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Independence Day

July 4, 2013



July 4th US Independence Day.

Why did the Thirteen Colonies decide to break with Britain and become an independent federal republic?

Clearly the merchants and lawyers of Boston, New York and Philadelphia were not the most oppressed people on earth, and nor was George III a fiend in human form, although some of the very reactive patriotic rhetoric coming out of the colonies gave the impression that they were, and he was. In reality, the colonies revolted not because they were especially oppressed, but because they were confident enough to know they could trade up from where they were. By the 1770s, the colonies possessed a critical mass of restless, imaginative people who were ambitious for a better mode of governance. These people wanted to be all that they could be and had already outgrown a culture of deference towards “the crown” and its representatives.

Sometimes counterfactualists will play with alternate time lines which cancel out the American Revolution, leaving alternate thirteen colonies still under British rule into the nineteenth or the twentieth centuries.  The reality is, that no matter how you roll the dice, Americans by the 1770s had become determined to secure their own destiny and were strong, prosperous and inventive enough to ensure that they succeeded.  American independence might have come slightly later, or slightly differently, but there is no way Britain could have retained effective control of those colonies for very much longer than they did.  The war is sometimes referred to in David and Goliath terms, which ignores the more complex play of forces involved.  Britain might, perhaps, be regarded as the most successful nation in Europe in the 1770s, but it did not enjoy anything like global hegemony.  Britain was more powerful than the 13 Colonies, but she was not more powerful than the 13 Colonies, France, Spain, and the Netherlands all put together – which was the alliance ranged against Britain by 1780.  Quite apart from the direct aid sent from France to the Americans, there was the larger issue of imperial over-reach.  Britain did not have an infinite number of armies to throw at the Americans.  To have continued the war in such a front would have mean abandoning India and the West Indies.

And what would “winning” the war against the colonists have meant?  A permanent army of occupation?  A continuous low level skirmishing against what would have become perceived as a foreign occupying power?  The tragic absurdity of any such “victory” was noted early in the conflict by the practical Edmund Burke, which is why he favoured conciliation from the outset.

The Founding Fathers of the United States did not just rely on their own sense of righteousness when taking on the power of the British empire.  Had they done so, they would have been culpably dangerous fanatics.  They made a rational calculation of the global play of forces arranged and made intelligent decisions accordingly.  By exploiting the potential of Britain’s imperial over-reach they recognised the plausible and practical opportunity for American Independence from a very early stage in the conflict.

It is strange that so many narratives of the American revolution eschew this heroic and authentic story in favour of one which depicts a people who remained unstirred until provoked by really spectacular levels of oppression.  The MelGibsonification of history does not believe that concepts such as no taxation without representation have any force without tortured bodies.  But that’s a larger problem.

When reflecting on the events of the American Revolution from a cisatlantic perspective, it’s salutary to view these events not as an unfolding tragedy but as an enduring inspiration. When Brits are told that monarchy “works”, or is a “force for stability”, or “it ain’t broke so don’t fix it”, we should recall that the people of Boston and Philadelphia felt themselves deserving of something rather better than such complacently reactionary slogans. They felt they deserved to be citizens. What do Brits deserve?



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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Just because ideals are betrayed don’t mean they shouldn’t be celebrated.

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