Would the world really be that different now if the US had lost the Revolutionary War?

This is prompted by a trailer for a new movie, America. The film imagines Washington being killed by musket fire and the rebellion being put down by the British. In the trailer we see first some of America’s achievements in the 20th century, then GW being killed and the Statue of Liberty crumbling, along with other American icons. The implication is that the world would be very different now had that transpired and America would not have shaped the world as she did.

But is that really true? Even if the US had lost the continent would have been given independence by the British in the 19th century, as Canada was. In fact is there not a chance that the US would have been even greater, at least in size, as Canada and the US would be one country? I can’t see that the impact of Northern America on the rest of the planet would have been lessened at all by a British victory.

Well, we’d have abolished the death penalty and stopped prosecuting people for sodomy sooner.

Which, I guess, would have been Dinesh D’Souza’s worst nightmare.

Butterfly effect. Is this even debatable?

I agree with this. It’s just too long ago and with too many maybes. As with the butterfly effect, we can be pretty sure that the world would be different, but in what way and how much different it’s impossible to say.

As for the objections raised in the OP. Well some of the obvious differences just in North America would have been the fates of the French Colonies, particularly Lousiana but also the Carribean colonies. Hard to imagine France selling its colonies to Britain. The Spanish-American war and Mexican-American Wars would also not have taken place so no friendly Cuba, drastically different southern US. And the chances of Russia selling Alaska to the English in the middle of The Great Game are approximately nil. Which in turn means the the whole idea of the Western hemisphere being a US sphere of influence changes radically.

And those are just the obvious effects. But if the US remained colony as Canada or Australia did, with the whole world knowing it would send troops and material to any way the moment it was asked, the whole of world history changes radically. If England maintains control, then no WII at the very least since the power blocks would be so very unbalanced that the alliance structures that happened in our timeline wouldn’t occur. Alternatively, the hugely important English foreign territories and constant mutterings of rebellion might have led to England overspending on military and the Empire collapsing 100 years earlier.

It’s just impossible to tell how the world would be different. As Zero-syde said, Butterfly Effect. But we can be pretty sure that it would be radically different. An “independent” US in the style of Canada or Australia is still radically different from the truly independent US. It remains for all intents and purposes a part of Britain until the mid-20th century. It influences the way that Britain spends on its military, the way that it enters into alliances and wars, the way that science advances. The way in which the US is given representation by itself alters history radically. If Americans don’t get a vote, then there’s likely to be constant rumblings of revolution and skirmises, guerilla war etc. And if Americans get some sort of representation, then the politics of not just England but all of Europe alters. After all, the French voted for their politicians in response to the way the perceived English aggression or the lack thereof. So the whole world moves down a totally different path as soon as that issue is decided.

The OP seems to be suggesting that once the rebellion is crushed, the US rapidly gets granted independence, and that the French go on to sell the colony Louisiana and the Russians sell them Alaska despite remaining part of the British Empire. The English monarch and parliament don’t apply any pressure to avoid the Spanish-American war and the Spanish don’t see that as an act of English aggression. England still spends resources exploring the South Pacific despite having vast areas of fertile land and a ready destination for convicts in the American colonies. So it still “discovers” and colonises Australia and New Zealand. The Crimean War played out the same. The Napoleonic Wars play out the same. Germany still ended its alliance with Russia in 1900 because it still doesn’t see any looming threat, so Russia still signs its alliance with England and France, leading to WWI. An independent America still waited until 1917 to send troops to WWI even though all the other Empire nations declared war as soon as Britain did. And so on and so forth.

It’s almost impossible to see any of those events playing out that way in a word where the US is part of the British Empire. And with any of those things changed, the world today becomes totally unrecognisable. Not just cosmetic differences. but major differences.

Imagine, for example, that the Australian continent was settled piecemeal, with a Dutch colony in the North and South West, Russian and French colonies on the east coast and the English restricted to the southern coastline, with New Guinea a German possession. Now imagine the way that change alone is going affect international relations in the 17th century. Imagine a world where, instead of Napoleon rising to power and declaring war on Europe generally, there was instead an alliance of England and Holland against Russia and France due to tensions in the South Pacific. Within a hundred years of the revolution failing, the world becomes geographically, politically, militarily and economically totally different from our own. No Napoleon, no Hitler, Lenin. Unpredictable and weird.

We can speculate endlessly on how the world would be different, but it seems utterly impluasible to suggest it would not *be *different.

That’s a marvelous reply, Blake, and thank you for responding. After some thought I must agree this isn’t really debate material. Please feel free to close the thread, mods, or transfer it to MPSIMS.

Just to expand on Blake’s excellent comments, if the American Revolution had not been successful, it’s unlikely that the French Revolution of 1789 would have been, either, since one of the contributing factors was (at least arguably) the success of the Americans. Without the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, there’s no way for Napoleon to conquer Europe.

There is an argument that the British, winning the war, would have been punitive and become far more repressive in running the colonies.

