True Patriot What Ifs

What really differentiates Americans from Canadians? We celebrate our grand national holidays almost simultaneously in early July. We share the better part of a continent and that very long, under-defended border. We watch much of the same TV shows (albeit with the annoyances of geo-location denials on websites) and movies. Wind, rain and snow crosses back and forth across the border with abandon and it’s often hard to tell where one country begins and the other ends if you’re crossing the wooded eastern reaches or trekking through the prairies.

A recent article by Dylan Matthews offered Three Reasons the American Revolution was a Mistake, zeroing in on the weaknesses of presidential democracy, the likelihood of an earlier end to slavery under British law and the slightly less awful Canadian record of First Nations abuses as ways in which an America without the revolution would be a better place. Over at Historiann’s, she’s taken up Matthews’ points and added a few other accolades of her own.

So is Canada the very picture of oppression? Far from it! In fact, Canada is a nation that offered its citizens national health insurance nearly seventy years ago; they had a woman Prime Minister more than twenty years ago; and while rates of gun ownership are high (they’re #13 vs. the U.S., which is #1 in the world), the risk of gun homicide (let alone random mass-murder) is quite low. Furthermore, equality before the law is guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including sex and disability, two categories of people–more than half the population–not included in the U.S. Constitution and its amendments.

What reasonable person wouldn’t prefer Canada to the U.S.?

Aw, shucks, Historiann. You’ll put us all to blush and you know how apologetic Canadians can be in any case. Consider it doubled or double-double (I’ll spring for you at Tim’s).

Seriously, I have to agree that Canada is awesome. Otherwise, why would I have come north almost thirty years ago (this coming Labour Day weekend) and taken up Canadian citizenship early in this millennium? Okay, well, obviously, love for my dear spouse factored in mightily, but also love for this slightly more peaceful part of North America.

That said, I’d have to take issue with some of Matthew’s claims about the benefits of avoiding the American Revolution because, well, counterfactuals don’t work that way. You can’t be certain that because the British abolished slavery in the 1830s America would have been freed of slavery a generation ahead of the Civil War. Some scholars suggest that slavery was the most significant root cause of the Revolution in the 1770s. Others have pointed out that the British both supported slaves against their masters and held out hopes of retaining the southern, slave-dependent states during the course of the colonial contretemps.

Against Matthews’ rosy suggestions of a Canadianized USA, the picture becomes much more hazy. For instance, I have difficulty dismissing the southern states as an impotent rump within British imperial politics in the 1830s in our counterfactual Revolutionless timeline. To keep the colonials within the empire in 1776 wouldn’t have been without cost. Concessions and new connections might have shifted the balance of power in significant ways, possibly strengthening the southern hand within imperial politics. Might this have served to embolden them to armed rebellion at the whisper of legislation of abolition in London in the following decades? Or maybe we would see the change coming from the enslaved multitudes, perhaps rising out of a Caribbean context where, unmediated by American and French revolutionary exemplars, uprisings could have skipped across the sea to those slave states and inspired a real crisis not just in the colonies but back in Britain?

You know that I love counterfactual history something seriously. “What if” makes for interesting thought experiments that historians need in their toolboxes but it’s not either/or. We aren’t faced with the choice of either our current USA or our current Canadian situation if something in the past had gone differently. If history had zigged rather than zagged in 1776, we’d be living with the long range consequences playing out in ways that casual contrast just doesn’t cover. And who knows whether or not we’d have our Tim Hortons?

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1 Comment

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One response to “True Patriot What Ifs

  1. Historiann

    Great response, Janice. I totes hear you on the geolocation denial of service issue–I discovered that today in Quebec as I tried to catch up on that epsode of Poldark I missed last night.

    I agree with you that the slavery issue is more complex, and as Rachel Hope Cleves pointed out over at my place, the legacy of racism in the U.S. would not nec. be undone by ending it 30 years earlier–although it would have saved tens of thousands from enslavement and the special misery that was American slavery, it wouldn’t have meant that white Americans would have behaved any better than they did in the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era. In fact, a post-1808/emancipation in the North backlash against African American liberty and economic opportunity was well under way by the 1820s and 1830s.

    Anyway, thanks for playing! I’m pleased you joined in on the FUN! Bonne fetes, le 1 et le 4 Juillet! (Beaver tails and BBQ go well together, n’est-ce pas?)