If the British Had Not Won the Battle of Yorktown

The belief of the signers of the Declaration of Independence that they could win on the battlefield against the strongest military power in the world, the British Empire, was nothing short of arrogant self-delusion. Even the most favorable estimates put their numerical support at no more than one‑third of the population. It is inconceivable to the objective historian that the rash adventure of Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, et al. should have had any other ending. The historical forces that doomed their disastrous rebellion, which began with the bloody events that commenced at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 and ended at Yorktown in October 1781, were overwhelming from the start.

Historians are still arguing why the British won the Battle of Yorktown. Was it due to some deep-seated flaw in the generalship of Washington that caused him to make a tactical error at the decisive moment? Did it stem from the almost total breakdown in communications between General Rochambeau on land and Admiral De Grasse at sea traceable to their well-known jealous rivalry that resulted in not only the defeat of the Franco-American army, but also the withdrawal of French support for the American independence movement and with it the complete collapse of the American Revolution?

A more speculative, but no less important question is what would have been the course of history had the British not won the Battle of Yorktown. Historians, of course, do not like to deal on such a speculative plane; they are more comfortable demonstrating the inevitability of their version of reality. But interjecting a “what if” into that reality now and then may cause both professional historians and the consumers of their outpourings to be more conscience of the fact that history in the making is not at all as unidirectional as many of their retrospective glances would have us believe.

This is an attempt to develop an alternative history for North America, turning on a single event, the Battle of Yorktown. Instead of the glorious history that has been ours, a much darker course could have opened before us on that fateful day in October 1781, on the shores of Virginia. Naturally, a different history would have given us a different present.

All plausible alternative scenarios for the aftermath of Yorktown must accent the political over its military consequences, because no one could seriously posit the loss of Cornwallis’ army, approximately 7,500 men, would have had a telling effect on British armed might. But, if by some great stretch of the imagination, tragedy had struck and made Yorktown a British defeat, the few voices in Parliament, such as Edmund Burke’s, that had long sought to find some justification for the rebellion in North America may have seized upon such an unhappy occasion and grown strong enough to bring down the government of Lord North and forced the commencement of peace negotiations leading to de jure recognition of then de facto American independence.

The loss of all her continental colonies in North America, except Upper and Lower Canada may or may not have caused a significant change in how Britain dealt with her other colonies. But such a loss would certainly have made Britain seem weak and thus may have served as an invitation to such traditional antagonists as France and possibly Spain to be more assertive. This could have been mitigated somewhat with the probable reestablishment of pre‑war trading patterns between Britain and the United States of America, as the colonies were christened by Thomas Jefferson in his propagandistic and inflammatory “Declaration of Independence” in 1776.

The real question, however, would have revolved not around Great Britain, but the long-term stability and viability of an independent American nation. The tremendous social and economic diversity found along the thousand mile Atlantic seaboard from Canada to Florida was dramatically demonstrated by fact that the southern half had legalized slavery, in sharp contrast to all civilized nations of the world, and the northern half had never known that peculiar institution.

Classical liberalism was the only philosophy that could possibly serve as a basis for a nation that admitted to being half slave and half free. To survive, a system that tried to accommodate such a fundamental contradiction within its body politic would have to encourage everyone to put on blinkers and believe that as long as he was able to pursue his own version of happiness the system deserved respect and support.

One can only shudder at the social costs and the lack of justice Americans would have had to endure if revolutionary leaders had succeeded in enshrining the principles of classical liberalism in a republican constitution. American society did not have any of the forces necessary to temper such liberal maxims as “Let ambition counter ambition,” “The less government the better,” and “Government is a necessary evil.” These all too transparent justifications for the supremacy of unfettered ambition could easily have paved the way for the rise and eventual domination by powerful groups, especially the strong economic interest groups that form with the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society and the subsequent development of capitalism. (The Wealth of Nations, 1776)

Much of the success of these pressure groups would naturally have depended on their ability to create the appropriate social environment, shedding the centuries old concept of community and its common good. They seemed well on the way to doing just that in the 1770s with their exaltation of an American brand of individualism that claimed society would somehow benefit if each person pursued his or her own self-interest.

