both absolutely and relatively, so the Indians lost more here. There's really no other difference except that the process in Canada was more orderly and more hypocritical.

    Same thing happened in Australia, where the Aborigines got trashed even worse than the Indians here. Both the informal settler militias and the official forces slaughtered them like rats. And that happened with much stronger control from London, during a "humanitarian" phase in British culture.

    The 1763 Proclamation Line was a non-starter, an idiotic piece of legislation that looked sensible in London if you didn't really know much about American colonial affairs. The demographic pressures were irresistible, with the Indians declining in numbers while the whites and their slaves doubled every 20-25 years, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out.

    The Proclamation Line had to be amended in the colonists' favor several times before the Revolution because they simply ignored it and thrust their way over the Appalachians anyway, and without the Revolution it would have been impossible to enforce without a huge army, which there was no prospect whatsoever of Parliament paying for.

    Certainly the colonists weren't going to tax themselves to finance troops to protect Indians they regarded as dangerous and inconvenient vermin.

  2. Next, slavery. Slavery would have been ultimately abolished if there hadn't been a Revolution, but it's extremely unlikely it would have been in the early 1830's.

    The Revolution took the plantation areas with the most potential for growth and expansion out of the British empire.

    The sugar colonies had reached about their natural limits by roughly 1800 or so. They were profitable, but not central, to the economy, and increasingly peripheral to the new mass-production trades, especially cotton and metals.

    The whole Industrial Revolution in Britain turned on the availability of cheap slave-grown cotton from the US, and that was the cutting-edge growth frontier of the British economy. Prior to 1776 the British midlands were also increasingly dependent on the export of manufactured tools and consumer goods to the American market, and the slave-plantation areas imported more because they had more "foreign exchange" to buy it with.

    With the cotton belt -in- the Empire rather than outside it, both the agitation against the slave trade (1807) and slavery itself would have had much more potent opposition. Slave imports would have been much greater even if the 1807 date for abolition of the trade remained -- prior to 1776, they were hitting record highs (along with immigration from Britain, btw.).

    And the "cotton lobby" would have faced much more opposition -in Britain- from the growing cotton industry. In OTL, British industrialists could indulge antislavery because the cotton plantations were outside the Empire and not affected by British measures.

    Furthermore, the extra millions of slaves in the American colonies would have meant many, many, many extra millions of pounds of compensation money.

    Last but not least, rebellion in the slave belt would have been a real threat London had to take into consideration. Jamaica and Barbados were tiny islands dependent on Imperial troops for protection against slave uprisings and totally vulnerable to the Royal Navy, and even so London was very reluctant to override their (planter-dominated) assemblies. That would have been much worse with the American mainland.

    My guess is that slavery -would- have been abolished, probably by something like Brazil's "free birth" law at first (removing the hereditary status of chattel for the children of slaves), but starting no earlier than the 1840's, and more probably sometime after 1860.

    The emancipation process would, if it didn't produce a slaveholders' revolt, also be much more gradual and less disruptive of the plantation economy and the social order based on it.

  3. It's also unlikely that the course of continental expansion would have been much different if the Revolution hadn't occurred. The whole continent north of the core areas of Mexico would almost certainly have ended up British, in a self-governing, white-settler-colony form.

    The basic reasons are a combination of demographics and geopolitics. The American colonies were growing -very fast- prior to the Revolution. The spill of population into the Mississippi Valley (most of which was British after the Peace of Paris in 1763) was inevitable and unstoppable.

    Furthermore, Anglo-American settlers were perfectly willing and able to push forward beyond the "legal" frontier; they did it all the time, before the Revolution and afterwards. Fillibusters and settlers would have pushed into Spanish territory anyway, just as they did in our history.

    And wars with Spain (and France) would have happened anyway; they had for centuries before, after all. Whether the French Revolution (and its consequences for the Spanish Empire) would have happened is another matter, but whether under Napoleon or the Bourbons, there was still going to be rivalry and conflict.

    And possessing the mainland colonies would give the British such a massive demographic and economic advantage that the likely outcome would be a steamroller that wouldn't stop until it hit the Pacific.

