1. The ideas in the Declaration of Independence were all very… English
Thomas Jefferson insisted that though he had drafted the Declaration of Independence, and fifty-six members of the Continental Congress had signed it, it was really intended to be an “embodiment of the American mind.” It has proven to be exactly that; our national charter, our inspirational touchstone of American ideals, its eloquent prose far better suited to that task than the dry legalistic formulations of the Constitution.
But the ideals that lead to armed conflict in 1775, and the Declaration a year later, were firmly rooted in English traditions of law and political theory. The fundamental break of the Declaration from earlier colonial protests, was recasting the “rights of Englishmen” as universal human rights. But the underlying substance was still much the same.
No taxation without representation. An independent judiciary. The writ of habeas corpus. Subordination of the military to civilian authority. Secured rights of property and contract, and to keep and bear arms. Government as a social contract of consent between the governed and the sovereign. These weren’t ideas that sprung up in the Thirteen Colonies, they were at the heart of the unwritten English (and then British) constitution as it had developed from the Magna Carta in 1215 through to the Glorious Revolution in 1688.
When King George spoke to Parliament in 1775 about the rebellion in North America, he asserted that “that to be a subject of Great Britain, with all its consequences, is to be the freest member of any civil society in the known world.” There was inarguably true, but for the American colonies tired of their inequitable subordination to the mother country, the freest in the world was still not free enough. America conceived as itself as a free country in large part because it originated from what was already the most liberal, democratic, and constitutional regime on the planet. Without English ideas of liberty, there would be no America as we know it today.
2. The Revolution was almost as popular in Britain as America
The war against the colonies, and the policies that had precipitated the crisis, were widely opposed by the Whigs in Great Britain. There’s a strong case that the revolution might not have happened at all but for one man whose name is now mostly forgotten by Americans: Lord North, the bumbling and inept Prime Minister who is said to have “lost the colonies.”
The American patriots explicitly aligned themselves with the liberal, reformist, democratic Whigs in British politics, and the Whigs mostly defended the American cause in return. Several prominent British military officers, aligned with the Whigs, refused to serve in the conflict. The policies of imposing direct taxation on the colonies, had been pursued by Lord North, the one-time Whig who had become a Tory, which was at the time the more aristocratic, conservative, and royalist party (and is still the colloquial nickname for the modern Conservative Party in the U.K.).
It was no accident that one of the two major political parties in the United States once called itself the “Whigs,” and that “Tories” was used as a synonym for “Loyalist” on our side of the Atlantic.
North was the Prime Minister for most of the crisis leading up to shots being fired at Lexington and Concord. Over the objections of both his predecessors and successors, he pushed through the overreaching Coercive Acts, better known in America as the Intolerable Acts, which sought to punish Massachusetts by closing its port and imposing martial law. He repeatedly rebuffed reasonable proposals for reconciliation from the colonists. When the war finally ended, it came in the form of his government falling, in one of the earliest examples of a vote of no confidence.
Despite the defeat at Yorktown, Britain still occupied New York City and could have continued to wage war against the United States and its French, Spanish, and Dutch allies. However, the deeply unpopular war had finally lost the support of Parliament, as the old aristocracy declined and a new middle class of bourgeois merchants and traders, and an expanding population of urban workers, became ascendant. North’s government fell, and a pro-peace administration took power and began the negotiations that would lead to the Treaty of Paris a year later.
3. The revolution wasn’t as popular in America as we often picture today
The Loyalists had significant support in the colonies. It is estimated that after the war, sixty thousand Loyalists fled the new nation, a greater percentage of the population than was displaced in the notoriously bloody French Revolution. Britain was more openly hostile to slavery, and in many cases offered freedom to escaped slaves who joined their army.
Native American tribes mostly sided with the British against the expansionist Americans. Patches of territory in places like upstate New York, or parts of the interior in North Carolina, mostly sided with the King, for a wide variety of reasons and motives.
