Tuesday, July 4, 2006
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In honor of Independence Day....
I'll encourage my readers to engage Matthew Yglesias and/or Tyler Cowen in the ultimate contrarian argument -- was American independence a good idea?
File this one under "why do liberals hate America?" but this time of year I'm always intrigued by the view that American independence was more-or-less a giant mistake.... The issues at stake were eminently compromisable, had wiser leadership been available, and the examples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (to some extent) South Africa indicate that having lost the USA the British government was able to come up with a perfectly workable alternative system of imperial management. And wouldn't it have been better if the USA-British relationship had evolved along the Canadian model?For Cowen, the question comes at the individual level;
[T]hink about it, wasn't it more than a wee bit whacky? "Let's cut free of the British Empire, the most successful society the world had seen to date, and go it alone against the French, the Spanish, and the Indians." [TC: they all seemed more formidable at the time than subsequently]Go ahead, exercise that right to free speech and respond to the question at hand
I'd respond myself, but.... er.... I'm deep into the pursuit of happiness right now.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States....posted by Dan on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM
Shorter Jefferson: The Crown won't let us steal Indian land, allows the French to keep their laws and religion and wants us to help pay for the war Washington started! Boo hoo.posted by: Pithlord on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Jefferson sounds like a liberal blogger whining about Bush.posted by: Oscar on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Shouldn't Ireland appear on Yglesias' list? I have even heard elsewhere (and thought interesting, but never got around to checking) the claim that some parallels to Ireland weighed heavily on the Americans' minds.
Canada, etc. simply affirm the rule that you never do it right the first time. The Brits had to screw up with us, and the Irish, before getting enough experience to manage their Empire into a Commonwealth.
Remember, the British Empire wasn't that much in 1750, no Canada, no Australia, no New Zealand, South Africa, India. Just the U.S., so I don't understand Dr. Cowen's reference to the Empire being the most successful society.posted by: Bill Harshaw on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
The central theme behind this is the idea of independent, convergent evolution of liberty in the US, Britain, and the British Colonies, etc. This is not the case and is easily rebutted by history. American independence and the further development of an independent USA greatly influenced the world through the 19th and 20th centuries. The trajectory that Britain, for example, was on in the 18th century was not one which would have resulted in the same Britain we have known in the 20th and 21st centuries. Independent America became an example and a power. Our professional armed forces transformed the idea of armed forces throughout the world. The armed forces of the US in, say, the early 1800s were radically different than the armed forces of the world, and the armed forces of, say, Britain in the early 20th century were far more like those of the US than like those of an earlier Britain. The same goes as well for the concepts of expansive personal and economic freedoms, of responsible and accountable governments, etc.posted by: Robin Goodfellow on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Is this really the ultimate contrarian argument? Having once lived in Georgia I would say it has competition from "what was so bad about secession?" After all, you still hear people talk from time to time about one part of the country or another seceding from the Union, but no one ever says they want to be British.
But there is the fact that the second British Empire was, as empires go, fairly successful at establishing decent, humane government in many areas of the world. It declined and dissolved after many years of fighting the most effective, well-organized and idealistic foe of colonialism and imperialism the world has ever seen, the German Army, and in many ways that was a great shame.
So why shouldn't the core nations of the old British Empire be governed from Washington? I mean, Canadian government is a great source of comic relief, and Tony Blair's Question Time on C-SPAN can be entertaining if there isn't a baseball game on television. But if you're interested in making a better world there isn't much you can do from Glasgow or Wellington except talk about it; if you'd like to influence the policy of the American government you can now talk about it with the assurance that no one who matters will even hear you. Better inside the tent than out, I always say.
You'd have thought Britain, having had a half-American Prime Minister and done pretty well, would have taken the hint. Instead the greatest issue in British public life became how much self-government London should cede to Brussels. How inspiring.
American liberals should find the idea of realizing Churchill's dreamed union of the English-speaking peoples especially appealing. They are the ones always complaining that other Americans see them as the weakest, most spineless, wimpiest people around. Believe me, there are way more spineless and wimpier people in England and Canada! There are Canadians who tremble at the thought that someone might overhear them if they speak English in Montreal. Govern all the English-speaking parts of the old British Empire from Washington, and American liberals can look more conservative without having to change anything they believe. Laugh if you want, but they've been trying to do that for over 30 years without success.
