Was the American Revolution a mistake? Reflections from the true North strong and free.


Greetings from Cap Diamant!

While I was buying a ticket Saturday afternoon to tour the archaeological dig of Chateau St. Louis, the remains of the original fort and governors’ houses in Québec City, I was wished a “bonne fête” (happy holiday).  The Parks Canada employee had to remind me that “c’est le quatre Juillet!” (“it’s the Fourth of July!”)  Duh.  I had spent all morning and most the afternoon at the Cathedral on a top-secret mission, and I think my brain was working so hard trying to speak and read French again that the American holiday fell completely out of my consciousness.

Having spent Independence Day weekend with our Francophone neighbors to the North, I may be particularly susceptible to this argument by Dylan Matthews, “3 Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake.”  After all, the people of Québec famously refused Benedict Arnold’s kind offer to join with their southern neighbors to throw off the yoke of British tyranny.  The legacy of more than a century of warfare with rabidly anti-Catholic New England colonists made Anglo-Americans unreliable allies in the eyes of most Canadians, to say the least.

Here’s Matthews’s argument, in brief–first and foremost, slavery ended sooner in the British empire, and he uses Canada as a compelling counter-example for U.S. Americans to consider:

Abolition in most of the British Empire occurred in 1834, following the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act. That left out India, but slavery was banned there too in 1843. In England itself, slavery was illegal at least going back to 1772. That’s decades earlier than the United States.

This alone is enough to make the case against the revolution. Decades less slavery is a massive humanitarian gain that almost certainly dominates whatever gains came to the colonists from independence.

Second, the American Revolution was really bad for First Nations peoples–not that Canada’s record is awesome, just less awful than U.S. imperial expansion:

And, unsurprisingly, Canada didn’t see Indian wars and removals as large and sweeping as occurred in the US. They still committed horrible, indefensible crimes. Canada, under British rule and after, brutally mistreated aboriginal people, not least through government-inflicted famines and the state’s horrific seizure of children from their families so they could attend residential schools. But the country didn’t experience a Westward expansion as violent and deadly as that pursued by the US government and settlers. Absent the revolution, Britain probably would’ve moved into Indian lands. But fewer people would have died.

Finally, although I agree with Matthews that “earlier abolition alone is enough to make the case against the revolution, and it combined with less-horrible treatment of American Indians is more than enough.”  But as he notes, “it’s worth taking a second to praise a less important but still significant consequence of the US sticking with Britain: we would’ve, in all likelihood, become a parliamentary democracy rather than a presidential one.”

And parliamentary democracies are a lot, lot better than presidential ones. They’re significantly less likely to collapse into dictatorship because they don’t lead to irresolvable conflicts between, say, the president and the legislature. They lead to much less gridlock.

They’re also more democratic:

The Westminister system of parliamentary democracy also benefits from weaker upper houses. The US is saddled with a Senate that gives Wyoming the same power as California, which has over 66 times as many people. Worse, the Senate is equal in power to the lower, more representative house. Most countries following the British system have upper houses — only New Zealand was wise enough to abolish it — but they’re far, far weaker than their lower houses. The Canadian Senate and the House of Lords affect legislation only in rare cases. At most, they can hold things up a bit or force minor tweaks. They aren’t capable of obstruction anywhere near the level of the US Senate.

So is Canada the very picture of oppression?  Far from it!  In fact, Canada is a nation that offered its citizens national health insurance nearly seventy years ago; they had a woman Prime Minister more than twenty years ago; and while rates of gun ownership are high (they’re #13 vs. the U.S., which is #1 in the world), the risk of gun homicide (let alone random mass-murder) is quite low.  Furthermore, equality before the law is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including sex and disability, two categories of people–more than half the population–not included in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.

What reasonable person wouldn’t prefer Canada to the U.S.?

That said, I’m not going to emigrate anytime soon, although according to a friendly Canadian guard I met a few years ago at the Jackman, Maine border crossing, I (along with any children I might have) am apparently entitled to claim Canadian citizenship because I’m married to a man who is the son of a Canadian-born mother.  (Take that, Uncle Sam!  There’s a better, friendlier country that encourages its southern neighbors to move on up.)

But Canada is not my country, and while I admire its achievements, it’s my responsibility to try to improve my community and my nation, right and wrong, to tweak an old expression.