Had they succeeded in disguising greed and selfishness as individualism and then transforming it into a public philosophy the possibilities for exploitation are almost beyond imagination.

What would American society have suffered if that kind of dog-eat-dog individualism had survived for a hundred years and been joined in some fashion with the “social Darwinist” ravings of Herbert Spencer?c His argument about survival of the fittest then could easily have been manipulated to equate “the fittest” with the economically successful who naturally would have wanted to minimize the role of government and any interference with property rights, the sanctity of contract, and their profit-making.

One can only recoil at the possible horrors the Western Movement could have inflicted on Native Americans, if various economic interests had driven it with their insatiable desires to control land and resources. It is not beyond the realm of possibility to postulate a combination of dominating economic interest groups and the virulent racism that existed in the south possibly infecting other parts of the country to produce a socially acceptable permanent economic underclass of blacks and browns.

The groundwork for such plutocratic rule had been laid with the propagation of the myth of American exceptionalism. Starting with John Mathew’s claim of Massachusetts being “A City on a Hill” some Americans seemed to fall prey to the self‑delusion that they had not only escaped the normal course of national development, but that America was destined to be a living example of a new harmonious society that the rest of the world would either envy or emulate. This idea of exceptionalism had within itself the potential to produce either a self‑satisfied smugness that could serve as the basis of isolationism, or a missionary zeal to fire interventionism in the most distant corners of the world.

The more perceptive opponents of classical liberalism were quick to note that application of its laissez faire attitude would have an atomizing effect on society making the doctrine nothing more than an sophisticated version of Caesar’s modus operandi “divide and rule.” It was clear that the liberals’ ultimate goal was to divide society so groups promoting their interests could rule.

Like the sirens of old, classical liberalism used the almost irresistible phrase “freedom of the individual” to garner support for a system that made self-interest a socially accepted guide to action and supposedly offering each individual the opportunity to determine and pursue his own self-interests. Those who failed in a liberal system had only themselves to blame. They were simply not strong enough. Rather than becoming angry with the system, failures should accept their lot and wonder at those who succeeded. We can only thank a divine providence that we escaped the diabolical snare the liberals had so painstakingly laid for our forefathers.

In addition to the mental gymnastics needed to reconcile its irreconcilable regional differences, an American nation would have had to deal with the profound political rivalries among the individual states that found so many opportunities for expression during the war and that were typified by the four and a half year struggle to adopt the so‑called “Articles of Confederation.”

History knows there is no weaker form of government than a confederacy and the particular one the Americans cobbled together showed all its traditional problems plus those specific to the American situation. Lacking both executive and judicial powers and providing for more of a debating society than a legislature, very limited even in what it could discuss, the national structure created by the Articles of Confederation was predestined to be transitional.

The interesting question, of course, is transitional to what. Which were greater among the American states the centrifugal or centripetal forces? Would the 13 states have evolved into 13 weak, but sovereign nations, or would some strengthened central government have emerged under a novel constitutional arrangement that recognized the existence of the states and yet vested some powers in a national government. Logically, those powers would have included establishment of an army and navy, the conduct of foreign affairs and treaty making, control of commerce, and the right to make, apply, and enforce national laws. But from its inception such a constitutional structure would suffer from the inherent contradiction between the rights of the states and the powers of the national government. This fundamental antagonism would surely have plagued the American polity for years and may even have led to the greatest catastrophe that can befall a nation, civil war. Whether the northern states would seek to break away, or the southern states, conflict and division seemed inevitable with the coincidence of social and economic fault lines dividing the free states from the slave states, the small farming‑manufacturing states from the plantation states.

The enforcement of national laws presupposes both the power to tax and the existence of an executive power with the strength to implement national laws. But here is the dilemma. The American experience during the war with weak state governors and the calumnies heaped upon the British crown would have made questions surrounding executive power among the knottiest. For example, how much power should be concentrated in the executive and what would be its exact form? Since the revolutionary American leaders had fanned antimonarchical feelings to drive their cause, would they have been able to overcome their own republican momentum and establish an American monarchy. Or, would they have had to settle for something less with all the attended problems of selecting a temporary leader and the transition of power.

