Unexceptional Americans

What would the United States be like today if France, Spain, and Britain had held on to their territories in North America, except for the thirteen British colonies that became the United States after the American Revolution.

Suppose: Napoleon didn’t cash out the huge chunk of North America we call the Louisiana Purchase; Britain folded what our history books call the Northwest Territory (but today we think of as the Upper Midwest) and Oregon, Washington, and the neighboring states to the east into Canada; and Spain and Mexico worked it out so Spain or Mexico got California, Texas, Florida, and the Gadsden Purchase.

Imagine if the entire United States of America was a contiguous landmass that included the Atlantic coast from Maine to Georgia and west to roughly the Appalachian Mountains. It would not be long before some of those newly minted, post-Revolution U.S. citizens would push away from the Atlantic coast and into the piedmont region until they bumped up against French, Spanish, and British territorial lands. In this scenario, the U.S. citizens would be neighbors with Spanish-Americans, French-Americans, and British-Americans. If and until those North American colonies broke from their respective empires to establish independent nations, the United States would be the least robust of those countries in terms of our economy, military, landmass, and resources.

Given its Atlantic location, America’s immigrants would be primarily Europeans who would come to North America voluntarily for economic opportunity and security from oppression and warfare. The next largest group to arrive would be Africans brought here as slaves.

France abolished African slavery in 1794; Britain in 1833; and Spain ended slavery in North America and the Caribbean by 1886. However, in addition to African slaves, we need to consider the history of enslaving indigenous people. Spain was the most egregious of the European powers holding colonies in the Americas. France had a more egalitarian view than either Britain or Spain and was more accepting of indigenous people. The British and we Americans generally resisted embracing the indigenous people. In all cases, though, the indigenous people in North America and the immigrants to their territories would either accept or resist sharing the land – and would do so either peacefully or through warfare.

I wonder if the American impulse to Manifest Destiny would have been curtailed if over half of North America had not been available for westward expansion? If European empires had held their North American territories, the United States would have tidied up its limited available territory into states, probably following the borders established by the former colonies and – here comes some wishful thinking – given Post-Revolutionary War immigration and internal migration patterns, most of the inhabitants of those new states would not have a tradition of slave-owning. By 1804, slavery was banned in the original northern Colonies, and in 1808, the importation of slaves to the United States was banned.

But if the United States did expand its territory westward, what would it do about slavery? By the middle of the 19th century, America faced a significant cause for the Civil War: would slavery be allowed in the new states created from some of the territories acquired by the United States by the mid-Nineteenth Century? If, as I consider above, those territories were not available for the potential expansion of slavery, would slavery in the United States have survived the European abolition of slavery and our home-grown abolition movement?

If the northern senators did not have to compromise with the southern Senators on slavery in order to bring new states into the union, would abolitionist sentiments have prevailed and would slavery have been outlawed nationwide by 1808? If slaves were freed before the massive plantation economy took over the southern states, would land-holdings have been smaller, thereby extending land ownership to more people? This expansion of land ownership could have slowed the pernicious class divides in the south during the 19th and 20th centuries. The concentration of wealth into the hands of relatively few white southerners, supported by the unregulated, unpaid labor of millions of captive black Africans structured the unequal power of the classes in America, both black and white.

This inequality contributes to racism by giving disenfranchised white Americans motive to scapegoat black Americans. Extending by 50+ years the legal enslavement of black Americans after the 1808 law forbidding the importation of slaves, and continuing the Jim Crow subjugation, humiliation, and terrorizing of black Americans for another 150+ years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, has created a country so divided by racial bigotry that it is hard to imagine that it can ever be unified.

So, here we are. In a country divided by class and race. In a country which, when we had the chance to believe our rhetoric about equality, chose instead to codify and institutionalize racism. A country that, when European competitors for North America chose to step away, raced to fill the land from ocean to ocean, brutally displacing indigenous people and spreading slavery whenever there was an opportunity and perceived economic advantage to do so.

We Americans are no more entrepreneurial, inventive, stalwart, courageous, or intelligent than anyone else. But we have been taught that we are exceptional and that we are entitled to take what we want; be it territory, resources, another’s labor, another’s dignity,  another’s life.

And now we have a government which, more than any in my six-decade memory, validates our worst behaviors.

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