  4. Note that if the lack of an American Revolution aborted the French Revolution and the cycle of wars between 1789 and 1815 -- quite likely, if there was no Revolutionary War with French involvement -- there would probably have been no revolution in Haiti.

    The Haitian revolution is probably the only substantial, successful slave revolt in human history. Virtually every other slave uprising (and there were plenty) failed.

    If you look at in detail, it was only possible because the masters were deeply divided (just before the slaves rose there were no less than five French factions fighting each other and arming slaves to do it), and because France and Britain were at war.

  5. Note also that if the wars against the Revolution and Napoleon didn't happen, independence in Latin America would be very much delayed, if it happened at all. The situation there was much more stable than in the British because the Spanish-American criollos who ran the place were very conscious of their vulnerabilities vs. a vs. the -casta- groups, and the lower classes generally.

    Only the collapse of the Spanish government (and the Portuguese, later) made substantial chunks of them willing to take up arms for independence.

    Without the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Bourbon Spain and Bourbon France would probably have remained allies and Latin America would have remained Spanish indefinitely; several generations more, at least.

  6. Note also (2) that the -economic- consequences of American independence were disastrous... for the American colonists, whose per-capita incomes dropped 40% and didn't recover to the 1776 levels until the 1820's, if then.

    The -British- did fine after 1783. The colonies, not so much.

    It turned out that the Imperial economic system mainly operated to take golden guineas out of the pockets of Englishmen and put them in the pockets of American farmers, merchants and planters.

    This happened directly -- the British government spent a lot more in the colonies than it collected there, and even if every tax the North ministry had proposed had been passed into law and collected in full, it would -still- have been doing that, just somewhat less so.

    (In the early 1770's IIRC the British government was spending over 100,000 pounds on the mainland and collecting about 25,000.)

    And it also happened indirectly. The Laws of Trade and Navigation did disadvantage some Americans (tobacco planters particularly) but benefited others far more -- shipping interests, timber, naval stores, rice and indigo producers, farm exports generally.

    It didn't even actually disadvantage American manufacturers much in practice as opposed to theory; in 1775 America was producing as much iron as the UK, something which wouldn't be true again until the 1880's. The main reason America bought a lot of British manufactured goods was that they were cheaper and better than the local article, not least because wages were much lower in Britain.

    Being inside the Empire was vastly more profitable than being outside it; Britain had the best and cheapest manufactured goods, the most rapidly growing market for American exports, and the best and cheapest sources of credit, business insurance and general financial services. Most British legislation -- the Navigation Acts on shipping, for example -- treated American colonists identically. 1/3 of the British Empire's merchant marine was American-built and American-owned in 1775.

    (Time out for laughter and applause; the taxes their own government imposed on Americans after the Revolution were far, far heavier than any the British had ever even imagined.)

    So in a sense the war was about the British fighting to make Americans take their money, and Americans shooting back at them to make them keep their guineas.

    The great economic boom which was interrupted by the war would have continued if it hadn't happened. Faster growth on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in the Americas; more immigration, more exports, more imports, more trade generally.

    The slaves, Indians and so forth would have been SOL, but that happened anyway.

    1. Thanks. That is an interesting point that I have not thought. I will need to do some more research on it. Do you have any book recommendations to get me started?

  7. Note also that if the wars against the Revolution and Napoleon didn't happen, independence in Latin America would be very much delayed, if it happened at all. The situation there was much more stable than in the British because the Spanish-American criollos who ran the place were very conscious of their vulnerabilities vs. a vs. the -casta- groups, and the lower classes generally.

    Only the collapse of the Spanish government (and the Portuguese, later) made substantial chunks of them willing to take up arms for independence.

    Without the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Bourbon Spain and Bourbon France would probably have remained allies and Latin America would have remained Spanish indefinitely; several generations more, at least.

  8. Benedict Arnold, a courageous general who may have saved the Revolution in its early days, reached the conclusion that Congress was too venal, corrupt and irresponsible to govern America. We are still waiting for Congress to prove him wrong.