A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me a really fascinating question: “You said the colonies started the American Revolution because they were being taxed without having representatives in the British government. What if the British had just let us have representatives?” (1)
The question opens up a great deal of possibilities. Parliament, in ceding that the Colonies deserved representation, could have potentially quenched the flames of rebellion that sparked during the Stamp Act Riots in 1765. Would we then have gained independence later, in a more peaceful and deliberate process, in the manner of Australia and Canada? Would Canada and the Thirteen Colonies have merged into one nation during such a process? What impact would a delayed independence have had on Manifest Destiny? Once the French lost Haiti to a slave revolt and therefore no longer needed New Orleans, would they have been equally willing to sell the Louisiana territory to their rivals in Great Britain as they were to sell it to President Jefferson? (Without the American Revolution, would there still have been a revolution in either France or Haiti?)
Or would the colonists still have found reason to revolt? Perhaps allowing representation would have simply delayed the inevitable. Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar writes, “Not that colonists really wanted direct representation in Parliament. A small number of Americans amid a sea of British legislators would likely be consistently outvoted. Moreover, those few colonial representatives…might easily lose a sense of connection with their constituents when living in a grand imperial city an ocean away…[and] might ultimately become part of the problem rather than the solution. (2)
In all likelihood, the Colonists would have had additional grievances with British rule, beyond “Taxation without Representation”. But would such complaints have resonated as well with the average colonial? Would they have equally tipped the precarious balance of risk vs. reward that every colonist had to consider during the revolution?
I’m a big believer in the idea that history is not predetermined by large impersonal forces, that it hinges on contingency and individual agency. (3) The independence and freedom we celebrate today was never a sure thing. The British Army had numerous opportunities to defeat the rebellion on the battlefield. Once we gained our independence, the shape of our government could have very well taken a different form. The Constitution, as drafted, barely passed the ratification process amidst highly partisan debate.
Our Nation, our form of representative democracy, has always been an experiment unlike any other. Today we celebrate not just a decision made in 1776, but all the choices we’ve made along the way to ensure the survival of our fragile democracy.
Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.
(1) Perhaps this interest in alternative histories has sprung from the episodes of “Voyagers” that I introduced her to. Or maybe because her brother has been watching “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” on constant repeat.
(2) Amar, Akil Reed, America’s Constitution: A Biography (2005): 40.
(3) Schuyler, Robert Livingston. “Contingency in History.” Political Science Quarterly 74, no. 3 (1959): 321-33.