July 09, 2004

What Would Have Happened if there Had Been No Revolutionary War?

What Would Have Happened if there Had Been No Revolutionary War? Tyler Cowen discusses the very interesting question of what would have happened had America not become independent in 1776. I think he, Brad DeLong, and Eugene Volokh all are on the wrong track, because they are thinking about what would have happened had the 13 Colonies merged with Great Britain. If that happened, there would have been one government, which might have been more like the USA's or might have been more like Britain's; Britain would have had more strength in European wars, etcetera. Brad DeLong says

Certainly World Wars I and II would have been a lot shorter had Britain been able to draw on the resources of the Dominion of North America from their beginning. They might not have ever happened at all: Wilhelmine and Nazi generals would have had to have been seriously cookoo to ever engage in a two- front war, one front of which was against a Britain whose strength included the Dominion of North America. (They were, of course, cookoo: but there are limits to cookooness, even for the pre-1945 German General Staff.) American slavery would, in all probability, have come to an earlier and much more peaceful end. These are big minuses to lay at the door of the American Revolution--in addition to the terror and death of the two revolutionary wars themselves.

I, however, firmly endorse and support the American Revolution, in the sense that it looked like the right thing to do at the time. Remember that the political evolution of Britain toward democracy was not foreordained as of 1775. (Indeed, the pressure exerted by the example of the United States was a powerful democratizing force in Britain throughout the whole of the nineteenth century.) Britain in 1775 was a corrupt monarchical oligarchy--albeit one with much softer rule, a much more effective state, and a much broader and more open system of political competition within the oligarchy than has been standard in human empires. It is quite likely that--absent the American Revolution and the Great Democratic Example across the seas, and absent the long reign of Victoria--the political evolution of nineteenth-century Britain would have stuck where it was at the accession of George III, or even moved backward away from democracy to some degree.

Eugene Volokh says

Tyler's post below reminded me of an observation I once heard when talking about something similar: At some point, a British Empire that included America would have become majority American. After all, the U.S. now has five times the population of the U.K., and while the immigration patterns would have been different had America remained British, I suspect that there still would have been plenty of immigration.

And unlike with India, this would have been a part of the Empire that would have been populated by people who, one way or another, would have ended up being seen as Englishmen (even if many were of other ethnic extraction). I suspect the Americans' complaints about lack of political representation would have been resolved somehow, so the extra population would have meant extra political power. It surely would have meant extra economic power; the economic and cultural center of gravity of the Empire might not have shifted as quickly to the Western Hemisphere, but such a shift would likely have happened eventually.

Moreover, the extra volume of immigration -- which would have been inevitable given America's size, the economic opportunity it represented, and the value of immigration as a means to resist encroachments from the French and the Spanish -- would likely have changed the culture of the aggregate British Empire.

But that is not the right counterfactual. It is crucial to remember that the American Revolution was a conservative revolution-- indeed,"revolution" is not a good name for it. For 150 years, the colonies had been pretty much self- governed. They paid their own way, and they made their own laws. Britain controlled their foreign policy, but that was about it. What provoked the Revolutionary War was that King and Parliament decided to try taxing the Colonies, a novelty. This could have come out either of two ways if war had not broken out:
1. The Colonies might have acquiesced in the idea of Parliamentary supremacy, as opposed to the idea that they were self-governing units under the King but with their colonial assemblies taking the place of Parliament. They would then have become mere dependencies, like Gibraltar or Minorca. 2. The Colonies might have successfully fought off the innovation of Parliamentary supremacy-- which, indeed, was Lord North's tardy peace proposal around 1779 (a proposal which would have deflected the war if he'd made it in 1775).
In neither case would the Colonies and Britain have become one country. Recall that Scotland, Ireland, and England were three separate countries in 1700, united only by having a single king in common, but with separate parliaments, tax systems, tariffs, peerages, and so forth. Being colored the same way on the map is not the same as being one country. The Union of Scotland and England in 1707 was a big deal, as was the less successful Union of Great Britan with Ireland a hundred years later. Blackstone, chapter 4, book 1 has a good description of this, though colored by Blackstone's belief in parliamentary supremacy. He discusses not only England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but also such non-English dominions of the king as Berwick on Tweed, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, and the American Colonies, of which he says:

OUR American plantations are principally of this latter sort, being obtained in the last century either by right of conquest and driving out the natives (with what natural justice I fhall not at present enquire) or by treaties. And therefore the common law of England, as fuch, has no allowance or authority there ; they being no part of the mother country, but distinct (though dependent) dominions. They are fubject however to the control of the parliament ; though (like Ireland, Man, and the rest ) not bound by any acts of parliament, unless particularly named. The form of government in moft of them is borrowed from that of England. They have a governor named by the king, (or in fome proprietary colonies by the proprietor) who is his reprefentative or deputy. They have courts of juftice of their own, from whofe decifions an appeal lies to the king in council here in England. Their general affemblies which are their house of commons, together with their council of ftate being their upper houfe, with the concurrence of the king or his reprefentative the governor, make laws fuited to their own emergencies. But it is particularly declared by ftatute 7 & 8 W. III. c. 22. That all laws, by-laws, usages, and cuftoms, which fhall be in practice in any of the plantations, repugnant to any law, made or to be made in this kingdom relative to the said plantations shall be utterly void and of none effect. (I changed f's to s's here and there)

At any rate, despite Blackstone, Result (1), return to the status quo ante bellum, was the more likely of the two, I think. In that case, even a growing America would not much have affected English politics or power. The Thirteen Colonies would have remained happily disunited and isolationist, grumbling about trade barriers (and perhaps going to war over them later) and paying for their own internal government but not forwarding any taxes or troops on to London. Note, however, that this would have prevented the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Thus, the Revolution was a good thing.
Posted by erasmuse at 11:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack