Saturday, September 20, 2014

Lowe Asks, What if Great Britain Had Let the American Colonies Leave with Just a Vote?

[Here's a guest post from Jessica K. Lowe, University of Virginia School of Law, "What if Great Britain Had Let the American Colonies Leave with Just a Vote?"]

Yesterday’s vote in Scotland has me thinking about counterfactuals:  what if, in 1776, the thirteen mainland American colonies had been able to sever their ties with Great Britain by a vote, instead of war?  Yes, I realize that is an unlikely hypothetical, but humor me for a moment: how might a bloodless revolution at the ballot box have changed the course of American history?  

The vote, of course, would have come from only a small portion of the real population, since the political franchise was typically limited to white male property owners.  And it would have probably had to come from the thirteen state assemblies – unless, of course, the government in London had decided to recognize the Continental Congress and let them vote on the question, and simply accepted their Declaration of Independence as the final word.      

Nonetheless, what if the question had ended there – and, with the issuing of the Declaration, King George had waved goodbye to his colonies and the many royal governors had peacefully embarked on the long voyage home?  Here are a few thoughts.

First: social mobility and democratization.  While the Continental Army drew from the ranks of the colonial elite for its officers – not just George Washington, but also many others – it in a sense replicated previously existing social status.  But, at the same time, the Army also opened up avenues for advancement for highly able men of less exalted backgrounds – General Daniel Morgan, hero of the Battle of Cowpens, is an example.  A backwoods wagon driver from western Virginia, by the end of the war Morgan, known for his “sharpshooter” troops from Virginia’s frontier, was a Brigadier General.  Officers from various parts of the country also formed bonds with each other, bonds which they worked to maintain after the war by organizations like the Society of the Cincinnati.  And historians like Gordon Wood and Allan Kulikoff have argued that over the course of the war America moved towards a more democratic, egalitarian society, through political ideas and through violence.  Plus, the war itself expelled a number of Loyalists.  With no war, then, there would have been none of the associated upheaval or forging of cross-country connections.  So no war might have meant an (even less) democratic America – a condition that would have perhaps had long term consequences for the character of the nation.

Second:  debt.  On the other hand, war brought debt – lots of it.  State governments and the Continental Congress issued various types of paper (certificates, bonds, etc.) to pay soldiers, pay for supplies, and more.  After the war, desperate holders of this paper sold it for a fraction of its value to speculators, who then, ultimately, began to receive payments once the various governments began to buckle under pressure to pay their debts.  As historian Woody Holton has argued, the pressure to pay those debts and the taxes associated with it led to an economic climate that was very hard on the (resentful) farmers and artisans.  This led, in large part, to some of the tumult of the 1780s, when state legislatures sought to relieve their burdened populace through measures like paper money; there was then a backlash against the legislatures, which is linked to the move to establish a stronger federal government.  Without war, there would be no debt; without debt, would there be a Constitution?  Would there have been other demand for a strong central government? Or would the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation have limped on?

Third:  a bigger country.  Would other colonies have joined up, if freedom meant a vote instead of a bloody battle?  Bermuda at least made noises about supporting the rebellious colonies, so there might have been at least one more.  And who doesn’t want an extra island? 

Fourth: slavery.  This is hard.  As historians have shown, during the Revolutionary War some American slaves sought to win their freedom by escaping to the British.  How this worked – and the British response – is complicated, but war opened up a door to seek freedom, one that was quickly shut afterwards.  Some historians have also talked about the influence of revolutionary rhetoric on struggles for black liberation in the U.S. and Caribbean.  At the same time, the post-war period saw what we historians call the first emancipation – the move to emancipation in the new nation, mostly in more northern states, although some noises were made in the border states (to use an anachronistic term) as well.  My hunch is that, without the war, slavery would have remained even more entrenched, although that would depend on how one sees the causes of emancipation (political, or more economic), which is something else scholars have argued about.
As with any counterfactual, of course, this paints with a broad brush and doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.  But it does seem to me that, even apart from independence itself, the Revolutionary War was good for America.  What do you think?


Shag from Brookline said...

If the Colonies left with a vote, would the Articles of Confederation have come about? Or the Constitutional Convention and the Constitution it produced? Might some of the Colonies have gone it alone? A vote, without a revolution, may have resulted in what existed before the vote except for independence. The Colonies may have competed with each other without a strong central government supported by strong leadership.

As to slavery, it became more entrenched towards the end of the 18th century and into the 19th, permitting extensive economic growth with free labor (augmented by technological advances). This raises the huge question: With a vote instead of a revolution, would there have been a Civil War?

Well never know if the Revolution was good for America apart from independence.

Charles Paul Hoffman said...

As an initial matter, I am highly doubtful a vote would have been successful in the 1770s. The shorthand assumption is that roughly 1/3 of the populace was pro-independence, 1/3 pro-Empire, and 1/3 in the middle, with that last third pushed into the independence camp once war broke out and British soldiers started killing colonists. Without the brutalities of war, I suspect the majority would have wanted to maintain imperial ties, albeit with the North American equivalent of "devo max"—basically what the Canadians later called responsible government.

Overton McGehee said...

Dr. Lowe makes an interesting point. While the war brought a lot of pain and economic disruption, having to fight a war might have caused the population to take ownership of the ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence must faster than a frontier society would ordinarily take ownership of a common set of beliefs.

Overton McGehee said...

I think Dr. Lowe makes a very good point. The Revolution caused hardship and economic disruption, but, perhaps having to fight a war for independence also caused Americans to take ownership of the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence much faster.

Shag from Brookline said...

Here's another question: If the Colonies left with a vote, would the Louisiana Purchase have come about?