England’s Country Children

When the last transport sailed out of New York harbor on November 25th, 1783, the British left behind more than 13 newly independent colonies. They left an infrastructure that formed the basis of the newly created United States.

What our Founding Fathers inherited, after eight years and four months of war, was not perfect by any standard. The former British subjects were venturing into a brave new world as they created a new country.

British rule since 1620 (the arrival of the Mayflower), as much as the colonists disliked it, provided the foundation. The Founding Fathers weren’t starting with a clean sheet of paper.

Each of the Thirteen Colonies had a representative legislature and an executive branch in the form of a Royal Governor’s office. Each colony had a court system, laws that governed commerce, and, amazingly enough, a postal system that in 1783, routinely delivered mail from New York to Philadelphia in less than two days. One could send letters up and down the coast with reasonable assurance it would be delivered within a week or two. We also had 18 universities that were founded before the revolution began and some had law and medical schools. We also had a vibrant and very, very free press.

What the new United States didn’t have was a stable currency, or a central bank or a strong central government. Yes, the economy was a mess, the Continental Congress was deeply in debt to its own citizens and to the Dutch, French and Spanish, all of whom paid for our independence.

The yoke of British rule was gone leaving the Thirteen Colonies with more positives than negatives. Most important the Founding Fathers were committed to making the new republic work. Within five years, the U.S. Constitution, the longest-serving document of its kind in the world, was ratified, and the U.S. was off to the races.

The legacy that the British left the new United States goes underappreciated. Without the infrastructure, the new U.S. would have had a much more difficult time becoming established and successful. In many ways, what British colonial policy left us was a precursor to what was to come in the 1840s.

One can make an argument that the British Parliament saw the success of the U.S. and encouraged its colonies to have a “responsible government” that enabled the colony to be self-governing. The change in attitude was also in England’s self-interest to nip future rebellions in the bud.

Note, however, that representation in how England formulated colonial was not part of the new policies. As it could in the 1770s, Parliament could pass legislation without input from the affected colony.

The first to have a “responsible government” was Canada which initially formed with Nova Scotia and what is now known as Ontario in 1848. The former penal colony known as Australia was next when Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania, and New Zealand were granted self-government under the Australian Constitutions Act of 1850.

Time and space of this blog does not allow a detailed discussion of what and how this happened, but suffice it to say that by 1907, New Zealand was “independent” of Australia, and in 1910, South Africa had self-rule. This left the crown jewel of the British Empire, India as the biggest colony still under British rule. In 1947, India became independent. As with the Thirteen Colonies in 1783, the British left behind an infrastructure that enabled India to transition to independence and self-governance.

What is interesting to note is that as former British colonies became independent, the majority did so without conflict. This is a testament to the British who, while they ruled them, put in place the infrastructure that enabled them to succeed as countries.

For this, the Brits are the mother country to many of the world’s democracies. I don’t believe that British leaders were farsighted enough to plan it this way, it happened because of policies that made it easier to rule their empire and generate wealth for England.

British Empire Flag circa 1921 courtesy of the Royal Museum Greenwich

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