Now, Canadian independence has never made much sense. I think everyone agrees with that. Great though the honor was of Canadians dying by the thousands to defend the frontiers of Belgium and prove their devotion to the King in 1914 (and 1915, and 1916, and 1917), it was rather a high price to pay for the distinction of being able to say that Canadians were not Americans, no? And maybe the most peculiar thing about the "world's longest undefended border" isn't that it is long and undefended, but that it's a border. Plus, just think of what making Canada officially a part of the United States would do for the lines at Customs in the Toronto airport.
Australia and New Zealand have a better case for independence, based a little bit on distance and a lot on their accents. Let's face it, Canadians look and sound so much like Americans that unless they go around wearing big maple leaf decals everyone assumes they are Americans, and you can't say that about Australians. Or New Zealanders, who everyone assumes are Australians; even the decals don't work, because the flags look so much alike. But if you listen very hard you can tell their accents are a little bit different from one another, and of course a lot different from what we have in this country. I happen to think that would be a good thing. We need more diversity. There are a lot of Americans -- mostly those liberals again -- who think "diversity" ought to mean importing all sorts of neat cultural symbols from parts of the world that don't work at all, things like mosques, Latin American holidays and Russian cooking. Their enthusiasm for diversity is their way of advertising their alienation from mainstream America. All things considered it would be less trouble for everyone if they could do this by affecting Australian accents instead. Affecting New Zealand accents would be even better, since they could then look down their noses at the vast majority of people who can't tell the difference.
I understand that, compared to second-guessing Washington, Jefferson and Adams about whether American independence from Britain was a good idea 230 years ago, taking up with Gordon Brown and Kim Beazley whether British or Australian independence from the United States is a good idea now is a daunting task (and I don't mean that when liberals think about the first they are just being wimpy as usual, picking fights only with people who are safely dead. Absolutely not. Liberals are tough, especially on national security. Really). It's just that the Revolutionary generation in American thought they were changing the world, and it did change because of what our Founders did and what they made possible for their posterity to do. Present day British, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders want to live well, grow old, die quietly. Which they can mostly do, it appears, as independent states or (in Britain's case) as an independent state that will eventually get sucked into Europe. To do more, they would have to be part of something bigger. This is also what Churchill thought, but maybe he was thinking about the UN.posted by: Zathras on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
What annoys me about comments like Zathras' is that if you respond to them jingoistically (as your hockey coach taught you to do), you are dismissed as a petty nationalist. But if you respond in a civilized way, you are patronized as a weak-kneed multicultural relativist soft-on-Islamofascism.
Look. Canadians as a group like Americans more than most people. It's not our fault that that means we don't like some of you very much.posted by: Pithlord on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Ok, great - so the dominions entered the war right away. Not to take away from the men that fought for those countries, but what did they accomplish? Notice that it was only after the Americans (eventually) entered both wars that any decisive advantage was won by the Allies. That's because America was powerful. Would they have been powerful if they allowed Britain to give them independence and self-government at their own leisure? Probably not. Compare the US and Canada. Both roughly the same size, same distance from Britain, yet the US is far more powerful in all possible areas of measurement than Canada. Why is this? For a number of reasons, to be sure - but how likely would this have been if the US remained a colony until Britain was good and ready to allow us (limited, to begin with) self government. So let's say we remained a colony, were eventually given the right to self-government, and then we entered WWI right away. What would we contribute? Would we have the same decisive effect we had in real life, or would we just be another Canada - plucky in spirit and courage, but not contributing a whole lot Britain didn't already have. Furthermore, as someone mentioned above, this is all assuming Britain realized, without having made mistakes on their part first, that this idea of granting self-government would be a good idea. That's not the case, however, as Britain learned a lot from it's mistakes in the American colonies when dealing with Canada, Australia, and so on. Finally, Yglesias treats history in far too linear a manner. Great, so (maybe) we would have won before the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. But that wouldn't mean, the Bolshies wouldn't bide their time and wait for the next opportunity, like they did after 1905. The aborted revolution of that year was a clusterf**k compare to 1917, which wasn't exactly well organized in its own right. Let's say we give them time, and the Bolshies become even better organized, even more ruthless because of the Tsar's continued rule, even stronger. Who's to say it wouldn't happen at a later date and be carried out by a far more effective group of thugs, who would have allowed the totalitarian empire running even longer than the 74 years it lasted in real life. And if so, who's to say it wouldn't be even bloodier. This is certainly a shoddy attempt at alternate history from Yglesias. I'd rather read Turtledove.
