Presents: What If? – 4 July 2015
by Florian Sohnke
Only two nations have ever unilaterally declared their independence from the British Empire: The United States and Rhodesia. Despite the two nations’ declaration occurring close to two-hundred years apart and concluding with remarkably different outcomes, one may wonder what if the United States had not declared its independence and remained a colonial possession of the British Empire.
Despite incongruous historical instruction, where taxation is defined as the primary reason for the colonial revolt, it was indeed the economic practice of Mercantilism, foisted upon all British colonies which led to the American Revolution. Mercantilism, the economic theory which, when rendered, restricts trading partners between colonizer and colony. By this theory, the thirteen Colonies manufacture and sell goods to the UK; in return, the colonies’ goods flourish through the market in the British Empire. Among the chief strength of Mercantilism: The British government pays handsome subsidies to the colonies to compensate for any lost revenue. These subsidies maintain low unemployment and prevent loss during time of economic hardship.
Despite revolutionary inclinations simmering, the British Empire did much to maintain peace: Notwithstanding the deeply-unpopular Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Currency Act and the Quartering Act, the British government’s aim was to pacify the political activity aimed at London by colonists roiled by these edicts. London did as much: Responding to the colonists howling, the British government rescinded each and every tax levied on colonists, while maintaining the same taxes at home.
By the time hostilities broke out, the British government remained deeply hesitant to commit itself to all-out war, and in a last-ditch attempt to save the colonial possession, British Parliament passed the Home Rule Act in 1775, which allowed the colonies to elect and maintain standing assemblies for self-governing. Since the colonies had, for the most part, established their own assemblies and the Continental Congress had been convened, no olive branch in the form of Home Rule, would alter the course for the colonists.
Had the British Empire successfully maintained the thirteen Colonies, whether or not they had to sustain the unruly colonists or not, history may have turned out to only slightly different. Britain likely would have relinquished control of the thirteen American colonies after the Second World War as they did to numerous colonial possessions in North America (Canada), the Caribbean, Africa (South Africa) and Asia (Hong Kong, Australia). By relinquishing colonial possessions, the UK has since maintained a loose confederation, referred to as the Commonwealth, among a majority of former colonies it once maintained and by which they have been able to rely on in time of crisis.
Had the UK maintained the colonies for the same period until the conclusion of the Second World War, it is very likely British military campaigns against the French in Europe, particularly in the Napoleonic Wars, against the Boers in South Africa, set against the Nazis in Europe, against the Burmese, Nepalese, against the Chinese in the Opium Wars, against India or the Boxer Revolution, for example, Britain would have prevailed much more easily and with dispatch in light of the massive resources of men, material and economic resources they would have had at their disposal, particularly in face of British supremacy on the high seas. Few, if any at all, doubt how American doughboys, if conscripted to fight with the British Army from the onset of WWI, would have tilted the balance against the Kaiser’s troops even though the United States entered the war at a late date and required the repeated provocation of German Unterseeboots.
When examining the Revolutionary War itself, one must admit the U.K. really did not lose the war. They carefully weighed investment in war against the return from fighting the war: London determined the colonists would eventually be free anyway; the American colonies were no ordinary colonial possession; and unlike other possessions overseas, Americans descended from Europe instead of European conquerors building a series of political, social and economic institutions within the possession. The U.K. could have won the war; they decided it wasn’t worth the cost in manpower, resources and, most important, money. With the British treasury nearly depleted due to continuous fighting for over a century and with constant war with nearby France, even when France was embroiled in their own revolution, London, under Lord Rockingham discontinued the war in North America because it was not a valuable investment. Further, the U.K. retained healthy possessions in Canada and British troops were positioned in the Ohio Valley, placing them in a position to consolidate control over the West if they chose.
It is worth examining several political and military issues in the period after the Revolutionary War to fit our What-If storyline. Considering the War of 1812, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary time, the British remained the dominant global empire. While controlling the high seas, the continued gambit of impressment practiced by the Royal Navy, the seizing of men on the high seas and impressed into service for the British Navy, seriously disrupted global commerce for the fledgling United States. The continued harassment on the open sea forced the U.S. into a war for which it was wholly unprepared; similarly, the British stoked Indian concerns and encouraged Indian attacks on frontiersmen in the West. With Canada firmly in British control, despite some early American military successes, including the seizure of York, Canada (now known as Toronto), the British military, despite being heavily engaged against French forces under Napoleon, easily could have re-conquered all of their lost territory in North America. To remind those unaware, the British Army captured Washington D.C. and burned the city. In military terms, seizing a foe’s political nerve center is a devastating blow to which few nations recover.
Once again, like Lord Rockingham, the intervention of The Marquess of Londonderry, Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, a first-rate planner who understood the U.S. was no ordinary former colony and demanded treatment not as a foe which vanquished a great empire, but a much needed partner in commerce and in time of need, an invaluable ally, would prove a vital benefit to facilitate the current U.S.-British relationship. Stewart’s sharp insight provided the U.S. with an opportunity to again escape colonization at the hands of the British Empire. Stewart persuaded Parliament to retreat from U.S. soil and bisected foreign policy: He insisted the Empire pursue its war against Napoleon and coaxed Parliament, Prime Minister Robert Banks Jenkinson, the Earl of Liverpool and the King war with America was only a drain on national treasure. Stewart was instructed to re-engage with the U.S., establish diplomatic relations with the former colonial possession and resume commerce. Stewart’s vision and statecraft was marvelous.
The what-if scenario is not entirely implausible to theorize when determining unrest in the United States. It is very likely the Civil War would not have occurred and slavery’s demise would have appeared close to two decades earlier. Given the fact it was British Parliament, led by the unflinching William Wilberforce, which led the effort to outlaw slavery and the UK directing its naval vessels to stop and return Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch merchant ships from engaging in the slave trade on the high seas. It is certain slavery would have been not only curtailed, but ended somewhere by the 1830s or 1840s, but certain to have concluded decades earlier than the cessation of the Civil War.
One only wonders what would have come if the South had received diplomatic recognition from the UK, had it not been for the energy of the Union’s gallant ambassador, Charles Francis Adams. The son of John Quincy Adams, a passionate foe of slavery himself, Charles Francis persuaded the Court of Saint James to shy from recognition of the Confederacy at great economic toll to the British, which had relied on Southern manufactured goods prior to the war. Akin to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, British refusal to be lured by the irresistible temptation to seize and re-claim America was overwhelmed by recognizing the value of a united America as a trading partner and global ally. Had Adams been unsuccessful and a clever British government served as a wedge between the Union and the Confederacy, the outcome of the Civil War would have almost certainly been different.
Precis: Had the U.S. remained a colonial possession, it is very possible it would have been granted independence by the late 19th century and certain to have gained independence by the end of the Second World War. Had the U.S. remained within the British Empire until the end of WWII, it would certainly be today a part of the British Commonwealth, known as the Commonwealth of Nations, sharing a position with Canada, India, South Africa, Australia and Kenya, all of which remain in loose affiliation with London.
When the revolutionaries threw off the colonial yoke, not only did the UK refuse to engage in commerce with the new nation, crippling the embryonic state, we also incurred a huge war debt: £ 11,000,000.
We will leave you with the task of determining the value in today’s dollars.