Ok, so this isn’t going to be your traditional rah-rah Independence Day piece. I’m also going to take a break from lamenting the state of our democracy right now — there’s a lot to lament.
Nope, today is for idle musing about which side I’d have been on in 1776. The more I read about that period and those events, the more I suspect I might have been a loyalist. Here’s my reasoning.
First off, Americans enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world. According to David McCullough in his book, 1776, British troops were astonished at the living standards of colonialists compared to what they experienced back home and, not surprisingly, they were annoyed that their American cousins were fighting for independence when they were doing so well under British protection. Even America’s benefactor during the Revolutionary War was poorer in terms of average living standards. In Discovering France, Graham Robb describes a French countryside, outside of Paris, where life was brutish and, according to its inhabitants, not short enough. French census takers around the time of their own revolution found that a common complaint was that people lived too long. An adult who survived his awful childhood could live to the ripe old age of 51, but he lived in hopeless squalor.
Second, and speaking of that protection, the British weren’t being unreasonable about asking us to pay more taxes for our own defense. Americans lived under the relatively secure umbrella of the powerful — and expensive — British army and navy. And it was especially expensive to provide that protection all the way across the Atlantic. Americans were, in fact, getting off light when it came to paying for the benefits they enjoyed for being part of the empire. It may have been taxation without representation, but it wasn’t taxation without reason. (This dislike for paying one’s bills was reflected in the states themselves. In The Quartet, Joseph Ellis writes that when the Continental Congress levied $3.3 million to the 13 states to pay for the war, the invoices were ignored. All of $39,000 was sent to the national government, such as it was. We were even cheap with ourselves.)
Third, while that empire was ruled by a monarchy, it was a constitutional monarchy in which parliament had a large say. In fact, McCullough writes about a fairly large contingent of MPs who openly supported American independence and were harshly critical of King George. And they kept their heads. The truth is that King George wasn’t really all that much of a tyrant, at least by the standards of his time.
Fourth, while most of the Declaration of Independence is a long list of grievances against the King, it’s not as if American loyalists weren’t ill-treated. Their houses were burned to the ground, their property was seized, they were tarred and feathered and sometimes murdered. All because they took the perfectly defensible and not unreasonable position that the colonies would be better off with incremental improvements under the status quo.
Fifth, had the revolution failed we might have ended up like Canada. Free, democratic, independent for all intents and purposes though still part of the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth of Nations. And it would have changed the course of history in ways we can’t predict for certain, but may well have been for the best. For example, World Wars I and II might have been shorter and less bloody. Canada joined the Commonwealth in declaring war in 1914 and 1939, respectively, while the U.S., owing to its strong isolationism, stayed out until dragged in. In each case, when we joined the war we were the key factor that brought it to a conclusion, owing to our industrial and military might. (Also, Canada doesn’t have a Second Amendment and so can do some pretty effective things in fighting gun violence.)
And sixth, slavery was abolished in the British empire in 1833. We abolished it over three decades later and only after a bloody civil war.
Despite the abuse of loyalists, they were not hard to find in 1776. In fact, it’s estimated that about two-thirds of New Yorkers were Tories. (Even today, I’d say about two-thirds of New Yorkers don’t think much of the United States.) If I were alive then I might have been a loyalist, and I’m not sure I would have been wrong. I love America, but there’s reason to think that it would have been pretty much the same country in the best ways and maybe a better country in some other ways had it stayed in the Commonwealth.
Happy July 4th.
Want to read more unconventional takes on stuff? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.