How might things have been worse if the American Revolution had not happened?

Burton Weltman

There are many ways in which things might have been worse for Americans in the past and in the present if the Revolution had not occurred.  Our federal Constitution for example, which is one of the wonders of world history, is a consequence of the Revolution, even if it was not the sort of government that was originally intended by the Founding Fathers when they made the Revolution.  The following are just a few examples of things that might have been different and different for the worse if there had been no Revolution.  You are probably able to come up with other and maybe better examples. 

1. If the Revolution had not occurred, might democracy have developed more slowly in America?  Political democracy might have developed more slowly without the Revolution.  The democratic right of all white men to vote developed some thirty to fifty years later in England and in the other English-speaking British colonies than in the United States.  The earlier development of democracy for men in the United States was a direct outcome of the struggle for democratic rights that began during the Revolution.  It was part of the revolution within the Revolution.  That is, while the revolutionaries as a whole were fighting for American independence from England, there were democratic American revolutionaries struggling against aristocratic American revolutionaries for the right to vote and control the new government.

At the time of the Revolution, suffrage was limited to white men with substantial property and/or income.  These property and income requirements were gradually abolished in the various states during and after the Revolution so that by the 1820’s, there was universal suffrage for white men.  These rights did not emerge in England and her other English-speaking colonies until the mid to late nineteenth century.

2. If the Revolution had not occurred, might religious freedom have developed more slowly and less surely in America?  Freedom of religion developed more slowly in England and in her other English-speaking colonies than it did in the United States.  Religious tests for political office and other public purposes were abandoned almost immediately in America after the Revolution, and Massachusetts in the 1830’s was the last holdout state to abandon a state-sponsored church.  The British gradually abandoned religious tests and restrictions during the course of the nineteenth century but the Anglican Church remains the official Church of England to the present day.  The Anglican Church ceased to be the official church of Canada in 1832, Australia in 1836 and New Zealand in 1840.

3. If the Revolution had not occurred, might women’s rights have developed more slowly in America?  Women’s rights developed somewhat more slowly in England but somewhat more quickly in the other English-speaking colonies than in the United States.  As such, it may be a tossup whether women might have fared better or worse in the United States if there was no Revolution and America had remained for longer as a colony  In New Zealand, women gained the right to vote in national elections in 1893.  In Australia, it was 1902.  In Canada, it was 1921 just as it was in the United States.  In England, it was 1928.

In general, women’s rights in these countries developed more quickly in less settled territories in which sexist customs were not so well-established and in which women had opportunities to break new ground, both literally and figuratively.  In the United States, women’s rights developed particularly quickly in the western territories and states as they were settled by European-Americans.  This might not have happened in the same way if there was no Revolution.

What do you think?

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Would it have been better for the American colonists and would it be better for us today if the American Revolution had not happened?

Burton Weltman

This is a highly speculative question that raises a lot of “What if?” possibilities.  Even though there can be no definitive answer to this kind of question, it is the sort of question that we regularly ask in our daily lives.  Would it have been better if I had taken a different route on my way driving home?  Should I have said “No” to that second helping of desert?  We almost cannot help ourselves in asking such questions.  It seems part of human nature.

It is also common sense.  “What if?” is the sort of question that leaders and organizations  regularly ask about their decisions and actions.  A businessperson evaluating an advertising campaign, a politician evaluating an election campaign, an army general evaluating a military campaign, all of them wondering if better results could have been achieved with a different course of action, are asking “What if?” questions.  And this is, in turn, the sort of question we ought to ask about historical events.

In this blog entry, I am going to suggest a few possible ways in which things might have been better if the Revolution had not occurred and the colonies had, instead, gradually attained their independence as did the other English-speaking British colonies.  In my next blog entry, I will suggest ways in which things might have been worse if the Revolution had not occurred.  These issues are discussed at greater length in my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).

1.  If the Revolution had not occurred, might there have been an earlier and peaceful ending to slavery?  The British ended slavery in England during the early 1770’s and then peaceably ended slavery within the rest of their empire during the 1830’s.  If the American colonies had remained part of the British empire through the early nineteenth century, slavery could have been ended in what became the United States some thirty years earlier than it was, and without a vicious civil war that is still being fought to some extent to the present day.