18 thoughts on “Was the American Revolution a mistake? Reflections from the true North strong and free.

  1. The reasons are interesting and plausible, but I’m not really persuaded in the main re the conclusion. Having spent a couple of weeks in London last month, I’m not sure that party block fragmentation is a whole lot better than partisan gridlock. And If the St. Lawrence River basin had been proportionally as attractive a destination for 18th and 19th century Atlantic migration as the Hudson, Delaware, and Chesapeake portals, I don’t know that the differences in the treatment of indigenous peoples would have been much different between the two countries. Other British colonies that joined Canada in rejecting secession from the Empire were the sites of abolition, but certainly not the sources of it. This is just the kind of “big” framing question, though, that would be useful to see taken up at the rethinking the Revolution conferences and other fora that have begun to proliferate recently.

    In Paris a few years ago, I made the mistake of wishing a prototypically non-imperious sidewalk café waiter a “Happy Bastille Day tomorrow” on 13 Juillet, and he glared at me as though I was some kind of an American tourist–maybe even from Texas. The next day, though, on a big off-shore island near La Rochelle, I saw (and sort of participated in) an amazing and moving candlelight parade involving what seemed like the entire population of a village down to the beach singing songs from 1789, to watch the fireworks gleaming over salt water, and to invidiously compare the similar celebration visible from an adjacent island with their own obviously superior one. Better than the American ‘burbs last Saturday.


  2. I’m an American living in Canada, and I love my progressive community, but for so many reasons taking away the Revolution as a historical factor would not have turned the United States into another Canada.

    I will content myself with just pointing out the most obvious: at the time of the Revolution, 20% of Americans were enslaved. The impact that African enslavement has had on American culture and politics – including, homicide rates (since I don’t think that American violence is separable from its history of white supremacy), also “Indian Removal” policies (there was a reason for those removal wars: land), and even the Senate (I agree with Waldstreicher and Finkelman: part of the Constitutional effort to restrict the power of the rapidly growing majority in the northern states) – could not have been erased by eliminating the Revolution.

    Erasing the Revolution from American history would not have made the United States into Canada (and I think would have imperilled British emancipation) but it might have made Canada into the U.S. by transforming the history of the British empire. Maybe the U.S. would have ended up a saner and more progressive nation if it had a large number of additional northern states?

    Also – but this would require a whole additional comment to explore – I think American culture would lose some of its most liberating elements if you subtracted the Revolution from its history!


    • Indyanna notes above that Canada was joined in its loyalism by slave majority colonies like Barbados & other Caribbean colonies, so loyalty the empire is clearly not directionally linked one way or the other to slavery but rather has to do more with the local politics of indiv. colonies like Quebec, Jamaica, etc. (Also British military occupation, maybe? What would have become of the Sons of Liberty if Boston had been occupied going back to ca. 1760 instead of 1768 -1776?)

      Without the Revolution, presumably slavery would have ended at the same time in Virginia & South Carolina etc. at the same time it ended in the Caribbean, right? So, a positive good in & of itself, although I absolutely take your point on African Americans as a big part of the distinctive historical experience of the United States vs. Canada.

      Could there have been loyalty in all North American British colonies in the 18th C, but then perhaps a Revolution (or if you will, an early Civil War) in ca. 1830s over the issue of slavery? That seems plausible to me, but what would a Pro-slavery Revolution have done to the 19th C American imperial expansion? (Esp. considering that the colonies in rebellion would likely have been mostly if not entirely southern?)


      • Weeeee! down the path of counterfactuals.

        Okay: if we want to imagine a counterfactual where the U.S. didn’t have a Revolution, I think that one possible turning point would be if Britain had offered the colonies parliamentary representation in 1775, instead of waiting until after independence was declared to make that offer (when it was rejected).

        In this counterfactual, American representation in Parliament may then have been sufficient to undermine support for the British 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. The number of slaves in the United States at that point outnumbered slaves in the Caribbean by more than 2:1, and I wonder whether Britain could have offered three times the amount of compensation, and whether the proposal could have found sufficient support within a Parliament that seated a significant body of mainland American planters.

