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Alternate history: what if George III hadn't 'lost' the colonies

Professor Andrew Roberts tells Jonny Wilkes why a British victory in the American Revolutionary War could have led to the creation of an all-powerful English-speaking empire, governed from New York

Published: March 28, 2022 at 12:58 pm
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There is a school of thought that winning the American Revolutionary War would have actually been bad for Britain. At risk of a renewal of hostilities by a resentful American population still seeking their independence, the British may have been compelled to maintain a large and costly presence in the colonies; rather than building a trading relationship with the United States, the empire would have been burdened with the expense of keeping control.

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Professor Andrew Roberts, historian, journalist and author of George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch, envisages a different scenario, however, where many Americans happily remained under British rule.“You have to remember that about one-third of Americans were Loyalists and about one-third were sitting on the fence waiting to see which side won,” he says. “If the British had won an early and decisive victory, then those on the Loyalist side would have represented a majority.”

A royal relocation

The 13 colonies still being within the British empire means a powerful union of English-speaking peoples could have emerged, with America the dominant partner, claims Roberts. “You could have had the Hanoverians moving out to New York after recognising that America was going to be the most powerful country in the world – there would have been no reason to stay in London. The British would have become a kind of adjunct to America.”

This would have all obviously depended on Britain winning the war, but it had many opportunities to do so. If the British had captured George Washington as he attempted to evacuate his forces from New York, to name one, or if the British general Sir William Howe had not launched his own expedition to seize Philadelphia and so doom his comrade John Burgoyne to a major defeat at Saratoga, to name another, then the war could have been won.

Founding Fathers reading papers
Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (left to right) would become US icons. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

After their triumph, George III and his government would have then had two options: meting out harsh punishments on the defeated rebels, or conciliation. Roberts favours the latter scenario, claiming that any surrender would have been based on extremely generous terms. “The British didn’t want this war in the first place, and by 1778 they were making huge offers: essentially, no taxation without representation; colonial representation in the House of Commons; or a form of dominion status of self-government.” With such a peace, any American attempt to renew the war would have been averted.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if people in Whitehall had come up with a condominium system whereby Americans were self-governing with a central parliament, similar to what was starting in Canada and would later be seen in Australia and New Zealand,” says Roberts. “There were already people doing that kind of thinking, including Benjamin Franklin before the war.”

So, instead of a Congress at the Capitol and a president in the White House, there could have been an American parliament in New York.

Meanwhile, George III, rather than being remembered as the “mad king”, would be regarded as “one of the greatest kings of England”, states Roberts, having defeated a massive rebellion and then, through amelioration, brought the Americans back into the fold.

But how would the dominion have progressed? It is possible the westward expansion would have been slower without the deep-rooted belief in the US that it was their ‘manifest destiny’ to build a nation “from sea to shining sea”, although if we assume that the Americans still got rid of the royal proclamation of 1763, which forbade settlement beyond a line in the Allegheny Mountains, then not much would have changed. “It would have been terrible for the Native Americans, but then it was terrible for them anyway.”

Early emancipation

Of course, another oppressed people to consider are the enslaved Africans, and it is with regards to their lives that Roberts believes there could have been a significant difference. “I think it would have been much better for the enslaved Africans to have stayed in the British empire,” he adds. “The British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833, whereas in the United States there were more than 700,000 people killed in a devastating civil war in the 1860s before slavery came to an end.”

Still, the American dominion would have kept expanding and developing throughout the 19th century, much as the US did, before threatening to supersede Britain in power. Assuming the Americans continued to have political representation, then their larger populations would have meant that, through sheer numbers, they would have had a majority in the House of Commons. In fact, it is likely that the Anglo-American empire would have grown to such an extent that the course of the 20th century would have been radically different.

“Kaiser Wilhelm II, faced with an extraordinary empire covering Britain, America, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand and more, might not have started a war in 1914,” affirms Roberts. “That means you wouldn’t have had the Bolshevik revolution and communism, or Hitler and the Nazis, and the millions of people who died in the world wars would have remained alive. The world would have been a happier place.”

In context: George III’s ‘loss’ of the colonies

In 1775, the tensions between Britain and its 13 American colonies – dominated by the issues of political representation and taxation – snapped, resulting in the American Revolutionary War. Facing the superior British army and navy, as well as thousands of Loyalists, the ‘Patriots’ took up arms and declared independence to form the United States of America. By the 1780s, the French, Spanish and Dutch had joined their cause, turning the conflict into a world war and providing the vital support needed to pull off an unlikely victory.

It was a humiliation for the British and King George III. For the US, the battles, people and documents of the war are not just part of history, but are deeply entrenched in the national psyche. The fight for independence lionised names like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin; created icons such as the Stars and Stripes flag and Declaration of Independence; and ultimately set the nation on a path to becoming a global superpower.

Andrew Roberts is a historian, journalist, broadcaster and author of George III: The Life and Reign of Britain’s Most Misunderstood Monarch (Penguin, 2021)

This article was first published in the March 2022 edition of History Revealed

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Authors

Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.

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