While Southern whites were willing in the 1860’s to try their luck in a war against the North to save slavery, it is less likely that they would have been willing to go up against both the North and Great Britain during the 1830’s.  In fact, many Southerners supported the American Revolution because they were afraid of the growing anti-slavery movement in England during the 1770’s and they wanted to distance themselves from English abolitionism.  Although it is possible that if the American colonies were still owned by England in the nineteenth century, the English would not have been so quick to abolish slavery.  But it appears that the English overrode economic considerations in abolishing slavery when they did, so that they might have abolished slavery in their empire even if they still owned the American colonies.

2. If the Revolution had not occurred, might there have been a more peaceful relationship between European Americans and Native Americans?  The British imposed on their European settlers in America a policy of gradual settlement which included some respect for the rights and needs of Native Americans, and discouraged European settlers from illegally grabbing land from Indians which might incite violent clashes.  One of the reasons many American colonists supported the Revolution was to get away from the policy of gradual settlement of land west of the Appalachian Mountains that England had imposed on the colonies after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

As a result of the British policy of gradual settlement, Europeans settled in Canada for the most part peaceably during the nineteenth century and meshed European and Native American settlements without any significant wars.  As a consequence of the American Revolution, European Americans were allowed to pursue an aggressive settlement policy and they conducted an almost continuous series of genocidal wars against Native Americans from the 1770’s through the 1890’s.  White people repeatedly encroached on areas ostensibly guaranteed by treaty to Indians, provoking a violent reaction by the Indians, and then an overwhelmingly violent counter-reaction by the United States government.  This cycle of genocidal violence might have been avoided if the Revolution had not occurred.

3. If the Revolution had not occurred, might there have been a more peaceful relationship between America and the rest of the world?  The United States has been almost continuously involved in wars and military engagements from the American Revolution to the present day.  There have been major wars such as the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, two Wars in Iraq, and the Afghanistan War.

In addition, there were the relatively minor wars against the Tripoli pirates and the undeclared war against France in the 1790’s; and military interventions in Japan and China during the nineteenth century.  There were also the bloody war against the Philippines’ independence, a long series of military interventions in Latin America, and several military interventions in the Middle East during the twentieth century.  And, of course, there was the almost continuous series of Indian wars in America during the nineteenth century.

Many of these wars were preemptive strikes like the Revolution.  The Revolution seemingly established a pattern of Americans trying to solve problems through military action and, in particular, of trying to avoid violence through engaging in violence, which hasn’t seemed to work very well.  We seemingly came out of the Revolution as a war-like peace-loving people who have repeatedly tried to end war through wars.  If the Loyalists had prevailed during the 1770’s, maybe a pattern of solving problems through negotiations might have been established instead.

4. If the Revolution had not occurred, might Americans have developed a more effective political system?  During the nineteenth century, the English and their English-speaking colonies (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) developed political systems based on competition between pro-government conservative parties and pro-government liberal parties.  Although conservatives and liberals have regularly disagreed on many issues, both the conservative parties and the liberal parties have historically been in favor of relying heavily on the government to solve social problems and promote the general welfare of their countries.

This type of political system, in which both liberals and conservatives see government as the solution to social problems, exists to the present day in every industrial democracy other than the United States, where the major conservative party, the Republican Party, has developed an anti-government ideology in which government itself is seen as the primary social problem.

Having a major and sometimes ruling party that is anti-government makes efficient and effective government difficult (How can people who hate government effectively run the government?), polarizes the American political system (How can two parties compromise when they start from such different premises about government?), and leaves the United States with a lower level of social services than any other industrial democracy (Systems of social security, minimum wages, and welfare provisions for the poor, all of which were and still largely are opposed by American conservatives, were actually first established in Europe by conservatives.)

With a longer tutelage under British rule, the United States might have developed a political system similar to that of England and the other industrial democracies, and we might have a more effective system in which the conservative party is not opposed to the government it seeks to control.

What do you think?

George Washington’s Lament: Was the American Revolution based on foolish expectations?

Burton Weltman

The question I want to discuss in this blog entry is whether the American revolutionaries were mistaken in their expectations of what would be the consequences of making a revolution against British rule.  Why was George Washington dismayed by the outcome of the Revolution? 

