Frazer on whether the American Revolution was a “Just War”


Jon Rowe

Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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106 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    The American Revolution should be understood in that the colonists thought the taxes were unjust because the taxes were imposed on them by the British Parliament, for which colonists could not vote for, rather than their own provincial assemblies. The issue is about self-government and no taxation without representation rather than taxation itself. The British could not grant their subjects in the thirteen colonies representation in the British parliament because doing so would open up a big can of worms in the UK. This was the age of the rotten boroughs and a Parliament dominated by the gentry because of weird franchise issues. Elections in British America would be more fair and would have a bigger franchise. This would cause people in Britain to complain about the British election system and threaten gentry political power.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:

      You’re undoubtedly right about most of that comment, Lee, and if I had my historian’s hat on, I’d have to endorse it with the following quibble. I would change this:

      The American Revolution should be understood in that the colonists thought the taxes were unjust because the taxes were imposed on them by the British Parliament, for which colonists could not vote for, rather than their own provincial assemblies.

      To this:

      The American Revolution should be understood in that some of the colonists thought the taxes were unjust because the taxes were imposed on them by the British Parliament, for which colonists could not vote for, rather than their own provincial assemblies.

      But even then, I must admit my insistence is a bit pedantic by half. I imaging that even many of those who opposed the war for independence probably did resent that parliament imposed taxes without colonist representation.

      As you may recall, I set the bar pretty high for whether the American war for independence was a just war. Those who would perpetrate violence or damage to property because of a principle (“taxation without representation”) needs to examine who is harmed by violations of that principle as part of their overall considerations over whether the violence/damage is justified to begin with. I don’t think the Tea Tax qualifies.

      But again, that’s me not wearing my historian’s hat. And I should admit that that war wasn’t all about luxury taxes, that the Coercive Acts were probably a bad idea, and that some good things cam out of that war.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        True this. There were other issues as well. A lot of the colonists really wanted to expand westwards for cheap or free land but the British government would not let them do so because of treaties with the Native Americans. Some colonists really did hate taxation in general rather than taxation without representation. A lot of colonists were also angry at British interference with the legislative bodies of in the colonies.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

          By the by, I am accepting nominations for what British America would be called if it (a) hadn’t successfully split away and (b) Manifest Destiny hadn’t occurred.Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Will Truman says:

            British American Colonies?


            Or maybe just British AmericaReport

          • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman says:

            It depends or not if a united government is ever developed for the colonies. If so, they could be called the United Provinces of British America. If not, the provinces would be known by their name like the Province of New York or the Province of Maryland.

            By the time of the Revolution, Britain controlled substantial land to the west of the thirteen colonies and Florida. They would eventually be open for settlement. The real issue is if the UK would ever intrude or allow their subjects in North America to move into Spanish America.Report

          • Canada is a great name, but its history is in the north, which wouldn’t have been the population center of British America.

            British America works right up until the country evolves into relative independence, at which point they’d need a new name. I have considered something like Angloamerica or Anglamerica or something to that effect. Since North America is fragmented into more nations*, “America” and “North America” are kind of out.

            Unification of the colonies/provinces is inevitable for strategic and military reasons. United Provinces seems like a possibility.

            * – I haven’t hashed out the map yet. Most likely British America ends at or around the Mississippi except in the north where it may extend further. BA is the wealthiest and most powerful nation in North America… Just not to the point that it can militarily overrun its neighbors to the west.**

            ** – With the exception of Louisiana (French America) I haven’t figured out who its neighbors to the west are.Report

            • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman says:

              If the thirteen colonies remained under British rule, the evolving United Provinces would probably consist of the current states east of the Mississippi. The French would probably decide not to sell Louisiana to the United Kingdom but the UK could conceivably take it by force. The real issue is if a British version of Manifest Destiny would cause a Britain-Mexican War that leads to the United Provinces being co-extensive with the continental United States.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Figuring out how the UK doesnt take Louisiana by force is the most immediate challenge. One factor is that the Revolution did occur, it was just unsuccessful. Louisiana became to the Patriots what Canada became to the Loyalists. So we’re dealing with more people. And the loyalty of most of the tribes.

                I figure more will be needed, though. Different outcome in the Seven Years War. United front between Spain and France and maybe internationally everyone hates the British? Sheer reluctance on the part of the British (who were never as expansionist as the colonists from what I recall)?

                I’m in the early stages.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman says:

                When the Revolution occurred, Louisiana was actually Spanish. The French lost it to Spain in the French and Indian Wars. If there is no Revolution and the colonies remain under British rule than there is no French Revolution, because the French government doesn’t go broke by supporting the rebellious colonies as an act of revenge. Without a French Revolution, France doesn’t retake Louisiana. The United Kingdom and Spain had friendlier relations. This would make the Mississippi the western border of the United Provinces.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Will Truman says:

                “Figuring out how the UK doesnt take Louisiana by force is the most immediate challenge.”

