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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • LV Times columnist: What if King George had been paying attention?

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  • Any historians reading this column will see I have succumbed to what so many in our profession disdain — counterfactual or “what if” history.
    As E. H. Carr put it long ago, “History is … a record of what people did, not what they failed to do.”
    End of story.
    Nevertheless, I find some counterfactual questions fascinating.
    What if the South had won the Civil War? Or, more appropriate for this month, what if the British had won the War for American Independence, which would then, of course, have gone down in history as the rebellion in the colonies.
    What I would share this month is a tidbit of counterfactual history I discovered last month in researching my column for Flag Day.
    It begins Jan. 1, 1776, during the siege of Boston, when George Washington raised the first American flag on a hill overlooking the city.
    Clearly visible, as it was intended to be, were 13 red and white stripes, signifying the union of the 13 colonies, and in the upper left corner the Union Jack, representing the British Empire.
    As historian Thomas Fleming has written, “The flag affirmed America’s determination to resist Britain’s authoritarian pretenses and at the same time somehow to maintain an allegiance to the idea of a united British empire.”
    It was called the Grand Union flag and, as Washington understood, it expressed the prevailing sentiment in the colonies at the time.
    Somehow, while securing colonial rights, the colonies remained hopeful that reconciliation was still possible.
    British Commanding General William Howe got the point. He saw the flag as a signal of the colonies’ respect for British authority.
    Unfortunately, King George did not. He saw the colonial flag as an act of rebellion.  
    When soon thereafter the Continental Congress sent an emissary with an “Olive Branch Petition” offering concessions and seeking reconciliation, the king refused to even consider it.
    And so, the war continued.
    Nearly a year later, when Washington crossed the Delaware to attack British troops in Trenton, N.J., he flew the same flag — not the Stars and Stripes as included in most paintings of the colonial victory.
    But, that would not last forever.
    In mid-1777, at what might be seen as a fateful moment in the war, the colonists changed their flag to the Stars and Stripes. Gone was the Union Jack.
    Ironically, Parliament — tired of an affair that had dragged out much longer than they anticipated — got into the act and offered several major conciliatory gestures, including those that if offered two years earlier, when the Grand Union flag was still flying, might have avoided the war altogether.
    Page 2 of 2 - They included the ending of Parliamentary taxation of the colonies, granting Congress full recognition as a constitutional body, and offering colonial membership in the House of Commons.
    Unfortunately, by then it was too late. Having fought and survived for so long, the colonists were committed to complete independence. France entered the war as a colonial ally, committing Britain to a two-front war it could not win.  
    As they say, the rest is history, and not counterfactual history.
    Happy Independence Day.
    Bryan Le Beau is an historian and provost at the University of Saint Mary.

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