As with the question discussed previously in this blog about whether the Revolution had been based on false premises, the question of whether the Revolution was based on foolish expectations is discussed at greater length in Chapter 2 of my book Was the American Revolution a Mistake?:Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).  That chapter includes lots of quotations and citations from easily accessible primary and secondary sources.  And as with the previous question, I recommend The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969) as the single best secondary source on the Revolution.

Was the American Revolution a foolish mistake?

The American Revolution was not merely or even primarily a movement for national independence.  Most of the revolutionaries did not mind being considered Englishmen.  What they minded was being controlled by the kind of government that ruled England and that the English were imposing on each of the colonies.  That is, they were opposed to centralized government and to government with a strong chief executive that might morph easily into tyranny.  Their goal was, instead, to establish a decentralized government with a weak chief executive for the colonies as a whole and for each of the separate colonies.

This goal was exemplified by the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, and by the state constitutions adopted during the Revolution, all of which established weak central governments with  weak chief executives.  The Articles left most governmental power to the states and the state constitutions left most governmental power in the hands of local officials.  The President of the United States under the Articles was essentially the chairman of the meetings of Congress and served for only one year.  Ten of the thirteen state constitutions adopted during the Revolution had similarly weak governors who were elected by the states’ legislatures and served only one-year terms.

But no sooner had these constitutions been enacted and the Revolution ended, than Founding Fathers such as George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and others turned against the decentralized government under the Articles of Confederation that they had been fighting for, and moved aggressively to adopt a new Constitution with the very sort of centralized government and strong chief executive that they had been opposing.  In so doing, the Founders had no sooner won the Revolution than they abandoned the “republican” ideology which had inspired it.

The ideology that had inspired the Founding Fathers was based on two basic premises.  The first was that “the people” all have essentially the same goals and will naturally cooperate with each other when given the chance.  The Founders were not adherents of small government.  They were adherents of local government, with local government having broad powers of control over the local economy and social life.  The second premise was that ordinary people will naturally defer to their “natural leaders,” that is, to elite leaders such as the Founding Fathers, when given the chance.  The Founders’ was a philosophy of government for the common people but not by the common people.

The Founders’ republican ideology had been reinforced by their pre-Revolution experience of local government in the colonies, which had been largely cooperative, constructive and controlled by elite leaders.  Washington and other elite leaders objected to Britain’s intervention in the colonies as a violation of what they considered the right of the natural aristocracy in America to govern the colonies.

Based on their ideological premises, the Founders expected that once the corrupting and disrupting influences of the British monarchy had been eliminated, Americans would choose governments at the local and state levels that would be controlled by their natural leaders who would operate those governments in the best interests of all the people.  This did not happen.

When the Revolution ended, ordinary Americans began to make economic and political demands that greatly disturbed elite leaders.  In turn, upstart leaders of the common people began demanding authority within the new state governments.  Many of the Founding Fathers, such as Washington, Madison, John Adams and Hamilton, felt themselves being overwhelmed by democrats at the local and state levels.  And they began complaining about a new type of tyranny, the tyranny of the majority, which they claimed was even worse than royal tyranny because it was all-encompassing.  “Have we fought for this?,” George Washington lamented.

In what was seemingly an admission that they had been foolish in their expectations as to the outcome of the Revolution, the Founders tried to restore their political and social ascendancy through establishing a new Constitution that centralized power in the federal government and that included a strong chief executive.  This was a radical reversal of their original plans and expectations.  In this respect, the Revolution could be considered a mistake.  Might the Founders have had a better chance of achieving their original social and political goals if they had not made the Revolution?  Would that have been the better choice?

What do you think?

George III’s Legacy: Was the American Revolution based on false premises?

Burton Weltman

There are several ways in which we might ask whether the American Revolution was a mistake.  I will briefly discuss one way in this blog and others in future blogs.  The question I will discuss in this blog is whether the premises upon which the Declaration of Independence was based were accurate or whether the revolutionaries were mistaken in their analysis of the situation in 1776? 

A more thorough discussion of this and other questions about the Revolution can be found in Chapter 2 of my recently published book Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Reaching Students and Reinforcing Patriotism through Teaching History as Choice (AuthorHouse, 2013).  The chapter includes lots of quotations and citations from easily accessible primary and secondary sources.

