No War? On the Fourth of July, Santa Barbara unfurled the Stars and Stripes, burned hot dogs, swigged beer, and celebrated July 4 at the top of our patriotic lungs, but just think:
What if there were no Independence Day?
Not because we lost the Revolutionary War, but because there wasn’t one.
As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker (“We Could Have Been Canada”), instead of a bloody, brutal, eight-year war, there could have been an evolution from Britain, and slavery might have ended more peacefully and sooner, as in the rest of the British Empire.
Without slavery, presto, no horrible Civil War. “The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders’ panic mixed with Enlightenment [nonsense], producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy.
“Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain. …”
But, Gopnik laments, “The thought is taboo, the Revolution being still sacred in its self-directed propaganda.”
It has been argued that the Revolution has become an American civil religion that shaped patriotism, producing a Moses-like leader in Washington, prophets like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, martyrs like Nathan Hale, sacred holidays like this one, and holy scripture like the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
Thousands of slaves joined forces with the British at the climactic battle at Yorktown. After the Americans won the battle and the Brits surrendered, the slaves were returned to their masters, including General (and future president) George Washington and founding father Thomas Jefferson, according to a new book by Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence.
During the war, prisoners were butchered and wives and daughters raped, facts omitted in many a textbook and Fourth of July speech.
It seems like much of what we know about this conflict is wrong, maybe most of it. But the glorious battles are in our DNA and won’t be dislodged by firing off a few skyrockets. We won, and that’s important. And that we might very well have lost is for Civics 101 arguments.
First of all, it was about taxes and our right to have a say in them instead of the “King’s Men” 3,000 miles away. After the founding fathers (sorry, no women, Native Americans, blacks, or non-property owners needed to apply in this noble fight for freedom, except to fight) declared our independence, King George III decided to fight it out. Otherwise, his government reasoned, the colonies would be lost.
Britain might well have won the war, John Ferling writes in Smithsonian magazine. “The battle for New York in 1776 gave England an excellent opportunity for a decisive victory. France had not yet allied with the Americans. … Gen. William Howe trapped much of the American Army [in the New York area] and might have administered a fatal blow [but he] was slow to act,” and allowed Washington’s army to slip away, Ferling said.
As 1781 dawned, the Americans feared that unless they won a decisive victory that year, the outcome would be decided by a conference of Europe’s great powers. “Britain would likely have retained Canada, the trans-Appalachian West, part of present-day Maine, New York City and Long Island, Georgia and much of South Carolina, Florida … and several Caribbean islands,” according to Ferling.
The “tiny” United States would have been surrounded.
Washington warned that his army was exhausted. Britain was close to reclaiming much territory it had lost. But in April 1781, at Yorktown, British General Charles Cornwallis was trapped and had to surrender more than 8,000 men after having lost more than 4,000 in North Carolina.
Hearing the news in England, Prime Minister Lord North famously said, “Oh God, it is all over.”
It was. The Treaty of Paris signed in 1783 ratified the American victory. The world stood up and paid attention. Upstart colonists shouting about democracy had thumbed their noses at a king and bloodied his nose.
The world would never be the same. But how much better would it have been if King George had listened to wiser heads and not gone to war? After all, wasn’t it just a tea party?