When we contemplate the barbarities carried out by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, we naturally regard their actions as contrary to the basic values of the western world. And yet, not so long ago, conquest, massacre and enslavement all featured in the making of America. Even into the 20th century, whole swathes of the US languished under segregation and organised public lynchings every bit as cruel as those perpetrated by ISIS.
Of course, terrible things were done by the British Empire too, but in a provocative essay for Vox, Dylan Matthews argues that if the American Revolution had failed then fewer terrible things would happened:
“…I’m reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now, for three main reasons: Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.”
Let’s leave aside the constitutional issue and focus on America’s original sins – slavery and the treatment of its native peoples:
“Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there, too, in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.
“This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.”
Today, the Confederate battle flag is condemned as the symbol of a war fought by the South to maintain the institution of slavery. The war in question, of course, was the American Civil War, but the same applies in part to the American Revolution:
“For white slaveholders in the South, Simon Schama writes in Rough Crossings, his history of black loyalism during the Revolution, the war was ‘a revolution, first and foremost, mobilized to protect slavery.’”
The second part of Matthews’ argument is that the Revolution was also bad news for America’s original inhabitants:
“American Indians would have still, in all likelihood, faced violence and oppression absent American independence, just as First Nations people in Canada did. But American-scale ethnic cleansing wouldn’t have occurred. And like America’s slaves, American Indians knew this. Most tribes sided with the British or stayed neutral; only a small minority backed the rebels. Generally speaking, when a cause is opposed by the two most vulnerable groups in a society, it’s probably a bad idea. So it is with the cause of American independence.”
Well, okay – that’s the dark side of America’s history, which very few people would deny; but what about America as the land of the free, the ‘indispensable nation’ without which democracy would have been crushed in the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War? And what about America as the greatest, most prosperous, most inventive economy the world has ever seen? Surely, all of that is down to the principles fought for and enshrined by America’s founding fathers (even if some of them were slave owners)?
I wonder. For a start, let’s give some credit to America’s geographical good fortune: a vast slab of land at temperate latitudes, stuffed full of natural resources and bounded by protective oceans. It would be hard not to make a go of that. Then there’s the cultural inheritance. It didn’t take American exceptionalism to tame the wilderness – Canadians and Australians also built prosperous and free societies (and on less hospitable terrain).
As for the World Wars, the contribution made by soldiers from across the Commonwealth was also indispensable – and, furthermore, on time.
Of course, even without the Revolution, America would not have remained forever part of the British Empire. The colonies would in time have gained independence, probably as a unified nation, but with a history and character more like that of their northern neighbour today.
I will leave it readers to decide whether the world would have been better off with a United States of Canada.