The Miracle of American Independence: Twenty Ways Things Could Have Turned Out Differently

The Miracle of American Independence: Twenty Ways Things Could Have Turned Out Differently

by Jonathan R. Dull


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Although American independence was no miracle, the timing of the country’s independence and its huge scope, both political and territorial, do seem miraculous. In The Miracle of American Independence Jonathan R. Dull reconstructs significant events before, during, and after the Revolutionary War that had dramatic consequences for the future as the colonies sought independence from Great Britain. Without these surprising and unexpected results, Dull maintains, the country would have turned out quite differently.
The Miracle of American Independence reimagines how the British might have averted or overcome American independence, and how the fledgling country itself could have lost its independence. Drawing on his nearly fifty years of research and a lively imagination, Dull puts readers in a position to consider the American Revolution from the perspective of the European states and their monarchs. This alternative history provides a stimulating reintroduction to one of the most exciting periods in American and European history, proving that sometimes reality is even stranger and more miraculous than fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612347677
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 198
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jonathan R. Dull served as the senior associate editor of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin series until 2008 and is the author of numerous books, including Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution (Nebraska, 2010), The French Navy and the Seven Years’ War (Nebraska, 2005), and The Age of the Ship of the Line (Nebraska, 2009).

Read an Excerpt

The Miracle of American Independence

Twenty Ways Things Could Have Turned Out Differently

By Jonathan R. Dull


Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61234-780-6


Britain Could Have Continued to Accept America's Partial Autonomy

Most Americans who lived through the violence, misery, and terror of the American Revolution probably would have been happy if the peaceful and prosperous conditions of the 1720s and 1730s had never ended. This was a golden age in which the terrible wars between whites and Native Americans gradually ceased, at least for the moment, and the standard of living for both sets of people improved. Europe, too, enjoyed a respite from the terrible wars that had plagued it during the previous decades. For the dozen years between 1721 and 1733, war virtually disappeared from the entire continent, the longest period of complete peace it had ever had. Even the climate improved. In the 1720s long-absent sunspots resumed, and the miserable cold years that marked the unhappy seventeenth century lost their hold over the Northern Hemisphere (and much of the rest of the world). Famines and revolutions ceased to be common events, and the population of Europe increased, aided not only by the better climate but also by improved roads and canals by which food could be moved. Plague became less of a threat as European states imposed widespread quarantines to prevent its spread; France saw its last major plague epidemic contained in 1720.

Meanwhile, many Americans and some Britons enjoyed not only peace and prosperity but also a large measure of self-government. The long struggle of political parties in Great Britain ended with the victory of the Whigs over the Tories. Between 1721 and 1743 First Lord of the Treasury (and unofficial prime minister) Robert Walpole commanded a solid majority in the House of Commons. Walpole loved peace, both domestic and foreign, and America benefited from the British government's benign indifference or, as Edmund Burke later called it, "salutary neglect." In eight of the thirteen American colonies, Britain exerted its power through the governors appointed by the king upon the recommendation of Walpole's close ally Thomas Pelham-Hobbes, Duke of Newcastle, the secretary of state responsible for America. Governors generally were selected to reward Walpole's followers in the House of Commons and tended to share his desire not to rock the boat. In Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware, the governor was appointed by a proprietor, a nobleman whose chief concern was enriching himself. Massachusetts and Connecticut selected their own governors. In spite of their differences, the colonies had in common a political life largely centered around an elected assembly, a lower house of the legislature that dominated the passage of legislation and levying of taxes. The governor could veto legislation or the king's advisory Privy Council could disallow it, but for the most part these powers were exercised with a light hand. Britain, however, wielded considerable economic control over the colonies by regulating American industrial development, trade, and currency. Not all Americans were happy with being an economic satellite of Great Britain, but the mother country did provide markets for their exports (generally agricultural), credit for the functioning of their businesses and plantations, and the British-made consumer goods that they loved.