Much of the discussion in this blog is based on The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969).  Over forty years after its publication, this book remains, I think, the best discussion of the Revolution and its aftermath and continues to be the foundation of most scholarship about the Revolution.

Were the premises upon which American revolutionaries based their call for revolution accurate or were they mistaken in their analysis of the situation in which they were in?  

The Revolution of 1776 was a preemptive strike to prevent the establishment of a tyranny over America.  It was based on two key premises.  The first was that the King was becoming a tyrannical dictator over England and the colonies.  The second was that if the colonies did not achieve independence immediately, they might never again have another chance to do so.

Despite the impression created in most conventional American history textbooks, the Declaration of Independence does not claim that the colonies were currently being subject to tyrannical rule.  Gordon Wood has noted that “Americans were not an oppressed people.  In fact, the Americans knew they were probably freer and less burdened with cumbersome feudal and hierarchal restraint than any part of mankind in the eighteenth century.”  It was the prospect of future oppression that worried the revolutionaries and led them to act.

In justifying the Revolution, the Declaration claims that the King’s actions demonstrate his “having the direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny.”  That is, the revolutionaries were convinced that George III’s recent actions in reforming the British empire and enforcing British rule were the prelude to what we today might call totalitarian rule.  They were concerned that the King was creating a dictatorship in which they would be smothered in the future if they did not act immediately.  In this context, the list of grievances against the King which is the heart of the Declaration has a prospective tone of portending harm rather than current actual harm.

The first several grievances on the list in the Declaration do not even complain about things the King had done but about the refusal of the King to agree to things that the colonists wanted done, seemingly to the colonists an ominous portent of future oppression.  And many of the specific acts of oppression that are complained about were reactions by the King to the illegal attack on British property that we call the Boston Tea Party and to other violent American attacks on British targets.  In sum, the revolutionaries claimed that although the King was not yet a tyrant over America, his actions, including his reactions to violent American actions such as the Boston Tea Party, were conclusive indicators of his intention to become a tyrant.

In retrospect, it is clear that the revolutionaries were mistaken in their analysis of George III.  Historians generally acknowledge that the King was not becoming a tyrant over England or the colonies and never had any intentions of doing so.  Majority opinion about George III in England during the 1770’s seems to have been the same.  Even most of his opponents in England believed that the King was merely wrongheaded but not that he was aiming for tyranny.

George III was, in fact, merely trying to be an active king within the existing British King-in-Parliament system of government.  Unlike his grandfather, George I, and his father, George II, who had been Germans by birth, had barely spoken any English, and had very little interest in England, George III was a native-born Englishman who was interested in his country and in fulfilling his duties as King.  And this is the view of the King that many leading revolutionaries, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, tacitly acknowledged after the Revolution when they promoted negotiations and close relations with the government of George III.

The revolutionaries were also seemingly mistaken in their second premise that it was now or never in 1776 for independence.  As England developed parliamentary and democratic government during the nineteenth century, Britain gradually granted independence to its English-speaking colonies, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  Each of these colonies got first home rule and then complete independence during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  And each of these former colonies developed as a democracy that is overall as prosperous and free as the United States.

In fact, at the very time the American revolutionaries were declaring their independence, British emissaries of King George III were sailing from England to America with an offer of what amounted to home rule for the colonies over their domestic affairs, the main thing that most of the revolutionaries were demanding.  If the Americans had waited a few weeks before issuing their Declaration of Independence, the Declaration might never have been issued and the Revolution might never have happened.  And if the American colonies had not made the Revolution, they might have followed the same path to independence as the other English-speaking British colonies and would not have had to suffer through the eight years of war and devastation of the Revolution.  Would this have been the better choice?

What do you think?

The American Revolution through British Eyes.

I received a comment from Historical Kate who is interested in looking at the American Revolution through the eyes of the British.  I think that is a great project.

One of the most interesting questions for me about the British response to the American Revolution is why they didn’t just let the American colonies go. This was the recommendation of many members of the British political and business establishment, including such prominent figures as Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. They argued that Britain would control the colonies economically even if the colonies were politically independent and Britain would be spared the costs and aggravation of having to govern the colonies.

There was a furious ongoing debate within the British establishment during the whole course of the Revolution as to whether it was worth it to keep ownership of the colonies. And the “let the colonies go” faction finally won the argument. Why did they win and why did it take so long?