Most Americans will celebrate this July 4th as they have every other – bar-b-cues, picnics, sports, gatherings with friends and family. And like most American holidays, there will be praise and worship of the military and its conquests. Underlying it all is the celebration of the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the traditional marking of the battle for the independence of the thirteen colonies from rule by the King of England.
It seems fair to ask if the war was worth it. What if the war wasn’t fought? What was this “independence”? “Independence” for whom? Was life for the average American different than life for the average Brit twenty years after the war? One hundred years? Two hundred years? Was life for the average American different after the war than it might have been had this war not been fought at all, if the colonies remained part of the empire? What of the path of Canada or Australia? Did the American Revolutionary War result in a vastly different life for the average American than it did for the average Canadian or Australian?
I will emphasize, I am speaking about the average American, the average Brit, Canadian, or Australian. The guy who goes to the factory or office every day, raises his kids, takes them to football matches (of the different types played in each country), struggles with his budget and retirement, mows his lawn and tends his garden, drinks a pint with his buddies.
I am not speaking about differences for the elite in each location. Certainly, the American Revolution resulted in the rise of a local political and oligarchical class that likely would not have enjoyed the same power and wealth had the colonies remained under the empire. July 4 is certainly a day to celebrate for this class in America.
I hate to let you down – I won’t pretend to answer these questions. It seems the work of a lifetime, or at least a doctoral dissertation, to attempt to answer such questions. But I will look at a few aspects of the history of the two entities – the United States on one hand, and the United Kingdom / Great Britain on the other. Through this, perhaps at least some light can be shed on these questions. At least, I hope to provide some food for thought.
Like every aspect of this commentary, to address just this one would be a lifetime’s work. What were taxes like in the colonies in 1776, and then in the United States in 1806, 1865, 1914, and today? What of comparable periods in Great Britain and its remaining colonies.
What is clear is that taxes in both the United States and Great Britain are much higher today than was the case in 1776. In both countries, the top marginal tax rate has seen and exceeded 90%. Perhaps one measure is to compare the length of the respective tax codes – as I believe the codes are used for control and not revenue, it seems reasonable to suggest that the longer the code the greater the control intended.
For the United States as of 2006:
By the way, if you go to the US Government Printing Office ( www.gpo.gov ), you can order a complete set of Title 26 of the US Code of Federal Regulations (that's the part written by the IRS), all twenty volumes of it, at the bargain price of $974, shipping included.
According to the US Government Printing Office, it's 13,458 pages in total. The full text of Title 26 of the United States Code (the part written by Congress--available for an additional $179) is a mere 3,387 printed pages, bringing the adjusted gross page count to 16,845.
And for Great Britain as of 2009:
The 2009 edition of Tolley's Yellow Tax Handbook has 11,520 pages….
Both over ten thousand pages. For the average Joe, I am not sure the difference is meaningful.
As an interesting aside, compare the length of the Wikipedia entries regarding taxation in the two jurisdictions. It takes over 11,000 words to explain the U.S. tax system and over 5,000 words to explain the system that the British live under. This could be relative to the complexity of the two, or it could just mean that those with knowledge of the U.S. code like to write more in Wikipedia. Neither is a good sign for the average American.
Slavery ended in the United States with the passing of the 13th amendment to the Constitution shortly after the conclusion of the War Between the States. While Lincoln did not fight the war with the purpose and intent to end slavery, it is certainly true that the institution of slavery ended after this war.
Besides the financial cost, the war cost the two sides a combined one million casualties. While it is certainly a “good” that slavery ended in the United States as an outcome of this war, it certainly was a high cost to pay to end this horrific institution. Was it a necessary cost?
Slavery was ended in Great Britain more than twenty-five years earlier than in the United States, and without the violence associated with war:
On 28 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was given Royal Assent, which paved the way for the abolition of slavery within the British Empire and its colonies. On 1 August 1834, all slaves in the British Empire were emancipated, but they were indentured to their former owners in an apprenticeship system that meant gradual abolition: the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on 1 August 1838, while the final apprenticeships were scheduled to cease on 1 August 1840, six years later.
On 1 August 1834, as the Governor in Port of Spain, Trinidad addressed an audience about the new laws, the mostly elderly, unarmed slaves began chanting: "Pas de six ans. Point de six ans" ("Not six years. No six years"), drowning out his voice. Peaceful protests continued until the government passed a resolution to abolish apprenticeship and the slaves gained de facto freedom. Full emancipation for all slaves was legally granted on 1 August 1838, ahead of schedule, making Trinidad the first British slave society to fully end slavery. The government set aside £20 million for compensation of slave owners for their "property" across the Empire, but it did not offer the former slaves compensation or reparations.
For slaves under the two governments, slaves in lands under the rule of Great Britain achieved freedom a generation sooner, without the bloodshed and violence and therefore without the hatreds that remained after the end of the violence. Clearly for slaves, life under British rule would have been preferable.
Wars since 1776
Beginning with the American Revolution, both Great Britain and the United States have been involved in more than 100 wars - not counted the same way, but in any case averaging almost one war every two years. These wars range from relatively minor conflicts to major world wars. Almost all were wars of expansion (manifest destiny and empire), and the largest were overseas conflicts – conflicts with little or no justification based on defense. Up to the early 19th century, the two were often found on opposite sides of the conflict. Beginning in the 20th century, they were often on the same side.
For the average American Joe, would it have made much different to be eligible for military service to have been under British rule as opposed to rule under Washington, DC? Certainly not if counted by the number of wars. Also certainly not if assessed based on the number of conflicts that were to expand or defend empire – if the fights were for home defense, this might be understandable. Both the US and Britain were pretty active in this arena, with the new American government beginning in 1812 (and for Britain this was part and parcel of its being).
Worse for the Americans: not only did they fight for the wars of Washington – in the 20th century they fought (with no direct American defense purpose) in the two largest wars in history on the side of Britain. It certainly would not have been worse for the average American Joe had he remained subject to British rule.
The most insidious and hidden tax, that of inflation has ravaged the subjects of both the United States and Britain. According to official measures of consumer prices (not true inflation, but a measure of loss of purchasing power) the US Dollar has lost over 95% of its purchasing power since 1913, while the British pound has lost over 98% of its purchasing power in the same time period. I guess it can be said that the average American Joe is better off with the US Dollar than with the British pound, but neither statistic is one to brag about.
Summary and Conclusion
I don’t have one. From this brief overview, it seems to me that life for the average American is not much different than it would have been if left under British rule – the one clear exception is in the sooner ending of slavery in Britain.
One could argue that British rule might have been better if only for the distance between the governors and the governed. As Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson in “The Patriot”) said, “…why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man's rights as easily as a king can.”