Thursday, November 13, 2008

Colony to Superpower: Proclamation of 1763 and Western Settlement

In our discussion of From Colony to Superpower, Rob asks this:

I wish Erik would expand on this point:
Also, I think westward expansion as a real reason for Revolution has probably been overhyped since 1776.

It's not that I disagree; I'm just curious about the nature of the argument. Is Erik suggesting that the British would (eventually) have been just as comfortable with expansion as the colonists? This would seem plausible, although it's fair to say that the gains from expansion (territory and property) would have been distributed much differently under a different relationship between the colonies and the metropol. That difference in distribution might well have produced a civil war or revolution by itself.

The basic answer to Rob's question is I think, yes. The British were not uncomfortable with their colonists expanding their territory. Again, we are getting into counterfactuals here and so we can't know. But the British were never opposed to their colonists expanding their territory until they couldn't pay for the wars anymore. Now the question for the future was this--would the increasingly centralizing British empire continued trying to limit colonial expansion in order to push a more imperialist economic agenda?

I don't think so.

The settlement of Australia and New Zealand lends to me to believe that the British were happy to continue the expansion of settlement in North America. My sense is that the distribution of land would not have been wildly different either, also based upon the history of Australia and New Zealand. While I am certainly not an expert on the histories of these two nations, although of course I am aware of the prison colony aspect of Australia. But even if, let's say, Britain decides to use Alabama as a prison colony, this doesn't significantly alter the long-term settlement patterns of immigrants.

Now of course things would have been different. Would the British cracked down on German immigrants settling the interior of Pennsylvania? Would the American colonies become a dumping ground for Irish criminals? Who knows.

But I do want to reiterate that I think the role of westward expansion is overrated in the leadup to the Revolution. We have this jolt of anger in 1763. And there is no question that Americans moved across the mountains as soon as they could, starting conflicts with the Native Americans and forcing the British to fight in the West as well. But after 1763, none of the major areas of conflict revolve around westward migration. I just don't see strong enough evidence to argue that western issues were really central to the Revolution.

To conclude, I think that the West could have played a major role in future colonist-empire conflicts, although I think both sides might have worked something out. But I remain unconvinced that the West is really what we need to be looking at when we talk about the beginnings of the Revolution.