The American Revolution “was a mistake,” Dylan Matthews argued last week. He lists three reasons that, in his telling, millions of American Indians and black Americans would’ve been better off had the Founding Fathers never declared independence:
Slavery would’ve been abolished earlier, American Indians would’ve faced rampant persecution but not the outright ethnic cleansing Andrew Jackson and other American leaders perpetrated, and America would have a parliamentary system of government that makes policymaking easier and lessens the risk of democratic collapse.
It’s a thought-provoking argument — and an understandable reaction to centuries of brutal racial oppression and, more recently, generations of historians who’ve sought to excuse slaveholding Founding Fathers.
But Matthews’s alternate history is not really correct. Had the American Colonies remained part of the British Empire, slavery would have almost certainly persisted just as long as it did. Slavery might’ve actually gone on a bit longer, particularly for Northern slaves who were emancipated long before the Civil War.
As for the treatment of American Indians, it’s a bit tougher to say. But if you look north to Canada, which followed the example Matthews says the US should have and remained loyal to the crown, there’s little reason to think that native communities would have fared substantially better had the revolution never occurred. (On his final point, I’ll leave it to legislative procedure enthusiasts to debate whether the US would be better off with a British-style parliament.)
But it’s not just that Matthews’s counterfactual is wrong. It’s that he misses one of the most important facts about the American Revolution: that it was the greatest force for emancipation in the US until the Civil War.
1) American Indians would probably not have been better off if the revolution hadn’t happened
One of the arguments against the revolution is that American Indians would’ve been better off had it never happened. And maybe so — it’s certainly difficult to imagine they could have been any worse off than they were under the United States. Could the genocide of American Indians have been mitigated had the Colonies remained under British control?
This is perhaps where Matthews’s counterfactual is on its safest ground. He points to British Canada, which he correctly notes did not pursue a policy against native communities “as violent and deadly” as that pursued by the independent United States.
And the colonists, he writes, were frustrated by the British Empire’s strict limits on westward expansion. Breaking free of the empire meant breaking free of those limits, and thus taking more land that belonged to American Indians.
But I suspect Matthews may be conflating the American Revolution with deeper currents in American history. It’s not so clear that it was independence specifically that enabled and led to the genocide against American Indians. Rather, other factors — distinct ideologies, demographics, and climates — likely played just as large of a role, if not larger. It’s just not clear that the absence of independence would have saved the American Indians.
Look at Australia: Controlled by the British until the 20th century, that country saw its aboriginal populations suffer a similarly horrific annihilation as the American Indians. And it’s not as if, as Matthews himself notes, the natives of Canada were treated with kindness.
2) Without the revolution, the North might not have freed its slaves
When the Revolution began in 1776, slavery was legal in every colony. Only Pennsylvania even had an abolition society. Slavery had existed on American soil for two centuries without being substantially challenged by whites.
The American Revolution changed that. Pennsylvania’s emancipation act of 1780, the first of its kind, was written by revolutionary leaders and explicitly cites the fight against British rule as its inspiration. Similar Northern emancipation acts followed: in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in 1783, and then in Connecticut and Rhode Island the next year.
“Politicians, preachers, and propagandists unfurled the rhetoric of natural rights,” Paul J. Polgar, a historian at the College of William & Mary, wrote in a 2011 essay for the Journal of the Early Republic, “and the immediate post-Revolutionary period witnessed the emergence of abolition societies as far south as Virginia.”
Mary Beth Norton, a professor in Cornell’s history department, told me in an email that this is what Matthews’s alternate history misses: Without the revolution, these movements might not have come to the North as quickly as they did.
“By focusing only on slavery in the South, Matthews completely ignores the fact that slavery was legal in every colony, and that the Revolution led directly to the abolition of slavery in the northern United States,” she wrote.
It is true that even the Northern patriots placed the interests of white America ahead of African-Americans. But the ideals they articulated gave abolition a moral urgency that survived long after General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown. Without the American Revolution, that might not have happened, and slavery in the North would have likely persisted longer.
3) Many black soldiers fought for independence because they saw it as their best path to freedom
Matthews makes much of the Earl of Dunmore’s proclamation that promised freedom to slaves who fought for the British, which led many slaves to see loyalty to the crown as offering “far greater prospects for freedom.”
But this is really only half of the story — a number of slaves and former slaves also sided with the revolution.
“The best way to look at blacks’ aims in the revolution is to focus on their search for freedom from bondage. Sometimes that led them to fight for the British, and sometimes for the Americans,” writes Norton, the Cornell professor.
Norton notes that the story of blacks in the revolution is not complete without the accounts of former slaves like Bristol Mabee, who identified in the idealism of the founders — rather than the far-off British Empire — the best hope for black emancipation.
The fact that so many saw the revolution as their best path to freedom doesn’t necessarily mean that they were right to do so, but it cuts against the idea that the revolution was inherently bad for black Americans and slaves; if that were true, they wouldn’t have sided with it.
4) The South probably would have still fought for slavery — and may not have had to
A big part of Matthews’s counterfactual is his argument that had the Colonies remained part of the British Empire, then the British emancipation of 1834 would’ve freed the American slaves. That would mean ending slavery a generation earlier, and without a bloody civil war.
And the South, he says, wouldn’t be able to stop it: The “South’s political influence within the British Empire would have been vastly smaller than its influence in the early American Republic,” in large part since it was “simply smaller as a chunk of the British Empire’s economy at the time than it was as a portion of America’s.”
This sounds great, but it’s probably too optimistic. The Southern states’ lack of political influence is exactly what led them to secede in 1860 and 1861. If the order to emancipate the slaves had been decreed by a British imperial government an ocean away, it’s very hard to imagine the South accepting that.
Would the 19th century British Empire really have forced emancipation on the South, even at the risk of war? Keep in mind that the empire did not exactly have a glowing track record of going to war in the name of morals:
- The British abandoned the American slaves who fought on their side in the Revolution.
- The British Empire benefited directly from the cotton produced by the American slaves for decades after the revolution, and did so without protest.
- When the Civil War did come, the British were at best neutral, choosing convenience over any professed ideals.
Looking at these facts, it’s difficult to imagine that the South would have obeyed a British order of emancipation, or possibly even that the British would have necessarily been willing to fight a major war to enforce it.
5) The American Revolution inspired other independence and emancipation movements
Cornell history professor Isaac Kramnick pointed out, in an email to me, “another possible consequence had the Americans not rebelled from Britain: there might still be the brutally exploitative English colonial system.”
The ideas articulated by the American founders resurface in wave after wave of popular movements, black and white: in France, Haiti, Spain, and Latin America.
“Many of the leaders of independence movements against the British Empire after World War ll cited Jefferson and the American Revolution as their inspirational model,” Kramnick wrote.
With the benefit of hindsight, the rhetoric of 1776 looks hypocritical. The founders supported racial genocide and chattel slavery, which then flourished in their new republic. And it’s good that historians and journalists want to reframe our historical narratives to focus on their impact on black Americans.
Matthews argues that the success of the American Revolution allowed slavery to survive for decades. In reality, it was the failure of the revolution — the gulf between its promises and reality, rather than the promises themselves — that let slavery persist as long as it did.
Jeff Stein is the founder of the Ithaca Voice and a contributor to Salon.