Imagine a world without America – a terrible prospect

Imagine a world without America – a terrible prospect

Imagine a world in which McDonalds has not been invented. A world without Coca-Cola, Burger King, Gap, MTV, Hollywood blockbusters, hip-hop, Marlboro, cocaine, nuclear weapons, the Iraq War or Sarah Palin.

It’s a tempting proposition. Ever since the attacks on the United States almost a decade ago the world’s policeman has become increasingly unpopular, not just in the tough neighbourhoods between Morocco and Pakistan but also in the middle class suburbs of western Europe.

Not only is the United States consistently viewed as the most dangerous state on the planet, but last year’s mega-blockbuster, Avatar, an animated reworking of the old Noble Savage myth about Native Americans, suggested that many people believe Christopher Columbus should never have left Italy.

So what, as the Monty Python team might have put it, have the Americans done for us? And what would the world have been like had America had never been touched by the Europeans? Would the Mayan and Aztec empires have evolved to take their places at a world security council? Or would China or Islam have come to dominate the Americas?

Such speculative history is, of course, purely speculative, and the further one goes back the more speculative it gets. The removal of even a mediocre person a century ago would change the world unalterably; and Christopher Columbus was not mediocre.

So where does one start? With an old American phrase – if it wasn’t for us you’d all be speaking German. It is one people in the old continent find particularly galling largely because it’s true (although, as the British comedian Jimmy Carr once said about his famously monolingual countrymen, in response to an American heckler. “What is it in your experience of the British that makes you think we’d have picked up the language after 60 years?”).

The boast reflects America’s belief that after centuries of Europeans killing each other in ferocious, senseless and often obscure wars, it took the US to bring order and peace to the continent, and much else of the world.

The phrase is true, but not in the way Americans think, for without the discovery German would probably be the world’s most important language.

At the time of the European discoveries, German speakers outnumbered English speakers by at least six to one. Today the figure is reversed. The discovery shifted the continent’s cultural domination west, from Italy and Germany, the home of the Renaissance and printing, to the maritime powers, Spain, Portugal, France and later the Netherlands and England.

Though Spanish dominated the southern two-thirds of the New World, and indeed may come to dominate the rest, it was English that became the first truly world language, and has taken on a life of its own not just in the lands settled by whites but in the two hyper-powers of the 21st century, India and China. Meanwhile German is now a declining middle-ranking tongue, and thanks to Germany’s fast-shrinking population will one day “be spoken only at Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Goering’s Monday night poker game in Hell,” as Mark Steyn put it.

And with the spread of the English language has come the spread and triumph of English ideas around the world.

One of the great fallacies of western multiculturalists is the belief that a country can be held together by no other bond than a universal post-1945 belief in human rights.

The United States of America is cited as evidence; yet not only was America, until the late 1960s, not especially multi-racial, its republican values are anything but universal. In fact when they were developed they were not even pan-European.

The framers of the United States constitution were explicitly British and influenced by British ideas. Those ideas came from English political tradition and English thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.

Today visitors to the US House of Representatives in Washington are greeted by a painting of Simon De Montfort, the 13th century English Parliamentary leader who forced the king to recognise the rights of Parliament, and so led the way for democracy.

Never mind that De Montfort was actually French, was anything but a democrat, and had views about Jews that would make Hamas blush. It was he who led the rebellion that forced Henry III to recognise Magna Carta – before the future Edward I had De Montfort’s testicles cut off, hung around his nose, and his body cut up into four pieces and sent around the country.

Magna Carta’s influence has been exaggerated and fetishished, but it was hugely important.

The 5th amendment of the US Constitution, “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”, is based on Magna Carta’s Clause 39: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled… except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.”

And so the success and dominance of the United States of America, a term coined by the drunken English radical Tom Paine, led to the global dominance of English political ideas.

Paine was a Quaker, one of several radical Protestant groups that had arisen across Europe. In Germany and France the explosion of different religious groups helped to destabilise societies that were not ready for pluralism, but England now had a solution. The Puritans, the largest and most difficult minority, settled in New England, where their political ideology came to dominate the continent.

The rule of law was central to their way of life, right from the start. On November 21 1620, before they even arrived in America, the leaders got together in the main cabin and drew up a social compact, to provide “just and equal laws”, based on church teachings and the covenant between God and the Israelites.

Further south the Quakers, a liberal group who opposed slavery but were known for their business acumen (as the Puritans said, “they prayed for you one day a week, and preyed on you for the other six”), founded Pennsylvania. This extremely tolerant society attracted so many German refugees that the American revolutionary leader Benjamin Franklin, a fierce British patriot, feared they would take over. “Why should the Palatine boor be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should [it]… become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanise us, instead of us Anglicising them?”

But instead, along with the defeated Dutch in New York, who were known as Yankees (a Dutch nickname equivalent to “Johnny”), the Palatine boors became the first not-Englishmen thrown into the melting pot.

But it was the nominally Anglican Virginia that produced the most long-lasting and remarkable product of the new world, the 1777 Statute for Religious Freedom, “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”.

The 1777 Statute was the work of Thomas Jefferson, the political genius behind the US constitution, although a genius who did not mind lifting heavily from 17th century philosopher John Locke.

Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding, from1683, declared that government should stick to providing, “Life, liberty, health and indolency of body [freedom from pain], and the possession of outward things such as money, land, houses, furniture and the like.” He was heavily plagiarised
in the Declaration of Independence.