Fortunately, all these unpromising alternatives for American development were forestalled with Cornwallis’ stunning victory at Yorktown and the peaceful path of American development was secured. London’s policy of reconciliation toward the rebels was given concrete expression in the generous terms of surrender offered by Lord Cornwallis. Historians of the period have often noted that he not only declined to accept Washington’s sword in surrender, but also allowed all American officers to retain their horses and side arms.

After ceremonially stacking their arms, the 9,000 Americans, from whom a promise had been extracted not to fight further, were all permitted to return to their families. These gestures of fair play and generosity by one British general went a long way toward dissipating post‑war rancor among many Americans who had joined the rebellion.

The diplomatic coup of Cornwallis in getting the French to stop their direct and indirect support of the insurrection was equally important in bringing an end to hostilities. Allowing the French navy to evacuate the entire French army and return to France unmolested in exchange for king Louis XVI’s promise to break all ties with the independence movement was a master stroke that at once isolated the American rebels and preserved French dignity.

Washington’s defeat proved to be the final blow to the rebel cause. When the news spread throughout the country, a great sigh of relief seemed audible all along the Atlantic coast among the three million inhabitants of the region. After five and a half years of war that saw the Royal Navy establish control of the seas and effectively blockade all ports, the Army win battle after battle, every major city under firm British control and the rebels reduced to hit and run attacks and only intermittent control of the countryside, it was clear that further resistance meant only further agony for a war weary people.

Some of the leaders of the rebellion, obviously fearing reprisals for the property confiscations and ill treatment they had meted out to Loyalists during hostilities, decided to use the opportunity presented by Rochambeau’s evacuation to go to France. Among those who chose exile were such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison. Benjamin Franklin, who had spent most of the war at Versailles, overcame a brief moment of hesitation before becoming a marquis and accepting an annuity of 2,000 livers from the hand of Louis XVI. Franklin’s solid position at the French court helped pave the way for several thousand American expatriates. Others went further east and some even entered the service of Catherine the Great. For example, the great American naval hero, John Paul Jones, became an admiral in Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

Though the intellectual leaders of the rebellion escaped to enjoy many years of renown at the courts of various enlightened European monarchs most of the officer corps of the Continental Army chose to remain in North America. George Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon and devoted the remainder of his life to developing the estate. He did find time, however, to write his memoirs that were published posthumously. They showed clearly that Washington was motivated in his support for the rebellion not by hatred of Britain, displayed by the likes of Thomas Paine, but rather by a profound feeling that British governments between 1765 and 1775 had betrayed their own heritage. Along with many other North Americans, he seemed to believe that an independent America could become the repository for Britain’s advances in democracy and human rights, to use today’s terminology. Thus, the American Revolution aimed at conserving the past and preserving the best of the British experience. The American revolutionaries in neither rejecting or wishing to destroy their roots sharply distinguished themselves from the French Revolution and much of the blood letting experienced in trying to establish socialist utopias during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Happily, the British victory at Yorktown averted the danger of American independence and the history of the continent pursued its inevitable and beneficent course. The feeling of consanguinity among Americans, Britons and Canadians provided a firm basis for the re‑establishment of British North America. The thirteen colonies that had rebelled and the two that had not, Upper and Lower Canada, were quickly reunited under the British Crown.

Britain wisely decided to accept the American developed Dominion Doctrine as the basis for its relations with North America. In late 1774, on the eve of hostilities, James Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams in separate writings had each rejected Parliament’s authority over the colonies while at the same time declaring allegiance to the King and recognizing his sovereignty over all the peoples of British North America. Using this acceptance of George III as King of North America, Britain moved to reestablish its authority by appointing a Governor‑General to personify royal legitimacy.

Realizing the need to refocus the loyalties that the states had seemed to enjoy during the war, London amalgamated its North American territory into five large provinces: Canada, Quebec, New England, Mid-Atlantic and the South. By extending boundaries, some even to the Mississippi River, Britain was able to gain the immediate support of land speculators and others who saw a continental future for America. Already there were clear indicators of what was later labeled “Manifest Destiny.”