                I belong to the school of thought that for any shot at this, you have to push your point of departure back to the French-and-Indian/Seven Years War. We might posit, for example, the Plains of Abraham being an utter disaster for the British. Indeed, that is the better bet. We live in a low-probably universe. (To add irony, have Wolfe survive unscathed.) Even this doesn’t get us out of the woods. There is still Louisbourg. But we can imagine France getting it back in the negotiations. Then we need to imagine that France makes Canada and Louisiana a priority. I still don’t buy it entirely. The British strategy of intensive white settlement of its American colonies clearly gives it an overwhelming advantage in the long term. But in the short and middle term, the poor interior lines of communication and the French advantage in influencing the natives would make things interesting.Report

              • @richard-hershberger Yeah. The different outcome of the F&I War was the one with the period instead of the question mark. That’s one thing that would definitely need to change. Starting with Louisiana going to Spain, but most likely we’d need a different outcome. If not an outright French victory, then something more favorable to them. Probably not favorable enough to keep the north, but enough that (in combination with the influx of revolutionaries) they have an investment in the region that isn’t doomed. But it’s hard to avoid the tipping point that ends with the map looking more-or-less as it does.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Official crown policy was that the lands west of the Appalachians belonged to the native peoples, and would in perpetuity. This was as big a source of conflict between the colonies and the crown as anything. What would have caused the crown to change that position?Report

              • I figure the inability to control it’s people, mostly. Even if most of the biggest rabble-rousers are gone. With the tribes mostly siding with the French, I figure less inclination to cooperate. And fear that Louisiana will want to control both sides of the river, making borders more important.

                But this may be the conclusion I drive to. I don’t presently recall how strongly the British felt about this.

                Some of what I have to figure is the timeline. The concerns of 1800 would look different than 1850 as (I think) I have Louisiana’s population growth outstripping that of BA.Report

              • A change of monarch, for one. George 4 reversed a lot of his dad’s policies. Canada expanded westward under Crown guidance, after all.

                A better assessment of available manpower and technology for military engagement was also pretty much inevitable. Granting the Ohio River Valley to natives was a good way to keep the peace in the colonies and have the Indians as allies against the French. If they weren’t going to be useful in that capacity, the “all these lands are yours” bit would have cachet only as long as the monarch’s whim.Report

              • One thing that needs to be noted about British policy vis-a-vis American Indians is that ca. 1763, the Indian nations west of the Appalachians were pretty powerful. The Proclamation line of 1763, which forbade most colonist settlement beyond the Appalachians and was one point of grievance among the revolutionists against the UK, was largely a policy of perceived necessity and not humanitarianism.

                The UK had just fought a brutal war in which the Indian nations were key players, and the Iroquois’s decision to ally with the British may have turned the balance of power . In 1762-1763, “Pontiac’s Rebellion” reminded the UK that the Indian nations were forces to be contended with.

                It wouldn’t surprise me if absent American independence and absent the Napoleonic Wars, the UK might have reversed its “generous” policy toward American Indians even under George III. After 1763, Indians’ power started to decline, in part because the expulsion of France from mainland North America meant that the Indian nations could no longer play one great power off against the other.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                In addition, the organized American investment collectives for settling the west weren’t stupid. They knew how the game was played, and were careful to gives shares to influential British politicians.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                Gabriel and Richard are correct. In an alternative history where the 13 colonies didn’t revolt I think the changes would be less than you expect.
                -Population pressures and land hunger would have continued. A British Empire with no French to balance off of and with no Americans to contain would have jettisoned Indian alliances without hesitation. Louisiana and Florida would have been seized by the British-American colonists expanding westward either in some little war of its own or as a matter of course during one of Britains larger conflicts with France or Spain.
                -I think there can be some debate about Texas and whether that particular conflict would have happened but with the English influx there I would hazard it to be more likely than not. Let’s be conservative, though, and assume that a greater British North America wouldn’t have seized all of Mexico.
                -I think it’s also forgone that the British would have taken California but I think Hawaii would have been an interesting case. It could have ended up some kind of independent monarchy or weird white colonized republic.
                -Russia would have stayed the course on Alaska, either selling it to the British instead of America or losing it to the British during their next war.
                -The British would undoubtedly have encouraged consolidation of the colonies for administrative ease. Would they have consolidated them into one North American super state? I am dubious. I suspect they’d probably have divided it along cultural lines. Probably the southern slave dependent colonies would have been one administrative area and the northern colonies and Canada would have been another. It’s possible there’d have been more division out west.
                The historical counterfactual begins to fall apart in the following centuries though. Without America would the pressures for liberalization been the same? Wither the Abolitionist movement? Assuming the British kept their new super colony(ies?) in North America happy then by the WWI era would any of the other great powers have had the balls to stand up to Britannia at that point? We’re talking about a super-empire the likes of which the world has never known here.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                Slavery actually brings up an interesting issue. Abolitionists managed to get the British Parliament to outlaw the slave trade in the early 19th century and slavery itself through out the British Empire in the 1830s. If there is no American independence, there will be millions of more slaves in the British empire and these slaves would be providing a lot of economic value because they will be growing the cotton fueling the industrialization of the United Kingdom. This makes abolishing slavery a lot more difficult.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Agreed, I suspect an Empire with the American south in it would have seen a lot more resistance to the abolitionists in London.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                The business people running the textile factories would have sided with the pro-slavery forces rather than the anti-slavery forces because the cotton plantations are the source of their raw materials. This would create a wealthy and powerful group of people in favor of slavery in the United Kingdom. It would also make the compensated emancipation that the British did impossible because many more people would need to be paid off.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq says:

                I concur and frankly there wasn’t a similar wealthy counter faction with a financial interest in abolition that I can think of. It was strictly a moral movement.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                The Wedgewood pottery dynasty were firm believers in abolition. I guess you can say that the British ceramics industry would have been the abolition equivalent of the pro-slavery textile and sugar industries.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to North says:

                @north , with regard to your last bit, my view is that either BNA would have had a whole lot of autonomy, or it would have split off. I don’t think there is really a scenario in which the US remains an arm of Britannia, even if we assume they don’t allow a mega-state. Too much tail wagging the dog.