As for Cowen's - it's a bit easier to swallow, but it's also a reflection of how things have progressed since the 18th century - partially through globalization in that we've become more aware of what's going on in far corners of the globe, but also because of technology, new advances in organization theory and a million other reasons (that I am not here to denounce or criticize - I like technology). In that time, the actions taken by the British against the American colonies seems like absolutely nothing now. Then, however, it didn't seem like it could get any worse. It's a sober realization of what we know about the world now, and how the world has changed in the last 230 years. It could also help explain why the British, our mortal enemies then, are our best friends now - as we realize just how alike we are in a very mad world.
I, for one, am very, very happy that the Declaration of Independence was signed and the American Revolution won by the colonies.posted by: Dan on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
I wonder what India would be like if Ghandi had said "heh, never mind, living under British rule isn't that bad..."
Come on. Like Dan (11:52 last night) said, would the US have been the kind of power able to show up and rescue Europe from itself twice over the course of 40 years pretty much as soon as it felt the slightest inclination to do so, if Great Britain were still in charge (Canadian and Australian military readiness in 1914 and 1939 suggests not)? Would Canada have been released from direct British rule in the 1860s/1870s if the US weren't overflowing with military might and nothing but the Canadian border and a few raggedy Indians to look at? Would the US have become a haven for immigrants of all kinds (often oppressed British citizens, no less) or have become a continental territory if the Revolution hadn't happened? Doubtful.
I think if the Revolution hadn't happened more or less the way it did, North America would look a lot more like Africa than anything else. And the Germans would have developed the bomb first, and we'd all be Nazis, except for all of us Jews, Gypsies, and libertarians, who'd just be dead. Either that or Earth would have colonized the Moon in 1908. In any case, we have beautiful prose about liberty and Disneyland. So yay for the Revolution. ^_^posted by: Sarah on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Here's my favorite.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.posted by: Mitchell Young on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Sometimes, I think the best way to respond to speculations like this is to say "Well, it didn't happen that way, so there, NYANNNH!" The other is to make somebody watch "It's A Wonderful Life".
But, some things to consider:
1. The defeat of Great Britain in the Revolution had an effect on that society that may have made it more receptive to Canada, Australia, and New Zeeland.
2. We are a nation of immigrants. An British Empire, concerned about its control of amasses of territory would have been far less willing to let the immigrants in, and the US would likely be far less populous or economically powerful today. Course, maybe that's the real agenda at work with these speculations.
3. The west coast would belong to Mexico, which would be no better governed than it is today.
4. Would GB have endangered its steady source of cotton by eliminating slavery? Until it became evident that the Confederacy was going to lose, the British government was quite willing to support an independent CSA.
5. If we had belonged to GB in 1800, the fourteen years of the Napoleonic Wars would have ravaged the nation, to no good end.
6. Imagine the Treaty of Versailles without Woodrow Wilson. There'd likely be no idea of self-determination, no League of Nations, no UN. WWII would have happened in 1925.
7. Imagine the world, if the only example of revolution were the French.posted by: Appalled Moderate on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Great Britain ended slavery shortly after the first Reform Act. Unlike the US, there was no large body of pro-slavery voters in the UK - it was the financial interest of the sugar lobby, made powerful under the unreformed system, that kept slavery alive. Once the Reform act was passed, abolition was easy.
Had the US been part of the UK, and received representation in London, there would have been a large block of proslavery MPs. OTOH, had US had self rule (which the sugar islands did NOT have), then slavery probably wouldnt have been up to London to decide.
Anyone familiar with alt history knows you cant just change one thing, and then assume everything else happens the same way for the next hundred years.
That someone like Yglesias doesnt realize this, just reinforces how shallow he is.
I guess the reason aristocracy never took off in the colonies is they were too far from the seat of power. As little more than absentee landlords, they were viewed largely as parasites on society.
Can anyone run some computer simulations on a supercomputer and give us a range of outcomes with the odds of each event. Now that would be a model!!!posted by: ayn rand on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Quite a few people have made some clearly false assumptions. The first is that if the United States had entered the Second World War in 1939 the war would have ended MUCH earlier. Those who have said this have implicitly and severely downplayed the role of the Soviet Union in the conflict. If you consider that the Soviet Union suffered over 10 million military deaths whereas the US and UK suffered around 700k combined, you'd understand that the Americans and the British were not the driving force of Allied Victory. There would have been no victory without the Soviet Union.
