July 11, 2008

Should America have fought the War of Independence?

Matt Yglesias on his blog argues that the creation of the United States might well have been a mistake- that it would have been better for the Americans and British to have found a compromise and resolved their differences. It is an interesting argument. If you think about it, the UK and US and Canada all historically and presently have shared various ideals. We fought the Kaiser and Hitler together, were members of NATO and are allies in the War on Terror. We also support free trade, support international organisations like the WTO and generally are allies in the councils of most international bodies. The war between the Atlantic cousins has seemed to more illustrious men than even Matt Yglesias to have been a folly, Churchill lamented the split as did Conan Doyle. The world of Anglo-American union might have been a much better one- in which American strength came quicker into Europe to stop Naziism and Communism and British participation brought America to an earlier prominence.

But that presumes that everything went fine and that's the main problem with Yglesias's scenario. Go back to 1776 or even to 1780, let us say a deal was done. What would be the likelihood of every American accepting it? Furthermore what would be the likelihood of the deal holding? I can imagine scenarios in which a long protracted guerilla war poisoned the atmosphere. Furthermore what is the likelihood of Britain and America together being as successful in colonising the entire continent as the US was- would the Louisiana purchase have happened, would Spain have been left alone to fight for Florida or Mexico for Texas- would continental American expansion been diverted by European rivalries as say Oklahoma was swapped for Schleswig Holstein (don't laugh, France in 1763 swapped Martinique for Canada with Britain and the British were furious that they had got the worst of the bargain), would Russia say have hung on in Alaska instead of selling it to the new Republic? Such an outcome would have made every expansion of America a question of European politics, not merely of American politics. In a sense it was the war of independence which made the Monroe doctrine possible and furthermore the Monroe doctrine, supported tacitly by British naval power, that made the expansion of the US possible. There is another vast issue: in 1806 Britain abolished the slave trade- with the Southern states, the British could either have not abolished the slave trade or could have started a new American civil war, sixty years before the one that happened. And who could imagine what the result of that would have been?

Every moment in history depends on an infinite various lattice. Without America's creation would say great Anglo-Americans like Winston Churchill have ever been born not to mention such exclusively American or English personalities as Lincoln, Gladstone, Feynman, Elliot, Attlee or any of the rest of those that have inhabited the last couple of centuries and whose lives were predicated on the division of the two states. The problem is that reading back to 1776 involves so much guess work that even if we could prophesy that the effects of peace would have been good in the 18th Century, the effect of chaos is such that prediction of what Anglo-American union would have meant in the 19th and 20th centuries is a ridiculous parlour game. My suspision for what it is worth is that early independence made America turn paradoxically into an early ally for the UK, and furthermore that early independence strengthened the US- by emancipating it to singlemindedly pursue continental expansion. We can and shall never know- but we should always remember that whilst the union of the two Atlantic democracies might sound attractive- the reality could have been much much worse than the world in which we live today. Conjectural history is always attractive, but nothing within it is certain- if history teaches us anything, it is that human politics are chaotic and even the most prudent minds are unable to accurately construct the future, let alone an alternative past.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's no conjecture about it - perhaps you might recall the second war of independence (ie the war of 1812-1814) when Britain burnt the Whitehouse but reached a compromise in the form of an open alliance against the mutual threat of tyrrany - represented by the form of Napoleonic France.

This 'open alliance' of mutual freedom and shared interest is what the 'special friendship' developed from, setting a precedent which subsequent generations have struggled to confine within illiberal definitions.

Gracchi said...

Did the US actually supply any real help against Napoleonic France? I don't mean at all to quibble, I am genuinely not sure as to whether there was any real 'alliance' at that point. I apologise for my ignorance and crave instruction.

Trooper Thompson said...

What a stupid and hateful idea. The redcoat mercenaries got their arses kicked out of America for good reason. The sadness is that the people back in England never got their act together and followed suit, sending the parasitic royals and the merchants of London packing.

I only hope America will return to its Constitution and Bill of Rights

Quebecer said...

