Guest Opinion: ‘Counterfact’ Fourth of July to appreciate freedom

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Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on the founding era of American history.

By Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

An increasingly popular pedagogy in higher education is the use of counterfactuals to learn about events in history. The device became more accepted in 2019 with the publication of “Civilizations” by Laurent Binet. The novel reverses initial European expeditions to America and attempts to illustrate what would have transpired if the Incas had sailed there first.

To truly understand the significance of July Fourth, it is instructive to apply the aforementioned tool to American history.

Given several alternative scenarios, the most likely by far is a British victory in the American conflict which began in earnest in 1775. Had that happened, it isn’t hard to figure out ensuing events.

First, the American Revolution would have been known only as a failed revolt. The perpetrators, as Benjamin Franklin warned without unity, would have been hung separately. Think of that. Starting with the signers of the Declaration of Independence, there would have been no Roger Sherman or James Wilson, who played such a major role in getting the Constitution passed. Away go our second and third chief executives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And with them go well-known civilian Founders who did not attend the meeting at which the Declaration of Independence was approved and signed, such as James Madison. Too, the military men who beat Britain and who contributed to the Constitution and to the republic it created, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, would have been killed with the rest of the conspirators.

Second, the governments which existed in the Colonies would have remained, each a fiefdom of Britain and without a common identity. While the British themselves were living through the period when the monarchy was declining relative to Parliament, the Colonies experienced an executive-dominated structure for the most part, in which most governors served for life and had an absolute veto over legislative proposals.

Third, the relationship between the national government and state governments so treasured today, federalism, would not have been created and nurtured. Britain was never in the mood to grant dual authority to Colonies, let alone provide reserved rights for them, as does the American Constitution.

Fourth, the rights which Americans enjoy today would have never materialized. True, the British Bill of Rights was formed in the period we are analyzing, but that document was more about the relationship between the monarch and Parliament than between the government and citizens. Further, the Colonial courts were never fully independent, having to share authority with most governors, who could easily negate rulings on their own or pursuant to orders from England. To the extent that Britain limited slavery by the mid-1800s, the country still employed indentured servitude thereafter. The violent independence movements against Britain, which eventually occurred in other parts of the world, illustrated the pent-up rage against colonization, imperialism and the denial of natural rights.

Finally, given that British control of territory at the juncture of the American Revolution mostly involved a vertical patch of the East Coast, there would certainly have been an effort to expand land holdings in other parts of North America. For all the criticism of treatment of Native Americans, there is little evidence that Britain would have tolerated any accommodation or signed treaties acknowledging their rights. That many tribes already despised the British is why there was a near-even division of support for both sides in the American Revolution. Another real possibility is that the British, French and Spanish would have continued carving up the continent, caring little about those who came and lived here first.

In the age of “wokewashing” and cancel culture, one thing’s for sure: Without the pledge made by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence and successful revolution that followed, Americans would not be able to celebrate and commemorate uniquely national holidays, from Juneteenth to Memorial Day and everything in between. The signers of the declaration pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor toward freedom, of which the last meant the most. Their victory is ours today.