The colonists saw no contradiction in being simultaneously loyal to their local communities, their individual colonies, and their king. Gradually some came to think of themselves as Americans, although the definition was vague enough to sometimes include the colonists of the British West Indies. Americans had closer ties with Great Britain than with each other; America was large, communications were slow, and there were major religious, economic, and social differences among the colonies. The main connection among Americans was a rather good joint postal system and a network of newspapers. Each colony had its own militia, sometimes with a small British warship or two for protection from pirates. Each also generally maintained a lobbyist, called a colonial agent, in London. These tried to influence the Privy Council and its advisory committee, the Board of Trade, which approved their legislation, Parliament, which regulated their trade, and, in some cases, the secretary of state (a cabinet position), who appointed their governors. What the colonies shared was loyalty to the crown, faith in the unwritten British constitution that apportioned power among the king, the House of Commons, and House of Lords, pride in being British, a dedication to self-government, and a mistrust of British politicians, government officials, and soldiers. Most American white men owned enough property to have the chance to vote, a privilege exercised by few Britons. Americans considered Parliament corrupt and government officials power-hungry and dangerous, whereas they were freer and hence more British than Britons themselves. As long as the British government left them alone, they could look down on Britain for its vices, while they traded with it, borrowed money from it, and tolerated its occasional intrusions into their lives. The British government in turn was willing to ignore the colonists' oddities, such as their lack of a landed nobility, as long as American trade contributed to Britain's prosperity and power. Some Britons were concerned by the implications of America's amazing population growth, but as long as the British public and government paid little attention to America, "salutary neglect" worked well.

What brought an end to peaceful relations between Britain and America was the end of Britain's peaceful relations with Europe. The unprecedented European peace of 1721 to 1733 (which spread to the American frontier by the late 1720s) was based on an unusual combination of circumstances. After a long period of war such as that between 1688 and 1720, there generally was a short respite while the various former warring states rebuilt their finances. What enabled the present respite to last a dozen years was the unusual alliance of the three richest states in Europe: Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands (which then was called the United Provinces of the Netherlands to distinguish it from its southern neighbor, the Austrian Netherlands, now called Belgium). Not only were these three countries uninterested in fighting each other; they also were uninterested in financing wars in the rest of Europe. Moreover the wars of the previous quarter century had resolved a number of pressing issues such as whether Russia or Sweden would dominate eastern Europe. Russia won, but it was not yet on the same level as the three great powers of Europe: Britain, France, and Austria. These wars greatly diminished the relative standing of other countries like Spain, Sweden, and the rich but militarily weak Netherlands. Most international issues could now be resolved by intimidation or negotiation, and a series of diplomatic conferences (called "congresses," a distant forerunner of the United Nations) was set up to resolve them.

Unfortunately, this peaceful system was unstable. The English public generally disliked and mistrusted France, which was Catholic and had fought England for more than twenty years after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 deposed King James II of England, a Catholic and a cousin of the king of France. The British government still feared a French invasion even though the French navy was only a fraction of the size of the British and virtually stopped building new ships in the late 1720s. Perhaps most important, the leaders who had negotiated the Franco-British alliance died during the 1720s. The new French leader, young King Louis XV's tutor, Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, was as prudent as were Walpole and Newcastle, but King George II, who assumed the English throne in 1727, saw little value in the French alliance. In 1731 he negotiated an alliance with France's long-standing rival, Austria. In response, France allied with Spain.

In 1733 war returned to Europe as France and Russia backed rival claimants to the throne of Poland. Austria joined the war as an ally of Russia, while Spain joined it as an ally of France. Britain remained neutral, and France took care not to threaten British security. It refrained from invading the Austrian Netherlands (from which an invasion of England could be launched) and sent only a tiny squadron to fight the Russians in the Baltic Sea. Thus the war had no impact in America.