You all seem to forget that French Canada (Lower Canada) was a very powerful colony. Although supposedly conquered by Wolfe in 1763, kept independant and growing. A strong ally to Upper Canada, ensuring it victory against the Independant Colonies. There would have been no Canada without Quebec. Quebec always insisted in freedom of language and religion and would never have accepted to become American.Still now...it's a nation in itself. Canada always has to fight hard to keep Quebec part of the Canadian entity.

Gracchi said...

I didn't mention Quebec for a simple reason- I was discussing the US and not Canada though I agree it would have presented a problem for any continental union- but significantly I think there are other great problems with Matt Yglesias's idea which go further- like slavery.

Trooper Thompson- did you notice the direction of my article- not so favourable to the red coats!

Don Francisco said...

Matt Yglesias's post takes 2 + 2 and makes 5. Yes, American independence was a bit of a mistake - it could easily have been avoided. But for how long? If Britain could get it so completely wrong on a relatively minor issue, then what would have happened if an important issue came into play? The fact that both sides misunderstood each other indicates at the gulf of difference between the colonies and Britain in the C18th. The temptation is to to see the common language and ask why did it happen - but this is to miss the many deep rooted differences.

Gracchi said...

Don Francisco- yes entirely right. And slavery is the obvious issue which could have proved a later faultline- with British pressure to emancipate meeting the Southern states' economic model.

Trooper Thompson said...

Gracchi,

I find the premise ridiculous and loathsome, nothing against you or your article.

Americans should remember that the British Empire was their enemy, and did everything it could to destroy their country, including encouraging the South to secede.

Gracchi said...

Fair enough. I share your perspective that it would not neccessarily be better if there had been a compromise- though don't share your hatred against the government of George III as opposed to George Washington.

Trooper Thompson said...

Gracchi,

What compromise was possible? How do you compromise between liberty and servitude? The actions of George III's government had caused an economic disaster and the behaviour of his mercenary troops drove the people to rebel (-or at least a small minority of them!).

What annoys me in this, is the revisionist version of history that is put forward by proponents of the 'special relationship', which I see reflected in the first comment on this thread, from anon, which refers to the 'mutual threat of tyranny - represented by the form of Napoleonic France'.

Firstly, the Louisiana Purchase funded Napoleon, and if America had a natural ally in Europe, it would have been France, not Britain. Secondly, the founding fathers said the country should avoid 'entangling alliances' (one of many pieces of advice their descendents are ignoring). Thirdly, Britain was not fighting Napoleon in the service of liberty, but in the service of their imperialistic hegemonic interests. Fourthly American public opinion was not in favour of joining either World War, and it was necessary to con them, by the sinking of the Lusitania and then with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In summary, the 'special relationship' is very recent, and it is a mistake to project it back in time.

Gracchi said...

Trooper I don't know if you don't get the point of my article which is indeed that there was no possibility of a compromise.

As to the Napoleonic war I think the issues are more complicated- Napoleon sought his own hegemony- Britain ended up fighting him largely to avoid French dominance of the Atlantic coast. Its reasons were primarily European. But to be honest that's a separate question.

As is the isolationism of the US founding fathers- that should not be projected forward- and the Americans were thankfully here to fight in World War Two- if not for them then World War Two could have been lost and I fear to think what the consequences of Hitler conquering Britian and Russia would have been.

But I repeat I was raising this because a prominent American blogger had raised it- and I DISAGREE with his interpretation of events.

stacy said...

Hmm . . .

I am genetically incapable of processing any arguments slandering the American Revolution.

Indeed, I agree that compromise would not have been plausible. Regardless of the perception of the "special relationship," I do not think it is so plausible even today. For one, there are many things this exceptionally American blogger refuses to yield on. And that's just how the cookie crumbles.

Gracchi said...

I agree with you Stacy- as I argue above in a curious way I wonder whether independence makes Britain and America allies because of their simularity whereas sharing a state would make them enemies because of their differences.