Each of the new provinces was headed by an appointed royal governor. Each provincial governor appointed a ten member advisory council. Each of the five provinces had an elected assembly that enjoyed both deliberative and veto powers. The actual legislative power, the ability to make laws, was vested in the royal governor, who supposedly acted after consulting his advisory council. For their part the assemblies had the right to discuss any issue they deemed important and could recommend legislation to the governor. It soon became common for them to submit actual wording for a law. They also were empowered to veto legislation, including budgetary items, in part or in whole. The governor could not simply override an assembly’s veto, but he could and as often happened did, due to frequent assembly vetoes, submit a disputed piece of legislation to the Governor‑General for a final decision.

With ultimate authority residing in the Governor-General, a broad based continental perspective soon developed. Alexander Hamilton, the former aide‑de‑camp of General Washington, became a close advisor to the first Governor‑General, Sir John Cliffton. Perhaps, because he was born in the West Indies, immigrated to the colonies and experienced the Revolutionary War on a large geographic scale, Hamilton became a forceful proponent of continentalism. He was instrumental in changing the mercantilist policies of London and getting British acceptance of expanded and indigenous economic development. In his three famous reports to the Governor‑General, Hamilton pounded at his favorite theme: a united and developed North America meant a stronger and more influential Britain. He argued for the establishment and expansion of a continental economy. He was the first to see a need for the Crown to use the provinces as administrative subunits in the implementation of coherent policies that would turn North America away from its former roles of supplier of raw material for Britain’s industries and market for its manufactured products.

In Sir John Cliffton’s fifteen-year tenure as the Dominion’s first Governor-General much was done to realize Hamilton’s dream. Indigenous industries were developed with appropriate financial institutions including the Bank of North America and a stock market. Southern agriculture grew to supply both the newly established mills of New England and the guaranteed market of England. Immigration was encouraged to speed population growth and occupy trans-Appalachia.

The tragedy of the French Revolution had a sobering effect on many of the American expatriates and most of them happily returned to the safety and order of North America. Their experiences before and after the execution of Louis XVI made them strong supporters of monarchy. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe did much to rally public support in North American against the French nightmare and, when Napoleon came to power and began to challenge British interests, they were among the first to proclaim the identity of interests between England and America.

For the continentalists, Napoleon’s acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from Spain in 1800 provided the moment of opportunity to strike a blow at revolutionary France, demonstrate support for the mother country and at the same time expand British North America to the Pacific. The Governor‑General received many expressions of public opinion among which the most persuasive were petitions from the assemblies of all five provinces calling for the occupation and incorporation of the Louisiana Territory into BNA by moving first to occupy New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River and then assuming control of all French possessions in the Caribbean. The logic of this expression of Manifest Destiny won the day and Sir William Smith, Governor General from 1796 to 1810, ordered the Royal American Army into the region. Actually, there was no resistance on the part of the French at either New Orleans or Port au Prince, Haiti. Exploring the vast new territory stretching up the Mississippi to Hudson Bay and west to the Pacific Ocean became the principal concern of the government for the next 15 years.

The permanence of American control of the Mississippi basin and with it the heartland of North America was signaled when the Dominion’s capital was moved from Baltimore to New Orleans in 1818. The move proved extremely fortuitous over the next hundred years as it focused Dominion attention on Hispanic America and the Caribbean. The symbolism of having New Orleans the capital of BNA was indeed great for the city that had been founded exactly one hundred years earlier by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. Under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau (1762) it was ceded to Spain, but by the secret Treaty of Ildefonso (1800) France regained possession of the city and its continental hinterland. The transfer was made at the behest of Napoleon who projected the revival of a French colonial empire in North America.

This amalgamation of French, Spanish and American cultures in New Orleans seemed providential for the unfolding of events during the next fifty years. Acquisition of the Louisiana Territory almost doubled the size of British North America. It overshadowed the Russian colonies in Alaska and made sure they would never expand south. And, it began to foreshadow the end of Spain’s presence in the New World.

