Your RDA of Irony

Taking Liberties With the American Revolution: Part V

Static Quo

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, America assumed its place in the world as a sovereign state of anarchy. Independence had ensured the 13 erstwhile colonies of their inalienable rights to ignore, compete and feud with each other. Five years of this libertarian chaos sufficed; although the states were too proud to ask Britain to take them back, they became reconciled to being subordinate to a strong central government: precisely, what they fought against in the American Revolution. The one consolation was that President Washington did seem more charismatic than King George, although the same could not be said of John Adams.

In Britain, George III continued to be a conscientious king and a faithful husband; he eventually went insane. The Empire, having lost America and its customary place to dump sociopaths, debtors and petty criminals, began colonizing Australia. Finally, for a British teenager, Arthur Wellesley showed an indiscreet fascination with the English defeat in America. Arthur was particularly impressed with the colonial militia’s practice of shooting accurately and then ducking. He first tried adapting that tactic to the playing fields of Eton and then, some 30 years later, to the playing fields of Waterloo.

France had finally won a war and had nothing but heroes to show for it. The victorious General Rochaumbeau, within a few years, would again demonstrate his skill, charm, and luck by surviving the French version of a revolution. The less victorious but better publicized Marquis de Lafayette resumed his role at the royal court as a resident liberal. He would advise Louis and Marie Antoinette what to do, and they would advise him where to go; ironically, they went there first, the unintended consequence of their support for the American Revolution.

The example of the American Revolution may have inspired the French people, but it was the cost of the war that collapsed the French monarchy. The government actually had been bankrupt for years. France’s antiquated tax system brought in 14th century revenue to try to meet 18th century expenditures. The aristocracy paid no taxes, the peasantry had nothing left to tax, and the medieval tax code did not recognize the existence of the middle class. To cover the inevitable deficits, the government raised loans and then raised more loans to pay off the earlier loans. That was how France had financed a century of lost wars; now, it could not even afford to win one. Yet, in its zeal to get even with England, France had further and irretrievably indebted itself to subsidize the American Revolution. The Americans were not even under obligation to pay back the French: France had been generous to a default.

Of course, when the deluge came, the Americans wanted to take credit for it. Storming the Bastille was the French rendition of the Boston Tea Party, and “La Marseillaise” was just an intelligent version of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The Americans, however, soon conceded the French originality of the guillotine. France’s Revolution did not seem as good-natured as America’s, where tarring-and-feathering had sufficed. Evidently, the centuries of misrule, corruption, and feudal bondage were more aggravating than a half-penny tax on tea.

Even if it deplored the excesses, America could still appreciate the benefits of the French Revolution. While Europe was preoccupied with the Revolution’s ensuing chaos and warfare, America could purchase the Louisiana territory for a pittance, extort Florida from Spain, and make one more attempt to conquer Canada. Furthermore, when comparing the two revolutions, the Americans could feel respectably superior. Their revolution was clearly the more dignified and sensible. Presenting itself as an example to the world, revolutionary America had made the transition from Anglican to Episcopalian with a minimum of upheaval. History’s other revolutions were to be far less fortunate in both their challenges and their choice of purgatives. America’s Revolution, however, was so successful simply because it was unnecessary.

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