News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 5, 2012

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: American Revolution, what might have been

Bruce Kauffman
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The main question on my final exam in a long-ago graduate school course on the American Revolution asked the following: To whom would I assign ultimate blame for the revolution, and why?  I answered that the revolution and its outcome were more the result of incompetence, myopia and hard-headedness on the part of the British government than any sustained strategy by the colonists. That revolution, of course, officially began this week (July 4) with the Declaration of Independence.

I based my answer on the fact that, in the years before the revolution, America’s colonists were anything but united in their attitudes toward the Mother Country — indeed, for most of that time loyalists and fence-sitters far outnumbered radicals. What finally united them all against British rule were: 1) a series of counterproductive British revenue acts — the Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Townshend Acts — in which the acts’ administrative costs far outweighed the income they produced; 2) counterproductive bullying tactics such as the Boston Port Act; which shut down the city of Boston; and 3) the British government’s total misunderstanding of what the colonists were objecting to.

To Parliament and King George III, compromising their supreme authority over colonial affairs was unthinkable, yet the colonists were perfectly willing to cede to London all authority over the big stuff — international trade, foreign policy, and the like — if they could just be left alone to manage their internal affairs, especially local taxation.

In other words, London’s hard-line stance united the colonists in ways they never would have united themselves. And that hard-line stance continued during the revolutionary war, which kept the colonists united.

Had Britain softened that stance and, for example, asked the colonists to state their terms and conditions in order to negotiate an end to the conflict, it is entirely possible that colonial unity would have fractured and Parliament could have exploited that to its advantage.

Indeed, when the French minister in America, Conrad Gerard, proposed just such a course in 1779, the New England colonies promptly named fishing rights off the banks of Newfoundland as their one unassailable condition, while southern colonies pointed to navigation rights on the Mississippi River.

Meanwhile, the middle colonies — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland — had always been the most reluctant revolutionaries because trade with Great Britain historically had been their economic lifeline. They would have jumped at the chance to negotiate, and undoubtedly would have agreed to British terms much different than those acceptable to New England or the South.

Gerard’s gambit went nowhere because Parliament and King George could not conceive of such a thing. The result was American independence. No doubt Parliament and King George could not conceive of that either.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.