The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
July 4 is almost over. But there is still time to address claims that history would have taken a better course had the American Revolution failed (or never started). In the United States, such arguments are made mostly by people on the left. This 2015 Vox article by Dylan Matthews is an excellent example. But similar claims are also made by a few libertarians, such as my George Mason University colleague Bryan Caplan, and by some Canadian and British conservatives. Here are the main arguments typically advanced by modern critics of the Revolution (most elaborated at greater length at the links above):
1. British rule would have led to an earlier and less violent abolition of slavery. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, some thirty years before the United States, and it did not require a bloody civil war to do it.
2. A British-ruled America would have treated Native Americans better (as witness their apparently superior treatment in Canada).
3. A British America would have had a parliamentary form of government rather than separation of powers, which—among other advantages—would have led to a larger welfare and regulatory state. This latter point, of course, is usually made by left of center critics of the Revolution, not conservative and libertarian ones.
4. The history of Canada (and later Australia and New Zealand) shows that the British Empire was capable of gradually granting colonies increased autonomy and rights without the need for a bloody revolt.
5. The Revolutionary War caused enormous bloodshed. Some 25,000 Americans died (a larger percentage of the population than were lost in any of our other wars, besides the Civil War). To that figure, we should add numerous casualties suffered British and French troops, and by German mercenary soldiers hired by the British. The possible gains of the Revolution were not enough to justify this terrible loss of life.
This is a weighty critique that Americans should take seriously. We should not adopt a blindly celebratory attitude to our history, but should instead seek out the truth. Still, the critique falls short.
Here are my responses:
1. Far from retarding the abolition of slavery, the Revolution actually accelerated it. Its triumph gave a big boost to Enlightenment liberalism, which inspired the First Emancipation in the US (the abolition of slavery in the North that became the first large-scale emancipation of slaves in modern history), and boosted antislavery movements in Europe, as well.
2. Had the Revolution been defeated, Enlightenment liberal ideology would have been dealt a setback in Britain and France, too. That would have set back antislavery movements there, as well. It is no accident that many antislavery leaders in Europe were also sympathizers with the American Revolution. The Marquis de Lafayette was just one of the most famous examples of European liberals who actively backed both.
3. The West Indian slaveowner lobby in Parliament was strong enough to block abolition of slavery until 1833. Had Britain also been saddled with the much larger proslavery lobby of the American South, it would have taken far longer. Especially when you combine the impact of the larger slavery lobby with the force of point 2 above.
4. A defeat for the American Revolution would have set back other liberal causes too, not just antislavery. That includes, among other things, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, religious toleration, and increased rights for women. Each of these reforms (and others, too) was given new impetus by American Revolution, which inspired European liberals to imitate them.
Ideally, people should evaluate political ideas purely on the basis of logic and evidence. But, in reality, many are often attracted to a seeming winner. Military victory often increases the attractiveness of an ideology, and defeat reduces it. Think of how fascism's appeal plummeted after the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, and communism's appeal increased after the Bolshevik triumph in the Russian Civil War and Stalin's successes in World War II. The American Revolution similarly gave a boost to Enlightenment liberalism around the world. A British victory would have had the opposite effect. The impact would have been felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
5. The relatively better treatment of natives in Canada owed more to the lower number of settlers and the somewhat less desirable nature of the lands in question, than to any intrinsic superiority of British policy in that regard. The horrendous treatment of Australian aborigines underscores that the British could be just as brutal towards native populations as Americans often were. While I am no expert on this subject, recent historiography also paints a more negative picture of the nineteenth century Canadian government's treatment of Native Americans/First Nations. I should emphasize that this critique of the British/Canadian record on forcible displacement of native peoples does not excuse what happened in the United States. The sad truth is that neither society has much to boast about when it comes to this issue.
6. Britain's generally benevolent treatment of Canada in the 19th century was in large part a product of lessons the British learned from the American Revolution (that oppression would be likely to lead to revolt). Moreover, they knew that a dissatisfied Canada was ripe for conquest by the US (which did in fact try to seize Canada twice).
7. It may actually be true that a parliamentary British North America would have a larger welfare/regulatory state than the US does. I see that as a negative, not a positive. Still, I can understand why many on the left take the opposite view. But it is also worth noting that Canada and the US actually score very close to each other on standard measures of economic liberty and government spending as a percentage of GDP (40.3% for Canada; just under 38% in the US). In recent years, Canada sometimes scores a bit higher (in the sense of being slightly more free market). And while separation of powers is not the ideal regime for all nations, I think it is often superior to parliamentary government, for reasons I summarized here.
8. Points 1-5 above (along with other benefits of the Revolution I do not have time and space for here) strongly suggest that the good accomplished was worth the admittedly terrible loss of life.
I should also acknowledge Jeff Stein's 2015 response to Dylan Matthews on Vox, which makes a number of good points related to those above.
Some conservatives occasionally make the argument that the failure of the American Revolution would have forestalled the French Revolution and the resulting massive bloodshed of the Napoleonic wars. We can also take this further and suggest that preventing the French Revolution might have also blocked the later rise of revolutionary socialism and the horrific atrocities of communism. Robert Sobel's classic 1971 alternate history novel For Want of a Nail develops a scenario somewhat like this.
It is difficult to evaluate such wide-ranging claims. But it seems to me unlikely that the absence of the French Revolution would have prevented a war comparable to the Napoleonic Wars from arising. The period from 1688 to 1783 saw numerous bloody wars between Britain and France, including three that resulted in massive pan-European conflicts (the War of the Grand Alliance, the War of the Spanish Succession, and the Seven Years War). Given this history, it is highly likely another such conflict would have occurred even absent the French Revolution. It is notable that the Napoleonic Wars dragged on for many years even after France abandoned most of the ideological pretensions of the Revolution.
As for the rise of socialism and communism, it likely would have occurred anyway, as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution and its associated intellectual and social changes. Indeed, a world with no American and French Revolutions might well have been one where socialism and reactionary conservatism and nationalism were the only major ideological alternatives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But, admittedly, we cannot totally exclude the possibility of a world dominated by more moderate forms of conservatism emerging from this scenario. In that event, modern society would have fallen short of the heights of achievement reached by liberal democracy, but it might also have avoided the depths of communist and Nazi totalitarianism.
Since we are talking about a really big counterfactual, it is entirely possible that some low-probability event would have happened to upset one or more of my conjectures above. But, overall, I believe the evidence suggests that the American Revolution did a lot more good than harm.
The revolutionaries were far from perfect, and often failed to live up to their own principles. But their triumph nonetheless did much to advance the cause of freedom—not just in America, but around the world.
Some historians argue that counterfactual reasoning of this sort is worthless. How can we possibly evaluate events that didn't happen? It is hard enough to understand those that did. But, over the last several decades, scholars such as Niall Ferguson and Philip Tetlock have shown that careful counterfactual analysis can shed useful light on many aspects of the past. Among other things, the claim that Event X caused Event Y implies that Y would not have happened in the absence of X (or at least would not have happened on the same scale or to the same extent). To assess such causal claims, it is important to consider what might have transpired had X been prevented.
I consider the value of counterfactual history in greater detail in this article, which assesses a much more modest counterfactual scenario than the failure of the American Revolution.