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What If America Had Lost the Revolution?

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In the 2000 movie “The Patriot,” set in 1776, an American colonial landowner named Benjamin Martin, portrayed by Mel Gibson, reluctantly joins the rebellion against the British Crown after one of his sons is arrested as a spy by British forces and threatened with execution. For his trouble, Martin’s home is burned, two of his sons are killed and he nearly loses his own life in hand-to-hand combat against a brutally sociopathic British officer named Tavington. Fortunately, by luck as much as by skill, Martin manages to survive and kills his antagonist with a desperate thrust of his bayonet. Then he goes on to fight for the Continental Army, which defeats the British at Yorktown to win independence, and eventually returns home to resume his life [source: Mitchell].

Though fictional, “The Patriot” has a strong element of truth, in that it gives a sense of just how much courage it took for the colonists to rebel against the awesome might of the British Empire — and how lucky they were to eke out a victory. As the historian David McCullough noted in his book “1776,” the Americans suffered terrible losses — about 25,000 casualties, or roughly 1 percent of the colonial population. That would be the equivalent of a modern war claiming more than 3 million U.S. lives. “To those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning … the outcome seemed little short of a miracle,” McCullough wrote.

Indeed, modern historians have speculated that if the colonists hadn’t caught a few breaks, the rebellion might have been crushed, and the American colonies would have remained under the rule of King George III. What would have happened to the defeated 13 colonies? Unless we’re someday able to venture into an alternate universe where Cornwallis accepts Washington’s surrender instead of vice versa, we’ll never be able to conclusively answer that question. Nevertheless, based on available historical facts, it’s possible to engage in what scholars call counterfactual history and speculate how a British victory might have altered the events that followed [source: Bunzl].

What might have happened to America if it wasn’t for providence and the bravery, resilience and resourcefulness of a good many true heroes?

Life in Colonial America

If the British had thwarted the American Revolution, the consequences for America might have been terrifyingly harsh. After all, during the war, the British Army demonstrated a penchant for brutality. When a small force of colonial rebels waved the white flag and tried to surrender at Waxhaws, South Carolina, in May 1780, the redcoats simply slaughtered them, killing more than 100 men [source: Ward]. In New York, which remained under Loyalist control, the Brits jammed American captives into the holds of prison ships, where they were given nothing but British sailors’ discarded table scraps to eat and were denied access to sunshine or fresh air. Though the conditions on these prison ships weren’t necessarily that much worse that any conditions the redcoats endured as prisoners of war, the number of dead was extraordinary: Eleven thousand prisoners perished there from diseases like yellow fever and dysentery [source: Caliendo]. What might the British have done to the 100,000 or so Americans who had dared to take up arms against the crown?

Had the British been victorious, it seems likely that King George III would have come through on the promise he made in 1775 to “bring to condign punishment the authors, perpetrators and abetters of such traitorous designs” [source: Britannia.com]. The British had executed the leaders of a failed Scottish rebellion in 1747, and it seems likely that they would have marched George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other American revolutionaries to the gallows as well [source: Chadwick].

One of the reasons for the rebellion was the colonists’ fear that the British government would increase their taxes. (That was ironic because after adopting the U.S. Constitution, the Americans went on to tax themselves at much higher rates than the 1 percent or so of colonial economic output that the British took by imposing the Navigation Acts [source: Baack].) But had the revolution failed, the British might have punished the rebels by making them pay additional reparations for the cost of suppressing the revolt — a total of about 80 million pounds sterling (the equivalent of roughly a few billion dollars in today’s U.S. dollars) [source: Tombs, Officer]. So, postwar colonial America might have been a pretty hungry, impoverished place, with food crops being sold off or shipped to England. The result might have been widespread famine, akin to what occurred in Ireland in the 1840s.

Additionally, the British might have punished American rebels by seizing their personal land and homes, just as they seized the estates of Scottish nobles who’d supported a rebellion against British rule [source: Sankey]. That would have radically altered the power structure in American society. Some of that land might have gone to the Hessian mercenaries the British imported from Germany to help them in the war. In one 1778 proclamation, the British promised each Hessian captain who brought 40 men an 800-acre estate, and each individual soldier would receive another 50 acres [source: The New York Times].

