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Thursday, August 5, 2010

The American Revolution: A Blessing for the British?

Is it possible that the American Revolution was just as beneficial -- if not more beneficial during the 19th century -- for Great Britain as is was for us? Surely not! After all, we're the ones who triumphantly and gloriously won independence. The "Mother Country" suffered a huge blow by losing her precious American colonies.

Right?

Not so fast.

In his book "Rise and Fall of the British Empire" historian Lawrence James devotes an entire chapter to this very question. He claims that during the years immediately following the war with the American colonies, Great Britain actually reaped huge rewards; rewards that far exceeded those made by the newly established United States of America -- which, by the way, actually struggled more than it did prosper in its infancy.

For the British, the reality of parting ways with its former American colonies was better than most expected. Yes, the burden of humiliation that came with such a loss was staggering, but it wasn't crippling. Instead of limping away with their tail between their legs, Britain actually experienced more prosperity than ever before. Trade between the former mother nation and its now independent child actually increased after 1783, particularly cotton exports, which augmented from 15.5 million pounds in the 1780’s to 28.6 million pounds in 1800 (James, 119). Along with an increase in trade, the British Empire benefited by not having to pay for the protection of its American colonies, which had proven very costly in the past (The French and Indian War should come to mind). In essence, the American Revolution aided Britain in becoming the economic world juggernaut of the 19th century.

American colonial independence also added a measure of credence to Adam Smith’s assertion that the American colonies were more of a liability than an asset. In his book Wealth of Nations, Smith claimed that colonies were beneficial to empires, so long as control could be maintained. The American colonies, however, had become “less in the view and less in the power of the mother country,” and were therefore a liability. Maintaining control while being separated by an ocean was, in Smith's mind, a dangerous illusion.

The reality of the post-war period was that the American colonists needed the British more than the British needed the colonists. As James points out in his book:
Naturally there were alarms about the commercial consequences of a break between Britain and America,” but those fears subsided as British experts came to the realization that the infant American republic, 'could not survive economically without Britain (119).
The fact that the United States joined in an economic accord with their former rival is also indicative of how powerful the British economy really was. This economic agreement between America and Britain (known as the Jay Treaty) helped to deliver the former colonies from economic ruin (not to mention the fact that it made Britain a lot of money). As historian Joseph Ellis points out in his book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:
The Jay Treaty, in effect, bet on England instead of France…as being the hegemonic European power of the Future, which proved prophetic (136-137).
We often look at the American Revolution from the perspective of the colonists and rightfully so. When we take a step back, however, and examine the revolution's impact on everyone else involved, we can see just how "revolutionary" it really was. Not only did it benefit the colonies, but it also greatly improved conditions for Great Britain. In a very real sense, the American Revolution also helped the former "Mother Country" become the premiere world power of the 19th century.

At least it didn't hurt!

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