On the eve of Independence Day, Vox’s Dylan Matthews published an article on “3 reasons the American Revolution was a mistake.” His three points present a compelling argument, painting an enticing counterfactual world in which the Revolutionary War either didn’t occur or occurred at a different time in history.
Ultimately, however, Matthews’ argument fails. Each of his points could easily have resulted in a worse reality had the American Revolution either been delayed or completely erased from history.
There are reasons to believe each of Matthews points is mistaken. Below, I will explain my rebuttals to each in order.
1. Independence delayed abolition
Matthews argues that, had the American colonies remained a part of the British Empire for at least a half-century longer, slavery in the region would have been abolished much earlier. This means decades of human rights violations would have never occurred.
But Matthews assumes that, had the American colonies not split ways with Britain, Parliament would still have outlawed slavery in 1834, much earlier than the United States’ 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. That’s far from a given, considering the economy of the southern states, who, we must remember, chose to fight one of the bloodiest wars in American history rather than allow a northern abolitionist president to rule over them.
The southern states, and, before them, the southern colonies, were plantation havens. The slave-supporting cash-crop industry of the south made the white upper class rich beyond belief. That would not have changed in a world where the southern colonies were still part of the British Empire. The south would have lobbied hard to prevent abolition. This pressure would likely have forced Britain to delay abolition for much longer — maybe even into the 1860s, 1870s or later. Ultimately, this would have prolonged slavery instead of hastening its demise.
2. Independence hurt Native Americans
Matthews argues colonial Americans were much harsher toward Native Americans than were their British overlords.
He’s right on that point, but wrong to assume Parliament would have adequately reined in Americans’ hostility in the long run. That’s because westward expansion, the main impetus of Americans’ harsh treatment of the native tribes, would have been just as large of a drive in a British-controlled America as it was in a self-governed one.
Britain’s ongoing feud with France and Spain, who had their own colonies in the Americas, would have triggered a faster westward push. A more deliberate expansion of the American colonies would have necessarily resulted in a greater frequency of colonist-Native American conflict. Britain would have little reason to express restraint in the face of the large economic and military gains that could be had from colonization of the continent’s interior.
So what if the French still resided in the Louisiana Territory? European superpowers have fought wars over much less. Besides, the American colonies’ population was growing much too fast to contain it for long.
3. Independence produced a weaker government system
Matthews’ final point is a highly contestable one. He argues that, had the American colonies delayed their push for independence, they would have likely adopted a parliamentary form of government, modeled after Britain, rather than the tripartite presidential system we know today.
Matthews is right to conclude that a parliamentary form of government, where the head of government is selected by a vote of the legislature, itself, as opposed to a nationwide vote, is a superior system of selecting an executive leader. (Just think: would Congress have ever voted Donald Trump into office? I don’t think so.) But what he overlooks is the role of the judiciary in the American system.
You see, the American Constitution, which elevates federal courts to co-equal status with the legislative and executive branches, creates one of the most effective protections against majoritarian tyranny in existence. This American system, since the Supreme Court’s Marbury v. Madison ruling in 1803, has adhered to the practice of judicial review, in which the courts can deem an act of Congress unconstitutional, thereby striking it down. This both provides a check on legislative power and increases the prominence of rights textually enumerated, and sometimes merely alluded to, in the Constitution.
In Britain, the courts are much less powerful. Though having a parliamentary-selected head of government would certainly be superior to our current popularly-elected president, this is more than compensated for by the strength of our federal judicial system, which is a more effective protector of civil liberties than the relatively weak British courts. ■