Ruminations on Visiting the 51st State

Phil Anderson

We recently took a trip to Canada and the north shore of Lake Superior. Minnesota’s north shore is beautiful but the Canadian shore east of Thunder Bay is dramatically different. The topography is dominated by steep hills with cliff faces similar to the mesas of the desert southwest only forested.

We were struck by how similar everything in Canada is to the U.S. Except for the border checkpoint and the metric system, it is hard to tell the difference. There is nothing distinctly Canadian. But as the border guard indignantly reminded us when I made a comment about needing a passport, Canada is a “foreign” country.  
The gas stations, motels, fast food, and stores are all the American corporate chains. The junk food in the gas stations/convenience stores is the same. They even had Jack Links snack sticks from Minong, Wisconsin! The houses all look the same. Everyone is driving Ford, GM, Honda or Toyota vehicles. The newspapers were full the same drivel about Trump and Clinton. The Toronto Blue Jays are part of the American League! The only difference is the metric system. The mileage is in kilometers, you buy gas by the liter, and the weather is in Celsius. I am sure Canadians do not appreciate being called the 51st state, but it was difficult to see a difference.  

On our last night in Thunder Bay we went looking for a local restaurant. The closest to “local” we could find was a Jamaican takeout place. The owner had been running it for 25 years so I guess that counts as local. The hot sauce was great! I had gastronomic distress for four days.  

All this got me thinking about the “what if’s” of history. There is a branch of historical fiction called alternative history (referred to as “counterfactual history” by historians). It explores what might have been if history had taken a different turn. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Germany had won WWII? This makes for good fiction but also can be a useful way to think about history.

I think it is interesting to ponder how our lives would be different if England had won the Revolutionary War. If cooler heads had prevailed in 1775 and the war never occurred what would be the impact?  As the Canadian experience shows, for most of us there would be little or no difference in our lives. We would not be oppressed or living under tyranny. We would be living in the same houses with the same lifestyles, watching the same cable junk, eating the same food, and working at similar jobs.

You see the Canucks are not oppressed. They are just as free as we are. Or, if you prefer, just as dominated by the global corporate commercial culture. In some ways they are more democratic than we are even with the ceremonial remnants of the British monarchy. And they did not have to fight a civil war and the War of 1812 to achieve their freedom. With a few minor exceptions (a small revolt in Quebec in 1837 for example) they achieved democratic government, civil rights, and rule of law without the violence, suffering, and the costs of war.

The same cultural, economic and social development probably would have occurred had we remained British colonies. The same frontier with the opportunity for expansion, land ownership, and new beginnings would still have shaped our development (as it did in Canada). The great expanse of untapped resources that helped fuel the economic expansion of the 1800’s would still have been the same. The basic capitalist business model of Adam Smith (who was British) would still have held sway. The Industrial Revolution that began in England would still have spread to America. The influx of immigrants that build the nation (as in Canada) would still have happened.  

So it is not a great stretch to imagine that we would have turned out much like Canada. And like Canada we would have evolved independence rather than extracting it with eight brutal years of the Revolutionary War. There would have been some changes. Slavery would have been outlawed much earlier. Perhaps the American Civil War would not have happened. We still would have been sucked into WWI and WWII on the British side (like Canada). Some of us would actually be better off because we would have affordable health care!    

There is an element of luck and happenstance to history that we often don’t admit. We too often believe that history is inevitable. That there was only one path. That it was preordained or god’s will. We had no choice. But there are always alternatives. Even small choices lead to big differences. And sometimes big events lead to the same results. The British could have been more conciliatory and avoided losing the American colonies. They missed a number of opportunities to squash the rebellion. If they had appointed better generals, or allowed the effective leaders they did have to be more aggressive, the war could have been over much sooner. We easily could have been soundly defeated. We forget the fact that we probably would have been defeated without the intervention of the French. The victory at Yorktown would not have been possible without French troops and especially the French fleet blocking the Chesapeake Bay.

The point of all this is perhaps we should be a little more humble. In this election season with all the whoopla about greatness, freedom, exceptionalism, and America being number one, we should keep a little historical perspective. Perhaps we should walk a little more gently on this earth, be more tolerant of others, and a little less full of ourselves.