        In short, I remain unconvinced of the premise in the article that ‘if the U.S. had not declared independence, slavery would have been abolished in 1834.’ It seems just as likely to me that if the U.S. had remained part of the British empire, the Caribbean would not have been emancipated until far later!


      • Historiann: “Without the Revolution, presumably slavery would have ended at the same time in Virginia & South Carolina etc. at the same time it ended in the Caribbean, right? So, a positive good in & of itself, although I absolutely take your point on African Americans as a big part of the distinctive historical experience of the United States vs. Canada.”

        Why? Slavery would have been more important to the people running the Empire. Instead of investing in cotton and tobacco plantations, they would have *owned* them. They’d also be eyeing the interior lands of the South just as greedily as anybody else.

        The author starts with a major change, but then pretty much assumes that history would have taken a matching course, sort of like Turtledove having WWI start ‘on schedule’ in his novels.


  3. I would sign on to Rachel Hope Cleves’s counterfactual and analysis of it in its entirety. And offering the mainland colonies even token representation in Parliament would probably have to have been extended to the Sugar Island colonies (which were already represented by virtue of all of the planters actually living in England), which indeed might have undermined support for abolition there. Although in fact, of the detailed history of British abolitionism in the 19th c., I know somewhere between little and nothing. The Revolution is something where if you pull it out of the stack, there are going to be a whole lot of board game pieces scattered all over the board, table, and floor. Probably enough disruption to get you kicked out of the Club of Honest Whigs!


    • Yes, please: I’ve been dying to escape from the Club of Honest Whigs all my career!

      I think Rachel is essentially right too IF Parliament had offered American representation in 1775, but is there an ounce of a shred of a whisper of evidence to suggest that could have happened? What I don’t know about Parliamentary debates ca. 1765-75 doubtlessly fills many, many tomes already, so maybe someone with more knowledge on this subject in particular can weigh in.

      The question remains for me limiting the damage of slavery, not eliminating it. Would it not have been a good thing to offer the enslaved people of the Southern United States of America ca. 1775 to 1880 or so an even larger, bigger, and richer North to run to, if in Rachel’s imagination the U.S. colonies in which slavery played a minor role had allied with Upper & Lower Canada in the late eighteenth century?

      (Here’s where the people who write about the French Atlantic will rightfully protest the Anglocentric nature of this conversation!)


  4. Canada also decriminalized homosexual activity in 1969, some 34 years before the U.S. (begrudgingly) got around to it through a Supreme Court decision.

    Still, I would miss the United States’ greater demographic diversity. Non-Hispanic whites constitute ~64 percent of the U.S. population as compared to ~86 percent of Canada. I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.


    • Maybe Superpower Canada could have beat the Southern United States of America to the Pacific? (And if so, would that have been a good thing, or just more Anglo-American imperialism?)

      Are you suggesting that you’re on the side of the U.S. in the War on Mexico, ca. 1846-48, GayProf?


      • No support for that war (I might written something or another about that. . .) or U.S. imperialism more broadly. Nonetheless, I do believe that such diversity has transformative potential. We’ll see if pans out. . .


  5. Superpower Canada? Gotta love these awesome counterfactuals. As a dual citizen, I love anything that brings my countries together, too.

    Regarding his three points, I’m not sure that I’d endorse parliamentary democracy as super-awesome. It has some really big drawbacks that you might not notice if you’re not living under it or it’s not under the worldwide scrutiny of being the political system of the dominant western state. Whipping gives an awful lot of power to the party leadership however that actually functions. And we also have our own parlous history with slavery up here as well as some pretty awful elements of First Nations relations still being unearthed. . . .

    Anyway, as I said on Twitter, I might be blogging something on related topics over at my own place. When I do, I’ll let you know.


    • Thanks, Janice. Yes, Brett Rushforth’s book Bonds of Alliance makes it clear that New France was in fact a society with slaves.

      I like the notion of a Superpower Canada (Upper & Lower Canada plus the American colonies in which slavery was a small portion of the labor force.) However, what of the enslaved people consigned to the Slaveocracy States of America? These counterfactuals are difficult. Is it better or worse for them to be left in a nation that’s devoted to their enslavement as of the 1770s, or would it give them more & better places to run to? Would it further stabilize or destabilize slavery? I’m reconsidering my previous response.


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