There is a popular quote where John Adams estimates that a third each were either supporting independence or opposing it, with the final third being neutral. This is however taken out of context, Adams was referring to sentiment on independence in the pre-Declaration Continental Congress, not public opinion at large. In reality, it was more lopsided than that; probably about 10-15 percent of the population were Loyalists, and it’s likely that the Patriots held majority support in all of the colonies.
Still, the war became to a significant degree a civil war, with Loyalist militias and recruits making up a substantial portion of British forces. Reprisals against Loyalists were widespread and often brutal, and the property and other rights of Loyalists remained a sticking point with Britain in the years that followed the end of the war.
4. Britain never made the same mistake again… sort of, mostly
The crisis was sparked by Parliament taking an unprecedented step that the Americans rejected: directly imposing, itself, taxes on the citizens of the colonies who were not represented at Westminster. This was a departure from the usual way the Empire had functioned before, and after the downfall of Lord North, it was most (mostly) a mistake they didn’t make again.
In Canada, Australia, and other far-flung parts of the Empire, local self-rule and elected colonial legislatures became the norm, and increasingly assumed more and more power leading to eventual full independence under a shared crown. In the parts of the Empire not populated mostly by European settlers; the arrangement was often considerably less democratic, and in no meaningful way operated on consent.
However, even in India under the Raj, or the colonial administrations in Africa, the imposition of taxes and local laws was left to the devolved local authority (even if that local authority was itself firmly under the thumb of London.)
Historians often divide the British Empire into two phases: Before and after the American Revolution. It was after the Revolution, that the Empire quickly began the process of transforming and reforming itself into the Commonwealth of Nations we know today. In the process, it even reached some benchmarks ahead of their independent American cousins, including abolishing slavery, expanding the franchise, and jump-starting global capitalism and the industrial revolution.
5. It also gave us Canada
Canada officially celebrates its national day on July 1, the anniversary of the passage of the British North America Act in 1867 that created Canada in its modern form. But it’s fitting the date falls so close to the American celebrations on July 4, because that’s arguably when not one, but two nations on the North American continent were born.
Prior to the American Revolution, “Canada” largely meant what we now think of today as “Quebec” — the parts of Northern North America inhabited by French-speaking Catholics. Britain had only acquired this territory recently in the French and Indian War, and its expansion to encompass as far south as the River Ohio was one of the grievances listed by the Thirteen Colonies in the Declaration of Independence.
This territory encompassed most of the core of modern-day Canada, but there was no substantial population of English-speakers, who today are about three-fourths of Canadians. The area that is now Ontario was still sparsely populated frontier. That’s where our 60,000 displaced Loyalists come into the picture. They mostly fled to Canada, where they were generously rewarded with land grants and honored as the “United Empire Loyalists.”
This became the core of English-speaking Canada. Eventually this lead to the division into “Upper” and “Lower” Canada, which later became the provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The Maritime Provinces along Canada’s Atlantic coast, also solidified their switch from being Francophone-majority to Anglophone-dominated. Halifax became a major point of arrival for Loyalists fleeing the new United States, mostly from New York, which the British continued to occupy during the peace negotiations.
American ideas were not absent from Canada’s system of government, either. Though still a constitutional monarchy with Westminster-style parliamentary government, the division of Canada into a federation of provinces was heavily influenced and inspired by the American federation of states next door. Australia’s federal system, with its states and a Senate, was also directly inspired by the U.S. template.
Along with the “Star Spangled Banner,” perhaps give a moment for “Oh,Canada” for those who lost the first American civil war, but still ended up with half the continent and made it into a pretty decent neighbor. In the spirit of the occasion, we can perhaps do without “God Save the Queen,” but also don’t forget the great British fellow travellers of the American Revolution, our friends and allies with whom we share a history and culture, and a special relationship that together fought the greatest battles against tyranny in human history.
Through different systems of government and historical divisions, we all still share the common bond of what Winston Churchill called simply “the English-Speaking Peoples.”
The 4th of July is as much a celebration of that shared heritage and the ideas of freedom it produced, as it is a repudiation of our connections to Great Britain.