In the year 2000 I watched the film The Patriot. Some British observers protested that the depiction of frankly Nazi-like behavior by the redcoats in the film was total fiction. There are scenes in the film where slaves are promised freedom in the revolutionary cause. Even those with a cursory knowledge of history during this period know that that was a painfully ahistorical element of the plot (I vaguely recall a few people laughing at this part of the movie in the theater). Finally, the historical individual upon whom the protagonist was based was a nasty fellow.
There is a tendency to compress the past, and turn it all into a blurry equivalent haze. Consider the American Civil War next to the Revolutionary War. Though people of the North were no more angels than those of the South, it eventually came to be that the sectional chasms of the 1850s culminated in the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, as well as a war in the service of a peculiar institution (do note, I accept the proposition that the upstream causes were structural-economic, even if their cultural manifestations were ideological; see Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War). As I have noted, as a child who came to consciousness in Greater New England there was never any doubt as to who was on the “right” side in the Civil War. Looking back with hindsight it does seem to me that by and large the armies in blue singing “John Brown’s Body” are more prophetic of a modern outlook than those who fought for the Southern way of life.
To be unequivocal about the American Revolution is more difficult for me. Unlike the Lost Cause, Britain did not disappear. Britain is still here. In fact, for a century Britain and the United States of America have been fast friends on the international stage. In the game of “what-if” it is natural that one look to the course of events in the British Empire and consider if that was perhaps a road not taken that might have been a better one at that. Vox offers 3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake. They are, in order:
- Abolition would have come faster without independence
- Independence was bad for Native Americans
- America would have a better system of government if we’d stuck with Britain
One can agree or disagree with these assertions. The first two do seem more probable than not, though I am not entirely confident. The last is a matter of some complexity which I will set to the side. The key concern that immediately crops up in my mind is that the retention of the thirteen settler colonies would have irrevocably altered the course of British history. History is made up of contingent events, even if there are broad trends, and the addition of the massive dominion of the American colonies, and their likely demographic arc toward parity with the metropole just across the Atlantic, would have changed British culture. As Kevin Philips observed in The Cousins’ Wars the independence of the American colonies and the demographic collapse of Ireland in the wake of the famine resulted in a British population stripped of a large number of dissenting Protestant elements as well as a huge Catholic minority. British national consciousness as an Anglican country was definitely enabled by the independence of the American colonies, which were strongholds for heterodox and dissenter factions.
There is also a line of economic determinism that argues that American secession from union with the metropole was inevitable. That is because of the distinctiveness of the American Northern economy as it progressed in the early 19th century, the conditions of which were already in place by the 18th. While dominions such as Canada and Australia, and the erstwhile Southern colonies and the non-white possessions, were geared toward producing raw inputs for British manufacturing (one reason that the British elite were pro-Southern in their sympathies for much of the Civil War), the North was almost certainly bound to become an industrial rival (this explains the fixation on tariff policy in American politics up until the middle of the 20th century). It is hard to imagine the existence of a Dominion dominated by groups with dissenting Protestant sympathies and economically ascendant in a manner which competes with England not being a major question in the 19th century in lieu of the American Revolution. It may be that many of the things distinctive in British history as opposed to American, and preferred by the sort of people who write at Vox, may not have occurred in the same way if America and Britain remained politically fused, due to greater cultural exchange.
Second, there is the likelihood that British elite culture would influence the United States. Within the American experiment there was pregnant a panoply of radicalisms, some of which were resisted by broad swaths of America itself. Britain has a hereditary aristocracy, and class has a particular valence in British culture which it does not in the United States of America. The economic realities of the frontier suggest to me that some of this is structural and not conditional. After all, Canada and Australia are less fixated on class than England. But, it seems that a tighter integration between British and American society could not but help dampen down the populism of American culture in its orientation. Additionally, a quick survey of the population statistics for Canada and Australia show that they are much more British in origin than the white population of the United States. The massive waves of German immigration to the United States may have been much more modest in an America under the Empire, and the Anglo-Saxon demographic character of much of the North would have been more thoroughly preserved (one can imagine knock-on effects, such as a larger wave of German migration to South America and Eastern Europe?)
Reflecting on history is important. And thought experiments, counter-intuitive, even shocking, are to be welcomed. Political correctness should be abhorred in intellectual discussion. But we live in the year 2015, and the past is the past. What has been done can not be undone. So tomorrow I’m going to celebrate the American Independence, because whether the omniscient scales of history judge the arc of utility positive or negative, without it we wouldn’t be who we are, and we can always make the future better no matter the substance of the past.