                Which is why I think a revolution was inevitable. If not from the fallout from the F&I War then over something else. I am skeptical that absent a revolution, the Brits would have allowed the evolution that occurred in Australia and Canada to occur as it did. The tension would have been too much, unless they lost a revolution elsewhere.

                In any event, my counterfactual is not meant to be a “most likely scenario” as much as trying to explain a particular – unlikely – outcome. It’s going to rest on a different outcome for the F&I War, as well as New France being bolstered by an influx of defeated revolutionaries with a hatred of the Brits and a British (and UP) government that takes on some counterproductive policies.

                I think with regard to Mexico, the conservative solution is the correct one. There was a window where the US could have taken a lot more of Mexico than it did, but maintaining the populated areas would have required far more in the way of resources than it would have been worth. I think the same would have been true for the Brits. That’s a pretty back-envelope analysis, though.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Will Truman says:

                Oh certainly long term the British would have at the very minimum allowed the America’s to devolve from the Empire to a Commonwealth state just as they did in Canada and Australia. I think, however, that there’s a lot of pro-American base stealing going on with the assumption that the American revolution was necessary for political liberalization in general.

                I think I missed your counter narrative about the British losing the F&I war. I think that is believable short term but let’s be frank- in the
                long run New France was a doomed project. The population pressures from the English populace in the 13 colonies and Britain’s’ domination of the seas meant that eventually New France was going to get conquered. The Indians provide the motive, the population disparity and naval domination provide the means and opportunity. But if we assume for the sake of argument that the revolution failed messily and the colonies has a long period of restive infighting coupled with a lengthy period of French/British peace then I could see New France getting enough roots down to have some staying power. I don’t know about resentful revolutionary expatriates though, those would have been protestants and New France was Catholic; that’s a pretty damn big hump to get over right there; especially as the roots of the American revolution was that the British were being TOO nice to the Catholics and the Indians.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                New France’s problem was that the French could never get enough colonialists on the ground. Certain alternative historians suggested that Louis XIV’s mistake was not letting the Huguenots settle in New France but I’m not so sure about this. Even if the Huguenots were allowed to live and worship freely in New France, they would still have plenty of incentives to side with the Protestants to the South than Catholic France to the East. Louis XIV probably recognized that allowing widespread Huguenot settlement was no guarantee of loyalty.

                The only way New France could work is if you get more French Catholics, including women, to move over and settle. The French colonists certainly had no problems producing kids once they got to New France. To get more French people in the New World, you need to change French law and society. A lot of peasants in France were small-holders and the tenants were afforded more protection under French law than their English equivalents. This gave the French masses less incentive to move over the Atlantic. Maybe France could have used convicts like the British latter used.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman in reply to North says:

                What I’m looking at is that the revolution was fought, with the aid of the French, and lost. So the relationship between the patriots and the French has already shifted.

                The population disparity is more difficult to deal with. Obviously less than 50% of the colonists would drop everything and leave, but settlement becomes more of a priority. And I’m thinking Louisiana and BA might take different approaches, that become ultimately favorable to the former.

                (Other thing I am pondering, if BA expands from coast-to-coast, just along the north instead of the center, would it be less compelling to go to war for Missouri and Iowa if they have a transcontinental railroad? Thinking out loud.)Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Will Truman says:

                Moving English protestants into French Catholic New France is a leap, but not an impossible one. Maybe they plonked down in Nova Scotia and provide an embittered shield around Louisburg or something.

                Getting to the expansion phase you’re musing on melts my brain I confess. Just trying to imagine a British dominion USA is mind boggling. Adding a French North America above them? The imagination reels.Report

              • Avatar trumwill in reply to North says:

                Knee deep in Links Friday work right now. Will melt your brain further tomorrow.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                No American war of independence also complicates the settlement of Australia. Britain would probably prefer to send convict-settlers over to North America because its cheaper and can put facts on the ground.

                If the French Revolution does not occur than Haiti’s history is substantially changed. It could end up a wealthier majority black province of France. No French Revolution means that South Africa and Ceylon remain under Dutch rule. It also means that what is now Malaysia and Singapore also fall under Dutch influence. Australia and New Zealand could also end up Dutch.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                Gabriel Conroy: It wouldn’t surprise me if absent American independence and absent the Napoleonic Wars, the UK might have reversed its “generous” policy toward American Indians even under George III.

                We tend to think of the Ohio Valley (and the Mississippi) as being pretty central to American history (and they are). But from the perspective of European empires in the late 18th century, the interior of North America was a wilderness backwater devoid of what Empires valued at the time, except for beavers. (and some nice ones).

                The central theater in the Game Of Colonies at the time of the 7 years war and American Revolution was the Caribbean. New England was at least important for timber resources near the ocean to build ships, and cash crops became more viable (though of course only viable with slave labor) as you went down the coastline, but the whole mainland had a fraction of the economic output of the sugar plantations of any given Caribbean colony.

