What If July 4th Was Just Another Day?

As the United States celebrates its Independence Day, it's worth considering just how easily it could have never happened at all. Here now is a rundown of alternate history stories and essays where the American Revolution turned out very differently.

Compared to the Civil War or World War II, the American Revolution has, for whatever reason, been largely neglected by alternate history writers. While books like Bring the Jubilee and The Man in the High Castle stand as iconic works that imagine Confederate and Nazi victories respectively, there is no such defining work detailing the particulars of the British maintaining control of their wayward colonies. Still, there are a number of more obscure short stories and essays (plus a couple of novels) that do consider just such a scenario, and they generally take one of the four following forms...

1. Different historical circumstances prevented the American Revolution completely.

Technically speaking, I could include in this category almost any alternate history where the divergence occurs long before July 4, 1776. For instance, a story about the Roman Empire surviving into the present day would undoubtedly mean European contact with and subsequent colonization of the Americas would have happened far, far differently. Instead, let's just focus on stories that explicitly explain how changing history would avert the Revolution.

J.C.D. Clark's essay "British America: What if there had been no American Revolution?" argues that increased representation for the colonists, much like the Scottish and Irish parliaments prior to the Act of Union in 1707, might well have given the Americans a satisfactory level of self-government and made rebellion unnecessary. The short story "Cops and Robbers" by S.M. Stirling is set in modern times, but it uses as its setup a world where Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder led Britain to a far more decisive victory in the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War). This then allowed the British to maintain control over their colonies for a considerably longer period.

Writing just over a hundred years ago, Joseph Edgar Chamberlain imagined a plethora of alternate scenarios in his book The Ifs of History. He imagined a French colonization of Plymouth Bay that would have allowed the Dutch settlements of New Holland to survive, preventing the colonial unity that made the success of the Revolution possible. He wondered what might have happened if Columbus had not slightly altered course while crossing the Atlantic in 1492, which would have led to landfall on what is now Florida, likely shifting Spanish colonial interest towards North America.

He also looked at the possibility of Elizabeth I marrying and giving birth to an heir, which he believed would have prevented the rise of Puritanism and thus likely averted the Revolution. Not all of the changes he described would have appeared quite so momentous at the time, as he considered the tale of a colonial mother deciding in 1746 whether or not to enlist her son in the British navy. The mother was Mary Washington, the son was George Washington, and if the decision had been "yes" then the rest would have been a very different history than what we know.

What If July 4th Was Just Another Day?

2. Diplomacy prevailed.

This category focuses on situations where the colonies were on the brink of war, but ultimately were pacified thanks to brilliant diplomacy. Caleb Carr's essay "William Pitt the Elder and the Avoidance of the American Revolution" argues Pitt could have prevented the American Revolution if he had refused his ennoblement as the Earl of Chatham in 1766, which would have allowed him to stay in the House of Commons. Carr feels Pitt stood the best chance of preventing the various oppressive acts and exorbitant taxes that so angered the colonists, and in doing so might have prevented the rebellion.

In a similar vein, Roger Thompson imagined in his essay what might have happened "If I had been…the Earl of Shelburne in 1762-5." The crux of Thompson's argument holds that, if the Earl of Shelburne had been in charge of the peace negotiations following the Seven Years' War, he might have allowed France to regain control of Canada, which would have in turn removed the need for much of the taxation of the colonies.

One of the few full-fledged novels to tackle the subject, The Two Georges was cowritten by alternate history grandmaster Harry Turtledove and, for some awesome reason, Jaws actor Richard Dreyfuss. The titular Georges are, naturally enough, King George III and George Washington, who managed to negotiate a peaceful redress to American grievances that allowed the colonies to remain part of the British Empire. The theft two centuries later of a painting recording their legendary meeting sets the book's plot in motion, which takes the detective protagonist from New Liverpool (or, as we would call it, Los Angeles) on a winding tour throughout the North American Union all the way to their version of Washington D.C., the colonial capital Victoria.

What If July 4th Was Just Another Day?

