In response to my last article on the causes of the Revolutionary War, a friend on twitter asked me (in twitter speak, so revised): ‘What if King George had granted representation and a few of the colonist’s demands, would the war have happened?’ It was an interesting thought experiment, though I could not give a veritable answer in 120 characters, therefore blogging it only seemed appropriate.
However, I must stress that this sort of activity is stepping into the realm of science fiction; unlike some students of history, I do not presume to be omniscient. I’m no Hegelian (re: imperialist determinist), not even by a stretch. There is no way to no definitively what could or would have happened, supposing things had gone differently in, say, 1773. Still I do think that understanding the sociological framework for the war itself can lend some clues to one possible alternate future (and I’m no J.J. Abrams either, just for the record–though Abrams may be a Hegelian for all I know). With that caveat fresh in the reader’s mind, we can proceed.
1. An Adequately Understood Timeline
A lot of back-and-forth took place between the crown and the colonies. Most of it had been divisive and none had been missed on either side. As far back as the 1760’s, rumors and actions led to suspicions of one another; the British accused the colonists of trading with the enemy during the French and Indian war and the Americans were increasingly upset with the continued loss of property and lives on the frontier settlements. Worse, the British navy increasingly became abusive to New Englanders as a result of these rumors, often blaming them for all sorts of things as a result. Their assaults on individuals spread through newspapers and incited unease among the population.
Then came taxes. It is important to keep in mind that as far as the tax rate goes, the colonists had it pretty good. The figures suggest that the colonists paid less taxes than those on the British mainland, and rightly so as they had more expenses–especially following the war, along with rebuilding destroyed estates and hiring a workforce and purchasing new lands with which to farm and subsequently supply Britain with continued goods. Economically it made sense to allow the lower tax rates. But as time went on, despite the low amount that was due, more taxes continued to pile up on things that previously had not been taxed. Stamps, tea, glass–things that were necessary for living started getting a little pricier.
Again, it was not the money that was an issue; for the colonists it seems it had to do more with the principle of it. Things perhaps would not have been so dire had there been 13 representatives in parliament, elected by the colonists, to speak on their behalf. As a consequence, the levied taxes–and the arrival of troops and a fleet of war ships–felt unjustified and harsh, as well as unfounded. Town meetings were held (legally) and votes were cast; individuals started boycotting the purchase of British goods.
The situation went from bad to worse, as the population–especially in New England–grew mortified by the actions of the King. Things became violent. As public outrage grew against the crown and the Loyalist enforcers, groups of people started to work against the British more openly. Crowds gathered, effigies were hung with symbolic messages attached, Paul Revere worked on several engravings which would continue to spur resistance (like the one below).
It is important to note that localities in America had already started to move towards developing their own governing laws without consultation–and often in direct defiance of–parliament. Patrick Henry had moved to resolve the current tax acts in place and commanded for the established bureaucracy in Virginia the powers to impose and enforce taxes, for example (though these were rescinded by conservative members the next day), and certain congresses had arisen to do the same in other colonies. Then came the response in 1766 from Great Britain: the the Declaratory Act. This act stated (re: reaffirmed) that all individuals were under the sole providence of the King and as subordinates under the dominion of Great Britain, all should recognize that only the crown has authority and power. As one can imagine, this quite enraged the people of America further.
Within four years time, from 1766 to 1770, life in the colonies was overshadowed by their ‘big brother’ with additional taxes and acts being supplemented. But in 1770 the Boston Massacre occurred. This incident set off a new series of events that launched the colonies towards independence and war at a much faster pace. In 1772, the Gaspee Affair occurred–remembering the way that British naval officials had treated them years before (and continued to treat them), a few hundred individuals rushed the schooner Gaspee, killed the commander of the vessel, and burned it in the harbor.
In 1773, the Boston Tea Party stood in direct opposition to the taxes on tea, instituted by the crown in favor of the debt-accruing East India Company, sparked additional support and rage from colonists. Again, we must keep in mind that tensions were considerably high–a lot had occurred in several years time that had rubbed both sides the wrong way. With mounting resolve, parliament instituted additional acts to quell rebellion and subdue the Sons of Liberty. But these ‘intolerable acts’ would only further incite insurrection, leading to the first Continental Congress in 1774 and the perhaps inevitable confrontation one year later at Lexington and Concord.
2. What If?
I know that last section was long. But remember, we’re trying to figure out what would have happened if the King had just accepted the demands of the colonists and without some background there is no way to do that. But now, it seems, we all have some adequate information on the various milieux of the period. So what if?
For me, the question should also be a matter of ‘when’. When would the King consider this request? Would it be after the French and Indian war, when the colonists had sacrificed so much–and prior to the institution of the Stamp Act? Would it have been following the Stamp Act in 1765? After the Boston Tea Party in 1773? When the King would have considered these requests and at which point he would have permitted the colonist’s demands will ultimately bear upon our answer, would it not?
Had the King chosen, following the French and Indian war, to bring representatives in for each colony in America, it seems less likely that a war would have broken out at the time it did. It may be that a war would have happened later–but those circumstances are, obviously, unknown to us so presuming such a thing is not recommended. Still, had this been done early on, there is a greater chance that public opinion would not have wavered so fervently towards independence. After all, what reason would they have to complain? Taxes were low and even if new taxes were instigated, it would have been at the hands of their elected officials–not the crown itself. Additionally, the Sons of Liberty might never had formed, meaning that Paul Revere’s engravings and the tactics of his constituents to instill a sense of rebellion would never have come to pass. There would not have been a Boston Massacre, a Tea Party, etc…. a form of peace would have probably been the status quo.
Now, had the King considered this premise in the early 1770’s, chances are likely that the war would have happened anyway–perhaps it would not have occurred the same way (such as the battles at Lexington and Concord) but it may have played out in a different manner and, quite possibly, with more egregious consequences; maybe France would not have felt the urgency to get involved, which would have meant no incoming supplies like weapons and munitions, leading to a Continental defeat.
What remains is merely speculation. There is no one solution to the question(s); had the King displayed some leniency towards the colonists at all, it is always possible that history might have played out differently. But this is precisely why we study the past. We have the luxury, hundreds of years later, to enact these sorts of mental exercises. The colonists certainly did mull it over. Rightly, they could have fought back in 1770 following the Boston Massacre, but they waited, delegated, and considered options. There are implications for that as well (e.g., that enough people were against a war that they allowed Great Britain additional liberties to tax them and attempt to contain them).
In the end, and I stress this again, the war was never about a single issue–it was about a build up of multiple issues over a long period of time. Primarily, it was the result of a monarchy treating the colonists like second rate people; there existed no equality between the colonists and the British even though they had shed the same blood defending the land over which, later, they would fight (and shed blood again). If one were to take anything away from this experiment, it should be this solemn fact.