                So there’s really no incentive for the British Empire to take a round turn on North American policy, until at least the point it becomes a mission from God for the White Man to rule the world, an idea that really didn’t take hold in the mainstream until later in the 19th century. (though of course had precursors in any number of missionary activities, both Catholic and Protestant).Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Kolohe says:

                Agreed in general Kolohe but a quibble. Because the interior is a wasteland and unimportant the British would similarly have had few compunctions about changing policy. A British Empire with the populous and restive 13 American colonies still in the fold would have probably been pretty amicable to accommodating their westward expansion. If the French are out of the picture (British Control of New France) then the Indians would be only a minor concern. If the French were still in the picture that would change things of course.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to North says:

                The agricultural potential of the Ohio valley was readily apparent. While it was the far end of beyond from the European perspective, it was tantalizingly close to whites in the American colonies. There was big money to be made there, through obtaining large land grants, surveying the property, and persuading settlers to emigrate. The people with the political pull to get these grants were consortia consisting of the local elites allying with influential British elite. The latter would navigate British politics to get the grant, while the former would direct operations on the ground. Everyone understood how the game was played, and it provided for a strong incentive in London to open up the territory.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                And that’s a good point @richard-hershbergerReport

              • Concurred Richard, on all points.Report

              • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Kolohe says:

                That’s a good point, @kolohe .Report

      • Avatar Murali in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        What good things came out of the war?

        I’m reasonably certain that if America had been part of the british empire in the 20th century, WW2 would not have happened. Why? Hitler was able to invade Europe only if he managed to tie up significant amounts of its resources in east asia with the Japanese invasion and if the US was reluctant to interfere with the European war. Moreover, the Japanese invaded east and southeast asia only because they counted on America’s non-involvement in the war. If America had been still been part of the british empire, its involvement in the war would have been a foregone conclusion*. The axis alliance may not even have been viable!

        *That the US got involved anyway is due to a tactical blunder on the part of the Japanese. If the Japanese had not bombed pearl harbour, I would be speaking Japanese right now (or more likely I would not have been born)Report

        • Avatar Notme in reply to Murali says:


          What good things? A representative govt with a written constiution. That seems pretty good. And pearl harbor was a strategic move not a tactical one. Had the carriers been in port it might have worked and certainly would have extended the war another couple of years.Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Notme says:


            1. Representative government is over-rated (and it is likely that the British would have eventually granted representation to the American colonies as they did to Scotland and northern Ireland)

            2. The benefits of a written constitution are uncertain at best. Its lack of flexibility is a virtue only if the clauses in the constitution are just and appropriate at all given times. If some of the clauses are unjust or unwise, then the inflexibility is a bane, not a bonus.Report

            • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Murali says:

              This ties in with my contention that the French-and-Indian/Seven Years War was the important fight in North America. Once the French were out of Canada, I contend, the broad outline of more-or-less democratic Anglophone government, eventually running out to the Pacific coast, is pretty much inevitable.Report

              • I second this. The loss of New France was devastating for the Indians. The French were enthusiastic supporters of English containment and huge suppliers of weapons to the natives. The English were sort of milquetoast and reluctant allies to the natives at best.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to North says:

                France probably treated the Native Americans the best. The Catholic Church, especially the Jesuits, were a lot more friendly towards them than the Protestants.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to LeeEsq says:

                There’s no contest, not even close. The Spanish enslaved them, the British mostly just drove them away or killed them, the French lived with them and married them.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to North says:

                The Spanish were so bad they’d enslave them and work them to death until there were no more to enslave, then bring in slaves from (mostly) Africa to work them to death.Report

              • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

                To be fair, the Spanish and Portuguese also had a lot of children with Native Americans. It provided us with most of the population of Latin America today. The French might have been much better for Native Americans but they treated Africans with much more cruelty than the Spanish or British.Report

              • @richard-hershberger

                Have you read Fred Anderson’s CRUCIBLE OF WAR? I believe he makes that argument about the 7 years war being central. (I haven’t read it, but I know of it.)Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                I have, and it is excellent. He uses the Seven Years War to set up the War of Independence. Histories typically give a nod to the 7YW in the first chapter, before moving on to the good stuff. Anderson treats it *as* the good stuff, creating the conditions leading to 1775.

                The book hits the sweet spot of academic rigor in a book accessible to the mythical “educated layman,” eschewing High Academic Gibberish. I highly recommend it.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Murali says:

          In order to get to that conclusion you need sooooooooo much more. What happens in France? Are there Napoleonic wars? How does the balance of power between France and England play out? What the hell is going on in Russia? (Answer: Something crazy.) How does Germany unify? What imbalances does that cause? With whom does Germany end up in a decade’s long cold war because of those imbalances? When it comes to shooting, who aligns with whom, and on what timetable? Who wins? And so on.

          Oh, and on this content, how are France, Spain, and England getting on? What happens when Spain inevitably loses its colonies to a combination of rebellion and war with Britain and/or France? What happens to slavery in the colonies, given that it’s now Britain profiting from cotton? What happens in India, since Britain’s getting its cotton from the American colonies? And France has cotton now too, so…

          At some point, the whole place is going to blow up. Might not be Germany that does it, maybe Japan is suppressed but Manchuria ascends, maybe Russia starts the fire, maybe France becomes the 20th century’s bad guy, maybe Britain does as its grip on empire slips.