Great Britain chose to round out the Eastern edge of its continental possession by buying Florida from Spain in 1819. Actually, Spain ceded Florida in exchange for payment of all claims, totaling $5,000,000 for damages suffered by North American shippers due to Spanish interference with commerce during the Napoleonic Wars.

Spain’s attention, of course, was on the disintegration of its American empire. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the hemisphere began shaking off Spanish control faster than the conquistadores had established it. Simon Bolivar, San Martin and O’Higgins enflamed all of South America. Revolt in Mexico raised its head in 1810 and finally attained its object of independence in 1821 when General Iturbe had himself proclaimed emperor.

Instead of diminishing, disorder grew in Mexico over the next two years and the political vacuum it created naturally invited outside attention. Hoping to eliminate Spain as a world power, Britain decided to expand its North American possessions in the southwest. In July 1822 three huge Royal American Armies with a combined strength of more than 100,000, under the overall command of General Alexander Smith, invaded Mexico from the northeast, through its province of Texas. The Royal American Navy landed a force of 30,000 at Veracruz on October 1, 1822. By Christmas hostilities were over. Iturbe was exiled to Italy and Mexico became an integral and vital part of the developing North American empire.

Settlement of the continent received a major push forward with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The California Gold Rush of the following year saw more than a quarter of a million people stream across the continent. Many chose to go by ship from Eastern and Gulf ports to Panama and make a two-day trek across the isthmus to the Pacific and then take a fast ship to San Francisco. This experience and the chaos that followed the demise of the Federal Republic of Central America 1838 invited amalgamation of all of Central America, from Mexico to the Isthmus of Panama into North America. This was finally accomplished in 1852 by the skillful diplomatic efforts of Sir Peter McDuff and Sir Jaime Sanchez de Alban, the one from Boston and the other from Mexico City. Their success in extending the southern border of North America became an early symbol of the talent and strength that continental amalgamation was bringing together.

The political oneness of North America was finalized only fifteen years later with the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $15,000,000. Failure to expand their presence in the Pacific after the debacles of Fort Elizabeth in Hawaii and Fort Ross in California combined with the continual drain on the treasury that Alaska represented, caused the Russians to sell their colony in North America and cut their losses. After a relatively short period of negotiations, Tsar Alexander II agreed to the diminution of his empire and closed the book on Imperial Russia’s overseas possessions.

The rapid realization of Manifest Destiny on the continent of North America slowed somewhat at the water’s edge for it took another forty years to incorporate all the major islands of the Caribbean. But, by the beginning of the twentieth century the dynamic development of the mainland had created a kind of magnetic attraction for these tropical paradises. As many of them broke away from Spain, they sought inclusion into the Dominion for obvious economic and political reasons. As part of BNA they were included in the free trade zone that had developed within the British Empire. This meant tariff free trading with much of the world. It also meant political stability. The psychological attraction of being part of North American developments also played a certain role. These economic, political and psychological factors had almost no part in the Dominion’s acquisition of Greenland in 1910. If anything, these factors were discernible on the North American side, when it offered $10,000,000 to Denmark for Greenland.

The relatively quick and successful amalgamation of so many different religions, cultures and languages was due in no small measure to what some historians have called the logic of continental unification. There are no natural divisions to the continent. It is a geographic unit with no sharp divisions among its areas. Its rivers form natural highways for exploration, settlement and commerce. Its mineral resources complement one another for the development of industry. Its expansive agricultural lands invite cultivation. Most importantly, has been the commonality of the continent’s people.

Western civilization provided common roots for the British, French and Spanish originators. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in terms of religion. The Protestantism of the British, the Catholicism of the French and Spanish, and the Orthodoxy of the Russians are united in their Christian fundamentals. For them to live together there need be little more than tolerance and respect. Similarly, the differences among Anglo, Franco and Hispanic cultures are overshadowed by the American experience of immigration. The decision to leave Europe and start a new life on this continent is a fundamental commonality that overcomes old world animosities and develops a distinctly American viewpoint.

The farsighted domestic policies of the Dominion’s political leaders helped develop.........