What If America Had Lost the Revolutionary War?

A Fourth of July thought experiment

A statue of George Washington is silhouetted against the sky at the Trenton Battle Monument in Trenton, New Jersey, on November 29, 2012. (Julio Cortez / AP)

The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.

Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.

"They couldn't agree on how to set up the legislature," one character explains. "The big states wanted it based on population. The little ones wanted each state to have one vote no matter how many people it had. They were too stubborn to split the difference."

Turtledove told me that it was Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, who first gave him the idea of the American Revolution as a subject for alternate history. The two collaborated on a novel, The Two Georges, that is set in the 1990s and based on the premise that the Revolutionary War never happened. Instead, George Washington and King George III struck an agreement in which the United States and Canada (the "North American Union") remained part of the British Empire. The artist Thomas Gainsborough commemorated the deal in a painting, The Two Georges, that is emblazoned on money and made ubiquitous as a symbol of the felicitous "union between Great Britain and her American dominions."

The novel, which contains some delightfully bewildering passages ("The British Empire and the Franco-Spanish Holy Alliance were officially at peace, so skirmishes between the North American Union and Nueva Espana seldom made the newspapers or the wireless"), includes a description of the painting:

Bowing before the king, George Washington was made to appear shorter than his sovereign. The blue coat that proclaimed his colonial colonelcy was of wool like that of George III, but of a coarser weave speaking of homespun. Not all its creases were those of fashion; with a few strategic wrinkles and some frayed fringes depending from one epaulette, Gainsborough managed to suggest how long the garment had lain folded in its trunk while Washington sailed across the Atlantic to advance the colonies' interests on the privy council George III had established.

Turtledove told me by email that he had an "epiphany" when he traveled with his family to the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg, Canada in 1994, shortly before he published The Two Georges.

As he read a book from the Little House on the Prairie series to his daughter at the hotel, he came upon a section about a Fourth of July celebration "on the plains in the late nineteenth century, with fireworks and with tub-thumping speakers talking about how the United States had broken away from British tyranny and was the freest country in the world as a result. And there I was reading this in the country next door to mine, a country as similar to mine as any two nations on earth, a country just as free as mine—and a country that had never broken away from Britain at all. It was a thought-provoking experience." Canada, of course, merely shares a queen with the United Kingdom at this point, but its relationship with Britain has certainly evolved differently than America's has.

Turtledove explained that he's toyed with the concept of the American Revolution in other works as well, including The United States of Atlantis, a book, as he described it, "set in a world where the eastern quarter of North America rifted away from the rest of the continent 85,000,000 years ago and got shoved into the middle of the Atlantic by plate tectonics different from the real ones." Atlantis, led by Founding Father-like figures, stages an American Revolution-style uprising against Great Britain.

A painting of the Battle of Quebec in 1775 (Wikimedia Commons)

Turtledove also pointed out that he isn't the only author to experiment with this genre. He cited the science-fiction writer H. Beam Piper and his 1948 short story "He Walked Around the Horses." In the story, European officials—living in a 19th-century world in which the American Revolution and consequently the French Revolution have failed, and the Napoleonic Wars never occurred—puzzle over the reports of a British diplomat named Benjamin Bathurst, who has somehow tumbled from our real world into this parallel universe.

One flummoxed lieutenant exclaims that Bathurst spoke of the North American colonists defeating Great Britain and establishing a republic:

Well, you can imagine, that gave me a start. All the world knows that the American patriots lost their war of independence from England; that their army was shattered, that their leaders were either killed or driven into exile. ...

"I can cut it even finer than that," Bathurst continued. "It was the defeat of [British General John] Burgoyne at Saratoga. We made a good bargain when we got Benedict Arnold to turn his coat, but we didn't do it soon enough. If he hadn't been on the field that day, Burgoyne would have gone through [American General Horatio] Gates' army like a hot knife through butter."

But Arnold hadn't been at Saratoga. I know; I have read much of the American War. Arnold was shot dead on New Year's Day of 1776, during the storming of Quebec. And Burgoyne had done just as Bathurst had said; he had gone through Gates like a knife, and down the Hudson to join [British General William] Howe.

A British minister marvels at a separate report from Bathurst:

The United States of America, you will recall, was the style by which the rebellious colonies referred to themselves, in the Declaration of Philadelphia. The James Madison who is mentioned as the current President of the United States is now living, in exile, in Switzerland. His alleged predecessor in office, Thomas Jefferson, was the author of the rebel Declaration; after the defeat of the rebels, he escaped to Havana, and died, several years ago, in the Principality of Lichtenstein.

I asked Turtledove what the world might have looked like in 2014 if Britain had won the Revolutionary War, or if the war had never been fought in the first place. He noted that "alternate history is often better at asking questions than answering them." Still, he indulged me.

"If the British Empire included all of North America north of the Rio Grande as well as India, it would be incontestably the strongest state in the world," he responded. "The French Revolution wouldn't have happened, both for lack of example and because it began when a political crisis and a famine coincided with a government bankruptcy that sprang from the money the government paid out helping the American colonists gain their independence—and giving perfidious Albion a shot in the eye."

"This is, essentially, the world of The Two Georges," he continued. "Because the Empire was so strong, we might well have missed out on not only the Napoleonic Wars but also the World Wars. On the other hand, we would also have missed out on the kick in the pants wars give to technology and medicine. We might have had as many deaths that could have been prevented in our own world by medical advances as we've lost in our big wars." Would Marxism and nationalism have become such formidable forces? He's not sure.

"Alternate history isn't really about the world you're creating," he added. "It's about the world in which you live, and gives you and your readers a funhouse mirror in which to see the real world." It's a reflection, he says, that we can't get any other way.