In 1739, Britain declared war on its colonial rival, Spain, which did affect America. War broke out on the frontier between Georgia and Spanish Florida, while thousands of Americans volunteered for a British expedition in the Caribbean (which was defeated). France remained neutral. The following year, the ruler of Austria died. He had been the Holy Roman emperor, a title that in theory made him the ruler of Germany (which in practical terms meant only where people spoke German) but in fact had little real power. His heir, his daughter Maria Theresa, was not eligible to be elected Holy Roman emperor. Her real inheritance was the lands directly ruled by her family, the Habsburgs: Austria, the Austrian Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia, and significant other possessions in Italy, Germany, and eastern Europe. Various rulers of Europe, including Louis XV, had promised to respect her right to inherit them, but one greedy ruler, Frederick II of Prussia, a medium-sized state in northern Germany, invaded Silesia, an Austrian province that today is part of Poland. Louis XV was now thirty years old and chose not to listen to Cardinal Fleury's advice to disregard Prussia's offer of an alliance against Austria. Instead he decided to join in the plunder, hoping to so weaken Austria that it would never again pose a threat to France. Soon Britain came to the assistance of Maria Theresa and went to war against France.

Louis's dishonorable decision would affect not only his reign but also that of his grandson and successor, Louis XVI. It undercut the security of promises and the rule of law in international relations. It helped make European diplomacy a jungle ruled by violence despite the eighteenth century's reputation as being a period of limited wars. The ensuing War of the Austrian Succession led to two more wars, the Seven Years' War and the War of American Independence, that bankrupted the French monarchy and led to the French Revolution. It also poisoned relations with Great Britain for the next seventy years; on several occasions during those years France tried to reestablish good relations, only for its offers to be rejected by British governments unwilling to brave the English public's hostility to France. The war also spilled over into North America with disastrous consequences.

The outbreak of fighting along the American frontier in 1745 ended a generation of uneasy peace between white British colonists and Native Americans. Moreover, the war, called in America "King George's War," led to a split among the Iroquois confederation of six Native American nations in northern and western New York. Hitherto the confederation had served as a buffer between French Canada and the upper British colonies. Now the Mohawks, the easternmost Iroquois nation, went to war on behalf of the British and attempted a raid on Montreal. Tension also increased because the British navy's blockade of shipping from France cut the French supply line to its native allies in the Great Lakes area, the Upper Country or pays d'en haut. As the traditional Native American alliances with the French weakened, a power vacuum was created in the western part of Pennsylvania. British American traders flooded the areas, whose borders were in dispute. The war fostered British Americans' fear of Native Americans and increased their desire for Native American land.

The most important military action in North America was on Cape Breton Island, where the French had built Louisbourg, a fortified port city used to support the French fishing boats using the Newfoundland and St. Lawrence fisheries, regarded as vital for training sailors for the French navy. In 1745 a volunteer army from New England supported by units of the British navy captured Louisbourg. At the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, Louisbourg was returned to France. The French in turn evacuated the Austrian Netherlands, which their army had captured. American colonists were outraged at what they regarded as a betrayal by British negotiators at the peace conference (held in the German city of Aix-la-Chapelle). Thus the war created suspicion in America that the British neglect of them was not benign but rather reflected indifference toward their contributions.

The war also made a difference in British attitudes. It had been expensive for Britain as well as for France. Within the British government there were now those who believed that the administration of the American colonies needed to be more efficient. Americans blackmailed royal governors by threatening to withhold their salaries, they evaded British trade regulations by smuggling with the French West Indies, and they contributed almost nothing to the royal treasury. Resentment of the Americans' semi-independence was particularly strong among the members of the Board of Trade (which issued the instructions to royal governors), especially its chairman, George Montagu Dunk, Earl of Halifax. For the moment they could not overcome the weight of government inertia, but their desire to change the system of salutary neglect was ominous. So too was the departure of Walpole, a victim of the public's aggressiveness born of the war. Although Walpole was despised in America for his supposed corruption and pursuit of power, he had been the main support for the loose system of administering America. Ominous, too, was the huge rise of the British national debt, which weakened British tolerance for America's not paying a share of Britain's heavy taxes. The war also had weakened the Iroquois confederation as a force for peace, undermined the uneasy tolerance between whites and Native Americans, and threatened Native American hunting grounds, which never had been completely safe from the colonists' land hunger. Perhaps most dangerous of all, it had poisoned British relations with France and made more contentious their conflicting claims along the never defined border of French-speaking Acadia (now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) and the border between the British colonies and Canada, particularly the area around the headwaters of the Ohio River. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, like the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, left border issues to be resolved by a joint British-French border commission, but its success would depend on the willingness of Louis XV, George II, and their governments to compromise.

