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