As we Americans celebrate on this day of gluttony, football, and prayer (not necessarily in that order), we might offer up thanks for the institution that gave us our glorious traditions of liberty and prosperity. That institution would be the British Empire, which not only put us here, but gave us Christianity, limited government, and a system of rights founded in British common law. Somehow many of us tend to overlook that — something to do with 1776, most likely, and the idea that we rebelled against the tyranny of effete, toffee-nosed British snobs.
But really, it wasn’t quite like that. As every American schoolboy should know, but probably doesn’t, the British colonies of North America were the lightest taxed, most liberally governed (in the classical small government sense), freest, most prosperous, and most equitable portions of the eighteenth century world. The very rights the colonists believed they were fighting to defend were the traditional rights of Englishmen.
Indeed, many of the British generals assigned to put down the rebels agreed with them, and only parted ways with the colonists, and then reluctantly, when rebellious Americans took up arms against representatives of British authority.
Of course, some Britons — equally devoted to British ideals of freedom and limited government — scoffed at talk of “oppression” and mocked colonial hypocrisy. Samuel Johnson famously quipped in his essay Taxation No Tyranny, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Rudyard Kipling took a similarly cynical view, “Our American colonies, having no French to fear any longer [after the French and Indian War], wanted to be free from our control altogether. They utterly refused to pay a penny of the two hundred million pounds the war had cost us; and they equally refused to maintain a garrison of British soldiers…. When our Parliament proposed in 1764 to make them pay a small fraction of the cost of the late war, they called it ‘oppression,’ and prepared to rebel.”
In this view, the War of American Independence was actually the War of American Ingratitude. King George III saw things as they were: “The rebellious war now levied [in 1775]… is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.”
That was precisely right, though it’s a shock to some Americans who blithely assume that “empire” and “America” are like oil and water. The Founders certainly didn’t think so. George Washington referred to America as “our rising Empire.” Thomas Jefferson wrote of America as an “empire of liberty.” Alexander Hamilton in Federalist One called America “an empire, in many respects the most interesting in the world.” And John Adams and Benjamin Franklin both envisaged that the United States — because of its potential wealth, size, and resources — would become the seat of a greater empire than the British. The Founders were not opposed to “empire.” They merely wanted an empire of their own, and were in fact appalled at British attempts to limit the colonists’ expansion west across the Appalachians, which the British had designated as Indian territory in the hope of avoiding costly Indian wars.
When the Founders set about framing the Constitution, many of them thought as John Dickinson (one Delaware’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787) did, “Experience must be our only guide, reason may mislead us.” The Americans’ actual experience of liberty, rights, and limited government had come, part and parcel, from the British Empire, as had their confidence in practical experience and their rightful suspicion of reform based on reason alone — which goes a long way to explaining why the American Revolution didn’t turn out like the bloody and destructive French one.
The British Empire gave birth not only to the United States, but to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, with their similar traditions of freedom — countries with which most Americans feel a sense of kinship. The Empire also created the free trade centers of Hong Kong and Singapore. It was responsible for the abolition of the slave trade on a global scale. It fought, and won, two world wars, with America eventually at its side; and the Empire was, in its declining phase, our most loyal ally in the Cold War.
So today, as we tuck into a great feast, play touch football in the yard, and give thanks for our many blessings, let us give thanks as well to the British Empire that gave us our liberty, language, and laws, and remember that, despite a few in-law unpleasantries (now 200 years old), of all the available families of nations, our Mother Country was the best.