          And so on.Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Chris says:

            We can presume that nothing changes about Russia or Germany (it is, after all uncertain if the revolution per se or an independent America after that had any effect on those events). It is also unclear if the loss of the colonies or changed british policy vis a vis japan. Even if Manchuria ascends, if the British empire had extended to north America, the same considerations would make southward expansion unwise.

            Certainly, the lack of desperation for cotton would have made its dealings with India fairer and less coercive. And the availability of an alternate supply of cotton would have strengthened the hands of the abolitionists. It seems that when America rebelled even though it had been treated far more gently than the other provinces (thanks to the efforts of the Whig party), the influence of the Whig party declined as its solution as to how to deal with the colonies (i.e. with a gentle hand) had been discredited. A successful Whig party would have been more effective at pushing for the end of slavery throughout the empire.

            France is tricky. On the one hand, it is possible that without the American revolution, the French revolution would not have taken place, or at least would not have been successful. one reason to think this is that the French revolution drew inspiration, in part, from the American one. It is also the case that the French support for the American revolution had undermined its finances and plunged France into a fiscal crisis. Without a fiscal crisis (or with a less severe one) rebellion in france would have seemed less attractive.

            Perhaps the French monarchy would have been galvanised by the near miss. In all probability however, it is more likely that the French empire would have continued to decline. Perhaps napoleon would have happened anyway staging a coup (in which case the rest of that portion of French history would not be significantly different). Suppose instead, there was no napoleon. With a weak and declining French empire, Britain would have gradually annexed French territories and may very well have come to dominate most of Europe, America, Asia and significant parts of Africa. After this, it is uncertain what would have happened, but quite possibly, with a less fractious India, the British empire would have been able to contain Austria-Hungary. With the only remaining super-power being Russia, the containment and ultimate collapse of the Russian empire would have been almost inevitable. With a more liberal constitution, the Russian revolution and the horrors that followed may have been forestalled. And we would now have a global peaceful and liberal British commonwealth. No Holocaust, no mishandled division of the middle east, thus no radical Islam. Holy crap, all (or most of) the world’s problems can be traced to the American revolution!

            This is fun!Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to Murali says:

              We can presume that nothing changes about Russia or Germany (it is, after all uncertain if the revolution per se or an independent America after that had any effect on those event

              No, we can’t, because events in both of those countries were intimately intertwined with what happened in France, and what happened in France was not separable from what happened in North American colonies. This is not merely an ideological influence, but one with many components. If the American colonies don’t rebel, it’s likely France’s history looks different. Does civil unrest there, which was inevitable, result in revolution? If so, when? In the 1790s, or is it delayed into the 19th century? Again, does Napoleon or someone like him ever arise and take over Europe? Does that person invade Prussia? Austria? Italy? Russia? How do those things play out?

              All of those things will affect the development of a unified German state (which was also inevitable, but could have come about in more than one way, with more than one possible large imbalance of power resulting on the continent). A unified Germany is the only possible European threat to Russia, so how the power imbalances work out determine with whom Russia aligns, which in turn determine how a continent-wide war in Europe plays out.

              Much of what happened in Europe in the 19th century was inevitable: political unrest in France, unification in Germany, Russia being Russia, but how it looked was not inevitable, which means the timing, scale, and sides of a major European conflict in the late 19th or early 20th century were not inevitable either. Nor, obviously, was how it would play out.

              The revolution in North America was an important event in European history.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Chris says:

                There was inevitably going to be a reckoning toward the end of the 19th century between institutions with medieval roots, new power centers based on the accumulation of industrial capital, and a greatly expanded industrial working class and urban population compared to the rural one.

                The wildcard was the dynamics of ethnic nationalism, and what sort of ideals would infuse it. (the answer in the real world was a little bit of everything, good and bad). The other wildcard, and the one the American Revolution directly pertains to, is whether or not there would be a ‘safety valve’ of upper working class and lower middle class migration to the Americas for most of the 19th century into the first decades of the 20th.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Kolohe says:

                Right: what was inevitable in Europe were: the unification of Germany, power imbalances, and large-scale rebalancing. How that played out was not inevitable.

                The birth of Germany out of wars first with Austria and then with France played a big role in determining the nature and scope of the major European conflicts of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Imagine if France had been in no position to challenge the unification, and therefore disputed territory and resentment didn’t lead to a 4 decade-long cold war between the two countries culminating in the First World War. There would have been a big conflict, but how, under what conditions? And who sides with whom? In particular, Britain’s siding with France was something of an historical accident resulting from Britain’s interests in other parts of the world. How would those interests have played out over the 19th century if they still had the North American colonies?Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Chris says:

                I disagree that the unification of Germany was inevitable. As it was, the 1871 unification didn’t include the German speaking portions of Switzerland and Austria, and included a lot of non-german speaking peoples in eastern Prussia. Stronger leadership down south (e.g. Bavaria) or weaker leadership in Prussia may have resulted in a 20th century that saw two large-ish German states (besides the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and/or some smaller independent states the way Lichtenstein, Andora, etc were able to hold on.

                but this is also an area history I’m hella weak on.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Kolohe says:

                You could be right. My understanding was that the process of unification was well underway in the first part of the 19th century, with the wars with Austria and France the final steps, but it could be that it would have turned out differently without France, and perhaps even without Napoleon.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe says:

                There might have been some very different regional ethnic patterns. In the last quarter of the 19th century, western Minnesota, NW Iowa, and the Dakotas were settled by a large number of Germans and Scandinavians, recruited in Europe by the owners of the Great Northern Railroad. It’s not clear that “British America” would have done the same thing.

