For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga is one of the best alternative history science fiction novels written in the 20th century. It is literally encyclopedic. A fully realized alternative timeline, the novel takes the form of a narrative history! I don’t know if one can say that the world depicted is better or worse than ours…it is simply different.
I think of it whenever I see pieces such as one in Vox, 3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake. There are some people offended by the timing of the piece, July 3rd. And I can see that.
But what about the premise? The author makes three assertions:
- Slavery would have ended sooner
- The Native Americans would have done better under the British
- The British system of parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy is superior to the presidential republican one
The last point really isn’t about the American Revolution. It’s an argument about a presidential system vs. that of a constitutional monarchy. The second point seems the simplest and most straightforwardly defensible. The reality is that there is a consistent pattern of monarchs and authorities being more benevolent to marginalized subjects than those nearer to those subjects. The Spanish who settled the New World were brutal to the native peoples, and though the rulers of Spain could not ultimately stop them, it is clear that they did not condone or encourage the brutality. Similarly, the white settlers of Australia treated the native peoples brutally and genocidally, but this occurred because of the relatively free hand that the British Empire gave the white settler colonies. And finally, even in the United States, in the 19th century, the most pro-Native sentiment was often found in places like New England, where the local Native population was mostly gone due to earlier wars (during which Congregationalist ministers had justified the tossing of Indian children into rivers to drown).
Though it is likely that the Native Americans would have been marginalized and decimated by white settlers in North America no matter what timeline you look at, it seems plausible that if the American settlers had not taken over their government the British crown probably would have suppressed some of the more overt brutality. It is likely, for example, that the Cherokee would never have been relocated to Oklahoma, at great human cost.
But the phenomenon of slavery brings to mind a major issue when weighing the cost vs. benefit of American independence: as tacitly acknowledged in the Vox piece the very secession of the American colonies from the British Empire likely had an impact on the British themselves.
In Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, Civil Warfare, And The Triumph Of Anglo-America he points out that the removal of the American colonies (or the majority at least) in the late 18th century, and the mass exodus of the Catholic Irish in the 1840s, transformed the white population of the British Empire. In 1800 the population of England and Wales was about 10 million and the population of Ireland was 5 million. By 1900 there 30 million people living in England, and 3 million living in Ireland. In 1850 there were about 15 million people in England and 25 million people in the United States of America.
The removal of the Catholic Irish from the United Kingdom, often to the United States, shifted the cultural and ethnic balance in the United Kingdom to one where people who adhered to the established Anglican Church were numerically dominant. The United States itself when it had been the American colonies were dominated by dissenter Protestants. With the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, only a small minority of the population was affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Arguably the only part of the British Empire which could ever compete with the metropole as producers of manufactured goods would have been the New England colonies and the northern Mid-Atlantic region. The American exit probably had fortuitous long-term consequences for British cohesion and singular purpose in terms of imperial policy.
Overall I think considering the morality of the American Revolution is a good thing. In the year 2000, the film The Patriot depicted the British as proto-Nazis, committing heinous acts against the American populace. One reason that this was not plausible is that a substantial minority of the American population was pro-British, and a large number were ambivalent or neutral. By all estimates, the hardcore revolutionaries were a minority, though this varied by region and period (e.g., New England was a hotbed of revolt, while New York City and much of the Mid-Atlantic remained loyalist). And the reality is that the British treated white Americans colonials with kid gloves in part because those American colonials were seen as part of the British people in a way that nonwhites never were. The issue for the Americans is that the metropole did not see them as exact equals.
I was taught history in the United States, and so it was written and presented in a way which did depict the British as villains who were imposing unjust demands on the American colonists. As I got older I realized that though the revolutionaries had cause to be angry, the British also had a rationale for their behavior. 1776 was not 1986.
But even aside from that, the Vox piece suffers from not acknowledging the fact that history is nonlinear and the knock-on effects of a British victory may have been much more drastic and unpredictable than the movement of a few parameters here and there (e.g., slavery abolished in the USA in 1830 rather than 1860). Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval documents just how radical the American regime was in its time. The American republic was an exotic and strange experiment and served as a model and beacon. It is quite possible that without its model of revolutionary success the French Revolution may never have occurred. As a conservative, I think that would be a good thing, but I’m not sure many progressives would agree.
Additionally, the democratic republican model of government was shown to work in the modern world at large political scale by the United States. Most Europeans were skeptical of its feasibility, as ancient republics and democracies had never been able to sustain themselves beyond a certain size. And, unlike most every other nation at the time the United States also had a federal government which eschewed the mixing of religion and state, so that the republic was not sanctified by a divine or supernatural principle.
As an exercise in historical analysis, or entertaining alternative history, wondering about the consequences of a British victory over the rebels in the war in the American colonies is interesting, and possibly important. But I’m not sure there are truly deep moral lessons across the full arc of history, because the success of the rebellion itself had consequences far outside of the American colonies.