For all of the British Empire’s other cruelties and callous acts, British antislavery activists won the debate in their own country without having to fire a shot in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In 1807, Parliament abolished the slave trade, and in 1833, it banned the owning of slaves in most of its colonial territories, with the exception of some areas of south Asia controlled by the British East India Company. Between 1808 and 1869, the British Navy even waged an aggressive campaign to seize other nations’ slave ships, which resulted in the freeing of about 150,000 captive Africans. If the colonists had lost the war, would slavery have been abolished sooner on American soil — and without the need for a nasty Civil War?

Reimagining a Map of America

If the colonists had lost the war, there probably wouldn’t be a United States of America, period. A British victory in the Revolution probably would have prevented the colonists from settling into what is now the U.S. Midwest. In the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the French conceded to England control of all contested lands to the banks of the Mississippi River. The British government wanted to keep that region wild and unsettled, so it could collect revenues from the lucrative fur trade that the French had developed, and issued a proclamation that year closing the frontier to settlers. If the Revolution hadn’t eliminated that barrier, there might never have been an Ohio or Minnesota as we know them [source: Baack].

But if the 13 colonies had not won independence, the map of the continent might have been altered in other ways as well. Without a powerful federal government, the interior of North America and the western coast might be separate nations today. Additionally, there wouldn’t have been a U.S. war with Mexico in the 1840s, either. So that nation might have retained Texas, Arizona and other parts of the Southwest, and become vastly richer and more influential as a world power.

And without a rapid westward expansion in the 19th century, another beneficiary might have been the Comanche Empire that dominated the Great Plains in the early 1800s by developing cavalry and using firearms, which some historians say actually eclipsed some European nations in power and prestige. Had they not been conquered in the 1870s by the United States, it’s conceivable that they might have grown even more formidable and might even have their own sovereign nation today [source: Hamalainen].

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Baack, Ben. “The Economics of the American Revolutionary War.” EH.Net. Feb. 5, 2010. (June 30, 2022) https://web.archive.org/web/20121103152539/http://eh.net/encyclopedia/article/baack.war.revolutionary.us

Britannia. “Sources of British History: Proclamation of Rebellion, August 23, 1975.” (June 30, 2022) https://web.archive.org/web/20120716190204/http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/procreb.html

Bunzl, Martin. “Counterfactual History: A User’s Guide.” The American Historical Review. Sept. 1, 2004. (June 29, 2022) https://pseudoerasmus.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/bunzl-2004.pdf

Caliendo, Ralph J. “The New York Mayors, Part I.” Xlibris. 2010. (Feb. 7, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?id=n6Ku20Sh5vwC&pg=PA107&dq=prison+ships+new+york+harbor+conditions&hl=en&sa=X&ei=GwMyT7jDIqTk0QHV99nhBw&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=prison%20ships%20new%20york%20harbor%20conditions&f=false

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“England’s Hired Troops.” The New York Times. March 5, 1881. (July 1, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/1881/04/02/archives/englands-hired-troops-what-her-hessian-allies-cost-her.html

Hamalainen, Pekka. “The Comanche Empire” (synopsis). Yale University Press. 2008. (June 30, 2022) https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300151176/the-comanche-empire/

“How did the Abolition Acts of 1807 and 1833 affect the slave trade?” The National Archives (UK). Undated. (Feb. 7, 2012) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/lesson27.htm

McCullough, David. “1776.” Simon & Schuster. 2005. (June 29, 2022) http://books.google.com/books?id=R1Jk-A4R5AYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=mcCullough+1776&hl=en&sa=X&ei=W4UyT_3XKMjf0gHw1MT4Bw&ved=0CD8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mcCullough%201776&f=false

Mitchell, Elvis. “Film Review: A Gentle Farmer Who’s Good at Violence.” The New York Times. June 28, 2000. (June 29, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/28/movies/film-review-a-gentle-farmer-who-s-good-at-violence.html?scp=5&sq

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Tombs, Robert and Isabelle. “That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British from the Sun King to the Present.” Random House. 2006. http://books.google.com/books?id=CdSZumsS3cMC&q=80+million#v=snippet&q=80%20million&f=false

Ward, Harry M. “Going Down Hill.” Academica Press LLC. 2009. (June 29, 2022) http://books.google.com/books?id=ldT9Qu29phwC&pg=PA196&dq=british+atrocities+revolutionary+war&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hwEyT-nXF6T50gHvoszfBw&ved=0CEIQ6AEwAQ

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