The biggest mystery of the American Revolution

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

The biggest mystery of the American Revolution is, Why couldn’t both sides arrive at a peaceful compromise?

The prosperous American colonies were a jewel of the British Empire. If the Americans were so incensed at their lack of representation, there seemed to be an obvious solution — just bring the colonists into Parliament.

Economists Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens think they understand why that never happened. In a new working paper, they analyze the American Revolution through the lens of game theory, the mathematical study of strategy and conflict.


For the British, the main headache was that the colonies weren’t pulling their own weight. In the 1750s and 1760s, the British spent millions of pounds raising armies to defend the North American colonies against the French in the Seven Years’ War. Parliament subsequently demanded that the lightly-taxed Americans should contribute more to the costs of their own defense.

This was a reasonable idea, Smith argued. And the new taxes were still a pittance compared to what people paid in England. Parliament had never demanded of the colonists anything “which even approached to a just proportion to what was paid by their fellow subjects at home,” Smith noted in his book, which was published in 1776, not quite a year into the American Revolution.

Still, Smith was an advocate for harmony and economic efficiency. If the Americans would not pay taxes without political representation, he argued that the most practical solution was to acquiesce. He recommended that Britain should grant the colonies some number of seats in Parliament, depending on how much they contributed in taxes.

He wasn’t the only one to come up with this idea. In the run-up to the Revolution, several similar proposals had circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. The British politician Thomas Pownall dreamed of a merged Parliament, a “Grand Marine Dominion, consisting of our possessions in the Atlantic, and in America, united into a one Empire.” In 1754, Benjamin Franklin wrote that “such a union would be very acceptable to the colonies, provided they had a reasonable number of representatives allowed them.”

So why didn’t any of these plans come through?

Galiani and Torrens argue that political considerations in Britain wrecked any chance of Americans gaining seats in Parliament. “It was not that such a deal was impossible to reach, or that it was completely crazy,” Torrens said in an interview. “Part of the problem is that this would have consequences for the internal politics of the British empire.”

As they discuss in their paper, the British Parliament at the time was dominated by wealthy landowners, who feared that the nation’s growing democratic movement would diminish their power. The common folk, who made up most of the country, were agitating for more say and more representation in Parliament.

“The landed gentry, who controlled the incumbent government, feared that making concessions to the American colonies would intensify the pressure for democratic reforms, thus jeopardizing their economic and political position,” the economists argue.

“There was this slippery-slope argument,” Torrens said. “How could they give representation to the Americans, while many common people in London did not have proper representation?”

In fact, there were populist factions in the British government who welcomed the colonists — in part, it seems, because they thought the Americans would make good allies. It was a volatile period. According to Galiani and Torrens, the ruling class in Britain believed it was better to risk a war and the loss of some colonies than to risk losing control of the entire empire to a political coalition of the lowborn and landless. Their paper’s contribution is to illustrate the strategic logic behind this decision.


  1. Candide III says:

    Pfui. This was described in more detail in books a century old, what does a modern paper add? The British didn’t want to give representation because that would make colonies part of the home country and, America being much bigger and potentially richer than Britain, Parliament itself would move to New England in foreseeable future under any conceivable scheme of non-Potemkin representation. American revolutionaries actually understood this when they demanded representation. There is no need to drag in class conflict. And if the British wanted to keep the colonies as colonies, they had to crush resistance. As it was, Whig factions in Britain (aided by Franklin and other American emissaries) were strong enough that the Parliament waffled for years before appointing leading Whigs to command the British forces in the Revolutionary war. Those commanders then seemed to engage in malicious compliance, doing just enough to evade a charge of treason.

  2. Notknowing says:

    Has been said that the American Revolution was in fact a civil war in which many colony-based pro-Brits were exiled to Canada for not supporting the winning side (a winning side much propped up by France and French interests) and the American Civil War was really a revolution because the south wanted to secede and cared not a fig for running Washington and the north.

    But the ‘identities’ of the two are engraved as facts, so there we go.

  3. Mike says:

    I was taught the exact same thing in US Government class — in 1973. In that class we read the discussions in parliament among other things. This was basically common knowledge.

    Amazing how people who don’t know the subject rediscover the obvious. Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens are morons.

  4. Bludnok says:

    I was taught, many years ago, that there were 3 main reasons for the revolt.

    Firstly the British government refused to allow the Puritans of New England to attack Quebec. The Quebec Act of 1774 improving the lot of Roman Catholics and extending their territory did not help.

    Secondly the colonists wanted to spread West beyond the Alleghennies. This was contrary to treaties made with the ‘Indians’ and the British Government would not allow that.

    Thirdly the colonists were asked to pay 10% of the very high cost of the wars with France to defend them. They had paid nothing until then. They refused.

    These were fundamental differences which negated any idea of a political union.

    It still sounds about right to me.

  5. Graham says:

    I apologize in advance for any offence, but as a Canadian I cannot resist translating those 3:

    1. British govt refused to allow Massachusetts to seize New France and did it with regulars instead. British government granted the French in the newly conquered possession of Quebec their requested rights of language and religion, law and form of government similar to what they had known, and settled the western border of the new British province of Quebec in the northern areas of what had previously also been French colonial territory ruled from Quebec city albeit hardly settled, now British and still ruled from Quebec City. No new territories were extended to the French, and the British were merely administering territory from Quebec that always had been under the French rule.

    2. The colonists in the 13 colonies wanted to expand into the territories of further Indian nations and the UK aimed to uphold treaties with the latter, in territory that had been New France, was now the British Province of Quebec, and had never been part of the 13 colonies.

    3. Yep.

    As it happens, I entirely understand and appreciate the westward imperial drive of the United States. This was a natural thing for a growing nation facing only slightly altered Neolithic cultures to aim to do, and preferable to northward expansion. But I still get my back up a little bit when contemplating those sections of the Declaration of Independence that amount to “we get to declare independence because of the intolerable grievances of Britain governing other peoples outside our territories the way those people would like but which is not how we think they should be governed and also Britain wants to honour treaties with people whose land we want to take.”

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