If you wanted to find an article hostile to the very idea of America — as in, What if the American Revolution was a terrible, tragic mistake? — you could worse than guessing it would be in The New Yorker. That is, in fact, where we find this week Adam Gopnik's article, "We could have been Canada," that pleasant, lovely, peaceful paradise, if only we'd not been so impetuous:
And what if it was a mistake from the start? The Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the creation of the United States of America—what if all this was a terrible idea, and what if the injustices and madness of American life since then have occurred not in spite of the virtues of the Founding Fathers but because of them? The Revolution, this argument might run, was a needless and brutal bit of slaveholders' panic mixed with Enlightenment argle-bargle, producing a country that was always marked for violence and disruption and demagogy. Look north to Canada, or south to Australia, and you will see different possibilities of peaceful evolution away from Britain, toward sane and whole, more equitable and less sanguinary countries. No revolution, and slavery might have ended, as it did elsewhere in the British Empire, more peacefully and sooner. No “peculiar institution,” no hideous Civil War and appalling aftermath. Instead, an orderly development of the interior—less violent, and less inclined to celebrate the desperado over the peaceful peasant. We could have ended with a social-democratic commonwealth that stretched from north to south, a near-continent-wide Canada.
We should not assume that "authoritarian reformers," his term for the British Empire, are necessarily evil. There is something to be said for them, and that something, is in fact, Canada:
Our northern neighbor's relative lack of violence, its peaceful continuity, its ability to allow double and triple identities and to build a country successfully out of two languages and radically different national pasts: all these Canadian virtues are, counterintuitively, far more the legacy of those eighteenth-century authoritarian reformers than of the radical Whigs. This is literally the case; the United Empire Loyalists, as they were called, the “Tories” who fled from the States, did much to make Canada. More than that, Canada is the model liberal country because it did not have an American-style revolution, accepting instead the reformers' values of a strong centralized, if symbolic, monarchy (the Queen is still there, aging, on the Canadian twenty-dollar bill); a largely faceless political class; a cautiously parliamentary tradition; a professionalized and noncharismatic military; a governing élite—an establishment.
But even if a "model liberal country," with its faceless political class and cautiously parliamentary tradition, is your cup of tea, you might want to acknowledge that Canada was able to peacefully develop such a utopia in part because a strong United States was standing watch, a strong United States that would not have existed had the Colonies not prevailed over the Empire. In fact, if the United States had not been around during World War II, the whole world might look just a little different now. The United States was built on the greatest political idea in the history of the world — rights inhere in the individual — and that idea has been a beacon of freedom around the world. What would today look like if we had not set the example of standing up to tyrants?
Of course, if we had not engaged the Revolution, or we had lost it, there might not even have been a World War II, because the players could very well have been different. That's Gopnik's main problem (other than his obvious distaste for the American experience). His historical speculation is in a vacuum. He considers what might have happened in this country based on what did happen in Canada without exploring the possibility that outside factors would have changed had we made a different decision. And those changed factors would in turn have affected what went on here. You change one thing, then that changes another, then there is a chain reaction, and we have what is called "alternative history," and writers have been having fun with the concept for a long time.
For example, Harry Turtledove, who has written a number of alternative histories, speculates that winning the Revolution (or never having to fight it) would have vastly strengthened Great Britain:
"If the British Empire included all of North America north of the Rio Grande as well as India, it would be incontestably the strongest state in the world," he responded. "The French Revolution wouldn't have happened, both for lack of example and because it began when a political crisis and a famine coincided with a government bankruptcy that sprang from the money the government paid out helping the American colonists gain their independence—and giving perfidious Albion a shot in the eye."
. . . "Because the Empire was so strong, we might well have missed out on not only the Napoleonic Wars but also the World Wars. On the other hand, we would also have missed out on the kick in the pants wars give to technology and medicine. We might have had as many deaths that could have been prevented in our own world by medical advances as we've lost in our big wars." Would Marxism and nationalism have become such formidable forces? He's not sure.
James J. Carfano envisions a different scenario:
Now, let's replay the tape. Instead of America being a non-issue, the British win and are forced to treat the defeated colonists like a garrison state. Decades of endless guerilla warfare follow—draining the British treasury.
And, make no mistake—even if the French had not dropped a lot of cash helping out the colonial cause, Louis was probably headed for the guillotine sooner or later anyway—and then came the real threat: Napoleon.
In this situation, North America becomes a major theater of conflict in the Napoleonic wars, not just a sideshow. No longer a struggle between freedom and tyranny, it is a war for supremacy between two imperial powers. It's the kind of war in which the blood really flows. Everywhere. And in the New World, the resulting brawl for supremacy would have made the French and Indian Wars look like peace talks.
When all the killing was done, America would still have been somebody's just another bloodied colony. And worse, the rest of the world might not have made out any better. Maybe, Napoleon would have never had his Waterloo.
Sooner or later, Carfano believes, liberty would have triumphed eventually, even with America's loss. The fire had already been lit in men's minds. The principles of natural law and natural rights had already been articulated and they would not be extinguished.
Patrick J. Kiger concentrates on what this continent might have ended up looking like:
If the colonists had lost the war, there probably wouldn't be a United States of America, period. A British victory in the Revolution probably would have prevented the colonists from settling into what is now the U.S. Midwest. In the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years' War in 1763, the French conceded to England control of all contested lands to the banks of the Mississippi River. The British government wanted to keep that region wild and unsettled, so it could collect revenues from the lucrative fur trade that the French had developed, and issued a proclamation that year closing the frontier to settlers. If the Revolution hadn't eliminated that barrier, there might never have been an Ohio or Minnesota as we know them.
But if the 13 colonies had not won independence, the map of the continent might have been altered in other ways as well. Without a powerful federal government, the interior of North America and the western coast might be separate nations today. Additionally, there wouldn't have been a U.S. war with Mexico in the 1840s, either. So, that nation might have retained Texas, Arizona and other parts of the Southwest, and become vastly richer and more influential as a world power.
And without a rapid westward expansion in the 19th century, another beneficiary might have been the Comanche Empire that dominated the Great Plains in the early 1800s by developing cavalry and using firearms, which some historians say actually eclipsed some European nations in power and prestige. Had they not been conquered in the 1870s by the United States, it's conceivable that they might have grown even more formidable and might even have their own sovereign nation today.
You can find endless speculation on this and other alternative historical outcomes. they're good clean fun simply because they are so preposterous. If they sat down with the historical record in front of them in black and white, two historians would likely not agree on exactly what happened and why it happened. To expect any agreement on what might have happened and why it might have happened is an exercise in total absurdity.
We should ever accept what we think we know about history at face value, especially our own history. We tend to let our patriotic fervor and cultural pride blind us to the possibility that false narratives can so easily take root. To question our past is to better understand our present and better prepare for the future.
But there's not much point in flaunting your prejudices and preconceptions by bending an alternative historical narrative to underscore them. You're liable to perpetuate as many myths as you demolish.