                The impact of that settlement pattern was still very apparent in the 1950s and 1960s when I was a lad in that area. At normal height (for the US as a whole), with dark brown hair and brown eyes and easily tanned, I was both a runt and “swarthy”. The town I lived in had a very small Baptist church, a small Catholic church, one each modest-sized Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and at least seven different Lutheran churches of various sizes. If the local newspaper misspelled the high school athlete’s name as “Peterson” rather than “Petersen”, they ran a correction and apology in the next issue because that was a serious mistake.Report

              • Avatar Murali in reply to Chris says:

                The longer France takes to get its act together, the harder it is to do so. Remember, there was, at the time a race to grab as many colonies as possible. If France enters the game late, it has fewer colonies and fewer industrial bases, decreased ability to project power, smaller domestic markets, etc etc. Given that the dutch lost their colonies to the british, if the French do not enter the game or lose it early (which is what will happen if they start late) the British would have controlled north America, some significant parts of Europe, Africa, all of India, China and Southeast Asia not to mention Australia. In Risk, it’s almost impossible to lose if you control all of that.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Murali says:

                Other than India, where the French lost to the British in the same war that ultimately led to the American Revolution, the French were quite late to Asia as it was. Same with Africa, except Gambia and the East African islands they controlled. But I don’t know a whole lot about French colonization outside of the 20th century.Report

        • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Murali says:


          One good outcome is that slavery was immediately abolished in a small number of the rebelling colonies, and gradual emancipation was set in place in New York and Pennsylvania–all either during or within 30 years of the war for independence.

          I also believe–although this is pure speculation–that the effort by the UK to abolish slavery in the 1830s would have happened much differently, with an “apprenticeship” period and fewer guarantees of rights to freed persons (not that the guarantees actually provided in the 1860s amounted to much at first). Or abolition not have happened at all in British North America, or implementing abolition would have caused a secessionist movement among the pro-slavery colonies that could have succeeded where the similar effort in the 1860s did not.

          Changing directions, something is to be said about the adoption of the Constitution, and especially certain parts of the bill of rights. I’m under few illusions about how groundbreaking that document was. But I think the near (not quite) absolutist terms in which certain freedoms are guaranteed in the B of R probably made those freedoms more robust than they are in, say, the UK. In other words, it’s good that in the US the government has to pass a higher bar than in the UK before transgressing on freedom of speech.Report

          • That said, I do not consider myself an apologist for the war for independence. Most of the good things that I claim to have come out of it were not the foreseeable outcome in 1773 (year of the tea party), 1775 (year of the first pitched battles), 1776 (year of the declaration), or even 1783 (year of the peace accord). And it’s possible to say that that war and what came out of it actually entrenched some bad things, like slavery.Report

        • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Murali says:

          If Washington loses at Brooklyn and the revolution gets squashed less than a year after Lexington, how does WWI turn out?Report

          • Avatar Murali in reply to Burt Likko says:

            See above:

            world war 1 is either stopped in its tracks due to a more powerful british empire or doesn’t even get going in the first place.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Murali says:

              But also see above: There were some power socioeconomic forces transforming Europe throughout the 19th century, and something had to give, and there would be inevitable reaction to that give. Not everyone would have made the ‘smooth’ transition from an aristocratic elite to a temporary plutocracy to some form of liberal social democracy, and in fact very few did.

              It seems just as likely to me that a British Empire more powerful than it was in the real world could have just as easily been the ‘bad guy’, especially as it tried to hold onto power as muskets gave way to machine guns.Report

          • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Burt Likko says:

            There is a better way to squash the revolution. During the siege of Boston, Washington came up with an absolutely awful plan to assault the city, combining an amphibious operation with an assault up the neck, all depending on multiple forces getting their timing just so, and even then relying on militia going up against British regulars. It was obviously (at least in retrospect) doomed. Washington called it off due to poor weather on the planned day. So have the attack take place. Even assuming that Washington personally survives, his credibility would be shot. He was accepted as commander in chief in large part due to his claim to military experience. Could his reputation have survived a carefully planned and executed disaster that early on?Report

    • Avatar Notme in reply to LeeEsq says:


      Let me help you out. Parliament could have granted the colonies representation, they choose not to.Report

      • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Notme says:

        A response to this is 1. that still doesn’t make it a “just war,” and 2. under the laws of England Parliament was acting within its prerogative.Report

        • Avatar Notme in reply to Jon Rowe says:


          Frazer is welcome to his opinion about the revolution. Frankly the whole thing seems like liberal mental masturbation.Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Notme says:

            Every Notme comment ever distilled into one.Report

          • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Notme says:

            As I read his argument it’s more than just an “opinion” but rather a good faith argument made on the longstanding objective grounds as to what constitutes a “just war.”