So, with that said, this also argues another point. If for some reason there was no Bolshevik or any other kind of communist revolution, then the Russians would not have been nearly as strong of an industrial power, which it became under the Bolsheviks, as Lenin and Stalin completely overhauled the economy and created an industrial powerhouse.
The third point people are making which I believe to be nonsense is when people are saying that if US did not secede from Britain we would be comparable to Canada. This is just not true. Canada has a population somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-44 mil. The United States has a population of nearly 300 million. While Canada is a bigger country in terms of land area, the United States is blessed with land that people can actually live on. Try having a city the size of Miami, New York, Chicago, LA in the northern parts of Canada. It's just not going to happen. There's a reason the Russians would send their exhiles to Siberia. It's cold and desolate.posted by: Patrick on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
As long as we are running alternative histories, if the US had not left the British I doubt that the French would have sold the Louisiana
"...had wiser leadership been available." That's a caveat that the rest of Matthew Y's argument can't overcome. Although a lot of the colonial rhetoric was directed at the king, those who counted in England overwhelmingly saw the revenue disputes of the 1760s and early 70s as challenges to the one true holy of holies in English political life, the supremacy of Parliament. Too few in that august body were willing to entertain the stark truth of "taxation without representation."posted by: Ralph Hitchens on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
Spencer makes a good point, but I think it's incorrect. If you consider an American and British combined invasion of the French occupied terrorities in the New World, you'd have an easy victory over the French who were heavily tied up in wars in Europe during the early 1800s. I suspect that if Napoleon didn't sell us the land, we would have taken it sooner or later. We tried to take over Canada and the only reason that didn't work is because of the damn British!posted by: Patrick on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
This seems to me to be greatly overblown at best and totally wrong at worst. In the first place, despite occasional setbacks, the British armed forces (especially the Navy) were immsensely successful in the period between the revolution and WW-I. In that time period, the British (or British companies like the East India company) conquered India, a large chunk of Africa, occupied Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and lots of other small areas elsewhere. They dominated China (with some help from other colonial powers). It hardly seems that the British needed much help in organizing their military.
And although the British doubtless used many American military innovations that came out of the Civil War, they had many of their own as well, and continued to remain the dominant industrial power till late in the 19th century and the dominant naval power till at least the 1920s-1930s.
On the matter of greater suffrage etc., I have not seen that the America served as a great example for Britain. Britain abolished slavery first and actually enforced it. The expansion of suffrage in Britain (abolition of the rotten boroughs) seems to have been inspired by local groups (and most of those took their inspiration from the ideals of the French revolution). Similarly, granting suffrage to women was something that Britain did 2 years before the US. It may well have been the case that suffragists in the US and Britain were encouraged by each other (or by other countries that were even earlier), but its a far cry from the idea that this would not have happened without America. The reduction in power of the King, the expansion of individual rights and the like go back at least to the Magna Charta in England.
I will add that Britain (and Holland) and other countries already had well developed financial systems and the industrial revolution came first to Britain.posted by: erg on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
QThis seems to me to be greatly overblown at best and totally wrong at worst. In the first place, despite occasional setbacks, the British armed forces (especially the Navy) were immsensely successful in the period between the revolution and WW-I. In that time period, the British (or British companies like the East India company) conquered India, a large chunk of Africa, occupied Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and lots of other small areas elsewhere. They dominated China (with some help from other colonial powers). It hardly seems that the British needed much help in organizing their military.
Whatever happens, we have got
Now, I don't know if the British Army's improvement was based on US military innovations, and I am certainly not asserting such a notion- I'm just pointing out that excellence in one aspect of military operations should not be taken as an indicator of excellence in all of them.posted by: rosignol on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
I think it's also important to note that British monarchical power had been increasingly constrained since its inception. First by the lords (Magna Charta), later by the "common" knights and burgesses (resulting in a more powerful House of Commons).
I'm no historian, but I believe the American revolt borrowed from this tradition. In other words, when the colonists demanded more self-determination, they weren't being that revolutionary at all, and were in fact just being typical British subjects. Given the logistics of the era (six weeks for cross-Atlantic communication), it's no wonder that compromise failed and the natural British tendency towards personal freedom turned into (for some at least) open revolt.posted by: kwo on 07.04.06 at 01:00 PM [permalink]
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