Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 3, 2014

Alternate endings: America could be vastly different if Founders had failed

— I read a lot of history books, so I’m interested in how one event leads to another. This has made me a fan of a science fiction subgenera called alternate history. In those stories, authors speculate what the world would be like if, for instance, the South had won the Civil War or the Axis had won World War II.

Naturally, some alternate history authors have wondered what the world would have been like if the American Revolution had failed or never even happened at all. One historian estimated that there were 13 different ways America could have lost the Revolutionary War.

First, we have to remember that the British Empire was the 18th century’s superpower. Britain had the world’s biggest navy and one of the world’s biggest armies. The American colonies had nothing to match the empire’s power in terms of military might.

There are so many ways the British could have won. One historian said the British could have simply blockaded the East Coast by seizing major ports like New York City and patrolling major waterways. The colonies’ economy was very dependent on foreign trade.

Fortunately, the empire decided to crush the rebellion by military force. Unfortunately for them, they used tactics that worked well in Europe — then largely bare of major forests — and tried to use them here. We mostly refused to play along and used dirty tricks such as shooting from behind trees and shooting British officers at long distance.

There were still so many things that could have gone wrong. George Washington’s army was almost trapped on Manhattan Island, but a fortunately foggy night let the rebels escape before the British knew what was going on.

In another instance, what if George Washington was killed? That sad event almost happened a couple of times. Historians doubt anybody else at the time could have equaled his popularity and reputation; the revolution could have wilted away.

The British could have won more battles, and some battles could have not happened at all. The Battle of Kings Mountain, a major blow to the British, happened because the British commander made the huge mistake of threatening the local Scots-Irish colonists. They did not take well to being threatened and mounted an attack that destroyed his army. What if he had chosen to simply keep his mouth shut?

In another essay I read, some of the Founding Fathers decided against writing a history of the American Revolution after gaining independence. They thought the public would be demoralized to learn how close the revolution came to failing. The names on the Declaration of Independence could have become of list of men awaiting execution for treason.

There is another alternative that was possible: The British could have granted the American colonies their independence. It was clear to some people in Great Britain that some day the colonies would exceed the British Isles in population and economic power. If this had happened, America would today be part of the British Commonwealth with a status similar to Australia and New Zealand; we would be independent, but part of an alliance. Polo and cricket might have become our national pastimes.

Of course, there is no guarantee that we would have been granted independence without a war. The empire would have been reluctant to grant independence to a bunch of hostile colonies.

I think the best alternative America could have had is the one we ended up with. The British Empire got tired of fighting, and paying for, a war that never seemed to end and we won our independence. It’s a victory that came very close to not happening, so we should be thankful that events turned out the way they did. The Founding Fathers set a tradition for a peaceful exchange of power when Washington became the first president, so besides winning the war, America managed to win the peace, too, and become a functioning country. We truly have a lot to celebrate on the Fourth of July.

There is one alternative I wonder about: Some Americans wanted Benjamin Franklin to be the first president of the United States. They were uncomfortable with the idea of a former general leading the nation, plus Franklin was popular with the people and overseas, too. Franklin is my favorite Founding Father because he worked his way up from poor beginnings to becoming a national leader as well as a great scientist and author. What would life be like today if Franklin were our first president? It’s something I’ll wonder about when I sit down to hot dogs and hamburgers on the Fourth of July.

Then again, Franklin wanted the wild turkey to be our national bird. Can you imagine the late Neil Armstrong saying, “Houston, the Turkey has landed?” I don’t think so.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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