There is probably no revolution in world history that is today as widely celebrated as the one led by thirteen of the North American British colonies between 1775 and 1783. Popular portrayals of this conflict typically cast the British as arrogant and cruel oppressors and greatly exaggerate the grievances of the British-American colonists. For example, the recent hit musical Hamilton portrays loyalists as pompous fools and King George III as an abusive boyfriend intent on forcing America to once more become his “sweet submissive subject”. However, such portrayals are highly misleading. Not only did the colonists have insufficient cause for rebellion and long odds for success, it also isn’t so clear whether the revolution was worth it in hindsight.
To evaluate the American Revolution (or any historical event), we need to differentiate between the ex ante and the ex post view. From the ex ante perspective we ask whether the revolution was a good idea based on what people knew and could reasonably expect at the time, whereas the ex post perspective considers whether the outcomes of revolution were better or worse compared to the likely alternatives.
Going by what people knew at the time, the colonists should never have revolted. As I set out in my previous post on revolution, revolution should only be considered when you live under a government that is considerably worse than governments in comaparable countries and you have good odds of decisive victory. Both of these rules were clearly violated by the American Revolution (although it did fulfil my two other criteria).
The British government was one of the most liberal and least oppressive governments of its day, so it was quite likely that a revolution would produce a considerably more oppressive government. Had the war been led by someone less noble than George Washington, the new American government would probably not have become a republic. Had he wanted to, Washington could very likely have made himself king or dictator. In 1775, no one could have reasonably expected that the general chosen to lead the war would become the American Cincinnatus. Washington even did Cincinnatus one better by stepping down from the heights of power twice. Once by relinquishing his command of the Continental Army, and a second time by not standing for re-election after his two terms as President, even though his election for a third term would have been a foregone conclusion.
The Continental Army was inexperienced, ill-equipped, and disorganised and went up against one of the most effective fighting forces that the 18th century had to offer, backed by a giant global empire. After a long and bloody conflict, the colonists, with the help of the French and other allies, did manage to give the British enough of a bloody nose to make them sue for peace, but this certainly came as a surprise. At the outset, chances of victory were slim.
So the colonists were able to beat the odds on both counts. Does that make the revolution a success? The United States government did become one of the least oppressive in the world, but it is not clear whether cutting the ties with Britain improved things. For one thing, the taxes levied by the Federal Government of the newly formed United States quickly exceeded those formerly levied on the colonists by the British Empire. It might not be taxation without representation, but for the individual who is forced to pay a tax he disagrees with, does it matter whether the tax was approved by strangers living on his side or on the other side of the Atlantic?
To judge the revolution in an ex ante sense, we need to compare reality to what would have happened without the American Revolution, which is obviously a highly speculative endeavour. What can give us some guidance is to look at the fate of those British colonies in North America that did not rebel, i.e. at what is today Canada. Canada today is about as prosperous and about as free as the US and gained its independence peacefully, without the need for war and bloodshed.
One key strike against American independence is the issue of slavery. While the British abolished slavery in their empire in 1833 (with a few exceptions that were eliminated in 1843), it took the US until 1865 to get rid of slavery (although a number of states abolished slavery earlier or were created as free states). So if the American Revolution hadn’t happened, the abolition of slavery would likely have occurred 32 years earlier in the American colonies and would not have come at the cost of a horrific war claiming more than 600,000 lives.
Ultimately though, the question of what would have happened without the American Revolution is unanswerable since it is such a major historical event that profoundly changed all of subsequent history. But at least I think I have given enough grounds for doubt about whether the American Revolution was worth the blood spilled in it. And it is worth restating that the American colonists got very lucky. Their revolution turned out about as well as could be hoped. The fact that even the merits of such a revolution are very questionable nicely illustrates the point that violent revolution is almost never worthwhile, no matter how noble the principles you’re fighting for.