3. The British won the war.

This really should be the easiest kind of alternate American Revolution story to write, considering just how unlikely the colonial victory arguably was. Beyond the superior military might of the British Empire, there was also the fact that not all Americans supported the cause of independence (although a majority of them did), and even then not all of the patriots were properly trained to fight. But beyond these general advantages the British had, there were several specific instances where the British could have triumphed and, in the process, likely ended the rebellion.

A major turning point recognized by multiple alternate history authors is the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. The month-long series of skirmishes, bookended by two bloody battles, saw the decisive defeat of British General John Burgoyne's army. Burgoyne had previously boasted that his troops would be able to split the colonies in half and effectively end the revolt. He was defeated largely due to the tactical brilliance and bold action of a brilliant young general by the name of Benedict Arnold. In H. Beam Piper's "He Walked Around the Horses", Burgoyne's victory at Saratoga is credited at the effective end of the American Revolution. A similar result is seen in Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail…; If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga, which takes the form of an alternate history textbook detailing the duel histories of the Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico.

Speaking of Benedict Arnold, Robert Cowley looked at how Arnold might have acted differently slightly later in his notorious career, as he detailed in his essay "Benedict Arnold Wins the Revolutionary War for Britain." Paul Park's "The Blood of Peter Francisco" takes place in the early 20th century in a world where the British routed the Continental Army at Yorktown in 1781, which in our history was the battle that signaled the inevitability of American victory.

Thomas Fleming is even more ambitious in his piece "Unlikely Victory: Thirteen Ways the Americans Could have Lost the Revolution", which examines the entire chain of events that made American success possible and then pulls out thirteen of the weakest links. This includes how the Patriots expertly turned the Boston Massacre into a rallying cry for anti-British sentiment, how a fortunate fog covered the American retreat from the Battle of Long Island and prevented their capture at the hands of the British, and how George Washington's charisma was all that stopped the disgruntled Continental Army from marching on Congress to demand their pay, all of which Fleming considers the results if these had played out differently.

Perhaps the most interesting sub-sub-sub-genre in this category concerns the ultimate fate of George Washington. In 1974, Robert Wallace Russell wrote and staged the play Washington Shall Hang: A Drama of Lost Revolution, which imagines the general being put on trial for treason. Roland J. Green's vignette "Exile's Greeting" looks at the HMS Bellerophon as it prepares to transport an important political prisoner to the infamous island of St. Helena, which in our history was the final home of the defeated Napoleon Bonaparte. I suppose my inclusion of that story in this particular paragraph pretty much gives away the big twist as to which mysterious general is being exiled to St. Helena.

What If July 4th Was Just Another Day?S

4. Something utterly crazy happened.

Let's be honest here. (And, by "honest", I of course mean "borderline jingoistic in a tongue-in-cheek manner.") The American Revolution was a historical inevitability and no amount of expert political maneuvering by Pitt the Elder or brilliant strategizing by General Burgoyne could have prevented or defeated it. So how, exactly, could you plausibly write a story where the Revolution turned out differently? With magic and dragons, that's how!

Orson Scott Card preferred the former option in his Tales of Alvin Maker series, in which almost everybody has a "knack", or ability to do at least one thing absolutely perfectly, and a few people have particularly powerful knacks, including the title character. The existence of such powers has greatly altered the course of human history, and what would have been the United States is divided into a colonial New England controlled by the heirs of Oliver Cromwell's English Republic, a monarchy on the east coast ruled by the exiled House of Stuart, and a much smaller independent America where Native Americans play a far greater role.

Mike Resnick upped the ante considerably in terms of awesomeness when he titled his alternate history book Dragon America: Revolution. The book is set in a world where the ecology of the Americas is greatly different from that of the Old World, as it is dominated by, well, dragons. For some reason, the Revolution is close to failure in this universe, which forces George Washington to send Daniel Boone westward in search of the legendary dragons that could be their last hope for victory against the British.

I'll admit I'm probably cheating a little bit by including this book, as the American Revolution does ultimately succeed thanks to the dragons, but I have one very simple rule in life - I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about team-ups between George Washington and dragons to defeat the British. I can't think of anything that better encapsulates the American way.