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Could the British government have saved its North American provinces?

In my Constitution class, the professor asked: “Could the British government have saved its North American provinces? What political or constitutional steps would it have taken? Failing that, would a military strategy have worked to end their rebellion?”

I wrote the following response.

If one thing seems certain about the fallout between the North American provinces and the British government, it’s that the British government had no intention of ever losing control of the provinces. It’s unlikely that we can comprehend the thoughts that must have tormented the minds of European leaders as they tried to process the reality of this unknown continent to the west. Men on both sides seemed to sense that this was no mere discovery of some new natural resources for England, but the dawn of a new age of human history. Something was unfolding that no human government in existence was intended to control.

Thomas Paine makes this argument to the American people, pointing out a number of reasons why British control of the continent was not possible. He spoke of the great distance from England to North America and said that this, “is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.” More importantly, he argued that it was contrary to nature for so vast a continent to be ruled by a relatively small island, writing, “it is evident they belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”

From the time of King Charles I, the English monarchy struggled to keep the rising republican spirit of the age under control. If such a struggle was difficult to manage at home, where monarchy had been established for centuries, how could the king possibly manage a more radical uprising on the other side of the Atlantic? John Adams wrote that “a Republic is an Empire of Laws and not of Men”, and the Americans were not only challenging the dangers of monarchy but even of a single Assembly, Adams arguing that such “is liable to all the vices, follies and frailties of an individual [ruler].”

Politically speaking, then, what could the British government possibly have changed to persuade the American provinces to remain united to the “mother land” (a suggestion Paine called hypocritical)? They were not opposed to certain points of government that a few amendments could resolve. They were against the notion of monarchy itself and insisted on replacing the king with a written Constitution, though they knew not what such a Constitution should consist of at that point. Politically, there was nothing the British government could have done to save the provinces from what would later be called America’s “manifest destiny”. The Americans realized that an entirely new de facto society was developing and it was simply a matter of time before it was established. In resisting the birth of America, the British government would be resisting Nature, even God himself.

Militarily, it does not seem that the British had any alternatives other than what they had employed. The continent was already divided, with enemies of the British surrounding the provinces. The continent had a vast supply of good men and natural resources which would make the American military effort stronger with time. Assuming his estimations to be correct, Paine called bluff on threats from the British navy, arguing that though she claimed a great catalog of ships on paper, “not a tenth part of them are at any one time fit for service…as if we should have the whole of it to encounter at once.”.

At some point, the British government had to realize that the momentum of change that was building on the American continent (which seemed to have all the favor of Providence on its side) was not going to be stopped. It seems that the supporters of the monarchy sensed a need to do their duty and resist some of the anarchical elements that arose at times, against which they might fight with just cause, but resisting the republican spirit on the new continent was not an option. It was, after all, the foundation of British government that was being rejected and not even the government that would be established by the Americans, through the Articles of Confederation would prove to be republican enough for America. The Americans themselves seemed to be realizing this.

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