Slavery is an interesting question. How does the banning of slavery by the UK in 1833 play out if the US is still a colony? Is the South still as devoted to the institution? Is there a second American revolt in defense of slavery? Does the North side with England in crushing it and ending the practice, or does it take the opportunity to try to win independence again?

Ugh. Should not post when tired. So many typos in that post.


This question assumes that events in the alternative history run parallel to those in the real history until 1833, which seems incredibly unlikely.

Prior to the revolution, there were already some colonies with anti-slavery statutes in addition to the adjacent Spanish colonies. The revolution itself was largely responsible for producing a consolidated landmass where slavery was legal and obligated to be enforced. If it hadn’t occurred, there would have been more and more colonies established and more and more non-slavery colonies that slaves more could escape to. Without a consolidated landmass with relatively tight borders, slavery would have been much harder to enforce for the slave owning states. And with more pressure from England and adjacent states it would have been harder to maintain slavery.

You also have to factor in that there was already a growing ant-slavery movement in England and the US before the revolution. England abolished the slave trade in 1808, butt that was *delayed *by fear of exacerbating revolutionary rumblings in the American colonies. The act was always going to pass. So the slave trade with the Americas would have ended by 1810 at the latest, meaning far fewer slaves in the US. That would in turn drive up the price and make slaves much less attractive for a lot of work. Added to that, a large part of the driving force for slavery in the US was the lack of convict and indentured labour. Contrast the situations in Australia, England and the US for example. Even if slavery was technically legal in Australia and England, it never existed to any great extent because it just wasn’t needed. Anyone who wanted an indentured convict was actively encouraged to get one, for free, to relieve prison overcrowding. That once again made made the slavery a far less attractive option for a lot of work, which made it a less integral part of the economy.

If the US was still part of the Empire, that would make England the largest slaveholding nation on the world, which would almost certainly have prompted the official, total abolition of slavery in the colonies much sooner.

All of which means that slavery in the US colonies would probably have been a very different institution by 1833 than it was in reality. It would still exist, but probably much less profitable and much less entrenched economically. So while abolition would have been unpopular in the slave owning colonies, it’s unlikely it would have resulted in outright war. Presumably it would have been similar to what happened in Jamaica or other large slave holding British colonies. A lot of moaning and whining and some minor acts of violent protest, but nothing that would make the history books.

I’ve always been fond of the “technology is destiny” approach. Without Napoleon, someone else would (inevitably?) have discovered “Napoleonic Tactics” and kicked Europe around. It might have been an Austrian or Prussian or Russian, but it (probably?) would have happened.

Something very like WWI and WWII would have had to happen. Technology all but demands it.

(Obviously, there are also flaws with the notion that technology drives history. But it is a relatively strong explanatory and “postdictive” model.)

Most likely there would not be a single political entity in North America. The American colonies banded together out of fear of the British and Britain subsequently banded the Canadian colonies together out of fear of the Americans. Without an Anglo-American rivalry, it’s likely the British would have preferred to maintain their original policy of keeping the colonies separate and small. So British North America would have ended up with a bunch of small province/state sized Dominions rather than one or two big Dominions.

Another factor would be domestic British politics. The United States led the way on expanding the franchise to most of its white male citizens. The British preferred to keep the franchise more limited and argued that a broad franchise would lead to rule by the “mob”. It was the ongoing success of the American model which finally convinced Parliament to expand the franchise. But without an American model in existence, it’s likely Parliament would have maintained its more limited system.

I accept the “technology is destiny” idea to a point, but not to this point.

WWI wasn’t just a result of tactics and technology. It was also a result of politics. If the alliances hadn’t been so closely matched then WWI simply could not have occurred. If, for example, Russia had allied with Germany then WWI would not have occurred. Even if England, France etc. has all declared war on Germany the war would not have become the meat grinder that it was. With no eastern front and large numbers of Russian troops, Russian supplies and so forth the war would almost certainly have been over within a year if not literally by Christmas.

Machine guns and artillery didn’t make a 4-year meat grinder inevitable. It only lasted so long in out history because both sides thought the could win for the whole 4 years. In another world with slightly different politicians, slightly different triggers and so forth the alliances could very easily have been such that one side knew that loss was inevitable within months. They would know they could probably drag the war out for 18 months at huge cost, but they wouldn’t bother if defeat was clearly inevitable. Which means then WWI becomes more like the early stages of WWII. A swift march by the Russo-Austrian alliance across France. A token resistance and chaotic retreat across the channel by the French and English troops at Dunkirk. A new balance of power in Europe that becomes gradually accepted.

Still a major war, but not WWI in any form that we know it. The lessons from that war would have been learned by generals without the social horror of war that happened in our timeline. Germany would have won the war, so no Russian revolution. No space for Hitler’s ideologies of lebensraum, Communist paranoia, Jewish conspiracy and so forth.