            Re Frazer, I’m not sure who you are, but I know a bit about who he is and his bona fides as an orthodox evangelical Christian of the fundamentalist bent (to the point of being a Young Earth Creationist) are beyond reproach. In short, I’d bet he’s to the right of you theologically.Report

            • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jon Rowe says:

              I have to confess that learning the man is a YEC triggers a prejudice in me that his arguments are less worthy of sober consideration. I realize that history, ethics, theology, and geology are all different disciplines and one can be good at one thing but not another, but still.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Interestingly, most of his intellectual opponents are similarly situated religiously and perhaps politically. Think David Barton, or perhaps more familiarly, TvD.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

                That may be. But my concern is that YECists seem willing to cherry-pick and ignore lots and lots of data in order to arrive at the result that a book written by Bronze Age shepherds is literally correct on every facet of science and inquiry. It imputed a willingness to make unacceptable shortcuts to reach a predetermined conclusion.

                I know that doesn’t mean that’s what Frazer or Barton or anyone else has done. It’s a prejudice I have from one’s identification as a YEC. I am aware of my prejudice and labor to avoid applying it in situations like this. Here, for some reason, it manifested very strongly. That’s all I’m saying here.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

                I understand your prejudice completely. It’s one I fought, and ultimately overcame, only by having good, very smart friends who were YECs.Report

          • Avatar LWA in reply to Notme says:

            Oh no not at all.
            Liberal mental masturbation is that painting of Jesus handing the Constitution to the Founding Fathers.
            Trust me, 60% of the time, it works every time.Report

  2. Avatar Jon Rowe says:

    It looks like the article itself is no longer freely available (unless you access from an institution with a license). Regarding the taxation issue, the article deals at length with the REASONS for the taxes: they weren’t imposed for arbitrary reasons but rather to recoup the real costs of wars Great Britain fought on behalf of its colonies.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Jon Rowe says:

      Just because a tax is imposed for good reason, doesn’t make it just. The system of government was representative enough at the time to make imposing a tax without representation problematic.Report

      • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        That’s true. However, governments do “unjust” things all the time. The issue is whether the “war” (a big deal) and revolution making such was “just.”Report

        • Avatar Notme in reply to Jon Rowe says:


          Lets see. A people subject to the dictates of a monarch and parliament they cant elect or self governing with elected representatives after a revolution? Sounds just to me.Report

          • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Notme says:

            It’s just in the sense that it meets that 8 criteria of a “just war”? What about the issue of the costs Great Britain suffered while defending its colonies?

            Maybe they could have brokered a peaceful separation where the colonies could self govern AFTER compensation (or agreeing to a treaty to compensate) GB for the cost of those wars?Report

            • Avatar Notme in reply to Jon Rowe says:


              My various answaers are: who is to say that the colonists wouldnt have agreed to the taxes had they been given the chance to vote for them? Also, last time i checked my history the Brits sarted the 7 years war. So why should the colonies pay for a british war of agression?Report

              • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Notme says:

                There’s a school of thought that one colonist’s ineptitude helps explain the first battle of that war. That link isn’t the last word on the subject, and the hapless colonist was working for the King’s army, but the colonies and their leaders bear at least some responsibility for how and when that war started and why it was fought.

                ETA: that’s not to deny there were Euro-specific causes to the war and that those informed why/how the war spread to Europe in 1756.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                It was a Virginia militia, led by Washington, raiding because of concerns of colonists about the proximity of the French.Report

              • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Chris says:

                Thanks for the correction, @chris .Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                Oh, wasn’t meant as a correction, just an elaboration. I didn’t think you said anything wrong. @gabriel-conroy

                Notme is playing fast and loose, however.Report

              • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Chris says:

                Thanks, but I was playing a little loose myself, and it’s good to be kept on my toes.

                Disclosure: I’m sitting as I write, so I’m not literally on my toes. But figuratively, man, I’m toe’ing the line 🙂Report

              • Avatar Notme in reply to Chris says:


                Then by all means educate us.Report

              • Avatar Notme in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


                GW was sent by the brits to drive the french out of fort Duquesne. It was only going to end in violence.Report

              • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Notme says:

                I will concede this much, @notme . The UK and France had squabbled and fought for most of the century, and were probably going to fight something like the 7 years war later if not sooner. If you’re suggesting that therefore the plea that the UK was only making the colonists contribute to their own defense is a faulty plea, then that’s a fair cop.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                It’s important to understand that “the UK” and “the colonies” were not separate entities, and the colonists certainly didn’t see them as such. The problem of France’s settlements East of the Mississippi, and in the Ohio River Valley in particular, were problems primarily for the colonists, who were lobbying for action or the go-ahead to take action.

                “The British started the war, so why should the colonists have to pay for it?” is in this case a nonsensical question, or at least a deceptive one, because the distinction is not relevant except to the extent that the colonists were the Brits who wanted the war.Report

              • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to Chris says:

                I think I agree, Chris. I was just trying to frame it in the way most friendly to Notme’s point of view.Report

              • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

                Regarding Washington’s involvement, the suggestion that he was responsible for the outbreak of the war in any meaningful sense is silly. Fun, but silly. Great wars don’t get caused by wilderness skirmishes led by junior platoon leaders (even with the grandiloquent rank of Lieutenant Colonel). Such skirmishes may be the first shots fired, but that isn’t the same thing as the cause.

                The cause was that the English population was starting to spill over the Appalachians. The French considered that their territory, through client tribes. English traders had a block house at what is now Pittsburgh. The French army and client tribes responded. Virginia sending Washington was the next round. Neither side was likely to back down, so violence was pretty much inevitable.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                Right, I didn’t mean to suggest that Washington started it, merely that it was colonials, as a result of colonial concerns, acting as colonials wanted to act. That they were led by Washington is just icing on the rhetorical cake.Report

              • That’s a really good way of putting it, @richard-hershberger .Report

  3. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    I have to say, @jon-rowe , that I find this an odd debate for historians to have.