Thus the Franco-British war of 1744–48 inflicted a dangerous wound on the system of salutary neglect, the British policy of looking the other way and accommodating the actions, aspirations, and fears of their American colonists. Its survival would require turning the clock back to the 1720s and 1730s. Had the British been able to do so, there would have been little reason for Americans to consider changing a relationship that was less one of dependence and subordination than one of a mutually beneficial partnership. Unfortunately the survival of that partnership was less a question of British-American relations than it was of Britain's relations with France. On those relations hinged the survival of Britain's policy of salutary neglect of its colonies.


There Might Have Been a Peaceful Resolution of the Colonial Rivalry of 1748–1755

Under the odd division of responsibility in place until 1782, British foreign and colonial policy was split between a secretary of state for the north, responsible for implementing British policy toward the great powers of eastern Europe (now including Prussia), and a secretary of state for the south, responsible for relations with France, Spain, and the American colonies (among other places). Thus the most important person in dealing with both France and the American colonies was the southern secretary, the Duke of Newcastle. It is hard to imagine a less menacing or tyrannical figure than the dithering and kindly (although jealous of potential rivals) Newcastle, whose genius was in the subtle arts of patronage and political management. Newcastle's failings as a statesman were not extremism or aggression but his insularity, his inability to see things from, for example, a French perspective. It would be an exaggeration to say that the war that began in 1754–55 was a simple misunderstanding, as there were genuine conflicts involved, particularly concerning America's borders. Newcastle, however, misjudged France's foreign policy goals, exaggerated the French threat, and missed a chance to reduce the tensions that led to war. Some Frenchmen, particularly in the foreign ministry, were open to accommodation with Britain, but they had little chance of overcoming the obstacles to the one way that Britain and France could have been spared from an even more disastrous war than the previous one — a return to the Franco-British cooperation of the 1720s and early 1730s. In the process the British policy of salutary neglect of its colonies might also have been saved.


Excerpted from The Miracle of American Independence by Jonathan R. Dull. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Part 1. Seven Ways the British Might Have Averted American Independence
1. Britain Could Have Continued to Accept America’s Partial Autonomy
2. There Might Have Been a Peaceful Resolution of the Colonial Rivalry of 1748–1755
3. The War of 1755 Could Have Ended in a Quick British Victory
4. The French Could Have Won the War
5. The British Army Could Have Withdrawn from the American Frontier
6. The British Government Might Have Learned a Lesson from the Stamp Act Fiasco
7. The British Might Have Avoided War with the American Colonies
Part 2. Twelve Ways the British Could Have Overcome American Independence
8. American Resistance Might Have Been Fatally Weakened during 1775
9. The Seven Years’ War Could Have Permanently Weakened the French Navy
10. The British Might Have Accepted France’s Pleas for Better Relations
11. King Louis XVI Could Have Refused to Arm the Americans
12. The British Might Have Crushed the Continental Army
13. Louis XVI Could Have Pulled Back from War
14. Spain Might Not Have Joined the War
15. Spain Might Have Made Peace with Britain
16. The British Might Have Captured West Point
17. A Financial Collapse Could Have Doomed the Revolution
18. The Allies Might Not Have Achieved the Cooperation Needed for Victory
19. The Peace Treaty Could Have Left the United States Too Weak to Survive
Part 3. The Way the United States Could Have Lost Its Independence
20. The American Union Might Not Have Lasted

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