With a swift end of the war, no end to US isolationism. While the economic collapse of the thirties was inevitable, it might have been better or worse with a Europe that wasn’t still recovering from a war that had bled it white. maybe the depression drags on for over a decade because there is no German recovery and no war to drag the US out of the doldrums. And without any successful Russian revolution, the fear of Communism would have been much less. So who knows, maybe the US undergoes a Communist revolution in response to a prolonged depression.
With no Japanese involvement in WWI to foster resentment at being overlooked at Versailles, a stronger Europe, a weaker US, no US navy and the British navy tied up in the still simmering Europe and no Hitler, Japanese expansion in the 30s also looks very different.

So sure, if people had just made different, but still rational, *political *decisions we’d still get a war in Europe at around the same time driven by technology. But the historical consequences would have been vastly different. Technology certainly drives the broad trend of what happens in history. A major war in Europe was certainly inevitable. But the way that war played out was entirely down to human decision making. And as with any chaotic system, the further we get from the point of divergence, the more pronounced the differences can become. By the time we get to today, a timeline that diverged when Germany and Russia renewed their existing treaties could be utterly unrecognisable.

Or maybe not. Maybe things play out much the same, and with a Communist revolution in the US instead of Russia we get a Hitler arising in England instead of Germany, but using exactly the same rhetoric.

I think that eventually the same federation process that occurred with the Australian territories would have been inevitable for the US. Maybe not the same borders, but at the least something like a “New England” and “Confederated America” east of the Rockies and a “Frontier Nation” and “Pacific Northwest” west of the Rockies seems inevitable.

Or maybe without the US example, this wouldn’t have occurred to the Australian colonies either.

These are both perfect examples of how it’s not just technology that drives history but the ideas that people are exposed to. Given exactly the same technology, an idea won’t seem equally good if you haven’t seen it tried successfully elsewhere. And without those ideas being implemented, the way that technology is used is drastically altered, which in turn affects how technology develops until within a short period we reach a point where technology itself has diverged so much that it can no longer drive analogous historical changes.

Maybe a Lithuanian team develops the atom bomb 10 years earlier than in our reality and destroys Moscow in 1936. What then?

Grin! That’s the hell of “alternative history.” There’s no empirical way to test the propositions. The truth is somewhere between “almost no change at all” (the minimal ceteris paribus idea, where George Washington was Governor-General of the British Transatlantic Territory – but the war in Vietnam happens anyway) and “Things are totally unrecognizeable.” Maybe wed have a colony on Mars by now. But…probably not.

FWIW, Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss, in “The Two Georges,” do a truly lovely job exploring a history where the colonies stay loyal. Damn fine book. (Concentrates slightly too much on mealtimes; don’t read while hungry.) One of the cute throwaway ceteris paribus jokes is that a very recognizeable Richard Nixon is around selling used cars.

ETA: huh, I always thought it was “partibus.” Oops.

Blake’s posts on this topic are superb and I have but very little to add to it. However I think there’s a good chance both Louisiana and much of the American Southwest would have fallen into the hands of the British since the British colonies in America were heavily settled and was hungry for expansion.

I read the British would have been fairly lenient on the revolutionaries if they won the war - punished the ringleaders with varying degrees of severity and basically told everyone else not to do it again, or else.

Australia certainly would have been settled much later by the British - the loss of the American colonies was one of the impetus for establishing the penal colony at Botany Bay. A British victory in the war of independence could possibly mean northern Australia became (at least nominally) part of the Dutch East Indies. Having said that, the Dutch (and the Portugeuse) had been in the area for centuries and hadn’t gotten around to making significant territorial claims on the Australian continent so perhaps that wouldn’t have changed.

Without the Napoleonic wars there would probably be no Germany.
The “Liberation wars” and the war of 1870 were instrumental in the unifcation of Germany.
While undoubtedly there would have been other wars, European political spheres would have been quite different.

Besides fascism not rearing it’s head maybe even democracy would have been nipped in the bud.
We might still have empires and kingdoms firmly entrenched as the only way to rule countries.

America had virtually nothing to do with WW1. I’m not sure how the timeline changes so dramatically–Germany was going to fight long and hard no matter what.

In actual history, the US abolished slave importation in 1808 (and it was only delayed that long because the slave states insisted on a twenty-year protection clause in the Constitution). That aspect, at least, would be essentially the same.

But America had much to do with the French Revolution, from which Napoleon sprang, and the Napoleonic wars had much to do with German unification, which, itself, had a lot to do with WWI.

As I said earlier, there isn’t any way to know which way an “alternate history” would fall out. Are there vast forces of unseen momentum, which drive events? Is technology the determiner? Does anyone, today, strongly hold the “Great Man” theory – was it Napoleon’s personal driving force of character that caused the sweeping changes of the early 19th century…or would someone else have invented “Napoleonic tactics” and crushed Europe like a clutch of eggs?

(I lean, slightly, toward the latter idea. Somebody else would have come up with the technology…and used it.)