    I mean, I get that — for example — what exactly Washington said when being sworn in might well be coopted into modern culture wars, but from my layman’s point of view those types of questions still seem to be proposed historical facts which may or may not have merit, and which ought to be investigated to the degree that a historian wishes to research it.

    The question of whether a war in the 18th century was “just” or not, however, seems almost definitionally to have nothing to do with history so much as fodder for either side of modern culture wars. It also seems to dip into a pool that is necessarily both entirely subjective and (for people in the US and UK anyway) hopelessly tied to extremely tribal emotions.

    Can you talk for a moment about why it is, from your more expert POV, that this is a thing historians feel compelled to take off gloves for?

    (I ask this question with the full disclosure that I think my sister, a historian, author, and editor of academic historian journals, would — I’m pretty sure — look down on this kind of paper; I have no doubt this informs my own biases.)Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Is the revolution really a tribal thing? Not a very big portion against it, and among those that are, I know both liberals and conservatives.Report

    • Avatar Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Its part of the whole Christian nation thing right? If the American founding violated Christian principles, then America is not a Christian nation in the robust sense that lots of the supporters of that thesis claim it to be.


      That is to say if the founding fathers had to appeal to non-Christian sources of justification, or had to twist Christian scripture around to justify it (at least as such scripture was generally understood in that period), then the founding fathers did not set out to create a Christian nation.Report

    • @tod-kelly

      I do think the question of whether the war for independence was a just one or not is a non-historical question when taken in isolation. When I wrote that OP a while against that war, I admit I wasn’t acting as a historian, but as someone who sincerely believes the war was unjust and doesn’t particularly like celebrating it.

      However, I’d need to know more about the Journal of Military Ethics. I know nothing about the journal save the title. But the title suggests that Mr. Frazer is treating the issue more as a question of ethics than as a question of historical inquiry. I imagine that whether a given war were just or not according to whatever standards of a just war one adheres to is a legitimate question.

      Even as a historical query, the article, of which I’ve so far read only the portions Jon excerpted for us, seems to be an analysis of what qualified as a “just war” in the 18th century and whether the war for independence actually lived up to those standards. That can be a legitimate query within the bounds of the historical discipline, assuming it’s not done to grind some sort of presentist or “tribalistic” axe. I say this as someone who tends to define the historical discipline somewhat narrowly. Some scholars embrace a more presentist-minded attitude or seek a “usable past” and in that case, the justness of the war can be something to consider, even from a historical point of view.

      That said, the American war for independence is not my specialty, but to my mind, whether the war was just isn’t a “live question” the way some other questions about the war are, among them being was it a “radical revolution” or just a war for independence, how did the conduct of the war reflect social divisions in the colonies, how did the pro-war people suppress dissent.Report

    • Avatar Jon Rowe in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      What Gabriel said. Basically because it’s the “Journal of Military Ethics” it’s more than just history, but some kind of interdisciplinary.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    This has been a splendid thread with a lot of excellent discussion but I’ve noticed that there is one big problem when it comes to the discussion of the territory that became the Louisiana perchance. France did not control Louisiana at the time of the American Revolution. Spain did. France lost Louisiana to Spain in the aftermath of the Seven Year War. France regained Louisiana as part of the French Revolutionary Wars, only to sell it to America under Napoleon in a few years.

    We have been assuming that the British would have a conflict with France for the Louisiana territories if there was no American Revolution but that is not going to be the case. Spain is going to be the country that controls the Louisiana territories even if only loosely.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Loosely being the key word here. Spain didn’t make the effort to de-frog it’s North American holdings the way the Brits did, and probably couldn’t even if it wanted to. Plus, aside from the lower Mississippi and a fort or two, there was no there there in the Mississippi valley. (and a native population that was still reeling from an utter collapse of its proto-cities a century before)

      Spain was spent, Spain liked to change sides, and revolutionary France fought mostly the same enemies as pre-revolutionary France. With all that, a non-revolutionary France has a good shot of reclaiming a large chunk non-Brit North America around 1800 anyway.

      The other factor is of course Haiti. Napoleon finally writing off Haiti is why he was amenable to getting out of the North American territory business, and giving it to the frenemy USA who was still mostly enemies with the Brit Empire was good realpolitik. A slave revolt in Haiti could be considered inevitable, but one could consider the *success* of the slave revolt as having a a great deal of contingency with the success of the revolts in (middle) British North America and then France.Report

  5. Avatar Pyre says:

    Define “Just War”. In fact, define “Just Revolution”. Generally speaking, while it is happening, the two are defined by “How does the status quo feel about it?”

    To use Obama’s foreign policy as an example:

    When Manuel Zelaya violated the constitution and the Honduras Supreme Court ordered him removed from office, the White House considered that an Unjust Coup.

    When Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from office by Euromaidan protesters, the White House considered that a Just Revolution (If I recall correctly, they were very careful to avoid words such as Coup).

    So, if we go by what the Big Dog of the time said, then it would not be a Just War. Fortunately, Just and Unjust are largely irrelevant with war because, in the end, the American Revolution was successful and the U.S. became the Big Dog on the world political stage. As such, both the winner and the Big Dog get to write the history books as to how Just the war was.Report