Virginia was the first English colony, established in 1606, and had been an unmitigated disaster, with 52 of 105 settlers dead within 16 months. This was an improvement on the first settlement of Virginia, 20 years earlier, which had set off with food for half the passengers, had planned no route but had brought morris dancers to entertain the savages (visitors to England will appreciate that this would be unlikely to entertain anyone).

Unlike the religious communities to the north, Virginia was settled by people looking to make a profit, and promoted as a way of finding a home for England’s many undesirables. One pamphlet from1607, just one of many with a similar theme, warned that “our land abounding with swarms of idle persons, which having no means of labor to relieve their misery, do likewise swarm in lewd and naughtie practises [and] infesting one another with vice and villainy worse than the plague itself.” It certainly shows that little in England has changed over the years.

The second Virginia was on the verge of collapse until the rather hopeless settlers discovered that, even with their weak farming skills, one product would grow in abundance. As one contemporary wrote: “There is an herbe which is sowed apart, by itselfe, and is called by the inhabitants, uppowac. The Spaniardes generally call it tobacco.”

Tobacco saved the future United States of America, ironic considering their current intolerance, although one could argue this has killed far more people than slavery. Adolf Hitler, as intolerant as smokers as he was of most things, called it “the red man¹s revenge” for smallpox.

Of course it wasn’t much of a revenge. In some parts of the Caribbean as many as 99 per cent of all indigenous people were wiped out, with the Indian population of Hispaniola falling from 1,130,000 to 11,000 by 1520. No native group in history has suffered such catastrophic consequences from conquest.

(In Europe it was until recently assumed that the Indo-European farmers who conquered the continent at the end of the stone age and gave their languages
to all but a handful of regions had wiped out the indigenous Europeans. This suggests Europeans think rather little of themselves, since modern science
has shown that they were not as genocidal as their descendants, and in fact European DNA is 80 per cent caveman and only 20 per cent “Aryan”.)

In North America the human population was far smaller to start with. When in 1616 John Rolfe brought Pocahontas to England, along came her brother-in-law Tomocomo, who had been given instructions to make notes and who was given a “long sticke”, in which he would cut a notch every time he saw someone to count the population of England. He was already done before leaving Plymouth harbour and was “quickly weary of that taske”, as John Smith noted.

In return Europeans suffered a rapid deterioration in dental hygiene, thanks to sugar, and sexual health, thanks to syphilis, brought first by the Spanish and then the French whose soldiers, true to reputation, spread it throughout Europe. Chocolate, tomatoes and potatoes were also brought across the ocean, the latter in particular helping the European population to grow ever more.

But could the Americans have survived to overcome European hegemony and eventually survive or thrive like the peoples of Africa and Asia? It’s unlikely.

Only some bizarre catastrophe could have stopped Europe spilling out; even the Black Death, which wiped out a third of the continent’s people in the 14th century, did little to slow its relentless population and technological growth.

If the Mediterranean peoples had not discovered America, then the northern seafarers were always likely to reach modern-day Canada. Many historians believe that British and Scandinavian fishermen may had discovered the Great Banks of Newfoundland as far as back as 1400 but had kept it quiet.

Certainly the Vikings had reached that far away land many centuries before, and it was only because of global cooling that Europeans abandoned these expeditions. Perhaps had the Norsemen or other adventurers managed to bring smallpox with them, and so inoculated the Americans, history may have been different.

Catastrophe in Europe may have allowed the Indian nations to grow strong enough, or for Europeans to grow liberal enough to respect their independence (such a hypothesis is unlikely, since the discovery helped to bring about the Enlightenment).

Certainly the civilisations of modern-day Mexico and Peru were as advanced as many Eurasian states. Left to their own devices, these may have been the two western powers, although their level of development would not have necessarily made them world powers.

But could it have been conquered by anyone else? One school of alternative history has the new world falling to Islam, but it would have been unlikely in the extreme. Islam had been falling behind its Christian neighbour for several centuries before 1492, when the last Islamic rulers were kicked out of Spain.

Indeed Islam helped to push the Christian powers towards America; the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks drove the Mediterranean powers of Portugal and Castile (Spain) to search out other trade routes.

The Chinese certainly had the technology and strength and geographical closeness to enter America as conquerors rather than railway labourers, but Chinese civilisation lacked the political diversity of Europe. Too much strength resided with the emperor, and after Chinese explorers made heady progress in the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty rulers imposed a policy of isolationism, fearful that American colonies might prove to be a rival power base.

They were, of course, right, as the British discovered. Having thrown the French out of North America during the Seven Year’s War, where troops from England made fun of their colonial brothers-in-arms with the ditty Yankee Doodle Dandy, authorities immediately imposed restrictions on further colonisation inland. The Government in London was fearful of losing control of colonials, but their attempts backfired, and sparked a colonial revolt.

The American War of Independence was the greatest defeat in British history thus far, and marked the end of the first British Empire. But it marked a triumph for a particular English political tradition, which was enshrined in the new republic’s DNA and would come to battle the continental authoritarian tradition of France and then Germany. And the great European civil war of 1914-1945 would end with the former’s great triumph, a victory that would have been impossible without the New World.

This article was published at Kindle Magazine

Comments so far

  1. Patrick Sheehan says

    Dear Ed,

    I was just reading your religious articles which I find fascinating and came across this. I am a history teacher from your mothers country and was intrigued by this quote below:

    Many historians believe that British and Scandinavian fishermen may had discovered the Great Banks of Newfoundland as far as back as 1400 but had kept it quiet.

    Did you find this somewhere? I had never heard of it. If you have any supportive links could you get in touch.


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