Invitation to Counterfactual Speculation

Let's imagine the Napoleonic Wars — and the "War of 1812" — had somehow dragged on for another three years, until 1818. During those years, while finally subjugating Bonaparte (the pyrrhic victor of Waterloo), Great Britain (victor in New Orleans) had also managed to reoccupy the half-dozen largest coastal cities of the United States, and had summarily proclaimed the 40-year-old American republic defunct. The misguided experiment was officially repudiated, the leading politicians of the day and the surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence were hanged, and North America — Oregon to Georgia to Labrador — was back in the hands of mad King George III.

Except that 85% of the population didn't like the idea one bit, and passionately wanted the redcoats to vacate. No matter how vehemently the British protested that they'd saved the ungrateful Yankees from both the tyranny of Napoleon and that of mob rule, and that some form of local self-government would soon be forthcoming, a preponderance of the Americans bitterly objected to the mere sight of scarlet uniforms on the streets. These "republican-remnants" took to forming militias in the countryside, and it soon became suicidal for British troops to travel overland. Worse, despite the formal declaration of peace, sniping backwoodsmen routinely picked off individual soldiers right in the "Red Zone!"

Given these circumstances, examples had had to be made, and both Newport, R.I., and Annapolis, Md., had been burned to the ground; it was widely feared that Charleston, S.C., would be next. Yet so far from learning the obvious lesson, the "colonists" — as the insurgents were once again called — only seemed to be gaining in strength.

The civil struggle among the American-born (severe enough during the Revolution) now became horrifyingly intense. Where "Tories" had once been tarred and feathered, their descendants were subject to savage capital punishments, leading the urbane Europeans to declare that white Americans had descended to the putative "sub-human" level of the continent's aborigines. News of atrocities regularly made it back to Britain; enumerations of the appallingly high general levels of military and civilian carnage, however, did not.

British taxpayers, desperate for relief after a ruinous quarter-century of global struggle, did wonder why on earth their government was attempting to retake the colonies when, during the decade of general peace (from 1781–1793), trade had hummed along nicely, and none of them had been the poorer for it. A blue-ribbon commission of independent experts (created behind the King's back), presently reported its finding that, notwithstanding the British military's unquestioned status as the world's preeminent superpower, Britain could simply never commit enough resources — money and manpower — to the faraway continent to overcome the determined, lasting opposition that had been discerned there. (Emphasis was added to clarify that "never" meant, well, never.)

In his few lucid moments, however, King George still insisted that the colonies be returned, so that he could pass their hugely valuable markets and natural resources on to his shockingly disreputable progeny. (And "his people" too, of course!)

A small segment of the British public supported this "neo-royalist" position. A larger faction suggested reconvening to the Congress of Vienna in the hope that other Europeans could be convinced to share the cost of subjugating the recalcitrants. Still others were simply loath to admit defeat, and hoped that negotiations could improve matters to the point where just a few fortifications could be left permanently on American soil. A disreputable minority proposed packing up and leaving with all haste.

Quandary: It is 1818. You are an upstanding, loyal, patriotic citizen of Great Britain. What would you recommend your government do at this juncture?

December 14, 2004